A member of the Executive Working Group of the British American Tobacco Nigeria Foundation, Mr Innocent Azih, in this interview speaks on the new Agriculture Promotion Policy and how policy-enabling interventions by government can help ameliorate the challenges faced by small-scale farmers
The federal government’s restriction on rice importation last year was intended to protect the country’s local industry and enhance national food security. Do you think farmers, especially smallholder farmers, can meet local demand for the staple?
They can, very well. It is the importation of foreign rice that has been discouraging them. As we speak, demand for rice still outstrips local production of the crop. So, the gap still exists and is still huge. But they can meet it. It is cheering that those who were involved in rice production last year are already counting their gains, because they have made a lot of money. However, the real challenge is in scaling up. The smallholder farmer should not remain at the same level of classification. He has to increase from two hectare to four, for example. If he has made enough profit the previous year, then he is in a position to move to the next level. It means that if there is incremental scale up in the acreages that the smallholder farmer is engaged with, then it is going to accumulate to enable Nigeria close the demand gap.
How about the challenge of poor access to finance? Has the Bank of Agriculture (BOA) been able to address it?
Smallholder farmers are the main clientele and target of BOA. But over the years, it never really served that class of farmers. It was for obvious reasons such as the fact that smallholder farmers don’t have business skills and records as well as no formal guarantee for loans. Since BOA doesn’t have enough money to loan out, it would rather target those who can provide collateral to be on the safer side. The problem still lingers. So credit is still a major challenge for smallholder farmers. That is why the strategy should be about enabling them to participate in intervention schemes.
How about private sector intervention in this?
The intervention of the private sector and donor agencies in building capacity of smallholder farmers is critical. What BATN Foundation is doing by providing technical and financial assistance as well as essential input for smallholder farmers is exemplary of that. If the methodology or mechanics of getting these things work out is reviewed, over time it will empower the smallholder farmers. So, the private sector should look at all the interventions that enable input to be available to small scale farmers. Education is important, so that farmers can know how to organize and understand that what they are doing is business.
A major challenge for smallholder farmers is climate change. What intervention has been coming their way from government and the private sector?
Climate change is real. Smallholder farmers have been using native intelligence as a way around it but it is not working. BATN Foundation is in partnership with the Nigerian Metrological Agency (NiMet) to provide accurate weather forecast to reduce harvest losses. With the forecast information, small holder farmers are guided on the best planting season in view of the climate change we are experiencing. I believe that when the legislation on climate change comes into effect, it will be able to encourage private sector intervention. I am gladdened that the BATN Foundation has already taken the lead in this regard. Mainly, farmers need to be taught on capacity for adaptation and resilience, in terms of the kind of crop you want to use, and the time you want to plant. You need to plan for an optimum time for harvest. For instance, you need to plant rice at a time that will not see you harvesting the crop during a heavy rain, otherwise it will spoil, especially if you don’t have a drier.
Is there a policy framework in place for government to address post-harvest losses? How effective is the policy?
The policy is a broad vision of government. The best way to address post-harvest losses is to get an efficient value chain system working. From the farm gate to the aggregation stage down to the processing unit and the market, the value chain needs to be optimised and made effective. There may be a ready market for processed rice, but getting the produce to the last stage is a challenge. It is not the farmer that is supposed to get it to that stage, but that is what actually happens; the farmers are virtually involved in all the processing stages. An efficient producer offtake system in a value chain system can only work if the right infrastructures, such as power, good roads etc, are in place. Adequate infrastructure will bridge the distance between the value chain units.
The allocation for agriculture in the national budget was less than two per cent this year. Does that give any cause for concern?
If the amount budgeted can even be put into use, then we can see the amount of impact it will have on the sector. We will be able to see the baseline. For instance, we will be able to document the multiplier involved in taking cassava from the farm gate to the next five kilometers and calculate the differential that has come from doing that. By so doing, we have a data of what accrues from spending so little.
You recently spoke at the 42nd National Council on Agriculture and Rural Development (NCARD) Conference held in Port Harcourt. What is the significance of the conference?
