By Nkiruka Nnorom
Major stakeholders in the agricultural sector recently converged in Kano to review critical issues in the sector at the 41st Regular Meeting of the National Council on Agriculture and Rural Development (NCARD) conference. Chairman, Executive Working Group (EWG) of the British American Tobacco Foundation (BATNF), Professor Femi Ajibola, from Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife, Osun State, was there and shared his views with Financial Vanguard on the outcome of the conference and BATNF’s role in agricultural development, among other sundry issues. Excerpts:
What is your assessment of the 41st National Council on Agriculture and Rural Development (NCARD) Conference held in Kano?
I am quite happy with the outcome of events. In terms of technical content, I think it was successful. The different units and organisations that made presentations at the conference demonstrated a clear understanding of the different sectors of agriculture. They also proposed adopted and tested solutions to challenges in agriculture in the country. I am really impressed with the presentations made at the conference, particularly the way the Minister of Agriculture, Chief Audu Ogbeh, tackled the issues in the agricultural sector. I am quite convinced that the minister has a good idea of the direction the agricultural sector in Nigeria is headed.
While unveiling the road map to improve the agriculture sector, the minister prescribed two-pronged approach, which includes the encouragement of new generation farmers, especially the youth. Are you optimistic that it will catch on, considering the growing disinterest for farming among the youths?
For the youths to embrace agriculture, they must see that it earns them a good livelihood. There is also the issue of convenience. If farming or agriculture is made less tedious, many youths will embrace it. The constraints in agriculture must be dealt with before you can encourage youths to be involved. We need to make agriculture commercial and it has to be done from a developmental perspective. We need to find a way of dealing with the issues of agriculture and proffer ways of making it profitable.
The minister also talked about the expansion of support for smallholder farmers in order to increase their productivity. What is your take on that?
It was quite cheering to hear the minister say that there is nowhere in the world that agriculture is not subsidized, including in Europe. Hence, what we should be looking at is how we can actualize this here in Nigeria. We must devise a way of supporting these farmers. The strategy is to ensure that the benefits and subsidies reach the smallholder farmers. We must avoid a situation whereby they get into the hands of benefit captors. For example, the fertilizer subsidy scheme for farmers was very well demonstrated during the tenure of the immediate past Minister of Agriculture, Dr. Akinwumi Adesina.
The subsidy was focused on a small component that enabled farmers’ access directly. The good thing was that he did not allow the benefits to go into wrong hands. Another important point is the close access to subsidy materials and other benefits for farmers. No doubt, there may be loopholes in some of these schemes, but we have to continue to improve on every programme. The fact that a particular scheme did not meet expectations does not mean that we should jettison it. And that has been the problem of government policies.
You presented a paper on the resolutions of the British American Tobacco Foundation (BATNF) Executive Working Group (EWG) Dialogue Session held last year. Are you hopeful the resolutions would be incorporated into the nation’s agricultural policies?
The draft document containing the resolutions of the BATNF EWG ‘Dialogue Session on Agriculture Policies and the Nigerian Smallholder Farmers’ in Nigeria held last year was submitted to the National Council on Agriculture. We were informed that government would review the document critically and ensure that it fits into its policies. It is gratifying that government policies are in the right direction. We are glad that we are dealing with people who are already aware of the trend in agriculture.
Last year, BATNF assembled a team of experts and resource persons in the agricultural sector who formed an Executive Working Group (EWG) to review the Agricultural Transformation Agenda (ATA) and other extant agricultural policies in the country. What informed this initiative?
We have a BATNF Executive Working Group (EWG), which I chair. Our focus was on the smallholder farmers (SHFs). We tried to look at issues that affect SHFs. We examined the existing agriculture policies to see if they have had any impact on them and how they can be improved. We also reviewed what could be done to make the SHFs the center of attention of these programmes and policies. We believe that some modifications can ensure the SHFs are beneficiaries of these policies. We also realized that agriculture needs to be made operational and implementable in the rural areas and states.
How much awareness is there among SHFs about financial support scheme for agriculture like Nigeria Incentives-Based Risk Sharing System for Agricultural Lending (NIRSAL)? And if any, are commercial banks that are critical stakeholders in the scheme willing to provide loans to farmers considering the widely held notion that agri-business is a high risk?
When we carried out our investigation, we discovered that there is poor awareness about the programmes among farmers in the Southern part of the country, compared to their counterparts in the North. The major challenge is that commercial banks still make the same requirements from farmers. There is still no significant difference between commercial banks’ interest rate for loans to farmers and the one for non-agricultural related purposes.
Do you subscribe to the bottom-top approach to rural agriculture development that some agriculture experts have been calling for?
Government should realize that for sustainable development in the agricultural sector, we need to devolve more resources and power to the local level. It is possible for the Federal Government to provide resources in the rural areas. It is also possible for the State and Federal government to deploy resources there. The same model has been adapted by the health sector where the federal and state governments have primary care health centers in the rural areas, but that is yet to be replicated in the agriculture sector. In the Executive Working Group, we tried to include the SHFs in the implementation of this programme. We suggested the identification of champions at the rural levels to drive ownership such that through them the smallholder farmers in those locations can be reached directly.
Part of the resolutions reached at the BATNF Dialogue Session is the need for farmers to be climate change smart. How equipped are they?
There have been a lot of talks about climate change adaptation, mitigation and all of that. People need to understand these issues and there should be awareness on the best practices to deal with these issues. That is why we always appeal to our Implementing Partners to access information from NIMET and supply it to SHFs in order to assist them overcome the challenges of weather/climate change. There is need for farmers to embrace dry season farming. It doesn’t mean that there have to be dams everywhere to feed irrigation farms. There can be community-based dams. We must develop a water harvesting culture and not allow water runoff without putting it back into agriculture.
With all these initiatives and efforts of many organisations in the agriculture value chain to enhance production and food security, what do you think will be the state of agriculture in another five to 10 years?
I am optimistic. I believe that the present government means well for Nigerians and is determined to turn things around for the country. I believe things will get better. But more importantly, we have to start looking at other resources available to us outside oil; agriculture is critical here. Interestingly, Nigerians are becoming aware of the reality that oil cannot continue to sustain the economy and that the future direction is in agriculture.