Rising Hope for Agricultural Revival

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Agriculture, once the economic base of the country, is receiving government and private sectors’ attention that will possibly usher in the greatest agricultural revival in Nigeria, Peace Obi reports

With the fall in oil prices and the subsequent decline in the country’s foreign exchange earnings now partly leading to the present day economic quagmire the country has found itself, the need to diversify the nation’s economy has become too obvious to be ignored.

The country having been ‘securely’ wrapped with the sweet crude’s arms, was gorgeously lined with foreign exchange, Nigeria lost the consciousness of developing other sectors along with its oil and gas sector. Thus, shielded from the realities of life, the country did not realise that it has neither overcome hunger nor attained an enviable height of development that is capable of sustaining the country in its rainy days. And given the steady inflow of the petrodollars, importation of food replaced agricultural development as the country became heavily dependent on other countries for most of its agricultural products to meet the food demand of her citizenry.

With the stormy wind of change hitting hard on the economies of the world and particularly the harsh effect on the prices of crude oil which now has left Nigeria with a leaner purse, there seems to be a unanimous call for a sustainable diversified economy. As Nigeria begins to wake up to these realities of life, especially the disappointment from the mono-economy, agriculture is seen as a better alternative with great potential for food sufficiency, employment and sources of raw materials for industries, among others.

Unified Call for Diversification of the Economy
With what seemed like a unified call for a back to basics approach towards revitalising Nigeria’s economy, Centre for Values in Leadership, a non-governmental organisation committed to training and mobilising quality leadership among Nigerian youths, recently organised an international conference on agriculture in Lagos. The conference which attracted key stakeholders in the sector as well as government functionaries deliberated on the way forward for Nigeria to effectively diversify her economy and bring about a rebound to the ailing economy.

With the Chevron Hall of Museum Centre, Victoria Island, Lagos, filled to the brim with different players in the sector as well as intending agriculturists, different speakers shared pertinent information, knowledge and experiences. Also, with a panel lined with experienced agriculturists and other stakeholders, each one spoke passionately and assuredly on the good future agriculture holds both for individual and national survival.

The convener of the conference, Prof. Pat Utomi in his opening remarks noted that the conference is part of CVL’s contributory efforts towards providing leadership on the need to reform and restructure the nation’s economy into a track of sustainable progress. Observing favourable oil prices to be the bane of underdevelopment of agricultural base of the nation’s economy, Utomi, noted that the perpetual lip service being paid to this idea in the past 30 years has been his biggest personal frustration. According to him, the call for the diversification of nation’s economic base gets intensified whenever the oil prices slump. “Each time oil prices slumped, the decibel on diversification rose. But no sooner does a price recovery show up in oil market than we see that we were a nation of change survivors waiting to return to the old ways.”

Agriculture, the Redemptive Balm for an Ailing Economy
Determined to drive a lasting and a sustainable progress in agriculture, Utomi said that the international conference was designed to encourage the flow of new energies to the sector and set a tone for a converging of both national strategy and corporate strategy in kick-starting the boost to value chain based on factor endowment in agriculture.

According to him, after years of refrain on diversifying the nation’s economy, the fall in the price of oil has brought agriculture to the forefront, though with a daunting challenge of having the citizens’s consciousness and interest redirected into agriculture. “All eyes seem now on agriculture which is considered as the redemptive balm for the nation’s ailing economy. However, the daunting challenge now is the need to reborn the idea in the socialisation of the citizens,” Utomi said.

Taking the audience on a tour of thought, Utomi said, “To understand the urgent need to move for the revival of the agricultural sector is when one recalls the fact that this sector was once the major source of foreign exchange for the country. The staggering food importation bill on Nigeria, leading to foreign exchange drain burden while our youths roam the streets in search of white collar jobs, children dying of hunger and malnutrition, yet the country is blessed with all it takes to be sufficient in food production.”

Stating that the conference was strategically planned and organised to achieve certain set goals, Utomi hinted that it was designed to achieve such objectives as reducing waste in the agriculture value chain to the barest minimum, optimise efficiencies of cluster model, enhance distribution logistics for both local consumption and export, improve accesses to know-how, know-why and market information for farmers and manufacturers as well as to boost small holder farmer productivity through extension service provision and deployment of outgrower programme, among others.

