In line with the federal government’s drive to promote agriculture through the involvement of youths, the Enterprise Development Centre of the Pan-Atlantic University, Lagos, in conjunction with the British American Tobacco Nigeria Foundation, has through its initiatives created a path for youth entrepreneurs. Raheem Akingbolu reports

Anyone who attended the dialogue session on smallholder farmers organised by the Enterprise Development Centre (EDC) of the Pan-Atlantic University, Lagos, in conjunction with the British American Tobacco Nigeria Foundation (BATNF), would readily mistake the participants for students of any of the nation’s higher institutions or fresh graduates attending a social event, as they hardly cut the typical image of farmers.

The participants were mostly young graduate farmers in the value chain of agriculture attending a dialogue session on smallholder farmers anchored by agriculture experts. The experts, who included hands-on agriculture entrepreneurs, agric economists and consultants carried out a holistic review of the various government’s policies and schemes on agriculture, especially as they affect smallholder farmers, while also scrutinising the agricultural value chain.

The forum, which held recently in Lagos, was part of an EDC small scale enterprise professionalisation scheme for youth agric entrepreneur between the ages of 18 and 35, not leaving out individuals outside that age bracket. Remarkably, it manifestly testifies to the renewed interest and faith in agriculture shown by the Nigerian youths in the face of rising unemployment and worsening economic recession. A number of interesting topics and issues bordering on small scale farming and the youth’s participation in agriculture were explored at the various panel discussions and paper presentation at the event.

Role of smallholder farmers
Keynote speaker, Mr. Innocent Azih, Director, Carbon Exchange Trade, set the ball rolling with an address entitled ‘The Role of Smallholder Farmers in the New Economy’ in which he identified agriculture as “the pillar of the policy framework of the Federal Government’s economic diversification drive.”

He stated that with the right policy stimulus, such as research support, robust food security programme, market access facilitation, inputs delivery, adequate infrastructure, among others, this objective could be achieved.

Highlighting the role of smallholder farmers in the nation’s agricultural sector, Azih urged them to increase the domestic production of the entire commodity grown by them, innovate their enterprise, infuse technology in production, seek information and update their knowledge. He specifically identified the youth as the key drivers of the new economy, noting that they have the passion, education and energy to accomplish it. “You are supposed to drive the GDP growth of the economy. The smallholder farmers are expected to scale up capacity for entrepreneurship that is why they are working with the EDC. Capacity is needed in agribusiness and this can be gotten through knowledge. Also innovation helps add value to existing product,” he noted.

Agribusiness

During a panel discussion, Mr. Fatai Afolabi, Technical Committee Member, BATNF, observed that the rhetorics had moved away from agriculture to agribusiness. “We are beginning to talk about value chain and food, and not just commodity,” he added.
Speaking further, Afolabi noted that innovation is very critical to value chain development.
“All value chain must come to terms with innovation. Innovation is the key. It doesn’t mean changing the way things were done in the past, but doing it differently and better,” he added.

Afolabi also noted that innovation must begin with every stage of the agricultural value chain.
He blamed the problem of food insufficiency on huge post-harvest losses, noting that “agriculture has not been as vibrant as we wanted it because we don’t eat what we produce.”
Another member of the panel, Mr. Mezuo Nwuneli, Managing Director, Sahel, an agric firm, noted that greater care must be given to the manner in which farmers approach business opportunities in agriculture. He advised smallholder farmers to see farming and grain as a science, which need to improve yearly in line with the practice in other countries of the world, and tailor innovation towards improving agribusiness.

Place of youths
The discussion would later shift to the youth where the panel brainstormed on how the farming profession can be made endearing to the youth. Founder, Ope Farm, Mrs Olusola Sowemimo, noted that since agribusiness is not the type that often yields instant profit the youth must be willing to inculcate the virtues of patience and perseverance which she said are vital to the enterprise. She regretted the drudgery often associated with farming, which she figured is the reason they are not enthusiastic about the profession.

On the creation of incentives for youth to go into agriculture, Mrs. Sowemimo counseled that “there is the need for a scheme that will enable youths to test the waters” by farming on weekends before going fully into agribusiness. She enthused that “there is enough room for everyone to grow in the agribusiness,” noting that youths can explore the social media for this purpose.

In another panel discussion themed ‘How agribusiness can sustain the economy’ poor access to agric loans was on the front burner as representatives of some commercial banks and the Bank of Industry (BOI) sought to enlighten farmers, who queried the poor access to agriculture loans, on the procedures and conditions for giving loans to farmers.

Njideka Esomoju, Head, Emerging Businesses, Diamond Bank, observed that agriculture business climate is better regulated now than in the past. Hence, there is the need for agric entrepreneurs to endeavour to arm themselves with government policies and keep abreast of the nation’s economic situation. She also advised that before setting out, they should register with all the regulatory bodies. Speaking further, she urged them to be passionate about their job and aspire to grow their agriculture to export after satisfying local needs. “Agriculture is not just a business; it is actually a way of life for us. For those who want to go into it, the benefit is not immediate, it is a long-term thing,” she concluded. Participants however could not hide their disappointments and frustration in the rather stringent conditions that have to be met before the offer of loan from banks.

Opportunities
In summary, the panelists were unanimous in their opinion that there are abundant opportunities, platforms and markets for those who want to go into agribusiness and urged the young agric entrepreneurs to tap into the opportunities. They however bemoaned the inability of government policies, through its various agricultural schemes, to trickle down to rural farmers. The youth were advised to continually think of how to come up with new ideas and take advantage of innovation, especially the social media, and infuse technology in their business.