By Dele Sobowale
“He gave it for his opinion, that whoever could make two ears of corn or two blades of grass to grow upon a spot of ground where only one grew before, would deserve better of mankind , and do more essential service to his country than the whole race of politicians put together”. Jonathan Swift, I667-I745, in Gulliver’s Travels.
Who among those of us fortunate to have attended real secondary schools in the I930s to I960s can possibly forget that absolutely delightful book by Swift – one of the world’s greatest master-pieces of all time; ranking with the likes of Miguel De Cervantes’, I547-I6I6, Don uixote, and Mark Twain’s, I835-I9I0, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
All were tales of adventure and imagination designed to inspire kids in nations where dreams don’t die first. It was from Swift that we first learnt about the primacy of agriculture in human life long before Robert Malthus, I766-I834, gave mankind a lick in the backside with his epic, On Population, which reminded us of “the perpetual struggle for room and food”.
Those two primary biological needs of all people, bed and bread, are more inextricably linked with our national success, or lack of it, in agriculture than most people realize. It is not surprising that the nations which have mastered better, the arts of farming have also been the ones leading the world economically.
At least they determinedly manage to produce a substantial percentage of the food their citizenry consumes. Food, is weapon of war, as millions discovered during our disastrous civil war. What none of the leading twenty nations does not do is to spend about twenty-five percent of its Gross Domestic Product, GDP, importing food as we routinely do in Nigeria — whose food import bill exceeds NI trillion today while GDP remains stuck at N4 trillion. Hence, we continue with our desperate “perpetual struggle for room and food”. We remain badly house and malnourished.
Incidentally, the situation was not always as desperate as this. On the eve of independence, Nigeria was a net exporter of food. A good chunk of Britain fed on our cocoa, oil and groundnuts. And the foreign exchange earned from the agricultural exporter more than paid for the few food items we imported.
Such were the blessings of agriculture that our country ranked higher in GDP than Korea, Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand – until the curse of crude oil descended on us and we collectively lost the art, as well as the will, to bake our national cake.
Instead, we all now wait for Abuja to supply bed and bread. Somehow, it had taken us several decades to notice the correlation between the decline of agriculture in our national life and our descent in the global GDP league table – despite the increase in crude oil prices from $0.03 (no error there, it was three cents) a barrel in I960 to $I20 today.
The reasons, already well rehearsed, need not delay us here. Once we developed the skill of lining up for hand-out
s from the Federal government, productivity declined all around – agriculture and manufacturing, services, import duty and tax collection; and, now in sports.
It was in a bid to alleviate our misery and to promote greater aggregate output of food, as a catalyst to improvements in other areas of our national life, that the Federal Government, more than ten years ago, established three Federal Universities of Agriculture – to conduct research, to provide the skilled human resources indispensable for national competitiveness and comparative advantage and to make both the products of research and manpower available to the nation’s farmers and the manufacturing sector.
The results have, at best been mixed, there have been spectacular failures and successes – but we have achieved less positive than negative results. Judged strictly by the relentless annual increase of our food import bill, there is less to cheer about today than when the journey started years ago –when an unexpected relative was sure of a meal.
Granted, Nigeria today is the largest producer of yams and cassava; and perhaps cow-peas. But, the credit for these results belong largely, not to the efforts of Nigerian institutions, but to the Institute for International and Tropical Agriculture, IITA, situated at Ibadan and its affiliated research institutes such as the International Rice Research Institute, IRRI, located at Badeggi, in Niger State.
These as well as well as the benefits of the Green Revolution had made it possible for the country to increase by over I000 per cent its output of yams, cassava, maize, sugar and rice. But we are still lagging far behind in the application of biotechnology –which is the new revolution in agriculture.
Of the three universities of agriculture, established at the same time, Federal University of Agriculture, Abeokuta, FUNAAB, had undergone the most remarkable transformation. Its balanced and organic growth from its inception can only be summarized as “The Rise and Rise of FUNAAB”.
The university had been fortunate that from the first to the present Vice-Chancellor, V-C, Professor Olusola B. Oyewole, it has been blessed with leaders with shared vision for its growth and development. The transition from one V-C to the next had appeared seamless – even as the university is evolving in several new directions over time.
