From an enviable height of food sufficiency in the 1960s, the Nigerian economy descended abysmally to heavy dependence on imported foods. Looking back at those glorious years, when the nation’s economy depended on the agricultural sector, not a few Nigerians would admit the fact that that was one of the downsides of the nation’s years of oil boom. The tragedy of the sector is that the country began to spend a large portion of its earnings from sale of crude oil on importation of agricultural products which it has abundant human and natural resources to produce in commercial quantity. The consequence is that the sector lost its pride of place in the economy.
In the beginning, the country boasted of its groundnut pyramids in the North, cocoa in the West and palm oil in the East, the seedlings of which nourished the flourishing oil palm plantations in Malaysia from 1967, and now sustains that country’s position as the global leader in palm oil production, through which it earns about $18 million annually. All those economic crops that were being produced in commercial quantity are gone with the wind, displaced by the oil boom. Indeed, the agricultural sector has a chequered history of failure of governance, which manifested in a number of unsuccessful attempts by successive governments to revive the sector. Corruption was endemic in the sector, and that frustrated virtually all the efforts to revive it. Political leaders and local contractors feasted on the sector, making commercial farming a very unattractive business. That also left the sector with a preponderance of subsistent farmers, whose activities could hardly make an impact on the economy.
In the late 1970s, the military regime of Olusegun Obasanjo made what turned out to be a futile attempt at bringing back the glory of the sector through its Operation Feed the Nation, OFN, programme. In subsequent years, the Shehu Shagari administration introduced the Green Revolution, which also failed as import trade in rice, wheat and other agricultural products made instant millionaires of political jobbers. Not even the Backward Integration policy of the Sani Abacha years could survive as it later turned out that its operators tailored it towards making the country an import dependent one for a long time to come. Fertiliser racketeering was a major occupation of many top government officials and their cronies as the products which, though subsidised by government, never got to the local farmers.
Current figures coming from the Ministry of Agriculture are not only shocking but also revealing. For instance, the country currently spends about $12 million annually on importation of wheat, rice and fish alone. Since the Backward Integration policy was introduced, the import index of these products has been on a steady rise. That of rice, for instance, which was at 90 per cent as at 1995, has grown by 800 per cent since the Backward Integration policy was introduced. That of palm oil has grown by 300 per cent while that of sugar has grown by about 500 per cent.
At the dawn of President Goodluck Jonathan’s administration, transformation of the oil dependent economy became imperative. His economic Transformation Agenda has the agricultural transformation policy as a key component through which the country will be transformed from a food import dependent one to not only a self-sufficient one but also a net exporter of agricultural products. There is also the challenge of using the sector to solve the nation’s unemployment problem. The first step towards the realisation of this dream was the appointment of Akinwumi Adesina as minister of agriculture and rural development. An international agricultural development expert and winner of the Rockefeller Foundation Social Science Research Fellowship in 1998, Adesina was senior scientist at the foundation in charge of Africa and later its representative, Southern Africa and Kenya. Prior to his appointment by President Jonathan, he was a consultant to the World Economic Forum, World Bank and the African Development Bank, ADB. He has so far justified the confidence of the President that he would deploy his knowledge and experience to revamp the agriculture sector. Since his appointment, Adesina has by his words and actions reawakened the consciousness of Nigerians in agriculture, bringing to the front burner, potential of the sector. According to the technocrat, the Transformation Agenda is targeted at producing at least 20 million metric tonnes of food for domestic supply by 2015 and generating about three million jobs from the entire value chain of the sector.
In the last one year, a revolution has taken place in the sector. The fact that Nigeria is the largest producer of cassava in the world is just beginning to yield fruits as the country has commenced exportation of cassava chips. That brings to the local farmers a deep sigh of relief as most of them had “before now had their cassava under the ground because there [was] no market for it,” as Akinwumi recalls with a deep sense of satisfaction. That has also resulted in the production of high quality cassava flour for bread. On November 30 last year, Adesina presented to the President the 40 per cent cassava bread. That prompted the President to demand for commercialisation of the product, which his ministry has through the private sector accomplished.
To give the revolution a push, part of what his ministry has done is to encourage the revival of about 153 moribund small and medium scale enterprises, SMEs, that were producing cassava flour when former President Obasanjo started the cassava initiative. Thousands of jobs were lost when the SMEs folded up, following sabotage by the flour millers who stopped buying from them. The current initiative has already made Nigeria a leading producer of cassava bread as countries like Malawi, Ghana, Kenya and Ivory Coast are already showing interest in adopting the technology. To put an end to the importation of rice, which has been lately discovered to have been in the strategic grain reserves of some other countries for between 10 and 15 years before they were shipped to Nigeria, the ministry of agriculture has developed an ambitious programme for rice, one of which is acquiring 100 large scale integrated rice mills. Adesina says “that will put in place for Nigeria 2.1 million metric tonnes of rice,” estimated to be the total amount currently being imported by the country. But aside from meeting the local demand, the ministry of agriculture is pursuing the goal of making Nigeria earn foreign exchange in rice export. It is therefore giving support to efforts by the private milling firms to produce world standard rice grains.
A clear indication that this programme is on track is the fact that in the last one year, 13 new rice mills have been established by local private sector farmers. One interesting aspect of the Adesina agricultural revolution is that government owns up to its responsibility of creating enabling environment for investments in the sector by developing infrastructure and safeguarding investments. It is also reducing official bottlenecks and motivating local and international investors to put their money in the sector. That is in addition to ending corruption in the sector.
One thing many Nigerians will be proud of is the fact that the revolution is targeting the production of local rice that will compete favourably with the best in the global market. This will be achieved through technology transfer. Yet, one of the feats so far achieved by the new regime is that Adesina has proved that Nigeria remains the prime destination for investors in Africa, as massive foreign investments in agriculture are coming into different parts of the country, including the troubled northern region. The minister was at his best, reeling out facts and figures about the agric sector and the revolution in this interview with Wola Adeyemo, editorial director, Tony Manuaka, associate editor, and Paul Kuyoro, photographer.
Full interview can be read in the current edition of TELL MAGAZINE, dated July 30, 2012.