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Government should Reconsider Making Agriculture The MainStay of the Nigeria Economy, Onwualu

Government should Reconsider Making Agriculture The MainStay of the Nigeria Economy, Onwualu
*Professor Azikiwe Peter Onwualu 

Professor Azikiwe Peter Onwualu, FAS, is the Acting President of the African University of Science of Technology (AUST), Abuja, President, Nigeria Academy of Engineering, former Director General of Raw Materials Research and Development Council and a distinguished Professor of Agricultural Engineering.

In this interview with Stephen Ishabu of the Radio Nigeria Do It Right Programme, Onwualu x-rays the performance of the outgoing government and sets agenda for the incoming administration on Agriculture, Excerpts:

Radio Nigeria: Agenda setting Role of the media is one of the important functions that make the media different from others. Without role, government is unable to prioritize important issues in governance. This time our focus is on agriculture because of its importance to the country's food security.  Welcome to Do It Right Prof. How would you rate the performance of the outgoing government in Agriculture sub sector of the economy in the past eight years.

Onwualu: My rating is that we have made some significant progress but we are still not there yet. I know that within this period a number of commodities such as rice through some  of the interventions by government, for example the out growers scheme and some of the interventions by the Central Bank of Nigeria, the country was able to start production, not just production of rice, but also value addition that is processing rice.

I'm sure you would have noticed that we even had rice, groundnuts pyramids and so on and the government also tried its best to make sure that we stopped the importation of rice into the country so that local production can be helped to come up. So that's one of the things that has happened in this sector.

But you can see that we still need to do more. So if I'm to rate the interventions, I would say that maybe we've done like 50%.  There has also been some work done in the area of mechanized agriculture with what the government tried to do to bring in under some Memorandum of Understanding with Brazil to bring in some mechanization inputs into the country.

And then there were also some work done in the area of post harvest systems, specifically looking at the value chain approach, which apart from the work being done by the Federal Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development, there's some effort being done by Africa Development Bank (AfDB) and some other development  partners towards reducing post harvest losses.

So these efforts have been done by both the Federal and State Governments and of course the private sector. But a lot still needs to be done because where we are now is that we are not producing food economically.

In other words, the cost of production is still high, the yield per unit hectare, the yield of crops  per unit hectare is still very low.  What I mean by that is that in some situations, when you have improved varieties, for example, you may be producing maybe two tons per hectare, whereas that is in an improved system.

Whereas our local farmers will be doing maybe one ton or even half a ton per hectare. So we still need to go extra miles to see how we can have improved crop varieties that can have high yielding capacities and then we need to improve our productivity in terms of using technology.

Today there are technologies such as mechanization technologies, tractors, equipment, even ICT. ICT devices help farmers have access to the knowledge they need, such as weather forecast, such as input information and so on.These things need to be made available to farmers so that they can produce in a manner that you can say that they are Practicing smart agriculture, that is agriculture that is driven by knowledge.

So we are not there yet in terms of this kind of production system. But in addition to making sure that we produce more food, that is improved the productivity of agriculture, the other aspect that is equally important is making sure that what we produce is not lost.

You see, that the system We are operating now is during harvest season There is a lot. When it's time for mango, mango is everywhere. When it's time for maize, maize is everywhere. Farmers are not even able to sell at competitive prices.

Now, the reason for that is that we don't have good post harvest systems where people can produce, get it stored or get it processed into other products in such a manner that that glut will not be there.

So post-harvest losses in Nigeria is still up to as high as 60% in some areas, especially the vegetables and the fruits. So a lot of work still needs to be done. In this area. In fact, the global approach now is to use the value chain approach where you look at from clearing the land to production to post harvest to actually converting these agricultural products into industrial raw materials That is still an area that needs to be addressed.

Radio Nigeria: Remember we are setting agenda for the new government, which area would you suggest the new government concentrate more.

Onwualu: For me number of area I'll mention, maybe two or three. Number one is capacity building. We need to train our farmers. We need to give them the knowledge. For example, there's what is called smart farming now, or for example, what is called climate resilient agriculture, or agriculture that is resistant to all the vagaries of nature.

Now, many farmers do not have this knowledge that you can actually have the knowledge to prevent insects or pests from eating up your crop. Even if you now have that in your field, what do you do? How do you approach extension farmers?

