By Audu Ogbeh
Undoubtedly, the future we have always been waiting for has arrived; but this is causing us some degree of concern as, suddenly, we find out that we are not ready to feed ourselves properly. For too long, we’ve depended on import of food – rice, sugar, meat, milk, honey, chocolate, milk, name it – all the way down to items we consume, which are not necessarily food, such as tooth pick.
Ship loads have continued to invade our ports for the last forty years. As long as oil and gas were flowing and selling, we felt quite comfortable. And then, suddenly, the music stops. We realised that we are not ready to continue to spend $22 billion a year importing food. It is easier to analyse our situation by saying that all of it was caused by corruption alone in government.
Of course, corruption has been a major issue. But a great deal of it has been caused by a certain degree of –if you permit the word – foolishness. We were advised by brilliant economists that the solution to our problems is importation, under the guise of free trade. Nobody ever asked about fair trade.
We were advised to devalue our currencies in 1986, in the name of Structural Adjustment Programme (SAP), which began in April 1986. Every week, for 31 years, we devalued our currency happily, under the so-called auctions, and every week, for 30 years, the naira lost value. We never stopped to ask: how long will this last? So, from one dollar fifty cents – when I was in the university in Zaria – the naira had to hit 520 before we raised an alarm as a country.
Looking back, you ask: what happened to us? How could we allow this to go on in our country? The Indians, Malaysia, Brazil and China rejected the Structural Adjustment Programme (SAP). How is it that these are the same economies that these same Western Europeans who forced this doctrine on us are now praising for their economic growth? How is it that we have lost jobs, we are unable to feed ourselves, our currency is going down, unemployment is rising, anger is growing, including Boko Haram and such other disasters?
There were economists who said to us that there was no alternative to SAP. Some of us, not being educated enough in economic theory thought that the answer then was to cut down on imports and increase local production. Rice alone cost us $5million a day at the height of rice importation. We even had a task force for the importation, not the production of rice! And ship loads came from Vietnam. Even India produced enough to feed herself and export to Nigeria.
Somewhere down the road, government thought that perhaps we should intensify agricultural education. In 1992, three universities, namely: Umudike, Abeokuta and Makurdi were converted to universities of agriculture, all signed by President Babangida in 1992 November. Unfortunately, the universities migrated from the ministry of agriculture to the ministry of education. And, some who have been there long enough would agree that concentration of agricultural education started declining.
I am told that, today, their faculties of administration and education, and areas not directly connected with agriculture are responsible for 75 per cent of admissions. I am also told that this happens because the universities are desperately looking for funds to run their affairs. But now, we are in distress as a country. We are in recession. And, in trying to solve the problem, we have put together what we call the Economic Growth and Recovery Plan (EGRP), which has imposed a new philosophy of diversification, economic integration, food security, job creation and a reduction of importation, amongst others.
It has imposed on us the responsibility of waste curtailment, optimisation of opportunities and a commitment to provide innovative services of our unique values to the Nigerian people, for the satisfaction of our multi-faceted expectations. At the centre of it all is agriculture. The essence therefore is getting it right with the agricultural sector, through the infusion of new policy initiative and dynamism to produce some change and more solid results.
We agree, however, that strategic as agriculture is, in this country, still very much in infancy, given that it is still essentially a smallholder-dominated enterprise. The constraints are many and all-encompassing. For instance, seed research and seed quality are hopelessly low. Agronomic practices are poor. Yields are very low. Post-harvest losses are heavy. Mechanisation is abysmally low and tractorisation is either scanty or almost non-existent in many parts of this country.
There are states in Nigeria with not one working tractor today. And, if we are asking Nigerians to return to agriculture, I am not sure we are inviting them to go back to the good old hoe and cutlass. Amazingly, the only instrument of agricultural production manufactured here is the hoe. The cutlass is actually imported from China. It is therefore expected of us to change gear, to create jobs, to welcome younger people into agriculture because the current generation of farmers is, on the average, about 62 years. Their capacity for manual labour is definitely dwindling.
If it continues this way in the next ten years: who will feed us? Most of the young people are no longer interested in agriculture. They don’t like the drudgery. When the old ones are gone, who will feed the younger ones? Our population is galloping towards 450 million by the year 2050. That will make Nigeria the third most populated country on earth, after China and India.
How much rice are we producing? How much yam, cassava, and soybeans, chicken and fish are we going to eat? If we can’t feed that population, where will we find peace? And if there is anarchy, where will Nigerian refugees run to? The truth is, we face serious threats. But the other truth is that we can avoid the threats and the dangers.
So, what do we do? We are turning to the academics and the institutions equipped to get us out of this trouble. The three universities of agriculture won’t be enough. There are other countries in the world, which have had to take refuge in institutions like these to solve these problems, and have succeeded in doing so. We are conscious of the fears of teachers and students already enrolled in the agriculture universities. There is no need to panic.
