There is something patently mystifying when President Muhammadu Buhari said last week that Nigeria had no business importing food to feed its population. On paper, the comment deserves to be applauded. However, you have to ask critical questions about the basis for such a nationalistic proposal.
Different presidents have expressed similar plans to reduce the nation’s food import bill. On May 23, 2011, Goodluck Jonathan, in the capacity of president, talked about his government’s idea to end importation of rice, sugar, and fertilisers by 2015. He said: “By the end of four years, I believe that Nigeria has no business importing rice. Nobody will come to me with a briefcase and say to me he wants to import fertiliser. We have vast land, and yet we import all these essential goods.”
Of course, Jonathan never achieved his lofty aim before he was defeated in the 2015 election. It looks like Buhari has now lifted similar ideas and sentiments straight out of Jonathan’s green book.
Femi Adesina, Special Adviser to the President on Media and Publicity, relayed to journalists last week the comment Buhari made when he met with the director-general of the International Labour Organisation (ILO), Guy Ryder. Obviously, Buhari wanted to express his enthusiasm for local agricultural production. However, local food production cannot happen in a void or on a platform of vacuous promises. It is one thing to express a wish to end food importation. It is quite another to implement the plan.
Feeding a large population with locally produced food will challenge Buhari’s wits. That ambitious plan could be transformed on a backdrop of presidential support, including clear outlines of how the plan would be implemented, and a practical shift in the way people view agriculture and those who engage in it. In an environment in which many people see farming as a job reserved for ordinary citizens, it would take a long time before agriculture would become attractive to citizens. Local food production has to be promoted, encouraged, financed, and supported through government initiatives.
To convert his dreams into the realm of pragmatism, Buhari must revolutionise agriculture by transforming fading interest in farming. Local food production has remained a major national challenge because we look down on agriculture as an occupation that people embrace only when they have no other jobs. This is part of the reason why Nigeria has served and continues to serve as a soft market for consumption of ready-made imported food. Certainly, a country that cannot produce its own foodstuff must rely on imported food to sustain its population. Of course, food imports cost a lot of money.
To illustrate how our agricultural sector has improved or lost ground over the years, as well as how far our food industries are meeting the challenges of feeding the nation, we need to examine Nigeria’s food import bill. Akinwunmi Adesina, Minister of Agriculture in the former government led by Jonathan, exposed the dizzying amount of money the nation accrued through importation of food. He released the figures in an address he delivered in Ibadan in mid-August 2011.
Adesina said: “In 2010 alone, Nigeria spent N635 billion on import of wheat, N356 billion on import of rice, N217 billion on sugar importation and despite the huge marine resources spent N97 billion importing fish. This is not fiscally, economically or politically sustainable. Nigeria is eating beyond its means. While we all smile as we eat rice every day, Nigerian rice farmers cry as the imports undermine domestic production.”
We must keep in mind that the astounding figures presented by Adesina have since become obsolete. Nigeria’s food import bill has risen sharply and worsened as at 2019. It is a worrying trend. As someone said, Nigeria is now a country of “anything goes”. We must cut our appetite for foreign food. We cannot continue to live beyond our means, beyond our resources, and beyond our capacity to service our foreign debts.
During his time as Agriculture Minister, Adesina advocated a policy he hoped would “turn Nigeria into a bread basket – a powerhouse for food production”. He said that, to achieve that objective, the country must undergo a radical change in assumptions about agriculture. He went on: “Agriculture is a business, not a development programme. It must be structured, developed, resourced and financed as a business. We will revamp our cocoa and oil palm sectors and regain the lost glory in the commodities. We will revamp cotton production, as well as onions and tomatoes. We have also targeted major improvements in production and markets for livestock, fisheries and aquaculture.”
Unfortunately, official prescriptions intended to improve agricultural production have remained nothing but optical illusions. They represent expressions of longstanding national dreams that have never been realised.
If Buhari believes Nigerians have the capacity to feed themselves on locally produced foodstuff, his first challenge must be to turn around the national culture of citizens feeding on imported food. Government must lead the way to sustainable food production by facilitating an environment that enables people to participate in agriculture. Our capacity, as well as available human and financial resources to produce food locally, will be worthless if they remain unexploited.
Nigeria must aim to make local food production achievable through private-public sector partnership and investment in agriculture. Government and private sector organisations should incentivize farming by providing inducements that will motivate people to participate in farming. Mass participation in agriculture will be attained when farmers and unemployed graduates have access to basic resources, agricultural loans, and tools required to engage meaningfully in agriculture.
Investment in agriculture should be promoted and supported because it is a source of employment. There are thousands of graduates who are interested in farming but who have no access to land to cultivate or resources with which to commence work in agriculture.
An agricultural reform, the kind of “paradigm shift” that Adesina promoted, must precede any efforts to enhance local food production in Nigeria. That revolution will reposition agriculture as a widely admired occupation that generates rewards that appeal to many people. The Federal Government must also deal forcefully with some clumsy challenges such as volatile supply of electricity and poor network of roads.
Buhari cannot forget so quickly the prestigious position that agriculture occupied in the country in previous decades. Before oil became the nation’s main foreign exchange earner, agriculture served as the foundation of the economy. We must revitalise the legendary cocoa plantations in the South-West, the renowned groundnut pyramids of Kano, and the dependable oil palm industry in the South-East and South-South.
There are various ways Nigeria can approach the twin challenges of food importation and lack of public interest in agriculture. The first is to provide low interest loans to small and medium-scale farmers and anyone wishing to invest in agriculture. The loans could be in the form of micro credit facilities. Government should also provide agricultural equipment, fertilisers, and storage facilities at low cost. Land for agricultural production must be provided. Without land, other incentives designed to encourage mass participation in food production would be useless. You cannot plant crops in open air.