By Steve Agbota
Despite the Federal Government’s pledge to end food import through citizens’ empowerment for increased agricultural production, latest revelations from agriculture stakeholders have shown that Nigeria still spends about $20 billion annually importing food items.
This worrisome development is coming as the Central Bank of Nigeria is spending heavily on its agriculture intervention fund programme including the Anchor Borrowers programme in over ten states of the federation to boost rice production and reduce imports. But the rising import bills on other commodities has compelled stakeholders in agriculture sector to advocate the introduction of higher tariff on imported food items as a way of cutting off waste in the foreign reserves.
For instance, Nigeria remains a net importer of food items and is also often regarded as the largest importer of US hard red and white wheat; world’s number two importer of rice, sugar, fish and other food commodities, which industry watchers said amounts to about $20 billion annually.
Agricuture stakeholders who spoke with Daily Sun, said the reason the nation’s food import bill continues to escalate was traceable to the fact that some people have been benefiting from import certificate and food import duty waivers.
They lamented that these duty waiver racketeers, rather than waste the nation’s $20 billion foreign reserves importing food and exporting jobs, should endeavour to create a conducive environment for local farmers by facilitating the granting of loans for them to produce and add value to Nigeria’s primary products as a basis for job creation and diversifying the economy away from oil.
The stakeholders also argued that the huge amounts expended on importation of food items that the country has potential to produce locally with attendant loss of employment generation and wealth creation opportunities can no longer be tolerated hence the call for higher duties on imported grains.
Daily Sun learnt that the allocation of foreign exchange for importation of food items has continually depleted Nigeria’s foreign reserves, now on a steady decline.
Speaking on how to tackle the incessant food import bill, an agricultural economist, Chris Ejiofor, said there was need for the Federal Government, through the Federal Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development, to empower local producers of food items by providing farm inputs such as seedlings, fertilisers, tractors, among others, at subsidised rate. In addition, he advised that Nigerian youths should also be given adequate incentives to go into agriculture.
Ejiofor added that the availability of timely and affordable credit remains a sine qua non for the growth of the sector, even as he noted that inadequate credit delivery to it remains a big challenge in past few years, contrary to the 2003 Maputo Declaration that recommended setting aside of 10 per cent of annual budgets tofor agriculture financing. He called on government to compel Deposit Money Banks (DMBs) to lend to farmers at single digit rate, as is obtainable in other agrarian nations across the world.
“Land should be enough as collateral security for borrowing money for agriculture and agribusiness in Nigeria rather than banks demanding 100 per cent cash or 150 per cent assets as collateral security for LC (Letter of Credit) to import plants and machinery’s excluding the project land,” he said.
“We can’t expect illiterates and old retired half educated people to produce food with stone age tools when agriculture and its value chains are subsidised all over the world because of national food security implications of food import dependence. Government must encourage mechanised agriculture, train and retrain extension service officers across the country. This will help to attain self-sufficiency in food production, which I believe would reduce import bill gradually,” he added.
Meanwhile, the Chief Principal of Sunview Agribusiness Centre, Adebowale Ikukoyi James, has said by now Federal Government could make progress in the sector by granting it subsidies and tax incentives, among others, rather than fuel subsidy, adding that Nigeria needs to key into the modern trends in agriculture productivity that combines harvesters, tractors, tractor assembly and organic inputs to cultivate the 60 per cent of 82 million hectares of arable land which remain uncultivated in the country.
He said the government must take proactive measures through introduction of high tariff measures to end the importation of food items that could be grown locally and save the country the whopping $20 billion spent yearly.
Already, farmers are still lamenting the 1.2 per cent or N96 billion allocated to the agricultural sector in 2017 budget, saying it cannot even purchase tractors for 10 states.
Lagos State Chairman of All Farmers Association of Nigeria (AFAN), Otunba Femi Oke, said the nation’s borders are too porous and not too efficient, urging Customs and Immigration services to strengthen and tighten security at Nigeria’s borders to check unnecessary importation of goods into the country.
He added that, “farmers should be encouraged mostly in the area of value addition which the country is clamouring for. We have seen what CBN is doing, going around sensitising people about single digit interest rate. But are our commercial banks ready to comply? If this system is working, it would not allow people to think about import. So farmers should be encouraged with machinery and agro-allied services.”
He said government should also have a designated area where farmers can put their goods for processing because not many farmers can afford those processing machines. He said: “If government can produce the necessary machines for processing, farmers can process their produce for packaging and export and Nigeria will have its own trademarks.
The Communication Manager of Double Farms Limited, Mr. Kingsley Dudu, said the government should ensure more people get directly involved in farming, adding that farming is not as easy as people see it because it is very expensive and requires a lot of money.
He explained: “In farming, there is an entry point, and from there you move to the next level. Farming involves stages and hard labour. The man who you ask to go into farming does not have money but he is ready to farm. We need the government to support people who are ready to farm. We have the land but the government holds the key because people don’t have money to farm. Today, we don’t farm ordinarily based on subsistence, we farm to make money and to export.”