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Why are Nigerians hungry and food insecure?

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One must be wondering why, Nigeria, once a great leader in agricultural production is struggling to feed itself.

How can that be true? It’s important we look at where Nigeria’s agricultural sector was in the past and to understand the key reasons why the Nigerian agricultural sector has declined and the country is now so food insecure.

Between 1960 and 1970, the agricultural sector accounted for an average of nearly 60% of gross domestic product, GDP. During the same period, more than 60% of export earnings came from the sector. As the country’s main foreign exchange earner, Nigeria’s glory days of agriculture were notable in the wider global market. In fact, during this period, Nigeria was ahead of Malaysia, Indonesia and the United States in palm oil and groundnut exports, respectively.

For example, in the groundnut sector, Nigeria accounted for almost 50% of global export, placing the country ahead of the US and Argentina. From this standpoint, it could be argued that Nigeria was performing well, especially in areas such as input supply, production, processing and marketing.   These key infrastructural components of the agricultural value chain are needed to tackle hunger and food insecurity as well as enhance the economic growth in the country. Yet they are lacking and Nigeria is still struggling to find a sustainable solution.

The discovery of crude in 1956 became the game changer and gradually eroded the thriving agricultural sector. Since 1970, when the Nigeria government focused largely on the petroleum sector, this trend remains the same as the agricultural sector’s contribution to GDP has declined remarkably. It is telling that the sector known to have played such a major and key role in Nigeria economic development contributed over the last three years an average of 24% to GDP and 2% of export earnings.

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This represents more than a 58% reduction in terms of export earnings in the past 50 years. It also suggests a trend where no underlying change has really occurred in the agricultural sector.   The petroleum sector contributes approximately 9% to GDP and 80% of the total value of annual exports. Yet, the sector employs less than 0.2% of the labour force compared to over 40% of the labour force population and more than 70% in the rural area being involved in the agricultural sector.

Despite agricultural sector being the largest employer, most small farmers who represent the vast majority of agricultural enterprise, lack the economy of scale and cannot be integrated into value chains due to the lack of sufficient volume of production and a failure to meet the required quality standards.

There is no doubt that a wide range of challenges are crippling the agricultural sector. Some of the challenges include lack of input, weak infrastructure, limited investment in agricultural research and development, R&D, a lack of agro-processing industries and weak government policies. For example, key inputs such as fertilisers, irrigation equipment, tractors and high-yielding varieties are either lacking or limited in supply.

The rural transportation system is almost absent due to a lack of good road infrastructure. The petroleum sector did not only replace the agricultural sector as the source of revenue but also undermined agro-processing industries that could have created jobs and lifted tens of millions of Nigerians out of poverty. Due to the lack of federal funding and a shortage of highly skilled specialists, and despite Nigeria having one of the largest agricultural R&D systems in sub-Sahara Africa, there is a huge disconnect between the focus of researchers and the priorities of farmers. The absence of these key ingredients, especially underpinned by weak government policies, has led to underdevelopment of the agricultural sector for several decades.

These underlying challenges remain one of the critical elements as to why hunger, food insecurity and poverty persist in many parts of the country. In Nigeria, it is important to note that the root cause of food insecurity, especially among low-income households, is poverty. This is worse during a public health emergency such as the COVID-19 pandemic.

When there is no buffer capacity in food stores, this leads quickly to a lack of food supplies due to lockdown, and as a result, the prices of goods and services have skyrocketed and poor households are unable to afford food prices.

I personally witnessed this problem when I joined the humanitarian team that was offering palliative care in form of food distribution to the poor households in the urban slums of Lagos. I assume there is a similar trend across all the cities, towns and villages in Nigeria. A study conducted by the British Broadcasting Corporation suggests that more 70% of Nigerians were hungry during the lockdown. The government feeding programme for children from poor household suggests there is an urgent need to address the increased risk of malnutrition, hunger and poverty which are closely linked.

Over the last three years, cumulative agricultural exports and imports account for N803 billion and N3.3 trillion, respectively. It is an indication that there is a lack of value addition to agricultural production and the chances of creating more employment opportunities in this sector are still very low. In the next ten years, the challenges to tackle hunger and achieve food security will be compounded by the rising Nigeria population which is expected to reach 400 million people by the year 2050. This suggests that food insecurity and poverty will persist unless an aggressive innovative agricultural policy is pursued.