Amidst Petrodollars Revenues, Hunger Abounds
The Managing Director/Chief Executive Officer, Bank of Agriculture, Prof. Danbala Danju in his presentation, noted that while Nigeria was lost in the euphoria of oil discovery, other viable sectors of the economy capable of leading to both individual and national economic growth were neglected. According to him, the unparalleled relationship between the country’s population growth and the capacity to feed her citizenry is a symptom of an unhealthy economic indicator. Adding that while some other continents that were formerly faced with the challenge of hunger have long overcome it by harnessing their internal resources, he however noted that Nigeria is still battling with hunger and malnutrition among its children. “My take is that long before the collapse of crude oil prices, we have had problems, which is the country’s population growth and the capacity to feed ourselves. It is argued that while Europe, some part of Northern America, Southern part of Asia have overcome hunger, the sub-Saharan Africans are yet to achieve that. If you go to rural areas, creeks and some other low income areas, you will see the sad fact of hunger.”

According to Danju, oil had covered this naked fact for years as it enabled the country to embark on food importation which he said led to Naira being overvalued. And that now that the chips are down, a recourse to agriculture can only yield the expected dividends if only people can embrace the idea and also seek assistance from the various programmes the Bank of Agriculture has put in place to help farmers in the country.

Bank of Agriculture for Nigerian Farmers
Stating that the present administration is focusing on agriculture to address so many things, Danju said that the Bank of Agriculture has been strategically established to attend to the various needs for agricultural development, both for big and small farmers in the country. “We are planning big for farmers, especially small farmers who for a long time have not been supported that much. That is why we are looking at the recapitalisation of the bank so that we can support the farmers across the length and breadth of the country.

“We are going to support farmers from the input stage like when they want to buy fertiliser, seed, agrochemicals as well as insecticide. So, this is very important to farmers. Not only at that level but when they harvest, they want to market either domestically or externally in terms of export,” Danju said.

Speaking further, he disclosed that, “we have 124 branches across the federation even in some rural areas. Our target is to have our presence in all the 774 local governments and we are working with some consultants so that we can reach the hooks and crannies, particularly farmers in rural areas to enjoy our services.

“We offer micro-credit. We have direct link with farmers, group of farmers and cooperatives. We are particularly emphasising the issue of cooperative where farmers come together as a group and register with us. We are also working with other international specialist agriculture development banks to bring technology as well as the human and financial resources we need to scale up our assistance,” Danju disclosed.

Need to Upgrade Agricultural Practices
Programmed to provide participants with valuable information that will be beneficial to different players in the sector as well as to intending investor, the Director General, Federal Institute of Industrial Research Oshodi, Dr. Gloria Elemo, in her presentation looked at industrialisation and agriculture. According to her, to drive the national economy with agriculture, there is need to upgrade the agricultural practices from the traditional to the modern. “More importantly, we need to commercialise and privatise agricultural sector to run agriculture as a business.”

According to Elemo, the most important issue in commercialisation of agricultural sub-sector is the value addition through processing that will convert the agro-commodities to shelf stable products, to reduce post-harvest losses that have resulted in low ranking of Nigeria in terms of food wastage.

And restating the institute’s preparedness to give farmers and other investors in agribusiness all the necessary support to enable them explore the huge opportunities agriculture offers as well as succeed in their ventures, Elemo said, “We do weekly training, we transfer nothing less than 25 of our technology on a weekly basis to potential entrepreneurs, young graduates, school leavers, to women and to even people who are about to retire and people who are even on their jobs.

“Like this technology I am talking about has taken years in the laboratory to develop and after developing this technology, we now have to domesticate it so that lay man can easily adapt to that technology and be in the market with the same specifications.

“So, we train everybody that is interested in going into agro processing. We teach them entrepreneurship skills, how to set up those businesses and how to even get loans from specialised banks like Bank of Industry and Bank of Agriculture where we have MoUs to work together. So that anybody who is trained on our technology can access those loans because we are sure of the quality of the training, we are sure of the equipment and machinery we are recommending to them, she said.

Elemo who noted that the institute is not unmindful of the global demand on education to offer life skills to beneficiaries told THISDAY that FIIRO is partnering with a number of higher institutions in the country where it provides technical services to the schools.

“Currently, we are working very closely with the universities because part of the curriculum in the university now is entrepreneurship training but they don’t have the practical base at the background. So, several universities have approached us and we are working with them in making sure that all the undergraduates as part of their requirements for graduation have taken entrepreneurship training .

Enumerating on a number of trainings FIIRO offers, Elemo said that in its bakery training, participants are taught how to use of 10 to 20 per cent cassava inclusion, production of high quality cassava flour, production of fufu in a dry form, which can be exported. Adding that participants also learn to produce kunu that can be packaged and exported, which can stay on the shelf for over one year, fish smoking, tomatoes processing, instant pounded yam flour which is more popular, among others.

Make Agriculture a GNS Course
To further drive the consciousness of Nigerian citizens towards agro-economy, especially among the youths, the former Vice Chancellor of University of Lagos, Professor Ibidapo Obe, advised governments to see agriculture as the next area to shore up the economy.

