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January 07, 2012

Nigeria's cassava conundrum

Eager to promote self-sufficiency, Nigeria's government wants to clamp down on rice and wheat imports and promote the use of cassava. The plan seems sound, but farmers remain sceptical

Daily, on the outskirts of Abuja, Nourou Salisu produces nearly 10,000 loaves of bread in his traditional clay ovens. Nigeria's buzzing capital provides a ready-made market for his output, but that could be about to change following the government's announcement of policies designed to wean one fifth of Africa's population off its addiction to wheat.

Africa's most populous nation, once seen as the regional breakbasket, wants to curb chronic dependence on foreign food by clamping down on rice and wheat imports and introducing a raft of financial incentives ahead of next year's budget. The aim is to kick the sluggish agriculture sector into life.

Salisu, however, is sceptical about the plans, even if they are aimed at lifting millions like himself out of hunger and poverty. "Nobody will chop [eat] cassava bread. The cassava starch will not allow the bread be soft," he said, when told of policies that will compel bakeries to begin substituting wheat flour for cassava flour.

"We don't have the science [technology] to grind the cassava, to make the bread soft. Our customers will not buy it and it will spoil," he added, gesturing towards the dozens of bags of flour stored in the sweltering bakery.

Last month, President Goodluck Jonathan – eager to persuade his people to patronise locally-grown products –publicly shared a loaf of unsweetened cassava bread with his vice-president and ministers. However, his attempt to open an internal market for the world's largest cassava grower isn't new; almost a decade ago, former head of state Olusegun Obasanjo tried and failed to force bakers to use at least 10% of the tuber in breadmaking.

Billed as a central part of the new administration's "transformation" agenda – a sign of how badly Nigeria's agriculture sector needs fixing – proposals in a preliminary budget to slash a $68bn import bill include a 100% levy on rice and wheat imports next year. Wheat costs the government a staggering $3.9bn annually, while Nigeria is the world's largest rice importer – at a cost of $6.25m a day – even though its climate is ideal for rice growing.

Cassava is being touted as a potential source of food self-sufficiency for Nigeria. By banning its import from next year, and offering tax rebates for millers who use at least 40% of cassava flour in breadmaking, the government hopes to encourage production and spur businesses to buy it.

With the continent still reeling from food riots over the past two years, agriculture and water resources minster Akin Adesina believes these policies could spark the kind of "green revolution" which has largely bypassed Africa.

"We have a situation where we are dealing with large numbers of unemployed people and high levels of poverty, and these are the priorities of the government," he said. "We must create jobs locally through import substitution."

According to the UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation, Africa has more than doubled cereal imports over the past three decades, a trend some countries have begun trying to reverse through proactive policies. In Uganda, for instance, rice output more than doubled in the space of four years after a 75% tax was imposed on imports. The duty also spurred the construction of new mills, lowering the price of locally refined rice. Malawi, meanwhile, one of Africa's poorest countries, reversed its food deficit in just two years through a targeted subsidy programme that helped finance fertiliser for farmers.

Brushing off critcisms of protectionism amid a global downturn, Adesina argued Nigeria could follow suit: "Every nation in the world protects its markets and farmers. Nigeria's farming population is made up of more than 70% of smallholder farmers. Our policies are directed at creating new market opportunities for them."

Plans are underway to replicate a 2009 government-funded scheme that resulted in maize yields rising from 1.5 tons to 4.2 tons per hectare in participating farms. But experts say a lack of funding will make it difficult to produce 2.5 million metric tons of rice – enough to feed the country and leave an excess of 500,000 tons – by 2015.

Nigeria was once a net food exporter, but poor infrastructure, lack of finance and misguided policies meant agriculture was progressively shunted aside as the focus shifted to oil. But the country's vast oilfields have enriched only a tiny minority, leaving many of the country's 150 million farmers poor and hungry.

Past form has left many doubtful that the government has the capability or political will to implement effective change. "The problem we have is that some of the financial institutions and most of the infrastructure is weak," said Kamar Hamza, a Nigeria-based financial consultant. "On paper, the policies are very good. But when it comes to implementation, we have a parasitic civil service whose main interest is making money from government policies. They can easily hijack the plan."

Another factor is the government's financial commitment to agriculture. It has only allocated 2% of the budget (around $500m) to agriculture, making it one of eight countries that have failed to assign at least 10% of annual budget to agriculture, as agreed under the terms of the Comprehensive Africa Agricultural Development Programme adopted at the African Union summit in Maputo in 2003.

A string of failed agricultural policies has bred scepticism among farmers. Many complain that microcredit funds allocated to them routinely disappear into the country's labyrinthine political system. "And anyway, there are no roads. There is a fuel shortage. Are we to carry everything we grow on our backs to market?" muses Sunday Alachi, a subsistence cassava farmer.

His fears perhaps echo those holding back potential private-sector investors, who are needed if government policies are to bear fruit.

The Guardian

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