The NCARD annual conference is the highest policy adoption body for the agriculture sector. It is chaired by the Minister for Agriculture. It was a great forum for the Executive Working Group of the BATN Foundation to make input into the agricultural policies of the country, especially as it affects smallholder farmers. It was indeed pleasant to have the opportunity to make a presentation that was well received at that conference. The presentation targeted smallholder producers; and the contribution of BATN Foundation in that aspect is well recognized.
In your presentation, you made some recommendations to address the identified gaps in the new Agriculture Promotion Policy (APP). What are these gaps?
Before talking about the gaps, I’ll like to commend the improvement made from the Agricultural Transformation Agenda (ATA) to the Agriculture Promotion Policy (APP). The APP targets the smallholder farmers and producers in contrast to the ATA, which was focused on high net worth investors. However, challenges still exist.
For instance, access to input is a challenge that has not been solved. The Growth Enhancement Scheme (GES) didn’t solve it effectively. The same thing applies to access to finance; the Nigeria Incentive-based Risk Sharing System for Agricultural Lending (NIRSAL) didn’t particularly make provision for farmers. It is a premium coverage meant for the high net worth producers. So, we found out that there has to be a policy that should be designed by NIRSAL targeting the smallholder farmers more directly.
The gaps also still exist in policy-enabling offtake of agricultural produce at the smallholders’ farm gate. If there were effective, real-time offtake of agricultural produce, the smallholder farmers would benefit massively from this. And that is why you still find farmers recording 60 percent post-harvest losses by 2016.
Are you optimistic that the recommendations made at the NCARD will be incorporated into the APP?
Yes, because I have seen imprints of the one we presented at the NCARD 2016 in Kano in the APP eventually. Of course, it is not necessary that you need to modify or redraft the APP every year or after this administration. What is essential is that in devising or designing implementation strategy, you get recommendations coming from stakeholders; and it is pro bono. If you know that it is going to work, incorporate it. The APP is a broad policy document, but in coming down to the details, which is in the implementation, all those things will come to play. So, I want to believe that we will see imprints of it in the APP. Fortunately, we have a Minister of Agriculture who has hit the ground running. He understands the sector and is also a player himself being a farmer.
What is your assessment of the policy in terms of its applicability and suitability in addressing challenges confronting smallholder farmers and agriculture in the country?
The applicability is in implementation. Implementation will require that there is enough funding to create appropriate extension reach to smallholder farmers. It will also require that the policy creates a robust engagement with some national players such as the state and local governments. You know that the Federal Government, through the Ministry of Agriculture, recently created the Department of Extension, which was previously nonexistent. So, the applicability will now be on how effectively they can engage agricultural business at the grassroots level. It depends on how they can engage the state governments and the extension system at the states to enable whatever vision that the Federal Government transmits to the smallholders.
The APP also seeks to encourage new generation farmers, especially the youth. How far has it gone in rekindling the interest of youths in agriculture?
Yes, but it is beyond the messages. Messages are good, but results are better. There are many young professionals out there who are into agriculture. It is their results that will attract the young people. The policy should enable good results, so that other youths could be attracted to it. I know quite a number of young men that are doing great innovative things in agriculture. Once the value chain is making money for young people it will begin to attract others.
Looking at the APP, it is designed to meet domestic food requirements. How can the smallholder farmers be made to avail themselves of this opportunity?
If the value chain is optimised, it will work for all stakeholders, especially producers, because the smallholder farmers are among the producers. So, once the offtake mechanism begins to work well, the smallholder farmers who are the producers will be the foremost beneficiaries. It is not as if this system does not operate. The question is how efficient has it been to the benefit of the producer? What obtains is that middlemen join the value chain at the farm gate and take the farm produce at giveaway prices and the farmer is running around again looking for credit for the next farming season. Most of the times, the middlemen make all the profit that is in every season. So, I believe that once all the visions in the policy document are optimised and implemented efficiently and engaged robustly with all the people who should be involved, it would trickle to down to the smallholder farmers.