Let’s Discuss the ‘Agbado’ Economy
SIMON KOLAWOLE BY SIMONKOLAWOLELIVE!
One of the most enduring jokes on social media is centred on “agbado” — the Yoruba word for maize, which is equally known as corn. Many Nigerians might have forgotten the source. Speaking at his 69th birthday colloquium in March 2021, Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu, then addressed as national leader of the All Progressives Congress (APC), advocated the massive recruitment of youths into the army so that Nigeria could tackle insecurity and unemployment at once. He obviously goofed by suggesting that 50 million youths could be recruited into the army to address the security challenges. His media office later clarified that he meant to say 50,000 youths as 50 million was way out of line.
“We are under-policed and we are competing with armed robbers and bandits to recruit from the youths who are unemployed. Thirty-three per cent unemployed?” Tinubu said at the event. “Recruit 50 million youths into the army! What they will eat — cassava, agbado (corn), yam — we’ll grow here. Don’t talk about illiteracy… anybody who can hold a gun, who can handle a gun, who can cock and shoot, is technically competent to repair a tractor in the farm.” He was apparently preparing to join the presidential race, so many took this as a hint of his manifesto. Thereafter, “agbado” became a byword. “Corn” became an object of scorn. “Agbado” became a pejorative prefix for a Tinubu fan.
In our history, different presidents have adopted different cash crops which they promoted to a level of significance. Some were successful and some were not. Gen Ibrahim Babangida, as military president, promoted the local production of sorghum as substitute for barley malt, which was being imported as raw material by breweries and the food-processing industry in general. It was a controversial policy, hampering growth in the short run and even sending some factories packing in the process. Many economists argued that the import ban was wrong. Although the beverage industry suffered, we are today one of the largest producers of sorghum. We barely import barley.
Nonetheless, we do not have many success stories in import-substitution, which is usually enforced with an import ban. That is why some economists prefer we focus on our areas of strength rather than spend energy banning imports. When President Olusegun Obasanjo was in office, he vigorously promoted cassava. He set up the Presidential Committee on Cassava Initiative Programme. In no time, we became the world’s largest producers. But producing and adding value are two different animals. The one keeps you at the basic stage, earning you pittance, compared to the other that oils a value chain. Obasanjo started promoting cassava content in bread to promote local utilisation.
Unfortunately, the cassava bread did not catch on. I tried it once or twice. Human taste is acquired over time and it cannot be changed overnight. If we were born eating bread with cassava content, it would be easier to sell. President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua was not interested in the cassava initiative and did not adopt any crop, but there was much attention to tomato production and commercial farming under him. President Goodluck Jonathan tried to revive the cassava bread policy. It still did not work, but he also spent energy on rice, building upon what Obasanjo started. Although there was some success in local production, smuggling hindered the goal of weaning us off imported rice.
For some reason, Nigerians have always had the tongue for imported rice (remember Uncle Ben’s?) Locally produced rice is considered as food for the poorest of the poor, particularly because of the quality of production and packaging. President Muhammadu Buhari has raised the profile of local rice in his time, despite the challenges posed by smuggling. He not only banned FX allocation for rice importation but also chose the abnormal route of closing the international borders to check smuggling, in the process hurting trade on the West Coast. Now that Nigeria has significantly increased its rice production, Buhari can claim that all is well that ends well, even at a heavy price.
As Tinubu prepares to take the reins of power from Buhari on May 29, I would now like to challenge him on the “agbado” that he spoke about at the colloquium. I do not know if he really meant it or it was just political speech-making, but agriculture and industry remain the routes offering quick wins for any administration intent on tackling unemployment. Agriculture is the biggest employer of labour in Nigeria and this can even lead to expansion in industry. Not all of us can be farmers, as farming is not considered glamorous here. Some can be involved in light processing in the value chain. Jonathan, in particular, promoted what he called “agropreneurship” to attract youths.
Does Tinubu intend to promote maize? Well, the global maize industry is huge. If we want to use agriculture to partly tackle insecurity and unemployment — two of our biggest headaches — maize is one crop we can target. Nigeria is rated Africa’s largest producer with an output of 33 million metric tonnes (mmt) in 2021/22 but, not surprisingly, the yield is poor, compared to second-placed South Africa, which produces only 15.3mmt. Our yield per hectare (t/ha) is less than 2mt — not even up to half of South Africa’s 4.9 t/ha. South Africa was responsible for 75 percent of Africa’s exports. You can look away now: the US produces 354.19mmt and exports 57.59mmt. We definitely can scale up.
Why is “agbado” so important? Although the world’s 86th most traded product, it is now the most beloved cereal in demand, moving above wheat and rice since 2020. In plain language, it is a growing market. In 2021, the US, as the world’s top producer of maize, earned $18.8 billion from exports, followed by Argentina ($8.88 billion) and Ukraine ($5.86 billion). Same year, Nigeria earned $57,350 from exporting 62,000 mt. You may look at the statistics and get depressed or frustrated, but the better option is to see the huge opportunity begging for attention. The solutions to our problems are in plain sight. All we need to do is focus our energies on the right things and the results will show up.
