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Nigeria's 80 Million Farmers Are Asleep!
by Salisu Suleiman
Hibernation is a state of inactivity that is characterized by low body temperature, slow breathing, heart, and low metabolic rate. Associated with cold temperatures, the purpose is to conserve energy when food is scarce. To achieve this, hibernating animals slow their metabolic rate, resulting in a decreased body temperature. Hibernation may last several days, weeks, or months, depending on the species, temperature, time of year and other conditions.
In a way, Nigeria’s farmers are in a state of hibernation: Apart from the few who are fortunate enough to live in areas where irrigation facilities exist and who have the skills and equipment to engage in dry season farming, most of Nigeria’s 80 million farmers are practically hibernating at the moment. After working energetically to gather food during the rainy season, they spend the rest of the year engaged in almost no productive activity.
In this day and age, and considering Nigeria’s vast potentials in irrigated agriculture, this is nothing short of criminal waste and negligence. And to indicate the confusion in the agricultural sector, no one can tell you how many farmers there really are in Nigeria.
Last week while defending his ministry’s plan to spend billions of naira to distribute 10 million phones to farmers in rural areas, the Minister of Agriculture, Dr. Akinwumi Adesina said, “Nigeria has 110 million cellphones, the largest in Africa. But there is a huge divide: the bulk of the phones are in urban areas. The rural areas are heavily excluded. For agriculture, which employs 70% of the population, that means the farmers are excluded and marginalized. In today’s world, the most powerful tool is a mobile phone. As Minister of Agriculture, I want the entire rural space of Nigeria, and farmers to be included, not excluded, from advantages of mobile phone revolution.”
One problem is, going by the minister’s math, 70% of 160 million is closer to 112 million. So does Nigeria have 112 million farmers? In reality, the problem of Nigerian farmers is not mobile phones or even electronic access to markets: When farmers spend about half of the year doing nothing, and after they take out from their stocks to feed their families, what would be left to take to markets? And assuming the markets are ready, where are the roads to convey the produce to the markets before they perish?
How can Nigeria’s agricultural output grow when our farmers (is it 80 or 112 million?) still depend largely on rain-fed farming? In other words, our farmer only work during the rainy season and spend the rest of the year practically hibernating, save the few who migrate to urban centres to seek work as seasonal labourers. When rains fail as they occasionally do, or when flooding occurs, farming for that year is ruined.
And it is not as if government is not aware of what needs to be done. The Minister of Water Resources, Sarah Ochekpe recently spoke about plans to attain food security in Nigeria, explaining that government had concluded plans to rehabilitate irrigation projects across the 36 states of the federation. “For a start, we have already identified 57 irrigation projects across the country for investment by the Federal Government. These are critical facilities that we must pay attention to; certainly we cannot achieve food security without irrigation development”.
The problem, again, is that since the Ministry of Water Resources was established some 40 years ago, practically all the ministers have repeated the same thing. The truth is that Nigeria has not had the discipline to design and implement a workable irrigation master-plan that would keep our farmers busy all year round, producing food not only for local consumption, but the international markets as well.
Without putting this foundation in place, Dr. Adesina’s mission to “arm them (farmers) with modern information systems . . . connecting to supermarkets and international markets require that farmers know and meet stringent consumer-driven grades and standards” will amount to building a superstructure without a base.
It is true that the availability of water varies tremendously but even with limited water supplies, irrigation can vastly increase agricultural productivity. Underused water resources in Nigeria offer great potential for irrigation, especially using simple and inexpensive methods, but over the years, our dependence on rainfall has remained a major constraint to agriculture and poverty reduction. The vulnerability of our food security is significant because of the combination of highly variable and erratic rainfall and poor development of irrigation. Other constraints include poor management skills and markets, unfavourable land and water policies and poor access to credit by the farmers who need it.
Increased irrigated agriculture is a key to reducing poverty. Nigeria must recognize the value of irrigation in job creation, poverty eradication and food security. With irrigation, Nigeria may earn more foreign exchange than we do from oil and other minerals combined. Millions of jobs would be created and food security enhanced. Many environmental challenges would be mitigated and we will be weaned of our lethargic, short-sighted dependence on crude oil exports.
A version of this article was originally posted on the author's blog.