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‘We must take agriculture beyond rhetorics’

People say agriculture is not moving forward in Nigeria; that the way it was yesterday that is how it is today. How do you see…

People say agriculture is not moving forward in Nigeria; that the way it was yesterday that is how it is today. How do you see that and what is your assessment of Nigerian farmers?
Well, it is not absolutely correct to say that there is no improvement in agriculture. But in terms of awareness, in terms of a lot of rhetorics, in terms of some policies that reach the grassroots, the present dispensation under the current Minister of Agriculture, Dr Akinwumi Adesina, seems to make the impact that is necessary in terms of raising awareness. But in actual achievement, I believe there is still much to be done for us to say that there is improvement. I said this with a little trepidation because I know that when Obasanjo was the president, the commitment of government to agriculture was far higher than now. If you look at the budget during the Obasanjo years, about six to seven percent of the budgetary allocation was going to agriculture. When late Umaru Yar’Adua came, he maintained that and even did more. Because if you will recall, it was during his time that the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) raised about N200 billion to give out as loan to farmers to improve on agriculture in conformity with the dictates of NEPAD. Remember, in 2002, there was the Maputo declaration that advised governments in this region of Africa to dedicate their budgetary allocation to agriculture to at least 10%.
In Nigeria the much we have done is 6% or 7% and this is seen only in Obasanjo and Umaru Yar’Adua‘s times. Currently, this government is doing a little less than 2%. So in real terms, the contribution to development of agriculture per se, can be said to be very low in the case of this administration. But if you take what they do at the GES, where they have a system that allows every farmer who keys into the scheme to access two bags of fertiliser and probably 12.5 kilogrammes of seeds, it is working in some ways even though some people are complaining about not accessing the allocation. We feel that there is a lot of rhetorics; there is a lot of outreach in terms of helping the poor farmers.
But agriculture, as the minister always says, should not be seen as just subsistent farming, it should be looked upon as a business. For you to be able to do business, you must produce more than you can consume. To have something that you can go to the market with to have some money with which to do something else. With two bags of fertiliser and 12.5 kilogrammes of seed, I wonder how you can do that.
So in reality, I look at agriculture as a business though I am an architect. I am interested in agricultural business and that is why I am in agriculture. It is impossible to attain that using the parameters that I just highlighted. But if the National Assembly passes into law the biosafety bill, it will help Nigeria, or at least the Biotechnology Development Agency of Nigeria to complete its work in the development of GMOs and whatever work they will do in genetic engineering; we’ll be able to have seed that will withstand drought, disease, and have high yield.
Therefore, we feel that together with the GES this will help our poor farmers to get out of that cycle of poverty. So, I think simply put, you may be right in the generalisation that there is very little which you can say is an achievement in agriculture by this administration.
There is still very low yield from our farms due to mass circulation of substandard seeds. What do you think can be done to ensure that only certified seed are given to farmers in the country?
You see, in AFAN today, what we are trying to do is to set up six directorates. One of the directorates would be for research development. Farmers in Nigeria are not in a position to certify whatever seed they are given. They would simply take it hook line and sinker as good. But if the directorates that we want to develop come on board, we would have our own inside information as to the quality of the seed that we get before we even plant them. The research institutes in Nigeria, if they are given a freer hand to do research and they are properly funded, we would be able to comfortably certify whatever seed that comes to the farmers. But I am not sure that the research institutes are properly funded or are given the free hand to work. If the government is really serious about developing agriculture in Nigeria, let it fund the research institutes properly.
I think the minister is doing a lot of work but I also have noticed that he is not institutionalising the work that he is doing. Because it is very clear to me that when he leaves office he is likely going away with everything he came with, because the thing is simply not institutionalised. If you have any programme, and you don’t have good drivers that are in the public service domain, I’m not sure it will stay when you go. If you have a group that steers something, if you go, the group goes with you or it will collapse, and then you leave the institution with nothing behind. So this is the problem.
So, we will not say, per se, that these seeds are not necessarily certified, but we are not in any position to ascertain the real certification. But I told you something that is probably why our farmers are talking. If you take nations that have law governing biotechnology, their improved seeds are actually BT, they are genetically improved seeds. They have high yield, they withstand pesticides or herbicides. So they have more from them. In Nigeria, we are not really there but very soon, when we get this bio safety bill passed, I think things will change. I believe before the year runs out we’ll get that.
What is militating against mechanization of agriculture in Nigerian?
In 2009, the effort that government was making when it was involving this PPP in terms of equipment- where some people were interested in bringing in tractors. I remember one company called TAK. They had this public-private partnership and they could bring these tractors, which they would sell to farmers; government would subsidize the price and the farmers would pay gradually. If that was continued, it would have permeated the system.
 Today what I see is the pocket of some state governments working with farmers trying to get tractors for the farmers to maybe guarantee some loans from some financial institutions for farmers to buy and distribute to their members. Their members are expected to repay through rentals and hire services. My problem with that is: even the poor farmers, when they hire it, can they really pay? Can these people who borrow from banks really be able to pay back with the money that they made from the hiring services? This is the problem. So the problem is really systemic. We should do it seriously. You just told me you came from Kenya, you remember there was a situation where there was some news items- I don’t know whether you read some of these agriculture magazines- the biggest farmers association in Kenya are working with the government to prepare about one million hectares of land and encourage people to plant within that prepared hectares of land; do something as cooperatives and maybe as individuals but every infrastructure to make farming possible was evolved and that effort was augmented by government action. I believe it is a success story.
If Kenya can even prepare 1 million hectares of land, and come out with a programme to help farmers go and farm in a place that was already prepared for them, what is stopping Nigeria from doing that? If we did that in all our geopolitical zones, then take 1 million hectares and prepare it, get all the equipment, bulldozers, fell the trees and prepare the ground and even ask the farmers to pay a token to take some hectares inside this 1 million hectares of farmland and then farm; create the right kind of environment and then allow the farmers to work and make the soil rich with what it required; is better than giving me 2 bags of fertiliser. In-pregnate the soil with what it is lacking and give me the land let me be able to plant something there. It is do-able. We can do it.

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