Food for all •Experts proffer solution to food crisis

Food for all
•Experts proffer solution to food crisis

Simeon Mpamugoh

For Emmanuel Ijewere, chairman/chief executive officer, Best Foods, oil must give way to agriculture as the mainstay of Nigeria’s economy. He noted that agriculture, agribusiness and its value chain, if properly managed, would steadily increase Nigeria’s GDP and make it a strong economy in the world.

He said: “The budgetary allocation to agriculture was one of the lowest in Africa, less than 2 per cent, whereas Nigeria signed the Maputo agreement that under no circumstance must it be less than 10 per cent.”

Ijewere regretted that government has banned some foodstuff in the food and poultry sector, yet they have continually been smuggled in because of the connivance of the Customs and other security agencies.
“Worst still, the kind of poultry that is coming in has been frozen and preserved with formaldehyde, the chemical used for preservation of dead bodies,” he said.

Ijewere noted that agriculture is not practiced in Maitama or Asokoro, saying: “Agriculture is practiced in the states of the federation. How far has government carried states along? Once government comes up with a policy, the various states should own it because they are the ones that deal with agriculture. Even if it means having particular crops allocated to specific states, it must be measured against achievements.”
Mrs. Chinonyerem Obike, a teacher, wonders if Nigeria is really an agro-base nation. Consider her argument:

“When you say Nigeria is agro-based, it is supposed that agriculture is the major income earner for the country. Is this so? The problem is that, despite a lot of agro-produce everywhere, there is still hunger in the land because Nigeria is not maximising the benefits inherent in agriculture.

“Transportation is a very big challenge, especially as it concerns transporting agro produce from farms to markets. The roads are very bad. Do you know that some produce are displayed on walkways? Yes, if you go to some places in Lagos and other cites in the country, you will see how people turn walkways to markets. Secondly, storage facilities are inadequate. Ordinarily, perishable produce like fruits and vegetables are supposed to be properly preserved but this is not the case.

“There is serious shortage of electricity and technical know-how. The biggest of the challenges is the willpower to effect positive change in this sector. Government officials seem to care more about their pockets than initiatives that will better the lot of farmers. Even when some laudable policies are made, implementation becomes a problem.”

According to Obike, Nigeria’s oil has come at the detriment of the agriculture sector: “That is why we have a rising poverty situation. We were having growth but without robust growth able to impact millions of people because it is not connecting to agriculture.”

Hungry children everywhere

In a recent study by United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), it was reported that over 23 million children are malnourished in Nigeria, while more than 10 million were at the risk of malnutrition due to impending food insecurity.

Nigeria has been in the centre of a trying period with oil prices crashing, government revenue dwindling and infrastructure and food security in a terrible state. This situation has provoked calls by experts for government to see agriculture as a viable route through which the country can successfully escape from its current economic dilemma.

Literature review showed that agriculture currently contributes between 30 and 40 per cent of the national gross domestic product (GDP) of the country with a huge majority of the rural population engaging in subsistence agriculture. The relatively diverse variety of climatic conditions in Nigeria makes it possible to raise a wide range of crops across the country. The climate varies from the desert-like and savannah climate in the north and central regions to the thick rain forests of the southern region.

The major crops grown in economic quantities in Nigeria are beans, sesame, cashew nuts, cassava, cocoa beans, groundnuts, gum arabic, kolanut, maize, melon, millet, oil palm, plantain and banana, rice, rubber, sorghum, soybeans and yams. Nigeria also produces fruits such as pineapples, cherry and citrus oranges, lemon, lime and tangerine, yet the country is plagued with cases of poverty and malnutrition pillaging women and children.

Several permutations on hunger statistics in Nigeria show millions of citizens in deep conditions of inequality and food deprivation, yet the country is blessed with abundance of resources in both agricultural and human scale. It, therefore, baffles the rest of the world why the nation fails at several successive points to address the issues of poverty and hunger.

A Port Harcourt, Rivers State-based group, Weppa Wanno Club of Nigeria, in a conversation on “Investment in agriculture, the pathway to economic development,” called on Nigeria to de-emphasise the mono-economy predicated on crude oil. The group condemned the destructive activities of killer herdsmen and called for concerted efforts by government to tackle them, if the campaign for diversification to agriculture is not a mere slogan.

