By Sunday Okobi

As President Muhammadu Buhari-led administration struggles to address the myriads of challenges facing the nation economy, agriculture has now become the focal point to address the situation. At a recent agro-business forum held in Lagos, Sunday Okobi and Ugo Aliogo discovered from stakeholders in the agriculture sector how the government can jolt the economy to life through agriculture.

In the 21st century, food security is a serious concern for many economies in the developing world. Despite the abundant of arable lands, food production is still at a subsistence level. Africa’s heavy reliance on imported foods is increasing by the day. In developed societies, agriculture plays a critical role in the economic sustainability of the people, and contributes largely to the Gross Domestic Product (GDP). Africa governments have not set in place conscious policies to realise the agricultural potentials of the continent, so it seems! Also, the increasing cases of corruption facing the continent don’t provide the room for some of these policies to be fully actualised in the expected manner.

In Nigeria, several policies have been setup by past and succeeding government to develop an agro-based economy tailored towards diversification. But these policies have been truncated at their incubation stages. As the country grapples with the falling oil price, stakeholders have called on government to diversify fully into agriculture in order to tap into the full potential of the sector.

At a recent agro-allied forum organised by VICAMPRO in Lagos, stakeholders in the sector deliberated on the need for a strong agro-based economy with potential for diversifications and self-sufficiency in food production. They all agreed that if Nigeria aspires to meet global standards in agro-food production, there is the need to improve the farming practice/system in order to boost yields through the Agriculture Practice Certification Gap (APCG).

The plan, according to these experts, is a template which spans from land preparation to post harvest handling because crop production must be carried out to meet acceptable standards internationally. They explained that it entails a lot of factors such as the use of water that meets global sanitation standards and irrigation, cultivation in an environment devoid of open defecation, application of fertilizers and chemicals at required quantities, provision of quality seedlings, agricultural extension programme, prevent residual chemicals that pose threat to healthy harvest as well as effective food storage system.

Speaking at the forum, the Kaduna State Commissioner for Agriculture, Manzo Maigari, declared that it is important to open access to market, locally and internationally, noting that APCG involves gathering together, training, providing good sanitary facilities and security for farmers, consequently improving food production.

“If they are large number of famers, the same thing applies; everyone has to go through the same process. We have just received approval to setup the first national gap certification office in Kaduna State, and this will lead the gap certification and drive,” he noted.

Maigari stated that the issue of farmers and cattle rearers clash is simply a breakdown of law and order, adding that nomadic system is no longer sustainable, but the most sustainable way in addressing such challenges is encouragement and capacity building of the herdsmen.

“They should be introduced to animals with high biological potentials to produce more milk and meat. They need to understand that it is not the number of animals but the productivity.

“If you have a hundred cows that give 1.5 litres of milk each every day that translates to 150 liters per day. But you could keep a cow that gives 30 litres of milk per day. This happens all over the world. If you increase productivity by 8.5 litres in cow that produces litres of milk daily, it simply means that if you have 10 cows you will be producing more than the man who has 100 cows with low productivity. What this implies is that management of cattle should be paramount,” Maigari noted.

The commissioner further stated that in an attempt to boost livestock in the state, the state government has brought varieties of nutritious grass from Brazil and grow them, stressing that they have done the pilot scheme and it is very successful, and “so within six weeks that we have done trials, milk output has increased from 3.5 liters per day.

Maigari expressed confidence that these agricultural practices are workable, adding that if the practice is stretched to six months, they are also considering embarking on artificial insemination-to bring the semen of improved cows to inseminate local cows to come up with high breed-and this will produce more milk, “the beautiful thing is that we will achieve three things from there.”

He added: “We have already re-introduced the pilot’s scheme of community and family pasture lots where you grow your grass in your backyard and cut it. Then during the rainy season, you harvest it for your cows.

Going further on how government can use agriculture as its mainstay of the economy, consequently increase food production to match its growing population, he noted that it does not necessarily need to invest in agriculture; it should encourage its citizens to view agriculture as a business venture while the government becomes the enabler providing all the necessary support to succeed. Maigari reasoned that agriculture in Nigeria remains at subsistence level because it is viewed differently.