Additionally, every Pro-Chancellor, including the present one, had added value to the institution; complimenting the efforts of the V-Cs and the other academic and non-academic staff in one of the most peaceful campuses in the country at the moment. Finally, the university has benefitted from a few totally committed benefactors — especially, Chief Abudu and Chief (Dr) Olusegun Osunkeye; Chairman of Nestle Nigeria Plc.
Their support to the institution has gone beyond donating buildings and hostels. Chief Osunkeye he has linked the university with Nestle – making it possible for the faculty and students to earn income by supplying soy beans to Nestle. The result has been a steady rise in its ranking among universities in Nigeria and globally.
FROM YAM FESTIVAL TO FOOD BAZAAR
Exactly ten years ago, Chief Osunkeye and the V-C, at the time, pioneered, a new concept in the relationship of the university with its immediate environment as well as Nigeria in general. “Town Meets Gown” as the idea was called centred around a Yam Festival at which yams planted and harvested by the university community would be roasted and served with palm oil also harvested on the university’s farms to guests invited from outside the university community.
The maiden Yam Festival was a resounding success. Unfortunately, everybody, including this writer, got busy with other matters and there was no second festival – until now. In a way, that was a blessing in disguise. Two months ago, Chief Osunkeye remembered the first festival during a meeting I had with him on a different subject. As the Chairman of the world’s leading food manufacturing company, the Egba Chief thinks of food all the time.
As a small scale farmer and writer on food security, my attention is also always on food. Invariably, the discussion drifted to food production. And two months ago, the matter of the FUNAAB Yam Festival came up. Characteristically, Chief Osunkeye, a real “go-getter”, decided it needs to be revisited and revived.
A call was made to Professor Oyewole, who was just as enthusiastic – there was no taint of the “not-invented-here-syndrome” with which countless successors have killed good initiatives by their, also numerous, predecessors.
Chief Osunkeye and I could never have guessed that a trap had been laid for us and other distinguished guests who had been invited. One of them was His Excellency, Chief Emeka Anyaoku, for Commonwealth Secretary General, who, incidentally, received his first Honorary Doctorate degree, out of over 30, from FUNAAB.
So, on Wednesday, September I2, 20I2, we headed for FUNAAB, for the “second Yam Festival”. Personally, I might as well confess it now, it was my feeling that decline and deterioration was what awaited us at the university. But, wonders never cease. This is the first university, I have visited ten years after the first visit, only to find improvements everywhere.
A second confession is necessary. Although the function was fixed for I2 noon, but, in anticipation of the disaster which presumably would have occurred, I arrived at I0.30 am and proceeded on an unguided tour of the university. Professor Oyewole and the entire university community must forgive me for this.
“Wise skepticism is the first attribute of a good critic”, wrote James Russell Lowell, I8I9-I89I. (VANGUARD BOOK OF UOTATIONS).Nigerian public officials have taught us, at “Unijankara”, to be on guard all the time; otherwise one is easily taken for a ride.
One is reminded of water projects which stopped functioning immediately after the launching by His Excellency. Instead of decay, there was renewal and expansion everywhere; one could feel a sense of mission and purpose all over.
Still undaunted in my search for something not satisfactory, I headed for the Yam Festival certain the project would have been abandoned years ago. Another surprise was waiting. Instead of only roasted yams and palm oil, the faculty and students treated us to a buffet of products from their farm – yams, plantains, banana, cash nuts, honey, gari etc.
The Yam Festival of 2002, like the university had grown to a Food Bazaar of 20I2. Meanwhile, the sizes of the yams have increased as if pumped up by vulcanisers. But, no roasted yam could be full of air. These were solid and the best tasting yams money can buy. It was an incredible performance.
It was then that I realized why Professor Oyewole was so eager to have us. He confidently wanted to show case the university’s remarkable and impressive achievement. Now, it is clear why the number of applicants making FUNAAB their first choice had increased considerably. And, any student wanting to read agricultural science will henceforth be making a mistake if he does not try for the best Nigeria has to offer –FUNAAB.
Fortunately, they are not resting. It would be improper for me to reveal the future plans of the gallant people who are striving day and night (they even hunt for bush meat at night), and, who are determined to make their university the leader in Nigeria.
But two things can be revealed. First, the university is ready to form partnerships with the private sector to commercialse its research findings. Second, it needs the support of philanthropists, whether FUNAAB alumni or not, to provide the financial support to enable it to continue in its vision of making Nigeria self-sufficient in food.