Pushing the Frontiers of Sustainable Agriculture through CSR

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Chiamaka Ozulumba writes that Lafarge Africa Plc has been pushing the frontiers for sustainable agriculture through its agro-ecological corporate social responsibility initiative

The agricultural sector is a significant contributor to the growth of the Nigerian economy. The sector has witnessed remarkable policy changes since the vision 2020 plan was introduced in 2009. In spite of these, the sector still faces many challenges such as reliance on rain-fed agriculture, smallholder land holding, and low productivity due to poor planting material, low fertilizer application amongst others.

It was reported in 2014 that agriculture contributed nearly 40 per cent of Nigeria’s Gross Home Product. Unfortunately, that figure has dropped. Now, agriculture’s contribution to the GDP revolves around 21 and 22 per cent behind the service sector, which is over 50 per cent. This decline further confirms the relevance and need for an innovation such as agro-ecology.

Nigeria’s agricultural sector is dominated by smallholder farmers who work an average of four to five acres each, under rain-fed conditions. Most of them lack knowledge of modern practices, have insufficient capital and own little or no equipment of their own. Only 40 per cent of the farmland required to feed the nation is being cultivated. What this means is that the food security of the country is threatened unless we find sustainable ways to increase agricultural output.

These food security concerns have sparked a broad discussion among stakeholders and policymakers. In 2015, world leaders charted a new set of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The second of these is to “end hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture” by 2030.

Across the world, responsible organisations through their CSR activities are consistently defying the odds of operational challenges to help achieve the SDG goals and touch the lives of people in the communities which they operate. That succinctly describes the motivation behind Lafarge Africa’s agro-ecology initiative in line with its 2030 sustainability plan on circular economy, people and communities.

To this end, Ashaka Cement Limited, a subsidiary of Lafarge Africa Plc, collaborated with experts and the National Agricultural Extension and Research Lesion Services (NAERLS) ABU Zaria to develop and implement an agro-ecology intervention that will address the interlink challenges of poverty, food security and climate change. Over 600 Farmers were trained on sustainable farming and 100 farmer cooperatives were formed across 10 communities.

“We are aware of the essence of maintaining a source of livelihood and such maintenance is what we are trying to achieve with farmers in Nigeria. Globally, agriculture remains a viable source of livelihood for millions of Nigerians and we are ready to play our part in growing the capacity of these individuals. For us at Lafarge Africa, it is another step in the right direction for our sustainability programme,” said Ibrahim Aminu, the MD of AshakaCem.

Human population growth and strong increases in global consumption has caused an ever-rising demand for agricultural produce worldwide. Simultaneously, weather related events and climate change is also impacting the supply of agricultural produce. Every day, countries across the world are saddled with generating ideas and implementing agricultural development programs that would help balance the scale of demand and supply of agricultural produce.

“We have been engaging with farmers at the local level to introduce them to the new solutions provided by agro-ecology. As a company, we are supporting the government and indeed Nigerians to achieve this objective through Agro-ecology” Adedeji Esan, the Plant Manager, AshakaCem.

Globally, agro-ecology is thriving. In East Africa, The Guardian UK reported that more than 96,000 farmers have adopted a “push-pull” system for dealing with problematic stemborer pests and striga weed resulting in a maize yields increase of an average of 1 to 3.5 tons per hectare without the use of chemical insecticides. In Kenya, nearly 400 farmers switched from single-crop maize to drought-resistant and nutritious sorghum and millet, intercropped with legumes and that boosted yields and fetched a better price for their crops.

The International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) also reported that in Brazil, thousands of hill farmers using mulch to cover crops made up of legumes and grasses saw their maize yields jump from three to five tons per hectare without using chemical fertiliser.

Interestingly, in Nigeria, farmers in the Lafarge Africa Agro-ecology initiative have also reduced seed usage by 30 per cent using new planting techniques and the usage of fertilizers has been reduced by 40 per cent.

“The objective of our agro-ecology intervention is to introduce all year round farming (three seasons) and new farming methods as a way of building local farmers’ capacity. The initiative was part of efforts to improve sustainable food production in Nigeria; increase the resilience of farming systems and livelihoods in the company’s proximate communities and introduce sustainable farming in selected Nigerian communities,” said Folashade Ambrose-Medebem the Communications, Public Affairs and Sustainable Development Director.

Agricultural development can stimulate economic development outside of the agricultural sector, and lead to higher job and growth creation. Increased productivity of agriculture raises farm incomes, increases food supply, reduces food prices, and provides greater employment opportunities in both rural and urban areas.

Acknowledging the benefits of the agro-ecology programme, Suleiman Haruna, the Village Head of Ashaka stated that “this project has introduced us to new farming methods which we were not known to us. At first, we were not sure about how those techniques will work to improve our farm produce.

“However, we took the advice of the instructors and utilise the ideas. We started with the dry session farming and we recorded a lot of difference compared to our traditional way of farming. Due to the significant success recorded using the techniques for dry session farming, we did not hesitate to apply the techniques for wet session farming.

“We also recorded significant improvement. From all indication, the yield this time around will be excellent. I sincerely appreciate this company to for their support in building our capacity and for creating means for us to be self-reliant”.

Another beneficiary, Sarkin Lambu, a farmer from the Jugol Borkono Community three Kilometers away from the Ashaka Cement Company added that “we were supported with training, seeds, water pump machine and pesticide. After the dry season harvest, we realised a high yield compared to our traditional method, our income increased and we were able to buy additional water pump machine and a piece of land. We have seen the advantages of this new farming method and it has increased unity amongst us local community farmers”.

As a strategy for driving the agro-ecology project, Ashakacem leased 400 Ha of its land to the local farmers. So far, about 300 farmers were targeted in Jalingo, Feshingo Jalingo, Ashaka Garri, Gongilla, Jugol Gongilla, Lariski and Bajoga areas of Plateau state for training in sustainable weed control and mixed cropping techniques. Until date, more than 75 per cent of the objectives of the initiatives have been actualised.

According to Trading Economics, GDP from agriculture in Nigeria averaged N3,832,973.14 from 2010 until 2019, reaching an all-time high of N5,288,339.21 in the third quarter of 2018 after which there was a decline to N4,978,775.48 in the fourth quarter of 2018 and N3,597,916.08 in the first quarter of 2019.

“In all we believe our interventions will bolster the enviable projections for agriculture in Nigeria, to impact lives and ultimately significantly contribute to Nigeria’s GDP. Evidently, there is no doubt that sustaining growth in agricultural production is essential to meeting an increasing global demand for food to achieve food security. However, the big question often asked is if agro-ecological farming can really feed the world, with the global population racing towards 9.6 billion by 2050. However, it is clear that there is an increasing evidence it could,” Aminu concluded.