Aliyu Abbati Abdulhameed

Daniel N. Nanpan

Aliyu Abbati Abdulhameed is a remarkable gentleman with an infectious passion for agriculture. Around him, you get a sense that agriculture lies at the very center of humanity – indeed, that it is, not only the oldest profession but the most central and organic to human existence.
As he puts it: “Agriculture is one profession that draws in everything from the field of science to add value to life and society where it matters: food security, human life, nutrition, the growth of children, and sustainable development of the economy.”

The roots of his love for agriculture are embedded deep in the soil of childhood experience on the cotton and corn farm fields of the Adamawa plains. It is anchored on a deep love for the application of science, innovation and technology to transform subsistence agriculture into higher food production and food security through agribusiness.

However, for Abdulhameed, there is no higher objective than using agriculture to uplift the lives and improve the welfare of the millions of farmers all over the country and other modest players along the agricultural value chain who get so little for their lifelong investment in feeding the rest of us.

The appointment of Abdulhameed in late 2015 as the Managing Director of the Nigeria Incentive-Based Risk Sharing for Agricultural Lending (NIRSAL) by President Muhammadu Buhari can therefore be seen as a rare alignment of the office and the man. NIRSAL was established in 2012 to fix the number one obstacle in the path of transforming Nigerian agriculture: the unwillingness of the banks to lend to the sector. Its mission is to de-risk the agricultural value chain by providing bank guarantees for loans for verified, strategic and bankable projects.

His inspiring educational story tells itself. In the 1980s, when the top-rated professions were medicine, engineering, architecture, law etc, a young Abdulhameed was clear about one thing: that Agriculture held the key to the future. He chose agriculture over other “trendier” professions, rejecting admission to study civil engineering at the University of Ilorin.

At the School of Basic Studies (SBS), Zaria, he chose a set of core science subjects essential for getting into agriculture-related degree programme: Biology, Chemistry and Geography. He performed well, earned admission into the Ahmadu Bello University, emerging four years later with a B.Sc. in Agricultural Economics and Rural Sociology. He proceeded to do a Master’s Degree in Public Administration with specialization in Public Policy from the Nigerian Defense Academy. His master’s thesis explored the organic link between food security and national security.

Abdulhameed also holds an Executive Masters Certificate in Project Management from the Project Management College, United Kingdom. He has also benefitted from high-level local and international training programmes in agricultural financing, leadership and management.

The NIRSAL MD has brought remarkable energy, enthusiasm and passion into his job as the MD/CEO of NIRSAL within the past two years. At the heart of this job is the empowerment of Nigerian farmers and agribusiness entrepreneurs to access the finance they need to expand, make decent and boost the contribution of the sector to national economic growth.

The grassroots oriented focus of NIRSAL – about 80 percent of its efforts are targeted towards smallholder farmers – and the potential life changing impact on the less privileged explains to a large extent why Abdulhameed is so passionate about its work.

This focus is not a recent phenomenon. As a young management staff with the AFCOTT, a global agricultural commodity company, he observed firsthand the transformative power of modern agriculture. Working in the then Adamawa state in northern Nigeria he witnessed the significant improvement in the lives of local farmers who benefitted from access to finance and training on best farming methods.

Within a span of three months – one cropping season – farmers in threadbare and tattered rags were able to purchase better clothes for themselves and their families. Those who could previously not afford to send their wards to school acquired the financial capacity to pay school fees. Some made enough extra income to move from living in thatched houses to zinc ones while others bought bicycles or motorcycles.

Given this early experience, it is understandable why Abdulhameed is so fired up to make a difference in NIRSAL. Since he assumed the leadership of the organization about two years ago, he has worked hard to facilitate bank lending to agriculture. In the first quarter of this year alone, NIRSAL provided bank guarantees for loans to smallholder farmers, agro producer and other players within the agricultural value chain worth N690 million. Cumulatively, NIRSAL has provided bank guarantees that total N65Billion since its inception. This year, NIRSAL has set a target to use its credit risk guarantees to facilitate about N60Billion in direct lending by commercial banks to the agriculture sector. This is impressive. The practical results will be felt at so many levels: increased productivity, increase in incomes of local farmers, inclusive growth and the larger positive impact on the economy.

Besides facilitating increased access to finance by farmers and agro producers, Abdulhameed is also maximizing the platform provided by NIRSAL to institutionalize the training of farmers. Recently, NIRSAL commenced collaborative activities with the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) Investment and Technology Promotion Office (ITPO) to support farmers and agro start-ups to succeed, thrive and expand. The collaboration is to assist UNIDO to institutionalize an extensive training program known as Enterprise Development & Investment Promotion Program (EDIP) which is designed to empower start-up businesses with well researched and proven strategies for success. To indicate the seriousness on the part of NIRSAL, it facilitated and hosted a “train the trainer” program by UNIDO experts on the program in its head office couple of weeks back. Participants at the training included select NIRSAL staff as well as staff from Nigerian Investment Promotion Commission (NIPC), National Office for Technology Acquisition and Promotion (NOTAP).

Under the leadership of Abdulhameed, NIRSAL has increased the tempo of training support to smallholder farmers. As at the last quarter, NIRSAL had cumulatively facilitated direct training for over 125,000 farmers in different parts of the country. To ensure sustained support, it has also provided intensive train the trainer programs for over 200 extension workers covering essential staple crops such as rice, maize, soya beans across the country.

Abdulhameed deeply appreciates the fact that subsistence agriculture cannot produce enough to meet needs of Nigeria’s growing population as well as export. To this end, NIRSAL is test-running a pilot commercial mechanization framework in collaboration with FCMB and Sterling Bank.

On the strength of the guarantees from NIRSAL, the banks have committed close to N1billion in financing for the purchase of about 300 tractors for lease to the tractor owner’s association of Nigeria. The pilot run has been very successful. Smallholder farmers are getting access to tractors to till their land at very affordable costs. Also, the payback by those who leased the tractors has also been quite impressive – over 95%. With its success, the Abdulhameed led-management of NIRSAL is planning to scale it up to other parts of the country. This will mean more tractors, in more places for more farmers across the country. Indeed, early signs of a mechanization revolution.

Abdulhameed’s love for the application of technology in agriculture is intense. NIRSAL has developed a Farm Aggregation Model for Small Holder Agriculture Using Technology (FAM-SMART). The scheme aims to achieve a purely commercialized methodology of crop production with higher return on investment. Its current objective is to activate 5,000 hectares under cultivation in the wet season by aggregating contiguous land that will make for easy mechanized farming and coordination. As a risk mitigating institution, keeping an eye on the projects that NIRSAL provides guarantees for is crucial because NIRSAL projects are spread across the length and breadth of the country. To ensure this, Abdulhameed has turned to technology in a way that is both groundbreaking. His vision is to ultimately deploy drones to remotely map out farm locations and provide near real-time monitoring of activities on projects that NIRSAL facilitates.

In addition, he has defined the structure of NIRSAL to incorporate a Project Monitoring Reporting and Remediation Office (PMRO) with trained staff who will act as the institution’s eyes on the field. Their job would be to monitor and ensure that agricultural projects that are facilitated by NIRSAL are executed as proposed through prompt reporting, technical assistance and escalation of actions that pose risks to the success of the project.

Overall, to Abdulhameed, agriculture is not just an industry, or even a sector. To him agriculture is life itself. While the destination still lies ahead, early signs indicate that the current NIRSAL management possesses the requisite technical and managerial capacity as well as passionate vision to make a strong mark in the Nigerian agricultural space.

––Nanpan is a public policy analyst based in Abuja.