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Nigeria is plagued by both hidden and outright hunger – Professor Nkiru Meludu

By Ebele Orakpo

Recently, the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development, Muhammad Sabo Nanono came under intense criticisms for saying that there is no hunger in Nigeria as widely claimed. Many Nigerians are reeling under the burden of hunger and high prices of food. In this chat with Vanguard in Awka, Anambra State, Professor Nkiru Meludu,Head of the Department of Agricultural Economics and Extension, Nnamdi Azikiwe University, Awka, Project Coordinator, Healthy Food for Consumer Initiative and professor of Food and Nutrition Security, said that not only is there outright  hunger in the land, there is also hidden hunger. Excerpts:

First, is there hunger in Nigeria?

When we look at what is happening in the world, we can see that there is a lot of hunger going on, both hidden and outright hunger. The outright hunger is about scarcity of food and the hidden hunger is about scarcity of nutrients in the food and they go together. We have been talking about agriculture as the only way for sustainable development; the only way for a nation to be able to feed her people and also export and increase the foreign reserve but then, we know what happened to agriculture.

Nigeria
Professor Nkiru Meludo

In the past

Before now, agriculture was booming but eventually, people started focusing on oil and left agriculture. We stopped talking about groundnut pyramids, yam barns and cocoa because of the neglect of agriculture but now,  the problem in the oil sector is becoming so much; other countries are discovering oil and  competition is very high so we are coming back to agriculture. Again, at that time, agriculture was done at subsistence level – household production, just for the family to eat and have a little for sale, not really a business, but we are talking about agriculture being a business and this is why we are trying to get the youths involved and to equip the women who have been doing this, create more awareness on what they should be producing.

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Value chain

Then, there must be consideration of value chain in agricultural production which means that from the preparation of the ground, to the selection of the seeds, what value are you adding? Throughout the production system- harvesting, processing, packaging, marketing, until it gets to the consumer, what value are you adding?

Industry/farmer linkage

We also need to talk about the linkage between the industry and the farmer because the industry will tell the farmer what they need. If there is no linkage, the farmer will not know what to produce.

At a point, everybody was producing cassava and we had cassava glut but you know, it’s not just about producing cassava roots for garri or flour, but there are other things like ethanol and chemicals you can get from cassava so industry is supposed to link up with the university and that is what the university is also talking about, the town and gown relationship, that whatever we do in the university, we have to extend to the community, make impact in the community and have that partnership – public-private  partnership. The industry will tell us what they need, if it requires signing of Memorandum of Understanding, we sign. It is very important.

I once brought a company that supplies seeds to partner with the university. I wrote the Vice-Chancellor and they said if the requirements are not okay for the university, the university can call them for a roundtable discussion so that they can arrive at something and be able to  help the university students. Then they bring the off-takers which is very important. We can also link up with the communities and look at what they are producing to see if it tallies with what the international community is looking out for so that we can have food security and generate income from it.

Food security

Food security means when food is available, affordable, accessible, safe and nutritious. So all these variables must be there for us to say we have food security. When you look at  safety of food, you see that we are still nowhere. It is said that what you eat today will tell on your health tomorrow. So many diseases are coming up based on what we have eaten because we have not eaten right. Let’s leave the issues of accessibility, affordability and availability; let’s talk about the issue of safety and that is where we talk about organic agriculture.

Organic agriculture

Organic agriculture is the in-thing now but people are asking whether it can feed the world. It’s feeding the world and it will feed the world. We will have to start little and grow from there. It is better for us to produce foods that are not poisonous through the value chain and then people will eat well and live long. Apart from health, the international community is looking up to us, the Third world countries because they feel our lands are not polluted; we have not experienced very heavy wars requiring the use of heavy equipment so our lands are not really polluted so to speak, so we can practise organic agriculture. You remember that sometime ago, some people tried to export some farm produce, they were returned because of the pesticide load in them but we eat them here! That is one of the reasons we have so many health challenges and people would run to India for help. It is good that we create awareness for people to know what organic agriculture is.

Organic agriculture is simply the farming system that is devoid of the use of synthetic chemicals and it has to go through a standard. There are principles to follow – principles of ecology, care of the environment, the ecosystem, farmers, consumers, are all involved and they need to be well taken care of. They  can then produce foods that are good enough for consumption. When they produce it, it is not just on subsistence level, the international community is looking for such produce but then, there are specific produce they are looking for. We are talking of ginger, garlic, turmeric and sesame but they are looking for organic ones. So the farmers and those who want to go into agricultural entrepreneurship need to be educated.

Public-Private Partnership

So the issue of public-private partnership is very key to move agriculture from where it is now, to a higher level. Like I said, the farmers are producing. I ran into a farmer in Benue State, he told me that he had to burn some cassava on the field because there was nobody to buy. I said: ‘but you should have just taken it to the market and just sell it anyhow.’ He said after considering what it will cost him to transport it to the market and how much people were likely to price it, he felt he was not going to make anything so he decided to burn it. So we need that partnership. The private companies/industries should go to the farmers and negotiate, go through Extension workers/agents, it’s very important. In the developed world, you can’t get to the farmer without going through the Extension unit because of the fact that some people would go and negotiate with the farmers and cheat them; they bring in other things that are not good enough in the practice of agriculture. This is an innovation that should be looked into and be taken very seriously.

Packaging

This is a very serious issue. Traditionally, we have certain things we use in packaging our processed food such as okpa, made from bambara nuts and moi-moi made from beans but now, you see people using cellophane to cook and you know cellophane has some carcinogenic elements in it that dissolves into the food.  People cook with that and see it as sophistication.

Technology

In the US now, they have bitter leaf in tablet form and we have bitter leaf here. You simply need to wash it a little and then chew or you wash a little, dry it and package it for tea. You can also air-dry ugu leaves and package the two as tea. One is building the blood while the other is detoxifying. So we need the technology, the education ande we need to go to the rural communities to talk to them, we need to bring people on board. In a bid to make gains, people for instance use chemicals to store foods which is not good their health and the general public.

Aflatoxins

There is the issue of aflatoxins (poisonous carcinogens produced by certain molds found in cereals, groundnut etc.) which cause so many diseases; you go to the hospital, they run tests and they tell you they don’t know what the problem is and the person dies. So we don’t know much about aflatoxins and we eat groundnut everyday, some see the powdered substance in the groundnut and simply clean and eat.

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