The university don who was the chairman of the conference told THISDAY that the integration of agriculture into the nation’s tertiary education’s curriculum should be a major transformation the sector should experience.
“That is our next area to look at to shore up our economy and it is so important. It has become a major area of our transformation within the education sector. One of the things we must do is to ensure that higher institutions integrate agriculture in their curriculum,” Obe said.

Suggesting some of the practical ways to implement the integration, Obe hinted that schools should consider introducing agriculture as a course in general studies. “In fact, it is so important that we should even be looking at a General African Study. It is no point having this knowledge and then you can’t translate it to something.

“It must be incorporated into the general studies in a more practical way. Rather than spending our time teaching them English, teaching them Computer Science, these are skills they can pick up on their own,” he opined.
Speaking further, Obe noted that there is a need for the government and the educational institutions in the country to revive agriculture and position it as a sector with huge potential for entrepreneurship, food sufficiency and economic recovery.

“What has happened in the past is that the returns on agriculture are so poor that we don’t want to do it. To encourage youths to embrace agriculture, we need to revisit the issue of commodity boards; a board that will guarantee the sale of those products from agriculture.”
Stating that funding should not be an impediment in the implementation process of agriculture as a GNS course, Obe hinted that what the institutions need most is the land. According to him, if properly implemented, other things will fall into shape. “If it is done properly, once the land is there, and then the demarcation, all the other things can be done.

“We are talking of just semi-big gardens. We are not talking about big agricultural farm. To ensure that every student has a farm as we did in primary and secondary schools. I remember in my secondary school, one of the things that excited me most was for us to plant maize.”

Global Conspiracy against Oil?
With what sounds like a note of finality, the Managing Director/Chief Executive Officer, Great Works Concept, Mr. Victor Okoro, said that agriculture is the way forward for Nigeria. To him, the fall in oil prices is advantageous for Nigeria and her citizens – a ‘golden opportunity’ to take the economy on a solid path of sustainable development and growth. Insisting that agriculture is one sector that has the capacity to feed the nation, provide employment, earn foreign exchange, serve as sources of raw materials for industries, among others, Okoro said the country would fare better if policy makers can show enough commitment to the development of sector.

Deliberating on some of the gains of turning to agriculture as a an alternative to oil, Okoro who is described as a successful farmer said, “Agriculture is the way forward. It is the only sector that is all encompassing. It can employ the father, the mother, the children. In fact, everybody can be involved because when you own a family farm, it can conveniently employ every member of the family in addition to hired labour.

“I have friends who we have over the years helped to set up a farm, today, their children who have finished their university education are there managing the farm, and they make good money compared to what they would have made if they had gone to do white collar jobs,” he said.

Being actively involved in training and sensitisation of the populace on agriculture and the amount of unharnessed wealth in the sector, Okoro urged Nigerian youths to embrace agriculture. According to him, there appears to be a global conspiracy against oil and the shift in focus globally is evident in a number of innovations that tend to reduce the ‘supremacy’ of oil as number one source of energy. Stressing that while solar powered-energy tools and machinery are becoming more popular by the day, scientists are coming out with more discoveries that will further turn the world’s attention away from oil.

“Agriculture occupies a crucial place in the economy and in the overall development of any country. It plays a major role in terms of food security, employment, in terms of the general harmony of the economy in growing what the people eat. But you don’t have all these benefits in oil, this is because the oil we export in Nigeria is exported with its value chain.”

Noting that agricultural sub-sector just like any other business is faced with varying risks, the Managing Director/CEO, Nigerian Agricultural Insurance Corporation, Mr. Bashir Binji, said that the corporation was established by the government to assist farmers and ensure they are indemnified when they suffer losses.

Bashir who hinted that before the establishment of NAIC, insurance firms had no products for the farmers, said that with different insurance policies and covers now available to farmers, they can now carry on with their businesses with a good level of peace of mind. According to him, the corporation has a wide range of insurance policies that handles various risks factors in agribusiness such as production risks, market risks, financial risks, infrastructure risks, among others.

Encouraging farmers to take advantage of the various products the corporation has carefully designed to meet the needs of farmers in the country, he said they are primarily meant to secure farmers’ investment as well as enable them secure credit facility among many other benefits.

With the different contributions from diplomats like the Acting Deputy High Commissioner and Director, UK Trade and investment, Nigeria, Mr. Ahmed Bashir, the Managing Director, Indorama, Nigeria, the chairman of the panel at the conference, Mr. Emmanuel Ijewere, urged participants to make maximum use of the opportunity, knowledge and exposure the international conference has brought.