It called for organised farm settlements and cooperative societies that would help owners get loans from the banks so as to key into the agricultural revolution of both the states and federal governments.
However, in recent statistics from the Federal Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development, it was disclosed that about 30 per cent of Nigerian children and 20 per cent of pregnant women in Nigeria are malnourished. Malnutrition, especially inadequate minerals and vitamins to women and children, poses a major challenge to the health of the country’s citizens.

Regarding malnutrition in women and children, UNICEF said Nigerian children from age zero to two years were most affected by malnutrition and were most at risk of the consequences of malnutrition, which include poor growth, poor physical and mental development and death. It stated that young, malnourished children have a much higher risk of dying from common illnesses than those that are well malnourished, as almost half of all childhood deaths have malnutrition as an underlying factor.

Lending its voice to the issue, the Nutrition Society of Nigeria (NSN) stated that the school meal programme introduced by the government, if properly implemented, was expected to be nutritionally adequate, with a variety of nutritious foods that are available in the locality included in the menu, as many of such foods are no longer in the family menu. It urged school children to influence their parents to introduce variety in their menu.
“It is expected that fruits and vegetables should be included daily in the school meal. With the inclusion, the school child gets used to fruits and vegetables and is likely to demand for them as part of his or her meal at home,” the organisation said.

The NSN pointed out that the major problem with malnutrition was that many people were unaware of the rich nutritional potential of local foodstuff and tend to overlook their consumption. It added that the effect of globalisation, urbanisation, industrialisation and modernisation tends to divert attention from the rich, locally available nutritious foods to processed foods.

Problems

However, in spite of crude oil, experts are of the view that agriculture remains the base of the Nigerian economy, providing the main source of livelihood for most Nigerians. The sector, according to them, faces many challenges, notably an outdated land tenure system that constrains access to land (1.8 ha/farming household), a very low level of irrigation development (less than 1 per cent of cropped land under irrigation), limited adoption of research findings and technologies, high cost of farm inputs, poor access to credit, inefficient fertilizer procurement and distribution, inadequate storage facilities and poor access to markets, experts deduced, have all combined to keep agricultural productivity low (average of 1.2 metric tonnes of cereals/ha) with high post-harvest losses and waste.

Experts stated that diversification of Nigeria’s economy was no longer an option, with an annual import bill of over N630 billion, poverty and unemployment rate of 9.9 per cent. They disclosed that the Central Bank of Nigeria, in 2014, took proactive measures to diversify the economy by selecting six focal agricultural commodities, rice, wheat, cotton, sugar, fish and oil palm, for intensive support under its agricultural intervention. But this, experts claim, has not been reflected in the life of the Nigerian woman and child.
Gbola Oba, an entrepreneurship coach and public analyst, said that the problem with the agricultural sector was the enormous waste farmers are made to incur because the value chain is underdeveloped: “People who package fruits make 30 to 35 per cent more money than those who suffer in the sun to make it, which is the failure of leadership to encourage young people to go into agriculture.”

According to the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS), unemployment rate increased to 18.80 per cent in the third quarter (Q3) of 2017, from 14.20 per cent in the corresponding period in 2016. This, according to experts, is a challenge the government can address through agriculture, if it wants to confidently address hunger, malnutrition and poverty ravaging women and children in the country.

Speaking on the issue, programme director, Multimix Academy, Dr. Obiora Madu, said that Nigeria was yet to completely maximise its potential in the agribusiness sector even though the fertilizer cartel was broken during former President Goodluck Jonathan’s government.

Madu observed that a lot of things were still missing in the sector, including the absence of extension supervisors, adding that the world is going organic yet one could not see any concrete efforts in that area.
He said: “There is, for instance, Global Gap Platform certification usually for fruits and vegetables, which any country that has it would have access to the biggest market for those things in the world. Kenya supplies 60 per cent of all the green peas eaten in Europe on the platform of World Mart. These things are not rocket science. If the federal and state governments could get on Global Gap Platform on certain quantity of our produce by finding how many farmers we need to get the job done, the GAP officials would come and train them before certification.”

Madu further observed: “We are usually not strategic; we do things on the spur of the moment and what we are talking about is massive in terms of dollars but it does not happen overnight. It is still the same women in the farms in the villages of Kenya that are producing those peas, which means that the certification has spread out from the big farmers to the small ones, sub-suppliers and others, which makes it a chain such that it creates a whole lot of business.”

