BY EBELE ORAKPO
Since men have learnt to shoot without missing, Eneke the bird has learnt to fly without perching. This seems to be the approach adopted by Nigeria’s urbane Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development, Dr. Akinwumi Adesina to tackle head-on the rot in the sector and transform agriculture into money-making venture. In this interview with Vanguard in Abuja, the minister speaks on the efforts of his ministry to ensure that Nigeria becomes not only self-sufficient in food production but also a net exporter of food. He says they are making agriculture attractive to youths which will curb rural-urban migration, tackle corruption and create jobs. Talk of killing many birds with one stone! Excerpts:
Sir, when you came up with the idea of cell phones for farmers, not a few people criticised the idea but the idea seems to be working. Could you tell us more about the Electronic Wallet (e-wallet) system and how it works?
The backbone of any agricultural revolution is access of farmers to modern agricultural inputs, especially fertilisers and seeds. The old system of government buying and distributing fertilisers was very corrupt as only 11 per cent of farmers got the fertilisers. Rich and powerful political elites siphoned off the fertilisers belonging to poor farmers. Between 1980 and 2010, over N873 billion was spent on fertiliser subsidies with only 11 per cent of farmers getting the fertilisers. People will sell sand to government and in a lot of cases, nothing was supplied but they got paid. So about N776 billion was siphoned off the system through corruption, an average of N2.6 billion annually. It took us 90 days to end that corruption just to let you know how serious the President is about doing things right. We launched the Growth Enhancement Scheme (GES) to provide subsidized inputs to farmers. To reach them directly with seeds and fertilisers, we developed the e-wallet system which allows farmers to receive subsidized electronic vouchers for their seeds and fertilisers on their mobile phones. Nigeria is the first in Africa and possibly in the world, to develop the e-wallet system for targeting farmers with subsidised farm inputs. We don’t need any middleman. Last year, we reached 1.5m farmers and that impacted 7m persons. This year, we have reached 3.7m farmers just this season and we still have the dry season to go. We expect to exceed 5m farmers and that will impact 25m people by the end of the season. The e-wallet system has come to stay, that is what the National Assembly members who were at the public hearing had to say. People are not selling sand to us anymore; if you sell sand to the farmers, you will feel it yourself.
What are your plans for the northern part of Nigeria in view of its huge untapped agricultural potential?
When it comes to the issue of agriculture, we have a huge potential. Nigeria has 84m hectares of arable land but only about 40 per cent is cultivated today. If you look at the level of cultivation, may be no more than 10 per cent of it is cultivated right now. We have two of the largest rivers in Africa – Niger and Benue, and if there is anything that crops like, it is water, we have about 263 billion cubic metres of water so water is not our problem and we have cheap labour. We have land, water, rainfall and sunshine so Nigeria has no business importing food, Nigeria has the potential to be a net food exporter. Potential land is there but nobody can eat land, we have to turn it into income for people. That was why when we started, President Jonathan said; “Look, get agriculture right for me,” and we said we have to get agriculture done as a full-time business. Whether you are a small, medium or large scale farmer, if you produce what the market wants, when the market needs it and at the price the market wants, you make money. Gone are the days when agriculture is some kind of backwater. Agriculture is the front and centre of the economy, a money-making venture.
Let me talk about some of the crops we have in the north.
Rice: Nigeria used to be the largest importer of rice in the world. We have just been overtaken by China. Whether gold or silver medal, we are not proud of this. We embarked on a major effort to extricate Nigeria from decades of dependency on rice imports. We set a target of being self-sufficient in rice by 2015 and we are well on our way to achieving this goal. With vast amount of irrigated land in the north, Mr. President supported us and gave us funds to go and do dry season rice farming, first time in history that the Federal Government will do dry season rice production as a matter of policy. It made sense as far as I am concerned because you see, in the dry season, you get almost twice the yield you get in the rainy season.
Why is that?
This is because diseases are much lower and you don’t have insects, solar radiation is much better so your grain filling is much better. The only problem you are going to have is birds because they have great view.
We went into dry season cultivation with 267,000 farmers all using their mobile phones to get seeds and fertilisers across 10 states in the north. They produced 1.1 million metric tons of paddy rice; one third of the entire paddy we need to be self-sufficient as a country. We did it in one single dry season and we estimate N77 billion in terms of gross value added into the economies of those states. In addition, the dry season farming alone created about 466,000 farm jobs and some of them permanent jobs. Lagos State has a rice mill and bought 17 trailer loads of paddy rice from Kebbi State where we have unleashed a rice revolution. Lagos processes that into Eko Rice and sell in Lagos. For me, that is important; two states of Nigeria trading in what is produced, processed and consumed in Nigeria as opposed to buying it from India or Thailand.
