Agriculture: More than Words, Time for Action

And God said, “Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is on the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit. You shall have them for food – Genesis 1:29

When we think of the Indian economy and its place in the world, we think of a population stretching over a billion, of driven, highly educated young people doing amazing things in the global tech space, of call centers and a growing pool of talent that makes the country an attractive destination for investors and corporations in search of cheap skilled labour. What is not readily known is that most of what we see of India, as a growing industrial power, is underpinned by an agricultural sector that contributes 17.4% to the country’s GDP, employs 48.9% of the working population and is the principal source of livelihood for about 58% of the country’s population. Agriculture is the backbone of the Indian economy. And for any country serious about sustainable development, agriculture is a key policy consideration. It was the British intellectual Samuel Johnson who said, “Agriculture not only gives riches to a nation, but the only riches she can call her own.”

Economic theorists have since agreed on the imperative of agriculture to boosting industrialization. After all, the agricultural revolution preceded the industrial revolution. Agriculture is and has remained vital for reducing urban unemployment and income inequality, and if there is anything close to a silver bullet for the reduction of poverty and food sufficiency, it is agriculture. There is nothing revolutionary about this idea. The question is, why Nigeria hasn’t benefited from Agriculture as much as it should.

We have the natural endowments, arable land and resources, to maximize the potential agriculture has to provide food sufficiency, provide employment in rural areas, increase export earnings, diversify the economy, and improve living standards. Currently Nigeria has 84 million hectares of land suitable for farming, with less than half of it being utilized. Outmoded machinery, lack of adequate storage, poor transportation infrastructure, etc, all account for an underperforming agricultural sector. Between 1962 and 1968 Nigeria was the biggest exporter of palm products, the second largest producers of cocoa, and exported 47% of global groundnut output. But today we can barely feed ourselves, relying on imports instead.

It is a shame that we produce 65% of the tomatoes in West Africa while remaining the largest importer of tomato paste in the region. We spend over $11billion importing rice, fish and sugar. What happened? Every government since the oil boom of the 70s, after agriculture took a downward spiral, has pledged to revamp the sector, but it has largely moved beyond rhetoric. Nothing much has changed. We are still struggling to industrialize, all the while neglecting one of the key engine rooms of that industrialization – agriculture.

We have to do things differently. China and India are amongst the biggest agricultural producers in the world because their huge populations make food security a priority. Nigeria is no different. To continue to pay lip service to agricultural production, to continue to focus on oil because it provides quick money that can be diverted into private pockets, is to court disaster.

We have not wanted for policies on how to improve the performance of the agricultural sector. Every government in the past has had one blueprint or the other. What has been lacking is the will. We need champions from the local governments to the states to the federal government, across branches of government, to rise up and treat the sector with the much needed urgency. We need public-private partnerships, multi stakeholder platforms and collaborations to make a difference. According to a World Economic Forum report, “growth generated by agriculture in sub-Saharan Africa is estimated to be 11 times more effective in reducing poverty than GDP growth in other sectors.” Poverty is a big problem. Agriculture is a ready solution. But we need to act now!


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