Averting a Food Crisis

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Worried by the looming food crisis due to low agricultural activities and the lack of proactive policies, stakeholders at a forum harped on the need to revive the agro sector, writes Peter Uzoho

While presenting Nigeria’s statement on Sustainable Cities, Human Mobility and International Migration, at the 51st Session on Commission on Population and Development, in New York, recently, the Chairman, National Population Commission (NPC), Mr. Eze Duruiheoma, put Nigeria’s population at 198 million people.

According to him, urban population was growing at an average annual growth rate of about 6.5 per cent.

“Nigeria remains the most populous in Africa, the seventh globally with an estimated population of over 198 million,” Duruiheoma said.

However, this population figure, as good as it sounds going by the huge market it provides for businesses, also comes with a threat. How can a people of this magnitude feed and survive when local food production activity is continuously on the decline?

Before the discovery of crude oil in 1956, agriculture was the mainstay of the Nigerian economy. Characterised by the dominance of exports and commercial activities, agriculture contributed about 65 per cent of the gross domestic product (GDP) and represented almost 70 per cent of total exports.

This was because everyone was engaged in one agric activity or the other and the peasant farmers who dominated the sector produced enough to feed the entire population. The youths were passionately engaged in farming leading to low unemployment rate and minimal social vices and civil unrest.

In the hey days of the agric sector, raw materials such as cocoa, rubber, palm oil, groundnut, timber, among others, were exported in large quantities to industrialised nations, thus making Nigeria a major exporter of these products.

However, things changed when crude oil came on board. The glorious coming of oil, its exploration and subsequent boom led to the sudden neglect of the agricultural sector as it became the chief income generator of the country. The government shifted its attention to pedrol-dollar and, this naturally, led to mass exodus of people from agricultural activities.

But as experience has shown that only the oil sector cannot sustain the nation, stakeholders at different fora are calling for the revival of the agric sector to enable the country produce enough food to feed its teeming population, provide jobs for the youth and generate more revenue into the coffers of the state.

The 18th annual public lecture and luncheon of the Lagos Chapter of the Obafemi Awolowo Muslim Graduates Association (UNIFEMGA), held recently provided a platform where over 200 participants made a strong case on giving the sector its pride of place.

Held at the Grand Ball Room of the Sheraton Hotel, Lagos, with the theme: ‘Nigeria’s Agricultural Revolution: Opportunities and Options for Muslim Professionals’, speakers comprising major owners of big agribusiness ventures, said Nigeria has a lot to gain if appropriate policy tools were deployed to revive the entire value chain of the sector.

In his welcome address, Chairman, Lagos Chapter of UNIFEMGA, Alhaji Taiwo Ayanboade, stated that food is one of the basic requirements for human being to survive, stressing that the population of the country estimated at 198 million makes investment in food production an inviting prospect.

According to him, reduction in food production, food insecurity, increase in food prices, and youth unemployment have characterised the poor present day status of the Nigerian economy.

“These problems have been associated with an increase in population without a corresponding increase in agricultural productivity and favourable policies,” he said.

“Now is the time to discuss methods to promote increased food production, poverty alleviation, food insecurity, empowerment of small scale farmers and the need for holistic agricultural research encompassing various stakeholders in the government and non-governmental sectors of the agricultural value chain,” Ayanboade said.

He described agriculture as the “major and most certain path to economic growth and sustainability, adding that the current state of the sector is “only a shadow of what it used to be.”

He said the guest speaker and the panelists were carefully selected based on their experience and knowledge, adding: “I eagerly look forward to learning from them and from others present.”

In his remark, the Chairman of the occasion and Group Chief Financial Officer, Honeywell Group, Alhaji Sikiru Rufai, said agriculture was an important sector that required paying greater attention to, stressing that a nation has failed if it cannot feed its population.

“Agriculture is an area that the whole country has realised that it’s not only for food sufficiency but also to save the country from spending hard-earned foreign exchange in importation of food and also in generating employment for our people,” Rufai said.