We have been instructed by government not to cancel any programme currently being run. The programmes will continue and be slowly phased out. As institutions of agricultural education and research, huge revenues can be earned from agricultural research, seed and seedling development, extension work, soil mapping, and even production of food on campus. Some of the agricultural universities have huge parcels of lands covering tens of thousands of hectares.
These institutions, really, are what the Americans call land grant institutions. I enjoin these universities to put these pieces of land to use. Some have plantations and are producing certain things. They should raise more plantations. Scale them up over time and earn more incomes. These can be the food baskets of their respective host communities. The universities of Ife and Ibadan actually once sold milk to people in the communities. I was in ABU, Zaria. We bought meat from the meat lab.
The new agenda therefore enjoins these agricultural universities to be more innovative and enterprising. In this new dispensation, every undergraduate must own a farm, from 200 level to graduation. We are not interested in theoreticians. We are looking for farmers: educated young men and women, who will leave the university to pursue a career in agriculture. Their examinations should dwell 60 per cent on the success on the farm and 40 per cent on academic work.
We will not forbid the teaching of elective subjects like accounting, business administration and so on. The farmer truly needs to understand how to manage a business and some degree of accounting capacity to keep records. But the main courses must not wander off: agriculture, agricultural economics, animal husbandry, veterinary sciences, fisheries, etc. We need to get back to land.
Admissions into those universities of agriculture may dwindle because of the new policy. It may take a while before the young folks see reasons to apply for agriculture in those universities. This is nothing to worry about. They will come when they see that some undergraduates are actually getting rich from their one-hectare farms. We are training young men who should have started earning a living even before graduating. There is no reason why we cannot produce eggs and chickens, goats and cattle, and bake bread and set up meat labs.
Farmers are in desperate need of seeds and extension services. One farmer has just told me he bought maize seed for his farm, this year alone, for N1.7 million. If all of the universities of agriculture were to develop seed faculties, and train breeders, and market seeds, I don’t see any one of them that won’t earn up to N5 billion per annum from seeds. Farmers don’t have seeds. The little we have at our seed research council here is sold across West Africa. So, they have a big role to play. We will find the resources for them to achieve this. Seed, seed, seed… We need them. The universities of agriculture can produce them and there are farmers ready to buy them.
The performance of our cows is about the least, producing less than a litre of milk per day on the average. In East Africa, they achieve 15 litres, some 20 litres. In Europe, they achieve 50 litres. Not too long ago in the UK, a cow draped in Union Jack flag was said to have been producing 67 litres of milk per day. The secrets are breeds and nutrition. Here, the roaming cows look lean, with poor meat quality. Cows are not meant to march around. They are not horses.
While existing cows don’t give us the results we need, we spend billions of naira in importing milk of low quality, powdered and reconstituted. Yet, we hear that 37 per cent of our children are malnourished. The university community has the key for resolving these problems. We are consuming more cows than we are calving. Lagos alone consumes 6,000 cows per day. Add the figure from Port Harcourt, Umuahia, Aba, Owerri, Ibadan, Abuja and Kano. It might not be long before we run out of beef.
If cows from West Africa were not wandering here, it won’t be long before we run out of beef. Artificial insemination is something I will like the universities to embark upon and teach people how to keep cattle. They don’t have to be Fulanis.
We will support the universities, increasingly, in the area of nutrition. Those universities having existing schools of medical sciences may have to re-designate them as colleges of applied nutrition and medical sciences. This is because most of the ailments people suffer later in life have to do with what we eat or fail to eat. Some of the life expectancy issues we suffer here have to do with our diets; even the way we process the food, or grow them, the fertiliser we apply, the harvesting method, the storage, the packaging. All of them have very serious consequences on our life spans.
Nobody is better placed than the university professors and teachers to teach the rest of us how to eat and how not to eat. This is a very deep subject I like the academics and researchers to embark upon. The councils of these institutions need to revive such programmes immediately and get them moving. We need them. Everywhere in the world, attention is turning to nutrition. Western Europe has corrupted their food systems with hormones and the United States has problems with obesity. Here, we have problems with diabetes.
Researchers need to pay attention to these. The relevant departments need therefore to take off as quickly as possible. Others have done it. We have to do it, or perish. The future is coming at a speed of light. We need to prepare fast enough.
We have a lot to learn from institutions such as Texas A&M University. Every year, when they publish their accounts, you see high turnovers in billions of dollars and profits sometimes up to $5 billion. Our own universities should earn money rather than waiting for treasury. The resources are dwindling. But they can make money. Shika Brown breed of chicken was a product of research here in Nigeria. More of this can be done and these institutions can make money.
Ogbeh is the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development