Anytime I hear Nigerian presidents, ministers, governors, economists, analysts and commentators declare that agriculture is the alternative to oil, and that the solution to Nigeria’s economic woes is to return to the farm, I am tempted to jump up and ask at full volume: “Who agriculture alone don epp?” Some states have hilariously declared work-free days for civil servants to go to the farm. It would be nice to see those farms and how well the emergency farmers are doing. We’ve been told again and again that agriculture, as Nigeria’s biggest employer of labour, is the magic solution to unemployment, that we will export agricultural produce and earn plenty forex. Well done.
I’ve been hearing this fairy-tale all my life. When I was a primary school kid, Lt. Gen. Olusegun Obasanjo, then head of state, asked Nigerians to tighten their belts because the oil boom would not last forever. He added drama by tightening his military belt on TV. He launched Operation Feed the Nation. My grandfather responded by setting up a garden in our backyard. President Shehu Shagari did Green Revolution. The structural adjustment programme (SAP) of Gen. Ibrahim Babangida was basically about diversifying into agriculture. In different shapes, forms, sizes and packaging, we have been talking about agriculture, agriculture and agriculture forever.
Since we love glamorising our exploits in the export of cocoa, coffee, palm oil and groundnuts before the oil boom doom, I will pick on just cocoa to dispel this ill-conceived notion and never-ending campaign that agriculture is the magic wand. We used to be the biggest producers of cocoa in the world. Chief Obafemi Awolowo utilised cocoa revenue to develop the south-west when he was premier of the region in the 1950s. But we dropped the ball along the line and Cote d’Ivoire overtook us. And now we are lamenting that we are nowhere to be found. The solution, therefore, is for the south-west to revive the cocoa farms. Oh, the good old days!
Okay, let us talk about Cote d’Ivoire’s fabled cocoa wealth. Cote d’Ivoire produces 33% of world cocoa and exports to manufacturers such as Hershey’s, Mars Inc. (both in the US) and Nestlé (Switzerland). You know what Cote d’Ivoire earns yearly from exporting raw cocoa? A whopping $2.5bn. I repeat: a whopping $2.5bn! So Mars buys Ivorien cocoa and makes several products from it: Bounty, M&M, Mars and Milky Way, to name a few. You know Mars’ net income from chocolate products alone in 2015? According to the International Cocoa Organisation (ICCO), Mars made a pathetic $18bn, compared to Cote d’Ivoire’s whopping $2.5bn. Agriculture, indeed.
If you are wondering how just one company, which manufactures chocolate, can earn seven times more than a whole country, which farms and exports the cocoa input, then you are asking the same question with me: Who agriculture alone don epp? On ICCO’s list of the world’s top 10 companies in net revenue from chocolate, you have three from America, two from Japan, two from Switzerland, and one each from Luxemburg/Italy, Argentina and Turkey. None from Cote d’Ivoire, Ghana and Indonesia — the world’s three biggest producers of raw cocoa. There must be something that Hershey’s, Mars and Nestlé know that we don’t know as we keep planting cocoa.
To be fair, Cote d’Ivoire is waking up. In 2015, French chocolatier Cémoi opened a plant in Abidjan, the economic capital, to produce chocolate. President Alassane Ouattara, on touring the plant, said: “We want to be able to make chocolate for Ivoriens, for Africans and especially West Africans.” Ouattara (pronounced Wa-ta-ra) understands what we still don’t understand here: that agriculture without industry is dead, being alone. How could I buy cocoa worth $1m from you and make chocolate worth $10 million from it — and you think you are smart? If you are smart, you will start making the chocolate yourself and stop romanticising about the “good old days”.
There was a video that went viral sometime ago. CNN’s Richard Quest visited a cocoa farm in Cote d’Ivoire. Come and see poverty written all over the faces of the farmers, who have been told for decades that agriculture is the magic solution to their problems. Quest gave the farmers bars of chocolate. They were eating the sweet stuff for the first time in their lives! Compare their lives to those of the executives of Mars Inc., who buy the cocoa beans from Cote d’Ivoire. They are flying private jets and holidaying in the moon, while the Ivorien farmers are fighting off flies and bees in the bushes of Koffikro. For your information, Mars Inc. has no cocoa farms!
Don’t get me wrong please. If I have created the impression that agriculture is useless, I do apologise. That is not my intention. After all, agriculture is our culture. Millions of Nigerians are farming rice, beans, cassava and corn. That is huge employment. Also, we certainly can produce many food items that we are importing and burning precious forex on. But is that why governors are declaring work-free days for civil servants to go and plant melon and maize to solve Nigeria’s economic problem and stop the dependency on oil? If only these governors knew that Switzerland does not grow one tree of cocoa, yet makes the world’s most elegant chocolates!
Let us break this whole agric logic into pieces. If we really want to diversify from oil and create proper value, agriculture must give birth to industry. If agriculture currently employs, say, 5 million Nigerians, agro-allied industry can employ 15 million in the value chain. So why do we spend so much time discussing farming and not industry? For example, how many graduates can a tomato farm employ compared to a factory making tomato purée? The factory will employ or engage the services of engineers, technicians, chemists, marketers, accountants, communicators, lawyers, administrators, drivers, and so on. It may even have a sick bay and employ doctors and nurses.
I’m not done. A basket of tomatoes sells for N800 in Kaduna. A 400g tin of purée sells for N300. Look at how many bottles of purée you can get from a basket, and how much value you will be getting. Who, then, is making the real money? The factory will pay company tax, its employees will pay PAYE and the consumers will pay VAT. That is how government will boost its revenue. The purée bottle makers offer a different business altogether that employs workers and pays all kinds of taxes too. And if we are good enough, we can begin to export purée to other countries, and earn forex. This is just purée. Think of a thousand agro-allied factories. Think of our huge population.
Sure, agriculture is very important in a primitive economy like ours. But we always miss the bigger picture. One, we need full optimisation of the sector to enhance productivity. A country like the US knows this much better: the percentage of the population engaged in farming is insignificant, but it is so optimised that the output is out of this world. For instance, the US produces enough rice for local consumption, for export, for aid and to dump in the sea to “stabilise” market prices. Two, processing is where you find the massive job opportunities. The agro-industry will yield far more output, more jobs and more economic value than Benue Friday Farming.
These things look so simple and doable, but commonsense is not common. Our agricultural output can be far better in quantity and quality than currently obtains. We can do with better technology, storage, conditioning, packaging and transportation. Most importantly, our brains should focus on how industry can bring out the real value of agriculture and spark off a chain of economic activities that will create millions of good jobs and generate billions of dollars in revenue to investors, employees and government. But we seem excited only about preaching and promoting the export of raw produce, and we feel so smart we think this is the way out of our oil dependency!
But how can we add value when, despite the billions of dollars we have made from oil since 1999, we don’t have the basic infrastructure to inspire an agro-based industrial explosion? Where are the roads? Where are the rails? Where is the electricity? Where is the security? Where is the finance? Yet I can point to uncountable private jets, mansions and customised cars that politicians and their friends have acquired since 1999 with proceeds from the oil boom — while they keep preaching stone-age agriculture to Nigerians. So if your governor joins this craze of declaring work-free days for primitive farming, just ask him politely: Your Excellency, who agriculture alone don epp?
“Let us break this whole agric logic into pieces. If we really want to diversify from oil and create proper value, agriculture must give birth to industry. If agriculture currently employs, say, 5 million Nigerians, agro-allied industry can employ 15 million in the value chain”