These are all capacity building that farmers need in such a way that they will learn how to get information and knowledge even from their mobile phones, so that they can now practice agriculture with knowledge, not practicing in the dark.

So capacity building is one continuous training. In the past, we used to have what is called Fortnight Technology Review meetings by the Agricultural Development Projects (ADPs) nationwide. I don't know if those things are still functional now, but that kind of thing, every two weeks in every zone, farmers know that they can go for 1 hour meeting or two hours meeting, where they teach them new technologies, new machines, new ideas that would help them improve their agricultural productivity.

It used to be done by the ADPs. We need to revive things like that because capacity building is important. That's where they share knowledge. The second thing is that farm inputs are very, very expensive.

We have to find ways of making inputs available and what are these inputs? Planting materials, equipment, credit facilities, storage facilities etc. There are improved varieties being brought out from all the research institutes like, International Institute for Tropical Agriculture, National Cereals and Research Institute, International Agricultural Research Institute to mention but few.

As at  now, we have improved varieties of rice, maize, beans, cassava and even Palms. It is government’s responsibility to ensure that these varieties get to the farmers and on time too, okay? These are very important. And that's what the ministry should be doing to make sure that any new variety that is out, farmers should be able to get it at subsidized rates or even free of  charge.

Because these varieties are the ones that can resist maybe pests, they can resist flood,for example, the early maturing varieties. So even before the flooding comes, they have matured. So these inputs are very critical in advancing agricultural development in Nigeria. So I mentioned inputs such as machines,  fertilizers, transportation, agro-chemicals, of course, knowledge that I talked about, these are inputs, all these inputs, we require machinery, all that. We have to find mechanisms for making them available to the farmer.

And like I said before, even if they don't buy, there has to be mechanisms, maybe secondary service providers that can provide this service to farmers, so that farmers can now have access to these to improve their productivity.

The third aspect is what happens after production. Post harvest is an issue. If, for example, we produce enough rice, government has to find ways of making sure that the rice is processed and protected properly.

Again, that also includes machines for processing, machines for storage. You are aware that you will see silos in different parts of the country if you go there. Most of those silos  are empty, so there is a great need to go back to what we used to have then, for example, commodity bonds.

If you remember when we had regional governments, every region in this country depended on one particular product. Oil palm in the east, cocoa in the west,groundnut in the north . Now that we have even Six regions. We should be able to find every zone in this country. What are those crops that are prevalent there?

And government should have very good schemes to promote the production of those. And then maybe the commodity boards that can be revived, we now go back to what we used to do when agriculture was driving our economy. The commodity boards buy all these products and do what ? they process them and sometimes just perform what l cal primary processing and exports.

And those exports provide the cipher. In other words, if I'm a groundnuts  producer and I know that the commodity boards will buy off my groundnuts, I will produce and make sure that I will meet their standard and target.

But now, when you produce during harvest season, groundnut is everywhere We only fry and boil and eat. But if there is a good off-taker that takes this off the farmers and then adds value to it, either by processing or by whatever, and then export, then that will drive agriculture.

So I think these are the three major things I want the incoming government to do and when you talk about inputs, there are so many, including financial inputs for people to have access to soft loans at affordable interest rates.

Radio Nigeria:- I was coming to funding because that's very important.

Onwualu: Yes, of course, when I talked about inputs like machines, improved varieties, it includes knowledge and funding. When you have funding, you announce that you have billions for farmers to take. You are making it in such a way that you are disbursing it through commercial banks.

Commercial banks, of course, want all these documentations and so on, which these farmers don't have the capacity to do now. I also agree that these documentations are important for you to be able to recover the money loaned out.

But we can help farmers to be able to meet up with the requirements and one way to do that will be to have to energize another group of service providers who can be between the banks and the farmers.

They will help to prepare the farmers by training them and preparing them ahead of the disbursement exercises.. So these are some of the things that the new administration, I believe, can do in agriculture so that gradually we have commercial  farmers.

A situation where 80% of our people in the village are farmers is not good for the economy. They should be like 20% feeding us, because if they are working with technology, they are working with all these inputs. We don't need more than 20% of our people to be in farm work. The others can be doing other things, not farm work. So we need to get to that point and I believe, that the incoming administration should see agriculture as the bedrock of the economy, because every other thing depends on agriculture.

Radio Nigeria:- Thanks Professor Onwualu for finding time to talk to us

Onwualu: My pleasure always. Thanks also for having me here.