Viewed from the historian’s perspective, a significant advance in a nation’s fortunes can seem to occur almost overnight and be driven by destiny. The reality, of course, is quite different. Meaningful change is most often the long-term product of a series of small, connected, deliberate actions whose importance may not be immediately apparent.
One of those low-key events that one day could be endowed with historical significance took place in Nigeria last month, when senior officials from the national government and the African Union Commission, joined by agriculture experts from across the continent, gathered in Abuja to consolidate Nigeria’s National Agriculture Investment Plan, or NAIP. Similar blueprints are being drawn-up across sub-Saharan Africa to ensure countries stay focused on the African Union’s Comprehensive African Agriculture Development Programme (CAADP) and their commitments, re-enforced in the 2014 Malabo Declaration, to place African farmers and agriculture businesses at the centre of the continent’s economic development.
If there is anywhere in Africa where a surge of agriculture investments could change the fortunes of an entire country, it is here. Moreover, success in Nigeria would send a strong signal to the rest of the continent that agriculture offers our most promising path to sustainable and equitable economic growth.
Agriculture’s emergence as Nigeria’s number one economic opportunity comes as falling oil prices are taking their toll on this oil-rich country. Nigeria urgently needs a more stable foundation for providing income and employment for a fast growing population that, by 2050, is likely to be larger than that of the United States.
Agriculture already accounts for 70 per cent of employment in Nigeria, but only 40 per cent of Gross Domestic Product (GDP), an indicator that the sector is underperforming. Every year, Nigerians still spend billions of dollars on food imports, a huge economic opportunity forfeited to farmers and food companies outside of the country.
Part of the reason for the shortfall is that Nigeria has 84 million hectares of land suitable for farming, but less than half of this area is planted with crops – and most of the farming is accomplished with inefficient, outdated methods and without basic inputs. Irrigation, which is becoming more important as climate change disrupts rainfall patterns across the country, is available on only 220,000 hectares, when there are enough water resources in the country to supply three million.
But if last week’s meeting is any indication, agriculture may finally be getting the attention it deserves in Nigeria. Under the leadership of Chief Audu Ogbeh and his predecessor, Dr. Akinwumi Adesina, who went on to become president of the African Development Bank, over the last few years, Nigeria’s Federal Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development has pushed through several ambitious initiatives.
For example, Nigeria is the world’s largest cassava producer. And there are now a number of new income opportunities for poor smallholder farmers and local agriculture entrepreneurs around producing and processing this hardy root crop. Cassava is now being processed into high quality flour that can be used as a substitute for expensive wheat imports. It’s providing a source of fish feed for Nigeria’s rapidly growing aquaculture industry. Cassava can also provide an industrial starch with surprising usefulness in areas like paperboard and plywood manufacturing.
Similar efforts are underway to bring jobs to rural areas by attracting investments in maize, rice, sorghum and livestock production. For example, the Nigeria Incentive-Based Risk Sharing system for Agricultural Lending (NIRSAL) has generated US$273 million in loans for some 454 projects. They include a new rail-shipping venture that is connecting struggling livestock producers in the north to consumer markets in the south.
Despite the promising progress, agriculture in Nigeria still needs far more investment. For example, a lack of storage and processing options causes many poor farmers to lose nearly half of their harvest to rot or pests. Also, while fertilizer usage is up and local seed production is rising, many farmers in Nigeria still lack access to improved crop varieties and basic inputs.
That’s why it’s so critical to develop a new agriculture investment plan that shows Nigeria is committed to ensuring agriculture can flourish as a business. Numerous studies have shown that, along with increasing food security, economic growth driven by the agriculture sector is far more effective at pulling people out of poverty than growth in any other sector.
If Nigeria ultimately realises its ambitions for agriculture, historians of the future may point to an investment meeting that occurred in Abuja in February 2017 as the juncture when farming and food production became an engine of opportunity for Nigeria – and helped rally similar efforts across the continent. And those falling oil prices that capture the headlines of today? Maybe they will be relegated to a footnote.
Makinde is the country lead for Nigeria at the Alliance for Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA).