Adeyela Ibironke Okunlola is a professor of Horticulture in the Department of Crop, Soil and Pest Management at the Federal University of Technology (FUTA), Akure. She speaks with IMOLEAYO OYEDEYI on food insecurity and spiraling inflation, among other issues in Nigeria.
IN the early post-independence era when Nigeria operated a regional government, agriculture was the backbone of the country’s economy. There was surplus of food for both consumption and exportation. But now, things have changed. How did Nigeria get to its current state?
First and foremost in Nigeria, we have always believed that things will continue to be as they used to be, contrary to a saying that says that the only permanent thing is change. The fact remains that whether we like it or not, change will always take place. And what is expected of us as a country is to prepare beforehand for the change that will come. But regrettably somehow, we never prepared for the change we are experiencing in the country at the moment. And it is often said that if we failed to plan, we plan to fail. Immediately when we discovered oil in the country, we believed the oil boom would continue and there would be free flow of money consistently.
Even during this period when we had the oil and its money in excess, we never invested it in agriculture or planned to do the same in the near future, perhaps; we forgot then that agriculture is the core of human survival. Let’s take a look at the COVID-19 experience. When every place was shut down, the market still had to be opened because we had to eat to live. Nobody talked about clothing or any other thing except food provisions because people had to eat. Even while a ban was placed on inter-state transportation, people and vehicles conveying food items were excluded. That should tell us that agriculture is key and as old as humanity itself. But it has always been neglected just as we haven’t planned for the change that is playing out now. And this is what has brought us to this stage we are now. I just hope we have learnt our lessons and now are determined to be proactive in repositioning agriculture to the primary stage it belongs.
During our founding fathers’ days, the government in power then prioritized agriculture and invested heavily in it just because they realized that it is what can sustain us as humans and remains a core aspect of our existence. But when power changed hands and the oil boom came into the picture, the status quo changed and we started depending on importation for virtually everything we needed. We felt we had the money and just wanted to spend it all to import foreign food items at the detriment of our own home-grown products. To worsen the situation, successive governments afterwards failed to put down sustainable structures that will effectively harness our agriculture potential. Everybody just neglected agriculture and focused on oil believing that the so-called oil money can get us anything we want for years to come. But I believe series of development globally since then have proved otherwise. I do believe that was where our problem began. Even as countries all over the globe were developing their agriculture technology, we kept on retarding the development of our own agro-sector with different shades of importation. And that is why we are in our present problems.
In those days when agriculture was the mainstay of the Nigerian economy, the rate of extreme hunger and poverty was not as severe as what we have now. Can we say this is as a result of the way successive governments have relegated agriculture to the ground?
Yes, that is true. And the relegation of agriculture has also made us become very lazy. Now, everyone wants the easy money, no thanks to the popular slogan that says there is a national cake somewhere that must be shared and eaten completely even when we never toiled for it. Nobody wants to work, but we all want cheap money. And that is the mentality we have designed for oil money. We see it as an easy deal and we just share it blindly. But it’s different in agriculture because there has to be an input before you can have an output. And that is how life is. You must input before you can have an output. We don’t want to put in anything, but we want to harvest many things. And that’s why most of our young men and women have taken to cybercrimes. They don’t want to work but they want to drive Range Rovers. But this is against God’s law which says you eat from your labour. This is also part of where our problems began.
In view of the seemingly food scarcity and spiraling inflation of food items, some experts have stated that Nigeria is sitting on a keg of gunpowder and nears the verge of food insecurity. How true is this?
Well, there are elements of truth in the statement. But it has also called for a kind of re-awakening on our part to the agriculture sector. I have always insisted that it is important for us to begin to give agriculture a new face in the country. I think the whole problem started from this basis. For instance, in the secondary schools, we used to tell students to cut grass as a way of punishing them. This in a way has given people the mentality that agriculture is a kind of punishment. And up till now, the hatred that has been attached to agriculture is still there. And this is partly because we still depend heavily on manual labour for our agricultural works. But it is a whole lot different in other countries where people have started developing simple farming machineries that are made available and affordable to an average peasant farmer in the country. But such isn’t present in Nigeria and because of it and many more; our students are being discouraged to go into agriculture.
In fact, if you find out how many of our students actually choose agriculture, you will find out it’s only a fraction of them. Everybody wants to study Medicine and Engineering. Even when you look at our textbooks, you see a doctor putting on a white overall with his stethoscope and looking so fine; and then you see a picture of a farmer carrying hoes and cutlasses on the front page of agriculture textbooks. If they ask you to choose from the two lives, you will definitely want to choose the person looking very well dressed. But what is happening currently especially in the Southwest is creating a re-awakening in us as we all now see that agriculture is the future. In an average home now in the country, everyone has a backyard garden where they grow their vegetables and rear chickens as well as goats among others. So what is happening now is teaching us a bit of self-sufficiency as we all are becoming very conscious of the fact that agriculture is key to our survival as humans.
