By Peter Osalor
THE story of Nigerian agriculture is embedded within the country’s political history. Nigeria had a predominantly agricultural economy in the hundred odd years spent under British colonial rule and well into its first decade of independence. In the 1960’s, Nigeria was the world’s second largest producer and exporter of cocoa, the largest exporter of palm oil, and a principal producer and exporter of cotton, rubber and groundnut.
Using traditional tools and practices, Nigerian peasants contributed 70% of export revenue and 60% of GDP in the same period. (Lawal) The total food requirement was met almost entirely by local produce and agricultural imports were to the bare minimum.
The, oil boom of the 1970s bought drastic change to the country’s economic landscape as the discovery of vast oil and gas reserves turned its fortunes overnight. The windfall transformed Nigeria’s agricultural landscape into gigantic oil field criss- crossed by more than 7000 km of pipelines connecting 6,000 oil wells, two refineries, innumerable flow stations, and export terminals. Nigeria invested tremendously to create a mega oil production network and the investment paid off, with unofficial estimates suggesting Nigeria earned more than $600 billion from oil and gas in the last decade alone.
Unfortunately, the obsession with oil over all other sectors of the economy eventually turned Nigeria’s boom into a bane. New found wealth investigated political instability and massive corruption in government circles, and the country suffered successive military coups and civil unrest.
Agriculture was one of the first casualties of the oil regime, and by the 1990s, cultivation accounted for just 5% of GDP. (Olagbaju) Farming modernisation and support continued to remain low on the list of national priorities as vast stretches of rural Nigeria gradually plunged into poverty and food security. Deforestation, soil erosion, and industrial pollution further hastened the downward – spiral of agriculture to the point where it ended up as a subsistence activity.
Rural Nigeria has long been concerned; public investment in health, education and water supply has been concentrated in the cities. Poor infrastructure impedes the movement of produce, increasing spoilage, the cost of inputs, and, therefore, the cost of production and the prices of marketable produce. Agriculture is the largest contributor to Nigeria’s GDP. Nigeria is the world’s largest producer of cassava, yam and cow- pea; it is also a major producer of fish. Yet Nigeria imports large amount of grain, livestock products and fish to feed its population.
The Nigerian Poverty Eradication programme of 2001 identifies agriculture and rural development as its primary area of interest. The fact that all development has to begin from the bottom – up cannot be overemphasised in the context of Nigeria, where a farming boom can ensure not just food supply and export, but also provide industrial raw materials and a market for products.
Agriculture expansion is critical to economic prosperity across Africa, considering the region’s crippling; poverty levels. For example, a 2003 conference organised by New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD) in South Africa strongly urged the promotion of cassava cultivation as a poverty eradication tool across the content. The recommendation is based on a strategy that focused on markets, private sector participation and research to drive famine- reserve food has become a lucrative cash crop.
The NEPAD initiative has strong relevance for Nigeria, the world’s largest cassava producer. With its large rural population and extensive farmland, the country boasts unrivalled opportunities of transforming the humble cassava into an industrial raw material for both domestic and international markets. There is a growing and well justified belief that the crop can transform rural economies, spur rapid economic and production grew steadily between 1980 and 2002 from 10,000 MT to over 35,000 MT, there is room for significant increase by bringing more land under cassava cultivation. Nigeria must take the lead not a bench warmer.