Why Agriculture Is Nigeria’s New Oil
October 10, 2013
In the lead up to the 2013 Borlaug Dialogue, the Skoll World Forum is featuring several keynote speakers writing at the nexus of three subjects central to the global challenges we face in the 21st century: biotechnology, sustainability, and climate volatility. The 2013 Borlaug Dialogue takes place October 16-18 in Des Moines, Iowa.
Assistant Director-General, Agriculture and Consumer Protection Department, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO)
Much is said about a rising Africa on the global economic stage. To be sure, there is a new energy and dynamism across the continent. It can be seen in an emerging middle class, improved governance, and a heightened interest by foreign investors. But amidst this excitement, there remains a disturbing paradox. Africa is a continent with enormous potential for agricultural growth, yet one where food insecurity and malnutrition are widespread and persistent.
Agriculture is fundamental to every country’s prosperity, security and sovereignty. In the United States, farmers, processors, researchers and policy-makers at all levels work together to promote and ensure a vibrant agricultural economy. The result is that Americans enjoy not only an abundant food supply, but also nutritional choices and affordability. Africa is now beginning to understand the critical link between agriculture and prosperity. In Nigeria, we’re making agriculture the new oil.
Nigeria was largely self-sufficient in food in the 1960s. Then, we discovered oil and became too dependent on this resource as the economic driver of growth, export income and development. We abandoned our farmers. Yields stagnated. Investments in infrastructure were redirected. Rural communities slid into poverty. We became a food-importing country, spending an average $11 billion a year on wheat, rice, sugar and fish imports alone.
And yet we have an abundance of resources – 84 million hectares of arable land, two of Africa’s largest rivers, and a large and young workforce to support agricultural intensification. Plus we have 167 million consumers to support increased food production and processing.
But potential alone is not enough; we had to find a way to unlock it. We needed a major transformation of our agricultural sector. The change had to be across the entire value chain – from field to mill to table. So in 2011, we launched the Agricultural Transformation Agenda, with the goal of adding 20 million metric tons of food to the domestic supply by 2015. And in the process, create 3.5 million new jobs in agriculture and food-related industries.
Our first decision was to stop looking at agriculture as a government-run, charitable development program across rural Nigeria. We now treat agriculture as a business. Government’s role is simple: to create the enabling environment, policies and incentives for a private sector-led transformation to flourish.
Our focus would be on creating eco-systems in which small, medium and large-scale farmers would not only co-exist, but flourish together. We would do more than plant new fields. We would also create value-added foodstuffs from our staple crops through an aggressive import-substitution program and policies that would encourage new investment in food production and promote agriculture sustainability and resilience. We needed to begin to think of, and instill in others, the concept of agriculture as a business.
We ended four decades of corruption in the fertilizer and seed sectors. We took government out of a distribution system that benefited an elite group of farmers at the expense of Nigeria’s smallholder farmers.
We also launched a Growth Enhancement Scheme to provide subsidized inputs to farmers. And we developed an Electronic Wallet System which has allowed 5 million smallholder farmers to receive subsidized electronic vouchers for seeds and fertilizers on their mobile phones. Nigeria is the first country in Africa to develop and use mobile phones to reach farmers with subsidized farm inputs.
Today seed and fertilizer companies are selling directly to farmers, not to the government. Supply chains are being developed to reach farmers in rural areas. Banks are loaning money to companies and agro dealers.
We have set a target to become self-sufficient in rice by 2015 by providing quality seeds, fertilizers and other support to our rice farmers. In just one year Nigeria unleashed a rice revolution and produced more than 50 per cent of all its rice needs. Private sector responded with 14 new industrial-scale rice mills, making high-quality local rice available on the market.
We are reducing our yearly $4 billion wheat import cost through a cassava flour substitution policy to replace imported wheat flour with high-quality, home-grown cassava flour in producing bread. The government is supporting private sector investment in large-scale cassava processing plants. We are also developing the cassava value chain by producing starch that can be utilized in sweeteners to reduce sugar imports.
The result of these combined efforts is that Nigeria will meet its food production targets. In the first year of our transformation push, we reached almost half of our five year food production target. We also reached over 75 percent of our job creation target.
The UN recently recognized Nigeria for meeting the Millennium Development Goal #1, reducing the population of hungry people by half, three years ahead of schedule. We did this by growing more food, raising farm incomes and creating jobs in farming and food processing – not simply by managing poverty. This is a new dawn. Agriculture was Nigeria’s past; and in agriculture – as a business- lies Nigeria’s greater future.