During President Muhammadu Buhari's inaugural speech on May 29, 2015, I noted that the only mention of agriculture was in reference to addressing youth unemployment, where he promised to "attack the problem frontally through revival of agriculture." As the administration winds up after eight years, not only has the youth unemployment rate spiked from 8.22% in 2015 to 19.61% in 2021 according to Statista, the 'success' of Buhari's agricultural reforms is evident in the current state of food price increase in Nigeria.
While food inflation might sound like 'big English' for most Nigerians, inflation figures help to take care of cases where a decrease in the price of goods does not automatically translate to a better life for citizens because of some other factors, but we hardly find a decrease in the price of goods in Nigeria. For that reason, it is sensible to stay on price increments that everyone can relate directly to. The Consumer Price Index measures price changes directly for selected consumer products, and for major consumer products like bread, egg, yam, meat, fish, oil, and fat, statistics show that the CPI moved from 176.3 points in May 2015, to 556.4 points in August 2022. This means a whopping 215.6%. In simpler terms, this means that a loaf of bread worth 200 Naira in 2015 now goes for about 600 Naira.
While the effect of this food inflation is mostly measured in terms of the number of people going hungry, attention is rarely paid to the other effect of food inflation which is malnutrition. The human body will always find ways to survive hunger, and that might mean turning to food products that are poor in nutrients, like the Garri and starch-based diet of most Nigerian homes, leading to Chronic protein-energy malnutrition. Food producers, like bakers of bread, now reduce the quality of their bread to moderate the reduction in the size of bread that money can buy. Food has lost its taste. But with the right investment in nutrition, the burden on our health sector will be reduced because many infirmities will be successfully avoided.
But most people do not have the luxury of caring about malnutrition, so let us consider the hunger figures for this administration. 13.6% of Nigerians were facing severe food insecurity between 2016 and 2018, but that figure reached 19.1% between 2019 and 2021, with 14.5 million Nigerians facing acute food insecurity as of April 2022. Millions of children are dying of hunger and malnutrition, as the Buhari government chose to cut the funding to a nutrition program from the 2020 budget. Families have to choose between hunger and malnutrition. They have to choose between consuming food and giving nutrients to their bodies, and this has become our new normal. Young people now face stunting in both their physiological and psychological growth because of this new normal. It is hard to reconcile the level of hunger and malnutrition in the country with the fact that 84.21 billion Naira was made from Agric exports in the third quarter of last year alone.
Beyond individual growth, the Agric sector generated about 24 percent of Nigeria's GDP, and crop production was nearly 21 percent of that GDP, as of 2021. Yet data shows that about 70 percent of households in Nigeria participate in crop farming activities.
This gives a glimpse into how much potential the Agric sector holds for the economy, and how much of that potential is still underexplored. This inability to reach the destination of plenty that we can see is because our agricultural reforms have the wrong focus and take the wrong direction.
The Buhari government of ‘anti-corruption’ oversaw an Anchor Borrower’s Program that was riddled with corruption. While the CBN and Buhari have claimed that about 800 billion Naira in loans has been disbursed to farmers through the anchor borrowers program, farmers lament that they are getting shortchanged. The NIRSAL, an initiative of the administration to manage loans to farmers, had its MD, Aliyu Abdulhamid, recently sacked for the N5.6bn Wheat project scandal after many allegations of corruption against him had gone unattended to. In the Wheat Project scandal alone, about 20,000 smallholder farmers were shortchanged, according to reports. The corruption made it impossible for rural farmers to access the loans and other financial services they need for seeds, fertilizers, farm equipment, etc. to maximize the potential of their farmlands.
This corruption is only possible because of the financialization and ultra-commercialization of agriculture which has taken attention away from the simple blessing of growing to feed and nurture a hungry nation. Agriculture goes beyond financial services and access to markets. While the bureaucratic red tape faced in the process of accessing financial services and Agric inputs must be addressed with direct outreach to farmers, there is a need for an Agri-nurture project that sees the need to make provision for nourishing food for the masses as its main goal. In this project, the Land law would be revised to make it biased toward the use of land for farming. Better soil management techniques, better seed varieties, fertilizers and pesticides, and provision of farm machinery to the most recent trend in automation, would be a basic provision.
Accessible roads, bridges, and water resources must be provided at optimum capacity. In Kogi and Benue, flooding destroyed people's farmlands and houses because the government failed to put in place the necessary infrastructure to avoid them, despite several warnings. This led to the loss of lives and properties and is a major threat to food security alongside the other major threat of insecurity which has spread downwards to the farms of the south, for example in Ogun state with loss of lives and properties too. There is hardly any commensurate compensation for these farmers by the government.
Rather than let these untapped resources lead to environmental disasters like flooding, the government should invest in turning them into renewable energy with investments in effective irrigation, solar power, small wind turbines, and biogas plants. Agri-nurture will automatically be climate and environment-friendly because we must nurture the earth and nature itself in the process of nurturing ourselves because our species is a part of that nature. Climate-smart agriculture with sustainable land use practices will guarantee the future of the soil we plant on. We can be in harmony with this planet to the point that a lot of these natural disasters will be avoided, or mitigated.
This, therefore, goes beyond the single issue of agriculture but becomes a systemic issue. Agriculture must be seen primarily as a project to feed and nurture the nation, and not primarily as an export business where slaves on the plantation cannot afford to eat the food and fruits they grow because the ‘house niggers’ want to cook and serve them to the masters abroad. This is not to say that people beyond our borders do not need nourishing food, but to expose the capitalist focus of agriculture on profitable food markets rather than the hungry and malnourished population of the world. There are enough resources and technology to connect farmers and help them distribute their products effectively to our hungry nation without giving special priority to exporting the best and feeding the crumbs to our own people. People will not eat gold or dollars.
These are the kinds of Agricultural reforms that Nigerians should demand of their candidates as the 2023 general elections approach. The demand of the people from their representatives should be Agri-nurture. This is the stomach infrastructure that should direct the electorate and not pieces of indomie and cups of Garri shared by politicians. Nigerians should not vote for candidates like the Tinubu of the ruling APC who thinks that climate change is not a problem of Nigeria, but a western issue because we are too poor. Nigeria is not poor. It is billionaires like Tinubu, Atiku, and Obi who have used their greed for personal wealth to make the rest of us poor and hungry.
Addressing hunger and malnutrition should be the main aim of agriculture - a much more major aim than youth unemployment or international trade. This is because the goal of employment in this era is simply the survival of the employed, especially their feeding. When nutrition is addressed, the satisfaction and creativity from that will automatically increase youth engagement, employment, and productivity. Then, we will have more than food to exchange with other people across the world, and we will have Human Resources to manage and maximize those crop resources too. It is when people are well-fed that they can think about supporting other progressive policies for nation-building.
Omole Ibukun writes from Abuja, Nigeria, and can be contacted on 09060277591