Ensuring Food Security Despite Realities of COVID-19

With closed borders and restriction of inter-state movements already straining weak food security, Chiemelie Ezeobi who was part of a conference on how to tackle this, writes on measures canvassed by stakeholders to overcome the challenges, and enhance food sustainability

Food security has always been of critical focus in Africa and its importance has been further highlighted by the new COVID-19 reality – the closed borders and corridors and restricted movement- straining already weak food security levels.

With the straining weak food security, occasioned by closed borders and restriction of inter-state movements, the role of smallholder farmer in the agriculture value chain cannot be overemphasised as people will rely increasingly on locally produced food in the coming months. But despite the important role they play in the agricultural chain, these smallholder farmers struggle to operate, achieve scale and contribute to the economy in line with their potential because of failures within the system to the success and sustainability of Nigeria’s agriculture sector.

This challenge and many more were the crux of a recent Zoom conversation held by Kola Masha of Babban Gona Company, Uka Eje of Thrive Agric, Ndidi Nwuneli, who is the Managing Partner at Sahel Consulting, and Debisi Araba who is African Region Director, International Center for Tropical Agriculture and an environmental policy expert.

In tackling the challenges faced by these smallholder farmers, these experts focused on the key themes of

identity, access to credit, and value chain optimisation etc. According to them, “how do we ensure that the primary drivers of the sector – the smallholder farmers – are included and empowered, and their economic outcomes enhanced?”

Tackling “Smallholder Farmer Inclusion; Nigeria, Data and the Path to Food Security”, they said: “Over the last couple of weeks, there have been a lot of conversations around the executive summary of the 2019 Poverty and Inequality in Nigeria report released by the National Bureau of Statistics. Coming at a time when the coronavirus pandemic has clearly shown the level of inequality that exists within the Nigerian society, this document brought with it, proof of the many issues that have earned Nigeria the sorry title of poverty capital of the world.

“One of the revelations that this document made was the uncanny relationship between agriculture in Nigeria and poverty. Every president Nigeria has had since democracy became our norm has implemented one agricultural development programme or the other, often backed by a large number of local and international partners, who believe in the agric sector being the key to the economic diversification the country dearly needs.

“But to have the report show that the highest poverty numbers in a country with over 70 million poor people, were in households that depended on agriculture alone for their income explains how much work still needs to be done in the sector, especially for smallholder farmers.“

Masha is one of the entrepreneurs committed to fixing Nigeria’s smallholder farmer challenge through his company Babban Gona. For him and his team, low economies of scale resulting from many different factors such as poor access to finance, land issues, lack of extension services, and more, remain the reason Nigeria’s smallholder farmers experience low levels of productivity, as low as 20 per cent yield for the average Nigerian farmer, which continues to threaten the country’s food security.

He said the reason these smallholder farmers are pivotal to Nigeria’s food security can be found in the participation numbers for agriculture in Nigeria. “A 2017 survey of the Consultative Group to Assist the Poor (CGAP) showed that more than 80 percent of farmers in Nigeria are smallholders and they still account for more than 90 per cent of the agricultural outputs of the nation.

“Even without considering poor smallholders’ welfare a food security threat given how low their productivity levels are, it is an underemployment issue as the agric sector employs about 70 per cent of Nigeria’s labor.

“The pandemic border closures and restricted movements have hugely exposed our already weak food security levels, leading to price hikes in the market and a strain on consumers, thus showing why there is an urgent need to empower more smallholder farmers,” he disclosed.

Eje, whose company Thrive Agric, shares a similar vision as Masha, which is to get smallholder farmers the access they need to resources which are crucial to their work and the growth of the agricultural sector. Alongside them are Nwuneli and Araba.

According to them, in any conversation about inclusivity of smallholder farmers, data often takes center stage because it is easier to solve a problem when it is clearly defined and understood.

As Nwuneli put it, ”we need to know who needs what, where they are, what they need most, how that impacts the sector, the nation and much more. The reason this is extremely important can be seen in how fundamental and foundational it is, especially for resource allocation.

”For instance, while we have a good estimate of how many people work in the agricultural sector, across different demography and gender, there is still a problem with knowing in very fine details, what the chief challenge for smallholders in each locale is, and the extent of the impact it has on the efforts of those in other locales in preventing a looming food scarcity.

”Different surveys have shown that poor access to market, poor access to finance, and inadequate knowledge of improved farming practices are the three biggest challenges to smallholders. While these findings form a step forward towards understanding the smallholder’s plight, quantifying the problem in statistics such as required investment to reach a possible solution per region or locale, the number of affected farmers per issues, etc, paints a better picture and brings a target solution closer.

”In Nigeria’s proposed 2020 budget, agriculture gets a meager 1.72 per cent allocation, which covers both capital and recurrent expenditure. This very poor allocation, considering the fact that Nigeria has been signed to the Maputo agreement to allocate 10 per cent of its annual budget to agricultural development since 2003, will do little to lift smallholders out of the problems they face, given the poverty scale.”

Moreso, it is a small amount in relation to the spread of problems it is meant to cater to. This explains why Araba from the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CAIT) opined that a lack of focus on exact goals we want to achieve might even be a bigger issue than the lack of access that exists, and might be making collaborative efforts with local and international partners less effective.

His stance remains that investing in vital infrastructure such as sustainable power will boost food production as well as reduce transaction costs for farmers, but more importantly, collaboratively tackling issues such as land degradation and soil fertility will go a long way to help farmers increase productivity, as the work they do at CAIT to restore soil fertility in many regions has shown. Clearly, a lot of support is needed to make agriculture work as a business in Nigeria.

Eje’s ThriveAgric currently has 18,500 farmers within its network spread across regions, who they support with key resources through crowdsourced investments from individuals who bet on the projected yields of these farmers. The key goal for agritech companies like his is to help smallholders gradually grow their farming businesses, better improve their lives, those of their families and the people who work with them.

The agritech template has not only provided a means for more people to invest in smallholder farmers, and support their growth, it has also provided a framework for measuring productivity levels and the key levers leading to proportional development. The growth for all parties involved is indicative of what can happen when we put smallholders first.

Related Articles