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‘Agriculture’ as fig leaf for ‘lack of ideas’

“I was pleased to spend time on my farm in Daura, this morning. Agriculture will continue to be one of the priorities of our administration.…

“I was pleased to spend time on my farm in Daura, this morning. Agriculture will continue to be one of the priorities of our administration. I’m proud of what we have achieved in domestic fertilizer production, financing for farmers and support and incentives for agriculture investors”.

This recent tweet from President Muhammadu Buhari is one of a series of messages from the present administration hammering on its vision of agriculture as a strategically important sector. On the surface, this is all well and good because food security is indeed one of the major issues facing Nigeria. There’s just one problem:

Agriculture? What agriculture?

When an economist analyzing Nigeria’s industrial growth prospects says the word “agriculture,” and President Buhari or his Agriculture minister Audu Ogbeh use the same word, chances are the two people are talking about completely different things. To the economist, “Agriculture” is a large-scale, professional operation where terms like “supply chain,” “yield maximization,” and “futures contracts” are applicable.

To the president and his minister however, “agriculture” means something else altogether. To them, it is a way of solving all of Nigeria’s economic and social problems by rounding up the youth of Nigeria and putting them to work in “the farm.” According to this mindset born out of the 1960s, prior to discovering crude oil, Nigeria’s economic mainstay was agriculture, ergo the key to removing Nigeria from overdependence on oil is to go back to “Agriculture,” whatever that is.

The problem with this simplistic and doe-eyed view of the economy is that first of all, there is a conspiracy of circumstances that makes agriculture much less attractive or even possible in many cases. For one thing, Nigeria is suffering the effects of climate change – reportedly losing over 3,000 sq km of land per year to the Sahara Desert. Without any plan for dealing with creeping desertification, “agriculture” is just a buzzword with no policy substance backing it.

In the Middle Belt, where climate change is not so much of an issue, large scale insecurity makes the idea of agriculture somewhat ludicrous. If the government cannot (or will not) come up with a solution to the problem of large armed groups roaming through Nigeria’s essentially ungoverned countryside, then where exactly is the agriculture supposed to take place? When those who were involved in agriculture before are forced to migrate to Lagos or become Internally Displaced Persons, then who exactly is going to farm?

These all pale into insignificance when compared to most important problem with the Buhari vision of “agriculture.” The emphasis on small scale farming is a solution for a world that no longer exists. Indeed, smallholder farming is an excellent way to ensure that a population cannot exit poverty. Industrial agriculture is the solution to food insecurity in the 21st century, not rural smallholder farming in a country with terrible transport infrastructure and one of the longest and most inefficient routes to market in the world.

If you Google the term “Chinese vertical farming,” you will see that clearly, some are practicing industrial agriculture, and we are farming. Those are two different things entirely. As with so many other Chinese endeavours, they will inevitably be able to produce food for export that is so cheap that even Nigeria’s notoriously poor smallholders will be unable to compete. Then what will Nigeria’s government do? Ban Chinese food imports?

When in doubt, say “agriculture”

The obsession with “agriculture” is not born of any desire to increase Nigeria’s economic productivity or to remedy its precarious food security situation, because as mentioned earlier, smallholder farming is good for nothing except entrenching people in poverty, and dealing with endemic insecurity across rural Nigeria will do much more for food security than handing out free money and fertilizer to an undefined group of “farmers.”

Why then, does our government seem unable to speak three sentences without mentioning “agriculture?” The answer to this is the same answer to the question “Why does our government think that banning imported Indian incense and wheelbarrows will keep the Naira stable?” It is that policy in Nigeria is being formulated by individuals who have not updated their knowledge for over half a century. These individuals believe that Nigeria can be remade into the country of their childhood, complete with groundnut pyramids, capital controls and socialist oil-boom government spending.

Consider this quote from President Muhammadu Buhari, speaking at the National Economic Council’s economic retreat in 2016: “When I was a schoolboy in the 1950’s, the country produced one million tons of groundnuts in two successive years. The country’s main foreign exchange earners were groundnut, cotton, cocoa, palm kernel, rubber and all agro/forest resources. Regional Banks and Development Corporations in all the three regions were financed from farm surpluses. In other words, our capital formation rode on the backs of our farmers. Why was farming so successful 60 years ago? The answers are simple: access to small scale credits, inputs (fertilizers, herbicides etc) and extension services.”

The above quote shows that President Buhari genuinely believes that economic salvation for Nigeria in the 21st century lies in the world of the 1950s. His world and that of those around him has not expanded over the past 60 years, and now Nigeria is to become the proving ground for a ruinous economic theory of smallholder agriculture.

This means that for those of us with greater ambitions in life than smallholding destitution, we are very much on our own. If you are a young person who wants to fit into the Nigerian government’s vision for Nigeria, your best bet is to pick up a hoe and register for some free fertilizer. The rest of us can just go to Canada, I guess.

Hundeyin is a writer, journalist majoring in politics, tech and finance.


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