Agriculture is the current rave in Nigeria. Just like in yesteryears when entrepreneurship became a fad because people could not readily get white collar employment; the shocking slide in oil revenues and the uncertainties it has meted on government contractors, suppliers, traders and the services industry now compels many to venture into agricultural production; with government sophistry leading the pack.
However, it is important to note that agriculture is not a new idea; it has always been with us. That was practically all our forefathers did. In the sixties, it was a significant contributor to income from exports and it is interesting to note that Nigeria is still profiled as an agrarian country with over 60 per cent of its people engaged in agriculture. Notably, Nigeria was the number one exporter of palm oil in the world and the 47th global supplier of groundnuts between 1962 and 1968; providing 18 per cent of world cocoa production, according to the Financial Times in a 2013 documentary.
The much mentioned petroleum, which has afflicted the nation with the ‘Dutch disease’ is not a major job provider in the country; while its proceeds, considering the poisonous level of official venality, hardly benefits the larger populace. The ‘elite capture syndrome’ ensures that oil revenues circulate amongst a few at the top, while agricultural enterprises sustain the greater percentage of the people.
My point is, if we are revisiting the idea of reinstating agriculture as an economic mainstay, it has to be hinged on innovation. In the 16th chapter of the twenty first century, agriculture would only do more for Nigeria today if we can do it differently.
For example, the afore-quoted 2013 publication had it that Nigeria produces 65 per cent of tomatoes in West Africa, yet defeats its efforts by settling into the position of the largest importer of tomato paste. In other words, even if we had maintained the quantum of production in the sixties, we would still not be out of the woods as we would readily lose the gains to post-harvest loses and the importation of processed goods. This is a clear pointer to today’s agric-venturer that focusing on production alone would not bring about the desired economic revolution. It is now time to introduce innovation that would close the existing processing and marketing gaps to make a difference. This would only be achieved through concerted deployment of science and technology to add value to agricultural production.
A contemporary farmer who focuses on production alone would make some income, but would not maximise the potential of his venture. However, an agric-preneur who looks out for an innovative angle, especially if she is educated enough to seek and utilise information would reach for higher proceeds. An encounter I had with a producer of improved seeds in Zaria some 20 years brings home the point I’m trying to make. He illustrated that if a dullard is put in school, he would not perform distinctively no matter how hard he tries because he is already mentally defective. The school, the teachers, instruction materials and so on would not make much of a difference. So, he concluded the lesson by instructing that anyone who wants to venture into cropping must start with the seeds. If the seed is a poor performer, no matter how much you spend on inputs such as fertilizers, pesticides, and so on, the harvest would be poor. Likewise, a cattle rancher would have to decide whether he would be raising the ruminants for beef or for milk. Either way, science has a solution to the breed that would best serve the desired purpose.
The above examples how a clued up entrepreneur can maximise production, but this would not guarantee optimised profits. Here again, science provides solution for preservation and value addition procedures that will ensure that the farmers can sell all of his output, throughout the year, without facing post-harvest losses. The current Minister of Science and technology, Dr. Ogbonnaya Onu, is showing great interest in this area of value addition, which not only hedges the farmer, but also delivers the nation from its illogical but continuing status as an exporter of raw products and importer of expensive refined products. A new mindset to embrace innovation is key to addressing the nation’s balance of payments challenges.
During a visit by Onu to the Federal Institute of Industrial Research, Oshodi, the Director-General of the Institute, Dr. Gloria Elemo, unveiled a tomato processing line that would interest prospective small scale producers of tomato puree, a vegetable that Nigerians already produce in large quantities. The line incorporates a fruits washer and stainless steel grinder; a technology that local engineers and fabricators can commercialise and proliferate in the country to mop up tomato harvests, arrest importation of tomato puree and create jobs through industry.
Many more agricultural resources across the country are waiting to be built up into industrial raw materials for the production of well packaged goods with extended shelf lives that would in turn attract higher returns while also creating employment opportunities along their value chains.