Rural sociologist, and former Dean, Faculty of Agriculture and Forestry, University of Ibadan, Professor Janice Olawoye shared her views on the significance of farmers in the light of the much desired agricultural renaissance in Nigeria with PAUL OMOROGBE.
Great opportunity, great potential
This country has so much diversity, whether you are talking about socio-culturally or agro-ecological diversity. When you talk about agro-ecological diversity, we are saying you have so many different types of ecology from the coastal areas which are wetlands to the northern areas which are almost deserts. And obviously different places will have different kind of crops that grow there; they have different types of challenges and different types of opportunities and potentials.
One has to look at Nigeria and see that over all, Nigeria has a lot of potential. We have so much land that currently is not being fully utilized. We have a climate that is very conducive. In many parts of the world, including the place I come from, you can only do agriculture for a few months of the year because the rest of the year is very cold. Here, we have the opportunity to grow two or even three crops throughout the year. This is why I say there is great opportunity and great potential. But to a large extent we are not making the most of it because of the small-scale nature of farming in the country. And that means many of these people (rural farmers) are resource-poor. So when there are opportunities: there is technology that is available from research institutes and universities, many times they don’t have access to them or they can’t afford them. And consequently they are still growing at less than their optimum level.
Giving rural farmers their place
Having said that, I am not an advocate of pushing small-scalers out of agriculture, and getting all the large scale farmers in – there is a place for commercial large scale farming, but we need to realize that we still have a very large proportion of our population living in the rural areas. And to push them out of farming is to push them out of their livelihoods, out of food security, and out of any form of income. What is more preferable is that we make the small-scale farmers who produce most of the food that we consume more productive so that they have a better livelihood and a better income. This will yield greater food security as well as reducing the huge import bill that Nigeria is facing.
Need for value addition
There is a need for value addition for the crops that we produce. There is no reason we should be exporting raw produce and then importing the processed one. Someone mentioned that we only transform about 16 per cent of the cocoa that is produced in the country into what we see as cocoa powder used in drinks and confectionary. There is huge potential in Nigeria to change the situation, but it is far better if we get the unemployed youth of the society involved in primary production and processing. This is happening to some extent; it is just that we really have not perfected the strategies yet.
Comparing farming in Nigeria with the developed world
It will not be fair to do that because there are very great differences. I come from the US, and I come from a farming area. When I was growing up, my father had 180 acres that he was farming which was the size of an average farm. But now, when I go to visit where I came from, I find that farmers are having one, two, five or 10 thousand hectares that one person would be farming. My father used a plough with a four-row machine, now they have those with 64 rows. The technology is just incredible! That works in America because of the high level of industrialization. In Nigeria, if we had that kind of technology, it would not be appropriate for our ecology or our soils. The soils in the US are such that you can plough down several inches and still have very strong and fertile soil, but in this part of the world the soils are very fragile and if you remove the vegetative cover you are likely to leech out the nutrients because of the sun and the rain. Our environment is not conducive to having that kind of technology. If now you have that kind of technology, and you say we don’t need these small scale farmers any more, what are they going to do? How will they earn an income?
How to industrialise
I believe that we do need to improve the technology at an appropriate scale, and we need to ensure they have the input that enables them produce at full potential. Let’s get the inputs, the improved seeds, the crop protection methods and the best strategies in order to ensure that we do have a higher productivity per farmer. And it is possible. The technology exists, but it needs to get out to the farmers, and it needs to be adopted by them.
Just because you develop one way in the US, UK, Netherlands or wherever in Europe does not mean it is appropriate everywhere else. And that has been the mistake we have made in our development efforts.
Getting young people into farming
The fact is in Nigeria, we have so many young people who are idle. They don’t want to be! Perhaps they are searching in the wrong place. What we teach students in the university today is to be entrepreneurial in outlook. That means they should look for ways to make a niche of their own. Agriculture is such a wide range of activities and when you look at the value chain from productivity all the way to utilization, you will see that there are so many places that people can come in. There are many things people can do that have a short span before harvest. I know students who have pulled their way through school selling leafy vegetables, or growing watermelons and selling them. There is an initiative by IITA called Agripreneurs which is a programme for young people and it has been having wonderful results.