While providing employment through agriculture and industry can easily absorb youths from the labour market and take them off crime, we are also going to be tackling food poverty. These are the things the countries we call “advanced” today realised long ago and took action while we were busy sharing oil revenue and buying private jets up and down. Maize, for instance, is a staple for billions of people in sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America. According to a 2021 report by PwC, entitled “Positioning Nigeria as Africa’s leader in maize production for AfCFTA”, some 300 million Africans depend on maize as the main staple crop. All parts can be used for food and non-food products.
Maize accounts for 30−50 percent of low-income household expenditures in Africa, according to the PwC report, and over 30 percent of the caloric intake of people in sub‐Saharan Africa comes from maize. In Nigeria, maize is used to make animal feeds. It is raw material for breweries. It is also raw material for the manufacturing of industrial flours and corn flakes. It is food for us in many forms. The truth, of course, is that we can do far better than we are doing now if we adopt the right practices and policies to improve productivity, not just in maize but in the various cash crops that we are blessed with in this country. Everything I have written here can apply to all our cash crops.
Any problem associated with maize can also be seen in yam, cassava, tomato, name it. There are general problems with agriculture in Nigeria. One is poor yield. This is a problem discouraging many investors. And this is a problem science can solve. Improving yield has vast economic benefits. Another is post-harvest loss. Challenges around conditioning and preservation can be resolved by science as well. Yet another challenge is the value addition. You don’t have to be a farmer. You can go into processing and producing finished products with raw material from agriculture. This is an industry that good policy choices and incentives can address. It is a massive world out there.
Some things are just not working well and the policy makers know it. How can it be said that we are the largest producers of cassava in the world but we do not feature among the top cassava-exporting countries? We are the largest producers of yam but we are virtually non-existence in the export market. One reasonable explanation is that Nigeria has a huge population and we should be grateful that we produce enough to eat. Export can come later. That is not a bad argument but the fact that we are producing so much in spite of the poor yield and in spite of the discouraging living and farming conditions says a lot about where we can be if we get things right. Let’s think about that.
A Zimbabwean farmer, who worked in a small community in Kwara state years ago when Dr Bukola Saraki was governor, had this to say after spending less than a year in the country: “Nigeria’s agriculture potential is scary!” Outsiders see so much potential in us: potential to create quick jobs and get youths off the streets; potential to produce enough food to cure our people of hunger; potential for a wealthy value chain; and potential to export raw materials as well as finished products and earn billions upon billions in forex. It appears we are not seeing what they are seeing, so we keep going back and forth and returning to square one at almost every turn. We need to wake up.
I must immediately clarify that I know agriculture is on the concurrent list and not the exclusive preserve of the president. The federal government does not own any land apart from the Federal Capital Territory (FCT). But if Tinubu is going to promote the “agbado” economy, or agriculture and industry for that matter, he has to rally the governors, show leadership by providing the vital policy and infrastructural support, and take it as a personal project that must be seen to a conclusion. We’ve tried to tackle insecurity with bombs, and poverty with handouts. There is a lot more we can achieve with agriculture and industry if we know what we want and are determined to get there.
AND FOUR OTHER THINGS…
First, Senator Datti Baba-Ahmed, the Labour Party vice-presidential candidate, said there is no president-elect and that the president and the CJN should not inaugurate Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu on May 29. Some legal experts joined in, insisting that the petitions must be decided before inauguration. The clergy is on board, with Cardinal John Onaiyekan saying it is senseless to swear in a new president while petition is pending. This may be a good argument but there is no law stopping inauguration because of litigation. We need to step back and take a deep breath. If we follow this emerging logic, 28 states will not have governors on May 29 because of pending petitions. Weird.
Dr Rabiu Musa Kwankwaso, leader of the New Nigerian Peoples Party (NNPP), has hinted that Alhaji Muhammad Sanusi II could be restored as the emir of Kano when Alhaji Abba Kabir Yusuf (NNPP) is inaugurated as governor. The politicisation of the throne since Alhaji Ado Bayero died in 2014 is gearing up for another phase. Sanusi was appointed in Bayero’s stead after he was removed as CBN governor by President Goodluck Jonathan. The APC took full advantage, with some leaders even promising Kwankwaso, then Kano governor, the presidential ticket. Sanusi would fall out with Dr Abdullahi Ganduje, the governor, in 2020 who removed him and broke up the emirate. Intrigues.
The way the federal government reacted to the plight of Nigerians caught in the Sudan crossfire is laudable, although there are also arguments that we should have been more proactive and the evacuation arrangements could have been smoother. Still, I am glad our compatriots returned home safely. The late Chief Ojo Maduekwe launched the “citizen diplomacy” policy when he was minister of foreign affairs. I think we should revive it. Many Nigerians in diaspora are bitter because they feel the government doesn’t care about them. They face challenges that “normal” consular services could have helped address. I will celebrate the Sudan rescue mission all the same. Positive.
Victor Osimhen inspired Napoli to win the Italian football league for the first time in 33 years, scoring 21 goals in 26 games so far. His equaliser in the 1-1 draw with Udinese on Thursday sealed the Serie A title for the team, which previously had the legendary Diego Maradona as the hero when he led them to their first and second titles in 1987 and 1990 — virtually all by himself. The way Osimhen was celebrated at the stadium on Thursday night made me a proud Nigerian. While our politicians are doing all they can to divide the country along ethno-religious lines, the good news from Nigeria is always coming from Nigerians shining in academics, sport, Afrobeats and Nollywood. Ambassadors.