Buhari should run with Green Alternative road map

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BURDENED by inadequate foreign exchange to sustain its food import bill, the Muhammadu Buhari Administration has come up with a plan to revive agriculture.

 The Green Alternative Agriculture Road map seeks to significantly reduce Nigeria’s dependency on imported food. Its fundamental objectives also include stimulating agro-export for foreign earnings and achieving food self-sufficiency. Nigeria’s archives are replete with visionary documents that can transform its agro-economy, yet, GAAR is an imaginative concept that, if well executed, could mark a turning point for agriculture.

Among other goals, the programme will boost employment with 100,000 youths to be trained in extension services, enhance wealth creation and drive economic diversification, according to Vice-President Yemi Osinbajo who launched it in Abuja. Previous administrations only paid lip service to agriculture, but for this plan to be effective, it should be sustainably implemented.

The Minister of State for Agriculture and Rural Development, Heineken Lokpobiri, sums up the fiasco in the sector succinctly. He said, “We are at a very critical time in our nation-building. The cardinal objective of this administration is to see how we can feed ourselves in the shortest possible time because we can no longer afford the import bill of $22 billion on staple foods. So the objective of this government is to be able to produce enough food for ourselves and for export.” With the reality of scarce forex occasioned by diminishing oil income piling enormous pressure on the naira, this makes sense.

However, apart from the curse of oil, which made the country heavily dependent on imports, the bane of agriculture has been the policy flip-flops of the government, corruption and poor returns for farmers. A major effort to revive agriculture started in 1976 when the then military Head of State, Olusegun Obasanjo, launched Operation Feed the Nation. Instead of reforming it, his successor, President Shehu Shagari, hastily dumped OFN in favour of the Green Revolution in 1980. It was more of sloganeering than substance. Neither of the projects survived its proponent in office.

Though inspired by hard times, GAAR is timely. Not only is Nigeria finding it difficult to feed itself, it has lost its position in its areas of comparative advantage in agro-exports in crops like cocoa, groundnuts, palm produce, rubber, and hides and skins. Although uncoordinated attempts were made over the years with the export of cassava, beans and vegetables, the massive importation of palm oil, rice, wheat, fruits, vegetable oil and frozen poultry products, which could be produced locally, weighs down negatively on Nigeria’s food security.

But with the foreign reserves nosediving to $26.22 billion in July, the country is now in a tight corner. Non-oil exports, which include agricultural produce, earned the country $1.1 billion in 2015, down by 59 per cent on the 2014 figure of $2.71 billion, says the Nigerian Export Promotion Council. In what is a self-inflicted downturn, Nigeria is currently behind Ivory Coast and Ghana in cocoa exports.

Yet, these depressing statistics are real: domestic food production has waned over the years. In addition, imported food staples like rice, frozen fish and poultry have become very expensive for the average income earner. This is breeding a frustrated and hungry populace. Therefore, it is critical that the GAAR should work – and quickly too. Strikingly, GAAR has 16 policy thrusts, including access to land, soil fertility, access to inputs, storage and processing to measure performance. The key indicators will be measured in stages.

The country could be helped by the fact that (as of 2011), 39.53 per cent of its 762,000 square kilometres of land is arable, according to the World Bank, but agriculture flourishes in countries where farmers have access to low interest credit. Because of a weak macroeconomic environment, the Central Bank of Nigeria hiked its benchmark interest rate by 200 basis points to 14 per cent in July 2016, while deposit money banks charge up to 20 per cent interest (or more) on loans. To realise the GAAR objectives, therefore, the government’s pledge to reform the Bank of Agriculture so that it can start giving single digit interest loans to farmers from September has to be taken seriously.

The tide turned for agriculture in Europe in 1962 when the European Union introduced the Common Agricultural Policy. The CAP, which invests up to €40 billion in farming in EU member states annually, had an instant impact: in its first decade, the six initial EU members achieved self-sufficiency in food with low consumer prices and increased productivity as evidence. With regular tweaking, other objectives of the CAP, like ensuring a fair standard of living for the agriculture community, stability of markets and food security, have been met. Yet, only 4.7 per cent of Europe’s population is engaged in agriculture.

In implementing GAAR, the Audu Ogbeh-led Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development needs to synergise it with the private sector, states and local councils. The capital base of the BoA stands at N50 billion, but partnership between the government-owned bank and the private sector can increase its lending capacity. Likewise, governments at the other tiers should be accommodated in the plan in terms of access to land for farmers. These tiers should work on and expand the rural road network that hinders the evacuation of farm produce to urban centres. Farmers lose a lot of revenue when their produce is destroyed in this manner.

Some of the farm produce do not fetch good income for farmers because they perish on account of insufficient and obsolete storage facilities. Going forward, GAAR should aim at adding value to agricultural produce through technology-driven processing.

PUNCH NG


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