Vice Chancellor of Federal University of Agriculture, Prof. Felix Kolawole Salako, speaks on how Nigeria can be food-secure in 2021 despite challenges of crop cultivation, including COVID-19 lockdowns, poor rainfalls in some parts of the country and insecurity of farmers. FEMI IBIROGBA reports.
The estimated number of Nigerians living below the poverty line is about 100 million or more. As an expert, what can the country do to get better in food production?
The World Food Day, as organised by the Food and Agricultural Organisation (FOA) of the United Nations since 1991. This year, the theme is ‘Grow, Nourish, Sustain, Together.’ This year too, we know what has happened as a result of the pandemic and the lockdown. That has affected food production and supply worldwide. During the lockdown, we read reports about farmers throwing away large quantity of milk, destroying vegetables, ornamentals, because there were no supermarkets to accept them for sale. This same thing happened here. Many of our farmers could not really get to the farm until around June. We are not yet out of the wood.
The challenge is compounded as the rain stopped abruptly between July and September, 2020. In fact, we ran into a major problem here. Our maize farms are destroyed by drought. We could recover only some of our crops like rice and some of the root and tuber crops. We needed to really get back to the field. We got back to the field in September to re-cultivate the land. We also have post-COVID-19 farm, which is in response to COVID-19 hunger. We have three of our centres involved and we encouraged staff to have their private farms after clearing the land for them.
So, we can only hope now that whatever we have, we can preserve. One of the reasons we have food scarcity is not inadequate production at times. It is about preservation or post-harvest management. Importation of food should not be that massive the way we do it, though there is no way you will not import any food.
The pandemic and the drought have affected food production. And juxtaposing it with the theme of ‘Grow, Nourish and Sustain, Together,’ is Nigeria not heading towards hunger and malnutrition?
We are already there. How to redeem it is what we should focus on now.
What exactly should Nigeria do rightly?
I mentioned it recently. We have very good agricultural policies, but there is always a problem. Do we protect our citizens in times of shocks? No! Why would you tell me to grow a crop and you allow importation of that crop? Apart from wastage of efforts and resources on the part of farmers, they would lose a lot of built-up capital. You tell somebody to grow maize, for instance, and he prepares, plants and all of a sudden, you import.
You asked us to do a poultry research, and we developed a breed. But we take the pullets to the Bodija Market in Ibadan, Oyo State (where day-old chicks are mostly traded), only to see cheaper imported breeds from India. I am talking of a real situation here. One of our professors here experienced that two years ago. We need to focus more on believing in our own (local content development). I read the story of a Nigerian growing vegetables in the US. Why did he survive there and farmers find it difficult surviving here?
Many of the things that can help us are outside the purview of the farmers. They are within the purview of the government: security, transportation, electricity supply, water supply. If you have electricity, you should be confident enough to put some of your agricultural produce in the refrigerator, that is if it requires refrigeration to preserve them. If you have electricity, you can put your produce in dryers to dry if it requires drying to preserve them.
It is not everything that you harvest that you eat raw just like that. The aspect of value addition must be there and value addition need these basic amenities. Transportation is very vital. The real farm should be in rural areas. How accessible are they?
Climate change is affecting us and Nigeria heavily depends on rain-fed agriculture. Do you subscribe to the idea that every state should have irrigation facilities?
Let me share my experience on that. I started working as a consulting soil scientist, and I was involved in quite a number of irrigation projects in the northern Nigeria, such as Katsina, Benue, Middle Belt, Kaduna, Bauchi, and Sokoto states. One thing that I have learnt was that, because virtually all those old states in Nigeria had one irrigation project or the other but the unfortunate thing was that they were damming along the same river. If you dam a river at the upper end, the likelihood is that at the lower end, the amount of water you get will become very low and that was what happened.
We don’t experience it at this side of Nigeria because of heavy rainfalls. In dry areas, where you don’t have enough water, it can have soil build up, so when you irrigate and the sun is taking up the water, it brings soil from the ground and deposit it on the crop. So, if we want to irrigate every farm in every state, it will get to a point that the states that are at the lower end of the river will not get enough water again.
What is the way forward?
The way forward is you must plan your irrigation very well. It doesn’t mean every state must have it. And it depends on your source of water. If you also mine the water underground too much, it can be an environmental problem. Look at water management in Israel, how much water do they have? But they recycle water. If you are not going to create dams all over the place, is there a way that we can recycle water?
In most parts of Israel, you have as low as 100mm, while you can get rainfalls of about 3000mm a year in some parts of Nigeria. The water is here. We should conserve water.
