- August 3, 2020
- Posted by: Meka Olowola
- Category: Oil & Gas
Till date, agriculture in developing countries is still associated with words like poverty, subsistence, illiteracy and seen as a last resort for those who cannot secure “white-collar jobs” or an occupation for the less ambitious folks. While this is a shallow narrative wired into the mindset of many, it blatantly reveals the deep-rooted perception problems confronting agriculture in these countries and the stunted progress achieved in the sector over the years.
Prior to the oil boom in the 1970s, agriculture was the lifeblood of the Nigerian economy, accounting for about 70 per cent of her Gross Domestic Output. The Northern region was famous for the production and export of groundnut, cocoa was the staple produce of the West while the old Eastern region was built on palm kernel and oil. Most public institutions owed their existence to the proceeds from cash crops grown in each region. The prestigious Ahmadu Bello University in Zaria was built with earnings from groundnut while earnings from palm kernel and its by-products were used to establish the popular University of Nigeria, Nsukka. Suffice to say, agriculture was a highly lucrative sector that promoted development in Nigeria.
Barely 40 years after and things have taken a rather drastic turn. Today, agriculture in Nigeria accounts for only 29 per cent of GDP and crop production is significantly dominating other subsectors. Farmers incur significant losses yearly due to climate change and extreme weather events. Profit margins are low owing to the high costs of inputs, storage facilities are inadequate, crude implements are still being utilized, and farmers have limited access to credit, to mention but a few of the current problems facing agriculture in Nigeria. These issues have gradually turned a former hotspot for food production to an epicentre of imported food crops.
World Population Prospects predict that Sub-Saharan Africa will account for 52 per cent of the world’s population over the coming decades. This would inadvertently trigger an increase in the demand for food, rural unemployment, and poverty. As farming is a major occupation and source of livelihood in Sub-Saharan Africa, boosting agriculture while ensuring good access to markets for farmers, is crucial to absorb the growing workforce and curtailing unemployment in the region. The labour-intensive nature of the sector also makes it more effective than other sectors in reducing poverty.
More so, the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic has proven that Nigeria cannot continue to rely on crude oil as its main source of revenue. Due to the volatility of oil to global shocks, the need to diversify the Nigerian economy and exploit other sectors has become an immediate priority. Because food is constantly demanded by humans for survival, the agricultural sector is deemed to be resilient even during crisis periods.
How then can we position agriculture in Nigeria for greater success?
First and foremost, there needs to be a total reconfiguration of the general perception of agriculture. This would involve debunking popular myths and misconceptions about agriculture, and enlightening individuals on the diverse career opportunities the sector has to offer. To some, crop farming is all that there is to agriculture. However, areas of specialisation such as forestry, livestock farming, poultry farming, aquaculture, olericulture, pomology and the likes, exist to cater to the varying interests of individuals.
Food security in any nation largely depends on the participation of youth in its agricultural sector. With youth constituting about 53.5 per cent of Nigeria’s population and the average age of farmers at 60, it becomes pertinent to groom a new generation of farmers who will succeed the older generations. Because ageing farmers are less likely to adopt new technologies needed to sustain an increase in agricultural productivity, youths should be exposed to these technologies to spur their interest in agriculture. Farming has to be portrayed as an attractive, profitable, wealth-creating option for the youth just like any other profession.
Significant investment in cash and kind is pivotal to realizing Nigeria’s full agricultural potential. More fertilizer, improved seedlings, investment in storage facilities, good irrigation are critical for high farm productivity. Private individuals, angel investors and venture capitalists should invest in farm projects to equip farmers with the requisite resources for their activities while earning returns on their investments. Infrastructure such as roads, ports, and electricity, plus improvements in policies and regional trade flows are also needed for seamless supply and distribution of farm produce especially in rural areas. The government has to ensure that these facilities are made available for efficiency in the sector.
Surprisingly, a considerable proportion of African farmers still engage in subsistence farming and more than 72 per cent of Nigeria’s farmers live below the international poverty line. This issue stems primarily from inadequate funding needed to expand farming operations. We have witnessed the birth of several credit schemes that provide short-term credit to farmers but are yet to yield impressive results. Instead of embarking on these short-lived unsustainable initiatives, the central and commercial banks should make loans at reasonable interest rates readily accessible to farmers to fund their farming operations year-round.
If African agriculture is to compete on a global scale with its trading partners,it will be important to improve the cost competitiveness of our homegrown food and cash crops. Sub Saharan Africa has already demonstrated a competitive advantage in cash crops, such as cashew, coffee, tea, cocoa with the low costs of production compared to other regions in the world. To maximize this opportunity, these crops must be grown in commercial quantities, exported to other regions, and sold at competitive prices to remit high profit for local farmers.
The global wave of disruptive technology does not elude agriculture. Low crop yield is still commonplace in Africa because the continent is hostile to the offerings of the digital world. In conventional farming, a large piece of land is cultivated on a commercial scale alongside heavy-duty, energy-consuming, and environment-depleting machines for growing crops. This results in faster land depletion and environmental degradation. Modern farming methods, on the other hand, embrace different environment-friendly and sustainable innovations that require less water, land surface area and less energy consumption producing double the yield achieved in conventional farming. By doing so, these methods also reduce agriculture’s footprint on the environment.
With technology evolving at this rate, the era of toiling under the scorching sun daily only to harvest a few crops are nearly over. Outdoor farms will likely be replaced with an indoor facility, with neatly stacked trays of growing plants, in a controlled environment. Automated monitoring systems will be deployed to monitor farm operations, real-time reports and farm data will be accessed from via smart devices. Juxtaposing a mental picture of this scenario against conventional farm practice reveals that agriculture can take on a revamped image which will dispel false notions limiting its development. Essentially, efforts aimed at rebranding agriculture would be incomplete until innovation comes into the equation.
Efforts since the late 1970s to revitalize agriculture and make Nigeria food self-sufficient again have yielded only modest results because the root problems confronting the sector are yet to be addressed. Some incentives such as tax holidays, exemptions, reliefs, and reduced tax rates, exist only on paper in Nigeria leaving farmers to cope with the harsh economic realities in the country. Likewise, policies formulated in the past have not been properly enforced to drive home the desired results.
Ironically, an absurd amount of attention is still placed on the oil sector which certainly cannot fund the national budget in isolation. In the United States of America, only about 2% (2.1 million) of the country’s population are farmers yet American farms contribute about 136 billion dollars to the nation’s GDP. Revenue from agriculture in Nigeria can surpass this figure seeing that a whopping 48% of our population is engaged in farming.
Achieving this will require a greater focus on scaling agricultural productivity and creating an enabling environment for farmers to thrive. Effective implementation of sound policies and improved sector governance will go a long way in attracting and retaining more participants in the sector.
The goal of agricultural rebranding in Nigeria will be attained only when the structural lapses in farming systems are eliminated; when the right narrative is propagated about farming; when today’s farmers will see themselves as equals with professionals in other sectors; and ultimately when agriculture steers the economy towards greater economic progress. Then and then only, will farmers be given the due recognition they deserve.