That Disgraceful Food Import Bill

That Disgraceful Food Import Bill

TO understand why the majority of the population of a country as naturally endowed as Nigeria wallow in poverty, look no further than our staggering import bill.

That Disgraceful Food Import Bill

The admission by Agriculture and Rural Development Minister, Akinwunmi Adesina, that we spend $11 billion importing food each year, painfully, says it all. More painful is the fact that most of the food items we import can easily be grown locally with enough left over for exports.

The missing link is, and for over four decades has been, a failure of planning, the absence of right policies, discipline and the political will to implement remedial programmes. Adesina has the uneviable task of driving reforms and right policies to revive agriculture in a country where leadership is as notoriously inept as it is corrupt and visionless. He and President Goodluck Jonathan need to move away from their rhetoric of the past three years and show some concrete results in the agriculture sector. And this must be done fast too.

The situation is dire indeed. The top four food imports alone drain up to N1.3 trillion in foreign exchange each year and the monstrous import bill is rising by 11 per cent annually, according to the minister. We spend N356 billion, or roughly N1 billion per day, importing parboiled rice; N217 billion on sugar, and N97 billion on fish. Yet, if the federal and state governments vigorously pursue the right policies, the country can raise local rice production from the current 500,000 metric tonnes per annum to meet the national demand of 2.5 million MT. The country also has the capacity to achieve self-sufficiency in wheat, fish, sourghun and tomatoes, among others. But since FAO named Nigeria in 2011 as one of the four countries facing imminent food crisis, our food import bill has been skyrocketing.

Not only has Nigeria become import-dependent for food, prices of foodstuffs have been rising steadily over the years, adding to the misery of the 60.9 per cent of the population said to be living in abject poverty. In 2011, the International Fund for Agricultural Development described Nigeria’s food situation as very vulnerable, with the country unable to feed its 170 million people.

The Federal Government should get its priorities right, stop wasting resources on refineries, steel plants, power infrastructure and railways that are better left to the private sector and direct its energies toward funding health, roads, education and agriculture. Despite losing its position as the nation’s premier earner of export revenues from the early 1970s when it contributed 80 per cent, agriculture still contributes 42 per cent to Gross Domestic Product, down from over 70 per cent in the late 1960s. About 60 per cent of the labour force is still employed in agriculture and related sectors.

But in a country where youth unemployment is about 50 per cent and 75 per cent of its 80 million youths under-employed, the imperative of developing an industry that supports millions of jobs is essential. The government should strengthen its partnership with stakeholders, including the farmers who say that the $11 billion spent on food imports to promote the economies of other nations should be channelled into making agriculture attractive for investors and our youths. The government needs to devise policies that will ease investment and create the right environment for agriculture to thrive.

We need to rapidly build up transport infrastructure, especially rural roads to cheaply move produce from the farms to towns and cities. Most of the perishable foodstuffs in the country rot on the farms, or en-route from them, which explains why pronouncements of bumper harvests never translate into food abundance in the thickly populated centres or lower prices. Most crucially, the farmers, who are typically poor, elderly and armed with rudimentary implements, see little or no improvement in their livelihood.

Adesina should include in his plans massive investment in storage and preservation facilities across the country and the establishment of commodity commissions that would be privately run, but with strong government backing. The unfavourable operating environment has ensured failure or limited success for the many initiatives of the government to boost agriculture.

The administration has scored itself high in the breakup of the fertiliser cabals that held the nation to ransom for decades and in attracting N80 billion in private sector commitments to the sector in the last one year. The government should, however, not fall into the trap of entangling itself in business or promoting projects that can easily be hijacked by politicians and vested interests, such as the ill-advised move to obtain loans from China for rice mills. Government’s task is policy formulation and support; private operators should be left to take business decisions to achieve the stated goal of self-sufficiency in rice production by 2015. Credits provided by the government through various schemes should be professionally and honestly managed to ensure proper utilisation and recovery. 

We cannot continue to rely on ageing farmers on small farms to feed us. Policies should be put in place to attract investors into large-scale mechanised farming and agro-processing industries to wean the country from its dependence on oil revenues.

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