Sunday, 9 August 2015

NIGERIA’S FOOD CRISIS GETTING WORSE

The paradox of lack in the midst of plenty has been playing out in Nigeria’s rising food import bill. The country spent over N1 trillion to import food in the 17 months to May 2015 despite vast arable land and a vibrant population. The Muhammadu Buhari government is confronted with a stark choice: rejuvenate the agricultural sector for job creation and export diversification or relapse into rhetoric and sloganeering like its predecessors.

Nigeria’s food security situation is awful. According to Godwin Emefiele, Governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria, N1.18 trillion was spent between January 2014 and May 2015 on food imports along with toothpicks, textiles and furniture. Top on the import list were rice, fish and milk. Yet, the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organisation says the country has 19 million head of cattle, the largest in Africa; 82 million of its 91 million-hectare land area is arable, while the Federal Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development estimates that the country’s coasts, rivers, lakes and streams make 230 billion cubic metres of water available for fishing and aquaculture.

Nevertheless, we spent $1.39 billion importing fish; $1.33 billion importing rice, and $51 million (officially) on rice imports in those 17 months. When it is remembered that toothpicks, like furniture, are wood products and the basic raw materials for textiles are farm products, the damage in lost revenue, jobs and industrialisation becomes manifest. In the first five months of this year, six items cost $998.17 million to import: fish accounted for $374 million; rice $220.3 million; toothpicks $1.32 million; milk $375.67 million; furniture $20.39 million, and textiles $6.49 million. These sums do not take in the massive smuggling of these products either.

With foreign reserves falling on the back of crashing crude oil prices and the loss of fiscal buffers to mismanagement and plunder, spending such sums on food imports is no longer sustainable. Moreover, agriculture still employs over 60 per cent of the workforce and contributes 30 per cent to Gross Domestic Product. Massive food imports over the past 30 years have wiped out a generation of farmers of certain crops and contributed to rural–urban migration, according to experts. With unemployment at 24.1 per cent officially, the need to harness agriculture to boost food security and the industrial sector is ever more urgent.

The Buhari government should go beyond mere slogans to revive the sector. Once the mainstay of the country, contributing over 60 per cent to GDP, agriculture began to decline after the “oil boom” of the early 1970s and resulted in our status reversal from food self-sufficiency to import-dependency, spending over N1 trillion each year on basic food imports since 2005, according to FMA & RD. The ministry admits also that Nigeria is the largest importer of United States red and white winter wheat and the second largest importer of rice, sugar and fish that combined, gulped N1.01 trillion in 2014. Its Permanent Secretary, Sonny Echono, said, “Nigeria’s food imports are growing at an unsustainable rate of 11 per cent per annum, while import of expensive food fuels domestic inflation.”

Attaining food self-sufficiency and enough for exports and industry is not rocket science. What is required are the strong political will and vision to see policies through. We have engaged so much in policy reversals and often allowed vested interests to hijack policies for selfish ends. A policy to promote local wheat and maize production in the 1980s was abandoned midway, while the recent policy on domestic rice production has been threatened by political interests, corruption and abuse of fiscal incentives. Graft had also effectively killed previous interventionist funds and agencies targeted at promoting agriculture with special low interest loans “captured” by influential players, while genuine farmers are squeezed out. Our technology deployment is still dismal.

With just about 30 million hectares of land cultivated to Nigeria’s 42 million, Turkey is self-sufficient in food and a major food exporter; despite its arid land and unfavourable climate; Israel has a highly developed agricultural sector and is a major exporter of farm products and agricultural technology. Brazil, with a tropical climate like Nigeria’s, had put 65.33 million hectares under cultivation by 2008 and achieved record farm production that saw it through the financial crisis of 2007-9.

Buhari should look for a competent, visionary hand to drive the sector as minister: he should avoid corrupt individuals or those with a sense of entitlement. The government should take a critical look at the various lending schemes and find novel ways of directing low-interest, long-term credit to genuine farmers. Efforts should be made to promote mechanised farming as the prevalent low-tech system cannot meet current needs. Policies to ensure self-sufficiency should necessarily involve sustained rural infrastructure programmes as farming takes place in the rural areas where roads, bridges, storage and extension services are sorely lacking. The states and local governments should lead in this, while the Federal Government should build inter-state roads, rehabilitate its existing network of roads and waterway infrastructure to facilitate movement of farm products. Liberalising the railway sector is a tested route to success.

There is, however, hope, according to McKinsey, a multinational consultancy, which says that by introducing simple reforms, “Nigeria can easily double its agricultural output.” His otherwise lacklustre predecessor kicked out the fertiliser cabal; Buhari should pursue more reforms, working with the states, LGs, private sector, lending institutions and development partners. (As seen in Punch).