Efforts by Nigeria’s government to become more self-sufficient in food may not be going as planned. Recently, the president reportedly implored local farmers to produce more, because "we don't have any money to import food."
While raising food production concerns, which have long echoed without any permanent solution in sight, the president alluded to the fact that domestic production is not meeting demand.
Data from the National Bureau of Statistics show there is a measure of truth to the claim. During the first half of 2019, Nigeria spent ₦334.3 billion importing food. The money spent was two times more than our export earnings from agriculture in the same period.
Although export earnings have seen continuous growth, food importation has also recorded a rising trend. The growth in food imports are primarily because crop production increases are not meeting up with the fast-rising population.
Food importation is not necessarily a terrible thing, it is often used to beef up adequacy levels in many countries. In 2017, more than 50% of the food consumed in the United Kingdom originated from other countries.
However, current realities with the COVID-19 pandemic show why we need to think more about domestic production. Already, the UN World Food Programme has raised the alarm of how the world is bound to be hard hit by both a health and hunger pandemic.
The problem with food production
A significant challenge to food production today is the rural-urban migration. Farmers keep moving as a result of low crop yield brought up by desertification and other climate change challenges like floods.
Oil exploration activities in the south-south have also affected the quantity of agricultural products and caused farmers to cease farming activities completely in other cases.
Moreover, the security concerns, especially in the northern part of the country, has caused farmers to abandon their lands, while others have had their farms destroyed in fires.
For those who still cultivate land, poor farming inputs such as seedlings, pesticides and fertilisers affect the quantity of yield. Most of this farming is also done on a small scale as there is little use of machinery to boost production.
Consequently, the number of cultivated land has seen a decline in recent years. Nigeria has 82 million hectares of arable land, and as of date, we have cultivated 34 million. This is lower than 37 million hectares cultivated in 2007, and 35 million hectares in 2012.
How can we boost food production?
Because climate change challenges can be man-made and of natural causes, an enlightenment of destructive agricultural techniques at the grassroots level is important to preserve crop yields.
Improving food production will mean cultivating more land in an efficient manner with the use of better tools. According to Nigeria’s agriculture minister, the country has only seven tractors per 100 square metres, unlike in Kenya where 700 tractors are available per 100 square metres.
Adopting climate-resilient technologies could also be a shock absorber for areas that are affected by environmental issues like the Niger Delta region, where large scale hydroponic farming (growing food without soil) can be adopted.
Asides from adopting climate-resilient tech, we must embrace policies that will protect the arable land we have for food production. Policies such as the reduction of tree felling practices to prevent erosion; and the elimination of gas flaring which pollutes, the atmosphere with toxic substances that reduce crop yields.
As Ghana sought to improve its cocoa production, it first enacted forest laws and regulations. The country incentivised more than 9,600 smallholder farmers to adopt sound farming practices, which helped to reduce the effects of climate change and preserve the environment.
Their production levels have improved, putting them above Nigeria as the second-largest exporter of cocoa beans.
Ghana has also become one of the most food-secure countries in Africa alongside Senegal and Namibia, and one thing they have in common is proactive food production. Namibia, for instance, which has a desert environment, adopted an Agricultural Mechanisation and Seed Improvement Project, aimed at improving cereal-crops/grains and livestock value chains.
Small wins with rice
With rice, Nigeria has been able to move a step ahead of the production problem. We are one of Africa’s largest producers.
Still, data shows that levels of production is not meeting the country’s consumption requirement. Interestingly, some of the local rice produced is also exported. This happens because it is more lucrative to sell paddy i.e rice still in its husk at the international market than to local producers.
According to Charles Isidi, head of growth at Thrive Agric., the average price for paddy in Nigeria as of January 2020 was $0.30, and the average global price at the time was $0.77. "The export price is almost triple the price offered in the local markets. This is enough motivation for most farmers to export their products rather than sell it in the local market, " Isidi explained.
So even if Nigeria produces rice in sufficient quantity, there might be little motivation to sell to local processors that will re-produce to meet our consumption needs.
But what happens now that our borders are closed? We’ve already had a trial run, and it did not turn out bad.
As at October last year, there was an order to close land borders. The order was to curb the smuggling of food, like rice into the country. The result of this exercise was a boost in local production and a gradual reduction in the level of rice imports.
Hopefully, the unintended consequence of a pandemic induced lockdown will result in building up a stronger food production process that can further boost processing, sales and consumption within Nigeria.
Follow this writer on Twitter @thefaridaadamu