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July 08, 2008

Nigeria giving more attention to agriculture

Nigeria, self-sufficient in food not so long ago, currently spends an annual three billion dollars on imported products to feed itself, with the agricultural sector now seen as a victim of the 1960s oil boom.

"If we had continued, as we developed the oil resources, to develop agriculture and other industries, we would not have been in the state in which we are now," former Organisation of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (Opec) president Rilwan Lukman said in a recent interview.

Nigerian-born Lukman, who heads a presidential reform panel on oil and gas, was lamenting the country’s heavy dependence on oil at the expense of agriculture.

Although Nigeria has 79 million hectares of fertile land, only 32 million, 46 percent, are cultivated. More than 90 percent of agricultural output is produced by households with access to less than two hectares.

Lukman said a 25 percent plunge in Nigeria’s oil output since January 2006, when Niger Delta militants stepped up violent attacks on the oil industry, should be enough to induce policymakers to pay adequate attention to agriculture.

Kingsley Agha, spokesman for Agriculture Minister Abba Sayyadi Ruma, said the current global food crisis should serve as a catalyst.

Nigeria, like most developing countries, has been hard hit by soaring food prices in recent months. The price of rice, a staple cereal in this country of 140 million, has more than doubled in past months.

"The current food crisis is a wake-up call and our government has risen to the occasion. The main problem of agriculture is not production per se but storage. This is why we are building silos in the 36 states of the federation," he said. "We are encouraging farmers to create cooperatives in order to access loans through our micro credit schemes. We have also embarked on an aggressive construction of feeder roads to link the rural farmers with where they can market their produce," he said.

He said the government, determined to reduce dependence on imports, wanted to increase food reserves from 300,000 metric tons currently to 1.6 million in the next two years and to double rice output to 5.6 million tons annually over the next four years. He added that 650,000 metric tons of fertilizers had been distributed this year.

Sabo Nanono, head of Nigeria’s All Farmers Association of Nigeria (Afan) maintained that the country "can grow enough food and even export. It has all the favourable conditions to produce all manner of farm produce including low-land and upland rice. The major problem is the absence of political will, he said, adding that the government should ban food imports, provide farmers with improved seed varieties, fertilizer, herbicides and pesticides."

Dahiru Badamasi, a farmer at the Kadawa irrigation fields, 35 kilometres south of Kano, northern Nigeria, said, "If the government assists us with micro credit and improved seeds and modern farming tools to cultivate the 22,000 hectares we have here we can produce 30,000 tons of rice annually."

Hakeem Ajeigbe, an agronomist with the International Institute for Tropical Agriculture (IITA), also said Nigeria could be self-sufficient if the government made early maturing improved seeds available. "With the rainy season becoming gradually shorter, the government should provide farmers with improved seed varieties with a short maturity period and high yield," he added.

Before the discovery of oil in commercial quantities in 1956, agriculture was the mainstay of the economy.

"From historical records, palm oil became an export commodity as far back as 1558 and by 1830, the Niger Delta, now the oil region, was the major source of palm oil, which dominated the country’s export list for more than 50 years," an assistant director in the agriculture ministry told AFP.

Cotton joined the list in 1856, while cocoa was introduced and became an export crop in 1895, she said.

She said together with rubber, groundnut and palm kernel in the later years, these cash crops formed the main source of revenue, export and foreign exchange for the government to provide social and economic infrastructure.

According to the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN), in 1960, the year of independence, more than 70 percent of the country’s came from the agricultural sector while mining, including crude oil, contributed a mere 1.2 percent. An estimated 95 percent of the nation’s food needs was locally produced.

But the bank noted that the contribution of oil to gross domestic product surged a few years after independence. In 2006, oil accounted for 61.2 percent of GDP and 80 percent of budget revenue.

The Times

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