Fourteen large-scale integrated rice mills were established by the private sector in just two years, producing international quality long-grain parboiled rice, tastier and healthier than the 15-year-old imported rice dumped on the Nigerian market.
Cotton: Nigeria used to be the largest producer of cotton in West Africa and behind us were Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso but today, these three countries are the largest producers of cotton which I find totally unacceptable. So we have started to revive the cotton system in the north. Last year, we gave 1,596 metric tons of high-yielding cotton seeds free of charge to about 38,000 farmers which they planted on 756,000 hectares of land in 10 states across the north and they harvested 240,000 metric tons of cotton.
What is BT cotton and how is it going to improve Nigeria’s economy if deployed?
Science is everything in agriculture because in agriculture, it is about increasing productivity so that you reduce the amount of land you are clearing. That is where you have sustainable productions in the system. If your yield is low, you will be cutting down trees to grow more cotton. With BT cotton, we don’t need to. BT cotton is a technology that allows you to avoid spraying pesticides on your cotton and it is a genetic modification (GM) technology but it is based on just a particular bacterium called Bacillus thurigiensis (BT). It produces a toxin in the plant which has insecticide action so the advantages of a BT cotton are; one, you are not spending money on chemicals, two, it improves the health of the farmers because they are no longer exposed to chemicals which cause headaches, diarrhoea and all kinds of pulmonary diseases. It also saves money as cost goes down because the profitability for the farmer goes up; it is a biotechnology so we are regulating the testing of the technology because you have to do risk management and all that. I find it very strange and unacceptable that Nigeria is the only country that exports cotton that does not have BT technology so we decided to bring in BT cotton. We are testing it in the north and we are getting very good results.
Sorghum: Nigeria is the largest producer of food sorghum in the world (produces about 9.3 million metric tons) and the US is the largest producer of feed sorghum in the world but the US produces millionaires while Nigeria generates poverty, why? The reason is that we are not creating market for such; we are growing sorghum almost like a subsistence crop. We decided to change that as part of the Agricultural Transformation Agenda. We set up a sorghum transformation value chain from end to end, finding market for the sorghum and then working backwards to create the market for farmers. The North-West and North-East zones produce 85 per cent of the sorghum in the country but the same areas have the highest level of malnutrition and wastage. It doesn’t make sense and so we decided to turn sorghum into high income crop for farmers. We worked with Dansa Foods Limited and last week, they announced that they will be investing 36 million euros (about $48 million) in a high energy food plant which will be the largest energy food plant in Africa. They will use the sorghum, maize and soybean to make high energy foods. The World Food Programme which is world’s number one UN agency for distributing emergency food, buys 98 per cent of their high energy food from Asia and when the food gets here, it is not appropriate, it is delayed, the quality is poor and finally, they are not buying from our farmers so they are not creating markets here, they are creating markets for farmers in Asia and I asked them why when all you need to produce high energy food is sorghum, maize and soybean? We have that and we can grow more in the northern guinea savannah of Nigeria. So I got them to agree that they will buy high energy foods from Nigeria if we can get the private sector to set up a plant. We succeeded; we got Dansa Foods to put in 36 million euros to do that. So that will allow the farmers growing sorghum in the North-East and North-West to have big market for their sorghum. We have released for these farmers new high breed sorghum varieties which give them about five times the yield they are currently getting. Finding the market was going to be a problem and that was why we decided to get a private investor to do that.
Groundnut: Nigeria used to have groundnut pyramids and then they disappeared as a result of a disease called rosette disease which wiped out our groundnuts because we did not pay attention to it and aflatoxin which spoils the groundnut. I met with the Emir of Kano and I did say that we will work to revive groundnut farming in the north and we have started. We signed an agreement with the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) based in India, world’s number one centre for groundnuts, to help us introduce new rosette-resistant varieties and aflatoxin-tolerant varieties and also technologies to do that. So we are well on our way, we are targeting about 280,000 farmers in the north.
Do you have plans for fruits and fresh produce export?
Nigeria has a huge potential for horticulture. Nigeria is the largest producer of pineapples in Africa ( over 900,000 metric tons), South Africa produces a little over 35,000 metric tons but we import pineapple juice from them. Nigeria is the second largest producer of citrus in the world, second only to China, but we import orange juice. We are the largest producer of tomato, but we import tomato paste. None of these things make sense. We, therefore, started an aggressive programme to produce and process here, to add value here and do import substitution and it is working. As I am speaking to you now, Dansa Foods has put up $35 million to set up a tomato processing plant in Kano that will process the tomato coming out of Kadawa valley which today rots away. Secondly, they put in about $40 million in Cross River State to put up a 6,000-hectare plantation for pineapples, and then they will process two kinds of pineapples – one for local consumption and one for export.