He also affirmed that Nigeria is an agro-based nation: “We produce 60 per cent of the world’s shear butter but what quantity of the commodity are we exporting from Nigeria? If one talks about shear butter in the world, countries like Burkina Faso and Ghana always come to mind. I think the whole thing borders on lack of strategic approach.

“If people are really passionate about developing the agro sector, what are we doing with all the palm trees in Cross River State? Malaysia, which collected their first palm fruit from Nigeria in 1960, are short of using palm oil to drive cars.”

Experts equally stated that developing agriculture sustainably for improved nutrition of women and children in Nigeria would be impossible without the role of research, because, in developed and developing countries, governments are actively involved in the promotion of science and technology through investment in research and development.

Research without result

They noted that Nigeria has, since the early 1960s, established more than 15 agricultural research institutes and several colleges of agriculture spread across the country. Similarly, many universities in Nigeria also have faculties of agriculture, even as the country plays host to the International Institutes of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) and the International Livestock Centre for Africa (ILCA), both in Ibadan, Oyo State.

They postulated that the research institutes bear testimony to the recognition, on the part of the Nigerian government, of the importance of research in the agricultural sector. Nonetheless, the sector is still plagued by challenges of declining research budget, which limits research output in the sector, insufficient investment in the research institutes leading to poor staffing, obsolete and poorly maintained infrastructure, overreliance on foreign donors’ financing and limited participation from the private sector.

They also reported that there are prevailing poor documentation and limited data storage and retrieval capacity in Nigeria, adding that the bulk of the results, findings and recommendations were yet to be synthesized into cohesive and orderly reference material.

“Policymakers, agriculturists and other stakeholders often lack sufficient time and resources to gather this scattered research evidence, with the result that many agricultural policies, programmes and projects are not sufficiently evidence-based,” they said.

In spite of the challenges, experts opined that the agricultural research institutes in Nigeria have the potential to make significant positive impact on nutritional indices in women and children, noting that promising practices continue to emerge in the field of agricultural research for nutrition, which can be adopted and promoted among local farmers and consumers which include selective breeding of nutrients rice crop and animal strains, bio-fortification of commonly consumed foods, and enhancement of nutrient availability through optimum preservation, processing and preparation methods.

They stated that bio-fortification is of special interest because it is a cost-effective, one-time investment that does not reduce crop yield and, once the nutrients are incorporated through breeding, there is no further additional cost and the nutritionally-improved varieties can continue to be grown and consumed year after year.

Experts stated that research into improved processes for crop preservation, processing and preparation can equally make significant impact on the nutritional status in Nigeria. They added that production of food staples in the tropics is highly seasonal, yet major in-season losses occur due to high temperature, excessive or insufficient moisture, heavy diseases and insect pressure as well as poor post-harvest handling.

“The annual wastage due to harvest time glut can be prevented through processing and storage,” they said.
In the view of experts, one area of research that is often neglected by agricultural and nutritional scientists is systems research, which applies social science and population-based methodologies to examine behaviours and processes influencing food production, processing, preservation, preparation and consumption to identify key areas for intervention and policy input.

They advocated the need for scientists to study changing climate patterns and make recommendations on how the agricultural sector can mitigate their effects through soil conservation such as crop rotation, development and cultivation of more climate-resistant crop variants, irrigation, the effective use of climate data and forecasts and farmers’ early warning systems.

On how to propagate research findings, experts observed that the limited use of information technology in the management of research data in Nigeria posed a challenge to utilisation of research recommendation for policy formulation, programme planning and evaluation, adding that only a limited fraction of university research translates to actual practice by farmers.

They noted that research results are typically publicised through publications, workshops and seminars, which are targeted at academics and extension workers that are the link between researches, pointing out that farmers are rarely up-to-date with modern research findings.

Experts expressed the need to create a platform for university departments of agriculture and agricultural research institutes to provide periodic updates to agricultural extension workers in state, and local agricultural department as a mechanism through which research findings would be made available for use as a basis for policy formulation, which can be achieved by following a participatory policy development process that allows for inclusion of stakeholders from the research world during policy drafting.

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