Corns, beans and cassava as money-spinner

One of the highlights of Nigeria’s recently concluded 2023 presidential elections was the huge joke made out of the reference to staple foods such as agbado (maize), ewa (beans) and cassava by the candidate of the All Progressives Congress and now President-elect, Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu. I have a different view. Rather than see his remark as a joke, I prefer to see it as a hint of the best policy direction his government can take towards solving some of the most basic issues afflicting Nigerians. If, indeed, he is serious, he could use food production as the pedestal to solve the bigger issues needed to resolve Nigeria’s economic woes and the burden of a national debt that the President, Major General Muhammadu Buhari’s administration would leave behind.

That is because a wholesale focus on agriculture would help to unlock the potential of Nigeria’s huge value chains in agricultural production and the massive employment opportunities achievable at every stage: cultivation circle, harvesting and distribution stage, processing and preservation stage and prospect in food exportation. On a medium to large scale, this will liberate economic growth and food sufficiency through massive population engagement and capital formation. Indeed, opportunities for mass investment in agriculture abound in the vast stretch of arable farmlands in the countryside from Lagos to Ondo/Ekiti through Port Harcourt-Sapele-Abia-Umuahia to Calabar to Abuja-Nasarawa. These open lands are crying for agricultural exploration.

Although a degree in developmental economics taught me to understand issues around the economy, what I’m thinking right now is more of an agricultural revolution and the best way to break the back of food scarcity so we can achieve food surplus/production in Nigeria. Over the years, I have assisted several individuals to achieve their dreams of going into agriculture as a profitable side hustle. Despite their passion and enthusiasm at becoming farming entrepreneurs and despite the influx of many more people into agriculture as a primary source of income, it is doubtful that their efforts can solve the food needs of Nigerians in the long run. That is because the challenges are daunting. Where are the silos to preserve the food stock? Where is the logistics support to move food from areas of surplus to places of fewer surpluses? How do we redistribute produce to achieve less waste and optimal utilisation? How do we harness other sectoral reforms to support the growth and development of agriculture in Nigeria? In my opinion, macro and micro level structural changes may help to revitalise the agricultural sector. The low private investment in the agric sector is mainly because of the growing and wider gap between social and economic returns on innovation in the agriculture sector.

The law, the powerful and the weak

The incoming government can bridge this gap! First, by bringing innovation that the present peasant farming can tap into for organic growth. While private investment-driven agriculture is desirable, the government still needs to provide a strong backing for investors with a bouquet of initiatives that encourage public-private participation to open up the sector. We also need to leverage technology to reposition agriculture as a main circuit breaker from mass impoverishment and the government must step in on a bigger scale to provide the support. The present scale of food production and preservation alone, if redesigned and rearranged, can sufficiently help solve basic feeding problems. There are loads of possibilities.

Statistics abound to prove my point. For example, we have similar development ratings with India and Pakistan. Agriculture is the backbone of Pakistan’s economy, and in 1965 it contributed 65 per cent of its Gross Domestic Product. In the present time, despite industrialisation and a shift of capital to the industry, Pakistan’s agricultural sector still contributes 25 per cent of GDP and accounts for 65 per cent of the total exports and employs 46 per cent of its total labour force. This is an impressive example on which Nigeria can hinge its agricultural growth objectives.

The path to unity in Nigeria

As part of efforts to bring reforms to the sector, the government should start with land reforms. The ownership and management of cultivable lands must be redefined down to training of farmers to adopt contemporary farming technology. The capacity, spread and impact of institutions such as the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture and the Federal University of Agriculture, Umudike also need to be increased so they can help sectoral growth.

In the past, Nigeria had a farm settlement scheme which was about the only one documented. Moving forward, it should be possible for the new administration from the get-go to align institutional arrangements, programmes, specific projects, strategies, goals or targets geared towards the realisation of the dreams of its policies. Inevitably, this will feed into broader discussions about infrastructural deficiencies and other utilities that could support and aid agricultural development. We can talk about running some agricultural development stages with technology in IT. Imagine being a farmer in Lagos and able to monitor the level of your grain storage depletion from a remote village in Bode Saadu, Kwara State, in real time on your phone. This is no rocket science; but it is possible with the help of an IoT (Internet of Things).These are areas of agriculture enhancement in technology.

There is also the important issue of road infrastructure to transport farm produce from the farmland to the central/urban areas for consumers. This is critical to unbundling the agricultural sector since access and feeder roads will help to reduce waste and food deprivation. We cannot overemphasise this, and this should be the basis for developing our rural agriculture. For example, how big is Ekiti State that a government cannot turn around its agricultural fortune? A focused government should first unbundle the agricultural sector through the development of hinterland roads and access to agricultural support for farmers.

As the thunder subsides, the rain pours

The growing agricultural developments around Ogun State and the growth potential on the axis through foreign or more precisely Chinese intervention is a good development with some side effects. Wherever they go, Chinese investors primarily seek to maximise their returns because they essentially are rent seekers. The production and employment they provide from these farms will help in solving perennial food supply shortages, the employment opportunity is great, the knowledge transfer and all are also beneficial, but these investments will not help to solve the national problem in food production.

These Chinese investors, if allowed to take over, may even raise the cost of food supply and then worsen the problem. Only government interventions and deliberate policies to devolve and rebuild our agricultural base to fulfil needs and resuscitate the sector will help.

With Asiwaju Bola Tinubu on the way to being sworn in as the new President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria on May 29, 2023, it is safe to say that if he plans to walk his talk on ‘Agbado, Ewa and cassava,‘ his unavoidable road to the market of success would be to immediately declare an emergency in agriculture and, by extension, the food processing sector. He would need to build teams that will look at stages of production to build structures that can deliver a long-term agricultural revolution. He and his team must be ready to roll up their sleeves and get their hands dirty from the first day. Anything short of this would mean, as Nigerian youth say these days, that he ’dey play.’ And that would be a bad start and sure way to kill the ‘Nigerian Dream.’

Ologunleko, a development economist, wrote in from Surrey, England

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