What would it cost Nigeria to remain dependent on food imports in order to feed its population? It is a dreadful scenario no one wants but it is one the country has been grappling with for decades. One of the challenges is how to produce enough food that would serve the country’s appetite.
Relying on food imports should not be a sustainable habit. There are grave consequences. A country that depends on food imports is sowing the seeds of present and future instability. That practice would lead to food insecurity. It would deplete the nation’s pool of limited foreign exchange reserves. It would discourage local agricultural production. It would promote ostentatious lifestyle. It would sharpen public palate for luxurious but expensive foreign food the country can hardly afford. It would diminish the value of home-grown food.
Other likely consequences include a slowdown in the pace of national economic development and the gradual breeding of a generation that is encouraged to be outward-looking rather than inward-looking. No country advances its economy by raising citizens who are made to feel that anything foreign is of better value than anything homegrown.
Nigeria’s status as an import-dependent country must concern all of us because it is not the right strategy to develop a country. The Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) reminded everyone last week that the best way to enhance the economy is to curtail import of foreign goods, boost investment in agriculture and diversify sources through which the country earns foreign exchange.
This is not the first time Nigeria would express concerns about the rising volume of food imports and the high cost of servicing the nation’s appetite for foreign food. On May 23, 2011, Goodluck Jonathan, in the position of President, spoke about his government’s ambitious plan to end importation of rice, sugar and fertilisers by 2015. He said: “By the end of four years, I believe that Nigeria has no business importing rice. Nobody will come to me with a briefcase and say to me he wants to import fertiliser. We have vast land, and yet we import all these essential goods.”
Jonathan’s view was a grand plan eloquently laid out. Ten years after he outlined that lofty objective, the whole idea has remained a pipe dream. Nigeria has continued to import all kinds of food products.
A good indication of how the country has advanced in agricultural production could be gleaned from its food import bill over a couple of decades. In an address he delivered in Ibadan in mid-August 2011, Akinwunmi Adesina, who served as minister of agriculture in Jonathan’s government, provided a breakdown of Nigeria’s food import cost over 10 years.
In that speech, he said: “In 2010 alone, Nigeria spent N635 billion on import of wheat, N356 billion on import of rice, N217 billion on sugar importation and despite the huge marine resources spent N97 billion importing fish. This is not fiscally, economically or politically sustainable. Nigeria is eating beyond its means. While we all smile as we eat rice every day, Nigerian rice farmers cry as the imports undermine domestic production.”
The figures presented by Adesina must be seen as outdated, given that the speech was delivered more than a decade ago. Nigeria’s food import bill has escalated and worsened between 2011 and 2021. Adesina was correct. We consume foreign food that is beyond our means. It is that appetite for foreign food that must be reduced significantly, if Nigeria must conserve its foreign currency reserves. No country can live in that profligate way without regard for its limited resources, its foreign exchange earnings and its foreign debts.
Adesina said that during his tenure as agriculture minister, he pushed a policy intended to “turn Nigeria into a breadbasket – a powerhouse for food production.”
To achieve that objective, he said the country must experience radical changes in the way citizens perceived the value of agriculture.
He said: “Agriculture is a business, not a development programme. It must be structured, developed, resourced and financed as a business. We will revamp our cocoa and oil palm sectors and regain the lost glory in the commodities. We will revamp cotton production, as well as onions and tomatoes. We have also targeted major improvements in production and markets for livestock, fisheries and aquaculture.”
Despite these worthy official recommendations aimed to enhance agricultural production, little has changed. Ministers and other government officials continue to delude themselves about the perception that Nigeria is metaphorically Africa’s breadbasket. Every day, our officials express longstanding national aspirations that have never been implemented or achieved.
To become self-sufficient in food production, Nigeria must attempt to move from the plane of dreams into a platform of realism. President Muhammadu Buhari must initiate a revolution in agriculture that would incentivize and encourage active participation by a wide section of our society. These would make citizens to see that agriculture is a worthwhile occupation. Local food production has remained unattainable and a mirage because many people misconceive agriculture as something they would take up only as a last resort, or when they have no alternative sources of income. It is this misperception and general impression that drive public indifference to agriculture.
The Federal Government should encourage wider participation in agriculture through public-private sector partnership and investment. This could be done through incentives that would stimulate people’s interest in farming. When people have access to basic resources, loans and farming equipment, the campaign to revolutionise agriculture will be more meaningful. At the moment, there are many youths across the country who are keen to start farming but lack access to land. They have no resources with which to commence farming, and no financial and technical support from the government or private sector.
Government and the private sector should disseminate the message that agriculture is a worthy occupation and a veritable source of employment.
A radical reform in agriculture, the kind of “paradigm shift” that Adesina talked about in 2011, must lead all efforts to improve local food production in Nigeria. That transformation will change public perceptions of agriculture as a business reserved for ne’er-do-wells. There are, of course, other concerning difficulties the government must contend with. One of them is the capricious nature of electricity supply.
Nigeria can address the challenges of rising food importation and lack of public interest in agriculture through at least two principal approaches. The first is through low-interest loans that should be offered to small and medium-scale farmers and unemployed youths aiming to invest in agriculture. The loans could be offered in the form of micro credit facilities.
The second approach is through provision of farming implements, including fertiliser subsidies and other low-cost storage facilities. Land for agricultural production must be made available because it is paramount in any effort to revolutionise agriculture nationally. Access to land trumps all other incentives. Without access to land, mass participation in agriculture would be unachievable. No one can cultivate crops in cyberspace.
If the government believes it can reduce the high cost of food importation, the first challenge must be to curb public appetite for foreign food, including that persistent view that foreign food is better than homegrown foodstuff. The government must also lead the way to sustainable food production by creating an environment that encourages mass participation in agriculture.