Dean, Faculty of Agriculture and Natural Resource Management, ESUT, Prof Martin Anikwe and the Provost of Federal College of Agriculture, Ishiagu, Prof. Mgbada at the event . . . recently

Major stakeholders in the South-east zone recently converged on Enugu to consider the effects of the current economic and social conditions in the country on the region and the way out. Christopher Isiguzo reports

Worried by the effect of the fall in the prices of crude oil on the economy, major stakeholders in the Nigerian project converged on Enugu recently to brainstorm and find ways to diversify the economy and embrace agriculture, particularly. The occasion was the Zonal Forum on Agricultural Transformation in the South-east as well as the launch of the 500/1 Youth Agripreneur training programme and Agric Start-up Kits Initiative with the theme, “Increasing the Participation of the Nigerian Youth in Agriculture: Towards Employment Generation, Food Security and Environmental Sustainability.” It was put together by the Agric Information Centre and Community Radio Project (AGRICOOP), which is an endeavour of the Africa Youth Rehabilitation Initiative in collaboration with the Enugu State University of Science and Technology.

The training initiative was the highpoint of the forum organised for stakeholders to dialogue on the challenges and prospects of engaging in agriculture in the South-east. The aim is to alleviate the socio-economic crisis affecting the youth by equipping a minimum of 500 youths as agripreneurs from each of the five states of the South-east.

The forum attracted notable stakeholders, including governors from the zone and their Commissioners for Agriculture, Minister of Agriculture, Chief Audu Ogbeh, Minister of Labour and Productivity, Senator Chris Ngige, heads of some federal agencies, including NBBRI, Bank of Agriculture, PRODA, NTA, SMEDAN, and the National Directorate of Employment, institutions of higher learning, including ESUT, Michael Okpara University of Agriculture, Umudike, Federal College of Agriculture, Ishiagu, Ebonyi State, and Enugu State College of Education.

Potentials

The gathering took time to explore the potentials in agriculture. While it was generally observed that over the years, efforts had been made by governments and donor agencies to revive the sector without much success, the gathering noted that the major problem with past interventions was the approach of implementing agriculture as a development programme instead of a business.

In his opening remarks, the AGRICOOP chairman, George Akwada, said the forum became imperative in view of the place of agriculture in the lives of the people of the South-east. He noted that the time had come for the zone to replicate the feat in agriculture achieved by the defunct Eastern Region government under Dr. Michael Okpara as premier. The region had emerged as the fastest-growing economy as result of the huge investments in agriculture.

Akwada said the sector possessed the capacity to address several problems facing the country, especially by ensuring food security and creating employment opportunities. According to him, there is now a paradigm shift from perceiving agriculture as a development programme to seeing it as a multifaceted business with focus on food security and the agricultural value chain development.

Knowledge Gap

The AGRICOOP chairman stated that, “global advancement in information and communication technologies has opened up various avenues for information dissemination to farmers. The application of these technologies in the agricultural sector ensures the fast tracking of national development and food security. Thus, it is against this backdrop that agricultural information and communication management becomes very much essential to the productivity sector.

“In the past two decades, there has been a burst of research activities in agriculture from universities and research institutes. Innovations with capacity to boost production and kick-start the economy have been discovered. Also, high-yielding crop cultivars and improved practices have been created to ensure increased productivity. However, the greatest undoing of all these inventions and innovations is the existence of a knowledge gap. These innovations do not reach the farmers.”

The Dean of the Faculty of Agriculture and Natural Resources, ESUT, Prof. Martin Anikwe, who is also a member of the management board of AGRICCORP, gave an overview of the scheme. He demonstrated some of the facilities available at the university’s farm and urged the youth in the South-east to take advantage of the training and get equipped to become successful agriculturists.

In his goodwill message, Ogbeh said the theme of the forum and the training programme were not only key to the country’s socio-economic development concerns but also central to one of the challenges facing the administration of President Muhammadu Buhari. The minister, who was represented by Dr. Uche Nwafor, gave a number of reasons why youths must engage in agriculture at different levels, adding that the ministry had initiated different programmes that would go a long way in boosting the country’s agricultural potentials.

Strategy

On the theme of the forum, which focused on youth participation in agriculture, Ogbeh listed the critical issues to be tackled to include redesigning the university curriculum to develop business entrepreneurship for agriculture, and bringing together training in agriculture and business to create a new cadre of agripreneurs in the country. Others include breaking the walls separating faculties of agriculture and business administration; rapidly mechanising agriculture, which is particularly necessary “to overcome the image of drudgery that discourages many youths from getting involved in the sector.”