There is the belief that other regions in the country, especially the South-West, don’t grow their food but rely heavily on the North for their food survival. How true is this claim and does the South-West have the potential to cater for the food demands of its people at all?
I don’t think the claim is true. Just as I have said, we all have been conscious and started putting in a lot of efforts to ensure that some crops we believe cannot do well in the South really thrive and blossom. For example, now we have many people going into tomato farming and they have been doing well. Presently, we have a lot of tomato production plants in the South. Before, it was difficult to grow cucumber here in the South-West but now, we have a lot of cucumber, watermelon and some of those crops we have thought could only be planted and thrived in the North. Secondly, from my research, one problem we have been confronted with is the big gap between the gown and the town. Most of the researches we have been conducting either from the research institute or tertiary institutions have not been able to get to the end users because there has been a lot of disconnect between what researchers have found and what the farmers have actually been doing.
There is very much that we have been doing, but they haven’t been getting to the farmers. But I believe, once we address this huge gap and carry out more research and improved varieties, we will grow more crops that many believe can only sprout in the North. Take for instance, the recent ban of importation of food items to the South-West. But I see this as a reawakening and challenge to us. It is just an indication that it’s time we all rose up. And a lot of young people are now coming into agriculture. So, I believe the ban is good for us. Thank God that our soils are good and we also have the brains needed to keep our region on top of food security.
Are you saying now that the South-West has the full potential to cater for its food demands?
Yes, we have the full potential to drive and cater for our food demands. Even the North that effected the ban can’t entirely consume their food produce. This is because from the beginning of a production, you must think of the consumer, the end-users. They are very important because if you produce and you don’t have people to consume, that becomes a big problem. Now, they have started having problems. In fact, the price of tomatoes has fallen because of the surplus. So the ban is translating into huge losses for them because the products are perishable goods. It is either you get them to the end users on time or process and preserve them for another product. To worsen the situation, we still have a big gap to cover when it comes to preserving and processing our farm produce in Nigeria.
The fact remains that we produce a lot of crops in this country, but we often record huge wastages especially during the peak of production because we don’t have the machinery needed for preservation and processing. This is one big problem we are yet to fix in our agro-sector. Also, storage too has posed a big problem because we usually don’t get the right mechanized system to store our large farm products. Moreover, most of our farm products are meant for only consumption. It is regrettable that, as a country, there is no record of us in the world market because most of our productions are strictly for local consumption. And this is part of where our agricultural problems lie. So, we should consciously start thinking of exportation as a nation.
But for us in the South-West, the ban of food items to our region has resurrected our dead passion for agriculture and compelled us to start sourcing for homegrown solutions. I know surely that it is a challenge we can run with and overcome. So, we can actually make our food demands here in the Southwest.
So in addition to these, what are other problems bedeviling agriculture in the country?
The presence of government should be felt effectively in the agriculture sector. But this isn’t the case. In Nigeria, we do more talking and less implementation. But very importantly, the government at all levels in the country needs to subsidize agriculture. This is because most of our farming processes are still done manually. It is not done anywhere in the world anymore. Agriculture in most countries now is mechanized. But how many of our farmers can actually go into mechanized farming? It is only a minute fraction of them because the majority of them are poor peasant farmers and they don’t have tangible access to loans to get the needed machineries. I know there are the Bank of Industry and the like. But how many of our farmers have what it takes to access these bank’s facilities. And even when the government makes some provisions, there are still some people that will go behind doors to sabotage their efforts. Sometimes, the government even makes fertilizers available, but later you see people who circumvent this and sell the fertilizers elsewhere. Many a time, we hear that the government has made chemicals available, but at the end of the day, the chemicals don’t get to the poor peasant farmers who actually need them. These are some of the problems; so the government really needs to subsidize agriculture and put in systems devoid of loopholes such that whatever programmes they have will get to the exact people they are meant for.
What do you advise state governments across the region in a bid to achieve effective food security for their people?
I think they should first sit down and analyze the issues at hand. And then, they should come up with a workable and adaptable plan that will suit the peculiarity of the Southwestern states and people. This is very important because quite a lot of times in Nigeria, we make many plans, but we depend heavily on borrowed agendas and strategies which are not in any way suitable to the realities we have in the country. And at the end of the day, most of these plans and programmes fail because they are not adaptable to our environment. Secondly, they should start changing their viewpoint and mindset about agriculture because it has unlimited potentials that can not only cater for our food needs, but also generate income for us.