Revitalising Nigeria’s agricultural sector is critical to eradicating hunger and food insecurity as well as fostering economic growth. Recently, a number of government policies have moved in the right direction. Under President Goodluck Jonathan’s administration, former Minister of Agriculture, Dr Adesina Akinwumi, initiated the Agricultural Transformation Agenda that helped farmers access fertilisers through credits delivered via a mobile phone e-wallet scheme.

President Muhammadu Buhari, with his new minister, Mr Muhammad Nanono,  under the Agricultural Promotion Policy, continues to build on this initiative with over N600 billion being proposed as a stimulus-response to transform the agricultural sector. However, this fund is inadequate given the myriad challenges facing the sector. When compared to the 10% of the national budget recommended by the Africa Union, Nigeria spends less than 3% of its GDP on the agricultural sector and this needs to change.

Given limited federal funds for the agricultural sector, investment funds managed by professionals should be set up to support the agro-processing sector.  An innovative strategy targeting financial institutions, state governments, individuals and private sector should form core elements of the investment funds. These funds should prioritize large-scale farming and agri-entrepreneurship. With these measures being put in place, the agricultural sector can be revived and it can position Nigeria as a leader in the world export market.

With the sharp fall in oil prices and a global drive towards a post-carbon world, Nigeria can no longer depend on revenues from petroleum products. Nigeria is one of the biggest producers of many agricultural commodities in the world and has great potential in transforming the agro-processing industry. Therefore, additional policy initiatives are needed to develop and transform the industry, especially underpinned by increased investment in agriculture R&D and the participation of public-private sector partnerships.

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What Nigerians want now is GDP-driven policy specifically aimed at high-value agriculture, creating opportunities for the agro-processing sector in both domestic and international markets. Without diversification, especially through value addition, Nigeria will find it difficult to achieve self-sufficiency and promote sustainable economic growth. President Buhari’s Food Security Council is an important policy initiative that must tap into the wealth of knowledge, experience and specific agricultural expertise as the roadmap developed to promote a competitive agro-value chain and enable food security.

The Food Security Council will require greater policy collaboration across key ministries led by the Ministry of Agriculture, Ministry of Science and Technology, Ministry of Trade and Ministry of Finance to ensure full participation of relevant actors in the agricultural value chain. Leveraging expertise from all levels of relevant organisations, the government will harness the opportunity in the agricultural and agro-processing sector with the significant potential to create jobs and improve rural and urban livelihoods across the country.

*Dr. Adenle is founder of a new initiative known as the Africa Sustainability Innovation-Academy (ASI-Academy; http://asi-academy.org/)

obtained his undergraduate degree in Natural Science from the University of Lagos. He studied a Master of Science in Molecular Cell Biology and Genetic Manipulation (Biotechnology) at the University of Sussex, United Kingdom (UK).  He pursued a doctoral degree in Applied Toxicology with a focus on health and environment, at the University of Nottingham UK. Dr Adenle won the best presentation award for his doctoral work in the whole of the UK at the British Toxicology Society, which came with the monetary prize. He is the first black person to win such an award.

Dr Adenle later studied a Master of Public Policy (MPP) at the Green Templeton College and Blavatnik School of Government, University of Oxford, UK. He also won one of the best awards for the master programme with standing ovation among audience including the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Oxford.

With over 20 years of combined experience in teaching and research at the international level, and work at the interface of natural and social sciences, Dr Adenle focuses on sustainable development issues related to agricultural biotechnology, food security, climate change, health innovation, biodiversity conservation, renewable energy and entrepreneurship.

His interdisciplinary work on sustainable development issues has featured in a number of media outlets both at the local and international levels.  A decade ago, Dr Adenle received a lifetime achievement of competitive fellowship at the United Nations University-Institute of Advanced Study (UNU-IAS), headquarters in Japan, where he was a Research Fellow and Teaching Faculty (Ass.Professor) for over four years. At UNU-IAS, Dr Adenle was also a Principal Investigator on the agricultural development project.

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