The water is here, but we have no infrastructure to harness and conserve?
I said it earlier that the government has a role. In most of the countries that we are talking about, somehow, the infrastructural provisions are there. Food production should not be something that should be too expensive or tedious for the farmer.
People will tell you that some international organisations are telling them to remove subsidy from agricultural produce but if you go to their countries, they have some policies that will make life more abundant for the farmer. We are not saying the government should subsidise everything, but must make life more abundant, provide basic amenities.
How do we make Nigeria food-secure in 2021 because with all indications …?
We have started it. We know that the pandemic has destabilised virtually everybody all over the world. I know that many of the farmers that read about, who threw away food and all that, would probably have been covered by insurance in their countries, but in Nigeria, it is not the same because the farmers are not just really that organised.
Implementation of policies goes wrong somewhere along the line and that is involving you and I. When we keep talking about the government, at the implementation stage, have we done the right thing? Are we truthful with the facilities that are provided? You give a bag of fertiliser to a farmer and he goes to sell it because he wants quick money. He will not go to the farm.
Now Asians are coming to Nigeria, getting land from us and producing the same crops our people said could not be produced in their land.
Forest trees being fell by the Chinese and they turn them into furniture right in our country, and those things will look fanciful enough that you will think they are imported.
The point is that, are we really committed even in using the facility that we have? You are provided with electricity, but the little you are provided with, you don’t even want to pay for at all. We need a holistic approach to recognise one fact; as citizens, we have roles to play in the development of the country, but the infrastructural set up should be provided massively by the government.
Are you suggesting that the borders should be temporarily opened so that at least we can be food-secure in 2021?
The issue of opening the border may not even be related more to agriculture. It may be related to all these security measures and the rest of it. So, I will not be too open about it, but what I know is that you cannot tell a farmer to go produce cassava at this particular crop with no buyer. In fact, people suffer there with cassava. They tell them to go and plant cassava, that we want export of starch, and we need it for that and that.
A lot of people will go in, wait for about a year, but at the end of the day, nobody is ready to take the cassava away and everybody starts beating down prices. The following year, nobody plants again.
This happens almost every year, and now some people have also been calling for restoration of commodity boards. Can they really work again?
I said that we have always had good agricultural policies. Those things worked in those days. Why won’t they work now? But we never built on what worked even in the past. Farm settlements worked. Cattle ranching worked. Nigeria Railway worked, but where is the Nigerian Railway today? You could move agricultural produce from South to North and vice versa. That matters, too.
In fact, I am not a fan of jumping from one policy today to another without consolidating the ones that you have before. The commodity boards were there and we were exporting more food items under them, and we were feeding ourselves.
Now, our population is growing, but we don’t want to produce anymore. We want to keep importing food. It is only ‘Get rich quick’ syndrome. You know buying and selling pay. That is why the theme of this year’s World Food Day is ‘Grow, Nourish, Sustain, Together.’
There is a gap between research institutes or universities and farmers. How can the gap be closed?
I don’t think you are right on your assumption. We have research institutes and universities of agriculture that are in very good contact with farmers, but honestly, I will tell you that the attitude from farmers generally is poor, like ‘’what else are they going to tell us,’’ because they have had good and bad experiences.
Also, some organisations have come pretending to be doing extension, but just running to make profit through NGOs. So, farmers are really fed up with people coming around telling them what to do. I think the approach now is that, instead of telling farmers what to do, we now get to them and talk about development, community development. Let us see what we can do and teach you how you are not just going to plant, you have somebody who you are going to sell to – off-takers, and you can be taught about processing too. So, it is about a holistic approach in terms of extension. It is not just those basic agronomic things you do, but also things that farmers can do to hasten the profitability and expand with time.
They call it research for development now. It is not just going to tell the farmer that, ‘’I am giving you this improved variety or improved breeds of livestock,” but tell the farmer how he will sell it or how to process it with some value addition and who will buy it after production.
Again, how do we keep Nigeria food-secure, at least, in 2021?
I know that the rains came late, but whatever we have produced now, we should not allow them rot away. We should preserve them and then be prepared next year to quickly get to the farm. The other point you have made and I don’t want you to get this wrong is that, I am not saying there should not be irrigation facilities, but there should be effective water management to have irrigation.
That was why I emphasised the issue of Israel, having little rainfalls but having a lot of farms irrigated. Don’t pump water indiscriminately from underground. Don’t dam rivers without considering the environmental effects.