The minister lamented that available data showed that the country had less than 20, 000 functioning tractors, one of the lowest tractorisation rates in the country.

Other key areas that must be addressed, according to Ogbeh, include creating a market for contract tractor service providers to not only mechanise the sector but also present job opportunities for many industrious youths. There is also the need to design a comprehensive system that would facilitate a strong relationship between financial institutions, tractor manufacturers, tractor vendors and all other relevant parties to make it easier to afford, own or lease tractors, the minister said. He also talked about designing simple processes that would make it easier for youths to access finance to grow their businesses.

Noting that the agricultural sector requires new skills, younger and more entrepreneurial farmers that would be able to compete at the global scale, the minister said such persons must be versed in business in order to be able to run sound agribusiness that will make Nigeria’s agriculture modern, commercial and profitable. He said the federal government was implementing the Youth Empowerment in Agriculture Programme (YEAP) to facilitate food security and nutrition, rural income generation and improved livelihoods for the youth along area-based agricultural value chains.

Also speaking, the Minister of Labour and Productivity, Ngige who was represented by the Enugu State Coordinator of the NDE, Mr. Iroegbu Eke, commended the initiators of the forum and the ESUT family and pledged his support for the growth of the project. He said agriculture should be the business of everyone, both the educated and non-educated, saying it is a veritable option for developing the youth and also boosting the economy in the place of oil.

500/1 Scheme

The AGRICCORP managing director, Dr Nelson Abila, took time to present a technical brief on the 500/1 scheme. He explained that the Youth Agripreneur Training programme involved the training of 500 youths from each of the five states of the South-east zone and listed the three major areas of training to include livestock management, crop production and entrepreneurship and agribusiness management. He said within the three key areas, there will be sub-modules dealing with various agricultural enterprises.

According to him, module A, livestock management deals with piggery, poultry, fishery, beekeeping, farming, goat and sheep keeping, grass cutters rearing, quails farming, and feed mill and formulation. He noted that module B involved crop production, including vegetable, cassava, maize, horticulture and ornamental plants, crops multiplication, rice and mushroom productions as well as greenhouse farming and economic trees cultivation. Module C has entrepreneurship and agribusiness management, he said. Abila said the sub-modules were Agricultural mechanisation, agripreneurship, value adding, and post-harvest management, ICT application in agriculture and agribusiness and agribusiness marketing and supply chain management.

Abila announced a scholarship for two participants from each of the five states that would be enrolling in the Youth Agripreneur Training Programme, which covers tuition for participating in the three-months training. He said there would be study visits to the International Institute for Tropical Agriculture in Ibadan and the Songhai farm based in Benin Republic as part of the training programme.

Going Forward

Enugu Governor, Ifeanyi Ugwuanyi, said a return to agricultural had become imperative, noting that his administration has already gone back to the drawing board to come up with plans to make the sector the mainstream of empowerment in the state. Represented by the Commissioner for Agriculture, Mike Eneh, the governor said the state government had also commenced a programme aimed at training youths in agriculture. He explained that by next year, 500 women and youths would have been trained. He said at the end of the programme, each trainee would receive a minimum of N2 million to start-up their agribusinesses, adding that with the right support to farmers cultivating rice, production increased from 1.5 to 5.6 metric tonnes just within a year.

The governor list several benefits in investing in agriculture in the state, especially the pineapple plantation in the state, which he said had been turned around to the point that pineapples were being exported out of the country at the moment.

In a brief remark before formally launching the Youth Agripreneur Training Programme, Governor Okezie Ikpeazu of Abia State urged youths to take the programme very seriously. He said getting capable youths engaged in agriculture had become critical in the wake of the pest attacks on tomatoes and maize, which were signs of impending famine. He said youth engagement in agriculture remained the only option to tackle the issue of food security.

Going down memory lane, the governor who was represented by the Abia State Commissioner for Agriculture, Uzo Azubuike, recalled that most of the plantations existing in the South-east were from the efforts of the forerunners of the zone who laid a solid foundation for agriculture. He expressed his delight that the scheme was targeted at the educated youths, saying the programme would reduce the quest for white-collar jobs. He also urged the initiators of the programme to ensure that land was made available to the youths who would be ready to embrace agriculture.

Generally, speakers at the gathering spoke on the need for a collective return to agriculture in view of the present economic challenges occasioned by the fall in the price of crude oil in the global market. It was a gathering meant to advertise the potentials in agriculture and many groups displayed agricultural products.