After decades of neglect, agriculture is again in the limelight because of faltering food security and the expenditure of precious foreign exchange on imported food.
Conventional economic wisdom dictates that the share of a country’s gross domestic product (GDP) derived from agriculture will fall as that country develops. So the fact that agriculture’s contribution to the GDP fell from 65.7% in 1959 to 30.9% in 1976 would normally be regarded as a positive sign, an indication that the manufacturing sector was growing and thus securing the country’s economic base.
Unfortunately, this was not the case. Rather, agriculture’s GDP contribution declined because of a spectacular rise in oil revenues and lack of planning, bad management and outright neglect of the agricultural sector. The fact that agriculture’s percentage averaged 41% between 2003 and 2007 has more to do with the continuing under-performance of other sectors of the economy than with any major improvements in farming, fishing or forestry.
A 1986 government decree banning the importation of wheat, maize and rice, coupled with the planting of better-yielding varieties of cassava, led to Nigeria supplanting Brazil as the world’s largest producer of cassava, but little was done to develop products from the crop and it was used mostly for domestic consumption.
More recently, global food shortages, rising prices and the large amounts of foreign exchange leaving Nigeria to pay for imported food have concentrated the minds of government strategists. Since the advent of democratic rule in 1999, a wide range of initiatives have been put in place with two broad goals: to alleviate rural poverty and to provide food security for the nation. These include financial incentives (for companies processing food), subsidies (for farming equipment and fertiliser), and research initiatives into improved crop utilisation (of cassava for a variety of finished products and as a possible component in the creation of ethanol, for example). The Federal School for Soil Conservation is situated at Vom in Plateau State and there are 2 000 soil-fertility experts, the most in any African country.
Intensive research is being conducted into developing stronger crop varieties and into finding industrial uses for sugar, cereals, rice, vegetable oil and forestry products. Financial institutions are also playing a role in reviving agriculture: micro-credit for farmers and joint ventures between banks and state governments are favoured methods of rolling out more efficient farming techniques. Institutions such as the World Bank’s International Development Agency (IDA) and the African Bank are strongly focused on rural agricultural projects.
Despite favourable climatic conditions, good soil and 74 million hectares of arable land, Nigeria imports 95% of its sugar, 90% of its wheat and 36% of its rice. Only 40% of arable land is used for agriculture and almost all of it is devoted to subsistence farming. Nearly 95% of agricultural produce comes from farms smaller than 10 hectares.
70% of the country’s labour force is involved in agriculture but the sector contributes very little to export earnings. This is in contrast to the 1960s when groundnuts, palm oil, cotton, rubber and cocoa accounted for more than 60% of exports.
The challenges in the agricultural sector were summed up by analyst Tajudeen Kareem in an opinion piece published in 2008. Noting that the country was the world’s largest producer of cassava, Kareem went on to bemoan the fact that ‘we can’t process, we can’t store, and we can’t add value, so we can’t market our nature endowed produce’.
He further noted that losses after harvest of fruit and vegetables (50%), tubers (30%) and grains (20%) reflected badly on the policies of previous administrations. The good news, according to Kareem, is that Nigeria for the first time now ‘has a food-security strategy’.
The Federal government sees commercial farming as the way forward. A start has been made in the Shonga area of Kwara State, and a group of Zimbabwean farmers settled there with the support of the state government in 2000.
Although there are processing plants for a variety of raw materials, the shortfall in processing capacity is one of the key structural deficiencies in the agricultural economy.
Consequently, any investment in this sector attracts Pioneer status: tax holidays, tariff concessions, financing and export support.
Nigeria produces between 30 and 40 million tonnes of cassava every year. With an ability to grow well in all ecological zones plus a high concentration of carbohydrates (in the roots) and plentiful protein (in the leaves), cassava is increasingly being seen as the crop of choice for African farmers. Many organisations are investigating ways of using cassava more intensely and across a broader range of applications (in biofuel, for example). A leader in this regard is the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture which assisted in the establishment of the Cassava Resource and Technology Transfer Centre at Ilorin, Kwara, in 2006.
Beer producers are making a contribution to the utilisation of home-grown produce by using sorghum instead of imported barley in the brewing process. Nigeria is the fourth largest producer of cocoa (at 242 000 tonnes per annum) but there is still huge potential for growth.