President Muhammadu Buhari was brutally frank when recently he admitted that the country could no longer afford its addiction to imported food. Though seemingly casual in his remarks that “…we don’t have money to import food” anymore, the cold reality of Nigeria’s food insecurity is dangerous, exacerbated by falling revenues provoked by the COVID-19 pandemic and the ensuing global recession.
Unnervingly, Buhari stopped short of unfurling an action plan to stave off mass hunger and mobilise the country for food self-sufficiency. Rather, he only voiced “hope” and a “wish” that farmers would rise to save the day. He said, “I hope the rainy season will be bountiful, so that we get a lot of food. I hope farmers will go to farms and save their lives so that we can produce what we need in sufficient quantities so that we don’t have to import food. So, we must produce what we are going to eat.” This is not good enough.
Truly, the country is in dire straits on many fronts. Prices of crude oil that determine whether the economy sinks or floats are only regaining momentum after a severe crash to their lowest in over two decades. It got to the point that Nigeria’s Bonny Light dropped to $12 per barrel, yet nobody was buying. Nigeria could lose more than $9billion because of the fall in oil prices, according to Goldman Sachs.
Beyond Buhari’s casual statement, the economy needs a massive jolt to start moving again. From being self-sufficient in food production up until the 1970s, Nigeria became import-dependent from the 1980s onwards, spending $3 billion annually importing food. The World Bank’s IT-enabled tracker, World Integrated Trade Solution, said the country imported food from 101 countries in 2018, mostly from Brazil with imports worth $562.98 million, followed by China $184.46 million, and the United States $135.35 million. Now, foreign reserves to pay for avoidable imports are precarious, dropping to $34.78 billion by May, representing a cumulative loss of $11 billion since June 11, 2019 when it stood at $45.17 billion. Achieving food security has, therefore, become a necessity.
Left to be seen is how the Buhari regime will rise up to the new reality. Pre- and post-independence, regional governments formulated and implemented vigorous agricultural policies that fed the country and made her the world’s leading producer of palm oil with 43 per cent market share and second largest cocoa producer and major groundnuts exporter. The defunct Western Region had farm settlements and a storied agricultural extension scheme, just as every region produced staples such as cassava, millet, yams and legumes. The United Nations Food and Agricultural Organisation said the country produced an average 360,000 tonnes of rice annually in the 1960s with only 7,000 tonnes imported.
But the story changed with the oil boom of the mid-1970s. A new taste for everything imported led to the relegation of agriculture and dependence on imported food. Rice imports peaked at 3.2 million MT in 2011. Figures from the Central Bank of Nigeria and the National Bureau of Statistics show that between 2016 and June 2019, the country spent $38.24 billion on agricultural goods, including plant, machinery and equipment. In 2019, $1.09 billion wheat, $406 million sugar and $199 million palm oil were imported.
High food import however does not automatically translate into food insecurity, says the World Food Atlas. The US, China, Japan, Germany and the UK, the world’s richest, are also the largest food importers that do so for variety; but countries that must import to prevent starvation are food insecure. Nigeria barely escapes being among the 34 listed food insecure countries.
Despite having a coastline of 853 kilometres, the 1.12 million metric tonnes of fish it produces annually fall short of annual demand of 3.32 million MT: imports to make up for the 2.2 million MT shortfall place it as the world’s fourth largest importer of fish, declared the 2016 Nigeria Fisheries Statistics Report.
But Buhari can move from the rhetoric, failed programmes and poorly implemented initiatives of the past to concrete action by first identifying the problems and constraints. The FAO cites low yields, poor infrastructure, lack of access to equipment, storage and preservation, limited technology transfer and lack of or misdirected low-interest credit among others as factors. Inadequate storage facilities result in 60 per cent post-harvest loss of perishables. Revive the national agric programmes in line with current realities. All this calls for an integrated approach. The Federal Government should lead other tiers increasing funds available to finance the farm sector. As Brazil has done, subsidised loans should be offered to finance production of agricultural commodities and make investments such as in silos and agricultural machinery. As farming takes place in the rural areas, the federal, state and local governments should accord priority to basic infrastructure in the hinterland.
Initiatives begun by the then President Jerry Rawlings to open Ghana’s rural areas have been expanded by his successors to lure private sector participation. Governments need to promote massive, sustained investment in storage, transport, access roads and farm extension services. A novel scheme begun in India to construct 70-75 kilometres of rural access roads per day in 2011 was stepped up to 139 km per day in 2016. States and LGs should help with food production programmes with emphasis on effective extension services, start-ups, adoption of modern technology and strong private sector participation.
With the low level of mechanisation and limited application of technology, food production is hurting. The NBS said that industrial production accounted for only four per cent of the 5.79 million tonnes of fish and shrimps produced in the country between 2010 and 2015, the bulk was produced by artisanal farming and aquaculture. The operating environment has to be liberalised to attract investors, local and foreign. This requires stronger measures to eradicate the insecurity that has disrupted farming in the North and many parts of the South too and get people back to the farms. Maximising output and harmonising the output of the 15 research institutes overseen by the Federal Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development is desirable to provide strong linkage between researchers and producers.
State governments have a responsibility to aggressively pursue food production programmes to stimulate employment, food self-sufficiency and for export. Wiping out corruption, cronyism, sectionalism and maladministration in the government and CBN-provided funds and micro credit to small farmers and women have proved efficacious in Brazil and Bangladesh and are worth trying.
The potential is enormous as every part of Nigeria is farming-friendly. It remains the world’s largest cassava producer and only 37.33 per cent of the country’s land areas is under cultivation, the World Bank said, leaving much room for initiative and optimal use. Buhari and the state governors should provide the leadership.