He posited that: “Government needs to create an enabling environment in the agriculture sector for people to invest in, also standardise farm practice even for local farmers. Why will someone need collateral for agriculture loans, if there is insurance provided by the government?

“Our inability to quantify risks has made it impossible to insure investment in agriculture. The banks are just there to make profit; they will not give money that they are not certain of getting back. Let government focuses on creating an enabling environment through policy and infrastructure, then you see investments follow into agriculture.”

Chief Executive Officer of VICAMPRO, Michael Agbogo, organiser of the forum, remarked that the challenges faced in the agriculture sector is similar to other sectors, adding that for example, the Nigerian consumes about 120 tons of French fries daily, without a real processor for potato in West Africa, “so which means we are importing $200 million worth of French fries in Nigeria alone, excluding Ghana, Ivory Coast and other part of the region.”

He cited Plateau as the state with the competitive advantage and potential to grow potato for export, yet majority of the potatoes use for fries are imported from Holland, China among others. Agbogo called for help for peasant farmers growing potatoes in the country which he said cannot be compare to their counterparts in other parts of the world “because they have problems with poor yield as low as 3.5 per hectares, compared to other potato farmers doing up to 70 to 80 hectares.

“We saw the opportunity that we were able to create value with this particular space and that is what we have done in trying to invest in all the critical components of the value chain, from production of seeds, inputs, processing facilities, storage, and logistics.

“We believe the through this VICAMPRO potato programme, we will be able to serve the local and regional market. Presently, we have 20 tons per day that is on the demand. The way our demand is met in Nigeria is majorly by import and presently, import is very high because of the exchange rate, and this is why restaurant like KFC does not have potato chips to serve it customers because the high exchange rate.”

To sustain the improvement of locally produced potato, Agbogo explained that in Kaduna and Plateau, they now have an initiative to bring all peasant farmers under our umbrella called an out-grower farmers’ programme, “through this initiative, “as a company, we provide these farmers with irrigation services, equipment, seedlings among other needs. We started by teaching the farmers how to protect their crops from diseases, and improve on crop production.”

This, according to him, will help them get to where they are supposed to be in terms of production and food security. Their inputs-whatever these farmers produce are taken care of under that umbrella. He said the processing facilities need about 50,000 inputs yearly, “and this is going to come from us and the farmers, therefore it is a collective prosperity model for everyone.

“As the population of Nigeria increases, the people need to be fed. Food security is a big concern across all countries at the moment. China has made so many inquisitions in order to come atop on food security. We cannot talk about food security if we can’t feed ourselves. We believe that VICAMPRO, OLAM, and other emerging agro-business venture, if supported vigorously, have the capacity to secure the food future of Nigeria. One of the biggest challenges we have was trying to create backward integration but on that aspect we are improving.”

VICAMPRO boss who disclosed that one of their goals is to cultivate 10,000 hectares of land in the next five years, added that: “The market is not a challenge, but the focus should be on the producers carrying out their activities efficiently, stressing Nigerian farmers can meet international standards if supported and given the opportunity.

Speaking to THISDAY, the Vice-President Government Relations Officer, Olam, Ade Adefeko, condemned the ban on rice importation.

He urged the government not plan based on extra-cycles, but on a road map.

Adefeko, who is also the Chairman of the Nigerian Association of Chambers of Commerce, Industry, Mines and Agriculture Export Action Group added that government has to come up with a road that will last 2020, adding that the public should support as well as critic their leaders when they are not doing the right thing mostly in securing food for the future generation “Food security is very important mostly as Nigeria’s population is growing. Although the country cannot ban importation outright, it must also encourage and prioritise local production of the foods consumed by its population if its economy must grow.

“Nigeria is not facing food drought per say, but might face acute food insecurity issues due to policy inertia. We cannot have a lacuna in policy; policies must be made and done timely during the two farming seasons. We should have agricultural production all year. This is why there must be collaboration between the Ministry of Agriculture and Water Resources,” he said.