They will produce juice so that we can begin to drink our own pineapple juice instead of buying concentrate from outside. In Benue State, Teragro, a subsidiary of Transcorp has invested $6.5 million to set up a plant. They are buying oranges from all over Benue and processing there. Also, East African Trading Group (ETG), has come into Nigeria. They are going to invest up to $100 million in agriculture but they are starting with about $10 million to build a plant that will process juice. Today, if you look at your orange juice, it is concentrate mixed with water. The only local content is water but we are changing that.
What is your ministry doing about abandoned irrigation facilities?
In agriculture, water is important but what is most important is the management of water. How much grain are you getting per drop of water? Israel does not have dams but it is one of the largest food producers in the world because they manage water via drip irrigation. Nigeria does not have problem with water, it only has problem with managing water. This government is doing quite a lot about dams. The Ministry of Water Resources has a very active plan to complete a number of these dams and also develop downstream irrigation infrastructure to allow us to use the dams for agricultural production, we have a close working relationship with the Ministry of Water Resources to further exploit our water resources for agriculture. We are working together now in the Bakolori Irrigation project for wheat production in the north. But at the end of the day, we need to learn from the experiences of India and Pakistan where they use small scale pumps, wash bowls and tube wells to get underground water to irrigate the fields. That was what we did for the dry season rice last year and it worked.
How much fish does Nigeria produce currently?
The total consumption of fish in Nigeria is about 2.34 million metric tons; we produce about 780,000 metric tons so we import the difference of about a little bit over one million metric tons. But my position is that it does not make sense for Nigeria which is blessed with Atlantic Ocean, rivers, lakes, creeks and ponds, so what are we importing fish for? Fish grows inside of water and we have that water so we decided that over the next four years, we are going to be very aggressive in pushing an import-substitution policy for Nigeria to be self-sufficient in fish production. Of course there would be some fish that are not farmed fish that people will want to import, that is ok. You can import because you have a taste for something but to depend on imported fish? I cannot accept it. We are addressing the problem of aquaculture which is the fastest way of growing fish especially tilapia and catfish.
We have an aquaculture value chain that is encouraging massive production of fish and our goal is to have two million metric tons of table fish which will replace what we are currently importing. We are also working to improve our deep sea fishing. Today, foreigners come into our shores with big trawlers and cart away all the fish and shrimps, and then process them and send them back to us. Yet, a lot of our fishermen that have trawlers are out of business because of attacks by pirates on the sea so we are beginning to address that issue. The third one is small scale fishermen. As a government, this country has never supported fish farming. In the South-South, all they do is fishing so we started this year to give what we call Growth Enhancement Support which is subsidy for those that are into fish farming. We give them fingerlings, fish feed and nets. We allow some of them that are in cooperatives to get outboard engines for their boats. We are registering the boats so we know who they are and what they need. It is the first time ever that government will support fishermen in Nigeria. That is because I am concerned that we have enough fish production to meet up with our protein requirements but I want that done here to create jobs. In the South-South Cooperation with the Chinese, they introduced a technology called Fish cage culture which allows you to put your cage right in the middle of the pond. We are going to be promoting a lot of that. In one of the areas they went to, the locals said that the spirits in the water did not allow them to do anything but the Chinese set up their fish cage culture and transformed the village, so apparently, it is not the spirits, it is just laziness and lack of ideas.
What is your ministry doing to encourage the youth to go into agriculture?
One of the things we started doing was to change the mindset on agriculture, agriculture is a money-making venture. Nobody drinks oil or smokes gas but everybody eats food and since we have 167 million people who live here and eat food, we should be producing and processing food for them. We started by telling them that it is a business and agriculture is not when you see a farmer with a hoe or cutlass, no, that is suffering. We are changing that. Sometimes when we get used to a bad thing, you think it is normal.
That is why we are going into mechanised agriculture. We are establishing a total of 80 agricultural entrepreneurial training centres across the country and we are giving them a lot of tractors, combined harvesters etc. It is run by the private sector but we are supporting it because it will allow our farmers lease equipment. In fact, for the first time, we are giving what is called Mechanised Growth Enhancement which means the farmer gets alert on his phone to go and rent equipment so it is one of the innovations we brought in. Two, we are getting young people into agriculture. A young master’s degree holder left Abuja for his village to start cassava farming. In one year, he employed 65 people full-time, he has become a young commercial agricultural entrepreneur. People are leaving the banks to go into agriculture because they see it as business. Banks that were not lending to agriculture before are lending a lot more now because they see the opportunities. That is why the President launched the Youth Employment in Agriculture Programme to create a new generation of young commercial farmers and agriculture entrepreneurs (Nagropreneurs) who will replace the aging ones. The programme will develop a total of 760,000 Nagropreneurs within five years and this will create about seven million jobs across the agric value chain. The new millionaires of Nigeria will be in agriculture.