“So agriculture is a very important sector for cover. If you look at the Nigerian demography and you realise by implication, you see a lot of the people are in agriculture but the kind of agriculture that we do has become outdated. There is a need for us to talk about the modern ways of agriculture in order that we can achieve higher yield and generate higher revenue as a nation and increase the fortune of the country, “he noted.

Rufai however, described the invasion of farmlands and destruction of crops by herdsmen and their cattle as a national challenge and discouragement to those wishing to go into agriculture.

“I’m sure the government will find a way to address this in order that people will be encouraged to go back to farming. It’s a challenge for the government and I’m sure it will be tackled so that it will not inhibit people from farming.”

He described the theme of the lecture as apt and timely, urging participants to contribute meaningfully towards finding ways to resuscitate the agricultural sector for overall national development.

The Guest Speaker and Managing Partner, Sahel Agri-Business Managers Limited, Mr. Mezuo Nwuneli, stressed that Nigeria’s large and growing population makes it imperative for more attention to be given to the agricultural sector.

He said population growth is the main driver for the demand for consumer goods, food, and services, noting that concerted effort is required to address issues militating against the growth of agribusiness in the country.

According to him, there has been a gradual increase in agribusiness investment in Nigeria over the past 10 years, with over $133 billion in foreign investment between 2007 and 2016.

However, Nwuneli noted that even with the increase in investment, over $5 billion was still needed to provide required financing for farmers and agribusiness.

He said: “I think there are a number of issues that are important to help the raw sector. One is looking at irrigation in particular so that farmers can be able to do more cycles. There are a number of irrigation projects in the country that should be revitalised.

“For example, in my home state of Anambra, there is irrigation the government has done 30 years ago that the pumpings of some of such are not working. The amount of money required to fix it is not a large amount. So that needs to be addressed so farmers can be able to do two to three cycles in rice production in a year.

“Power is also important for the sector. So we need improved power for the growth of the sector. The other one is looking at how government can support fertilisation, and support the clearing of lands to enable farmers have more land for farming. As I mentioned earlier, the biggest cost is around clearing. Clearing is roughly N150, 000 per hectare. How many farmers can afford that? Farmlands can be cleared for farmers by the government to open lands that they can then use.”

He further said: “Insurance is also another big one. There need to be more insurance products targeted at agriculture because if there is a flood or some disaster, farmers almost lose everything. And so, we need some products that allow them to stand that trauma when it occurs. Some works need to be done around insurance for the agricultural sector. That work is really gathering data that an insurance commissioner uses to create insurance products for the farmers.”

Nwuneli who later joined in the panel discussion, identified policy as a very key factor to the growth of the sector and urged government to give more attention to it.

He advised aspiring agribusiness people to start small, do proper research and understand the business well before venturing into it.

Contributing, Head, Small and Medium Enterprises, Bank of Industry, Mr. Michael Oye, said BOI had done a lot towards agricultural development in the country, pointing that huge opportunities exist in the sector but without raw materials.

According to Oye, land was available but there were no mechanised services for easier and faster agricultural production activities.

Lending his voice, Managing Director, Starlink Global and Ideal Limited, Alhaji Murthada Adeniji, stated that the only way to grow the sector was to attach trading to agribusiness, saying the business had a lot of opportunities.

However, with the rate at which the country is growing in population, Adeniji has his fear about what will happen that will worsen the state of the agric sector.

“My fear is that in the next 30 years, more houses will be built on places where we are supposed to plant crops. So if you have money go and start buying lands now to avoid being a victim of this,” he said.

Adeniji who deals on cocoa, encouraged the youths to go into the sub-sector, saying it does not require huge amount of money to start. He said Nigeria is so blessed that every part of the country can produce something.

He frowned at the Land Use Act of the federal government, describing it as one of the problems of the agricultural sector, and suggested that land should be made available for people to farm.