Dr Abayomi Olaniyan is the Executive Director/Chief Executive Officer of the National Horticultural Research Institute (NIHORT), Ibadan. He has over 30 years of experience in agricultural/horticultural research. He talks with the Head, Agro-Economy Desk, FEMI IBIROGBA, on challenges of agriculture-based research institutes. He says vegetable farming has the potential to lucratively employ youths, provide sustainable livelihood and guarantee food security. Excerpts:
Why have we not got it right in agriculture?
The agricultural sector in Nigeria is undoubtedly the highest employer of labour.
Some of the problems confronting the sector include poor infrastructure, inadequate research funding, lack of farm machineries, low youth involvement in agricultural practices and moribund storage facilities.
The nosedive in the economy is as a result of inability to appreciate and address the challenges in agriculture and the need to diversify the economy using agriculture as the major focus.
Since the advent of oil boom in Nigeria, we have neglected the agricultural sector which, before then, had been the major source of income for the country.
Now that the oil resources are dwindling, agriculture is yet to receive adequate attention.
What are the mandates given to NIHORT and how far have you gone in achieving them?
The institute has the national mandate to conduct research into genetic improvement, production, processing, storage, utilisation and marketing of tropical fruits, vegetables, spices and ornamental plants of both nutritional and economic importance.
To achieve this mandate, the institute has developed improved varieties of horticultural crops, formulated suitable cultural practices for high yielding crops and had conducted series of training and empowerment programmes across all geopolitical zones in the country.
Horticulture is a unique aspect of agriculture in that the return per unit area is higher than the arable crops.
Though, horticulture has special challenges, chief of which is its perishable tendency, as a research institute, we have been able to address some of the challenges.
You said you have been able to handle some of the challenges. What exactly have you done?
We have been able to develop improved varieties of citrus, mango, pineapple, plantain and banana adaptable to different agro-ecologies in addition to integrated pest management measures.
For instance, during the advent of the Tuta absoluta invasion on tomato, the institute developed an eco-friendly technique, Tuta trap tray, to control the incidence.
We have also been able to add value to some horticultural products to increase their shelf life and export value.
Furthermore, the institute has developed some waste to wealth technologies, such as natural soap from plantain waste, compost from waste and essential oils from ornamental plants.
Others include low-cost platform tomato dryer, nut cracker for Irvingia and low-cost manual juice processor for fruits, vegetables and spices.
In the aspect of capacity building on developed technologies, the institute was able to train diverse groups of stakeholders, including men, women and youth in various horticultural commodities value chains.
Are the improved varieties available to farmers and are they adopting them?
These varieties are readily available to farmers at affordable prices, thereby encouraging farmers to embrace them because they produce higher yields with early maturity traits than the conventional local varieties.
Also, stakeholders are trained on how to effectively produce such varieties of fruits, vegetables, spices and ornamental plants for economic empowerment and food security. The extension research programme of the institute is saddled with the responsibility of training in line with stakeholders’ demand.
How can the youth really be mobilised into agribusiness to reduce the unemployment rate?
The need to sensitise the youth on the importance and potential of agricultural production and various agribusinesses in the country and beyond cannot be overemphasised.
In addition, the conducive environment on farm locations is germane to agricultural production. Amenities such as adequate road, electricity, water supply and hospitals are crucial.
Affordable tools and machinery should be made available to intending youths to reduce drudgery that is associated with agriculture/horticulture.
Inputs should be made available at subsidised rates. Incentives should be encouraged during the peak periods of production, and vertical integration in the commodity value chain should be promoted for effective off taking of agricultural commodities.
The NIHORT is willing, ready and capable of building capacity of interested youths on improved horticultural technologies in the value chains.
Such include production technologies of improved varieties, value addition, integrated pest management practices, horticultural businesses and landscape horticulture and management.
Some people express hope in the greenhouse technologies with irrigation kits as a way forward in vegetable production. What do you think?
For entrepreneurs or big companies, the greenhouse technologies are sustainable.
However, a young graduate may not be able to afford and maintain a green house. We thank God that he has blessed us with good weather, environment and fertile land.
They can start on open field and increase their production until it grows bigger and they can afford greenhouse production.
To the youth who might be interested, which of the vegetables do you suggest?
There are so many vegetables and vegetable enterprises that are lucrative.
However, before anyone can go into production, one should consider some factors like planting seasons, location, customer choice, etc.
For example, jute leaves (ewedu) and okras are always very lucrative with premium prices in the dry seasons, mostly in the south western part of Nigeria.
Most leafy vegetables are upon the table between three to four weeks. Fluted pumpkin which is considered a national vegetable is widely acceptable almost throughout the country and it is money-spinning.
Because of the short duration, there is high and quick returns on investment.
Advice to the government
It will be gratifying if the government could invest more in research institutions because without research, development of technologies and innovations in agriculture may be a shadow of itself. Also, drudgery must be removed from farming for the youth to be really interested.
This can be done through small scale machines with little or no maintenance.
Owing to the fact that horticulture is a very important aspect of agriculture, investment in it should be high.
Horticulture is relevant in achieving some of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG).
It can assist in improving the economy by serving as a source of foreign exchange earning to the country.
It can also improve the food and nutritional security status of the citizens through access to horticultural crops for their consumption.
Moreover, women can be empowered by increasing their participation in horticulture, especially in vegetable production.