Happy times can almost cause vertigo. Nigeria appears to be lightening up with increased power supply, marginal drop in the cost of foodstuff and fuel pump price, and a renewed interest in forward integration, especially in the aspect of agricultural commodities processing by government and emerging entrepreneurs.
These times can still get better considering the weight of our natural endowments. A recent survey monitored by the News Agency of Nigeria reports that the price of yam, one of Nigeria’s most expensive staples, has dropped by 50 per cent in their areas of origin like Niger and Benue states and the price drops are slowly slithering into the cities.
The pace can be faster but with improved transport infrastructure. Economic diversification and indeed agricultural production and marketing may not be realistically pursued without the development of our rail system and waterways.
Fortunately, these areas appear to be receiving attention. This means that if things can go right for long, more hands will get busy working and eating than carrying placards and raising dust.
Increased agricultural production can be enhanced through the development of irrigation infrastructure and establishment of farm estates across the country, especially for workers who live in the outskirts of major cities. Admirably, there are smallholder vegetable farmers who plough the silts at the fringes of the Oworonshoki Expressway in Lagos. Their sense of industry is quite commendable and they can be assisted to do more. They are the reason that Lagosians now enjoy affordable salad ingredients throughout the year. Through their industrious activities, the city no longer depends solely on the North for its supply of vegetables like carrots, cabbage, cucumber, lettuce, water melon and so on.
Unhappily, as hard as these young men, who hail mostly from the Northern parts work, their poverty can be seen a mile off from the tarpaulin-shack homes within their farmlands, the tedium of manual irrigation methods they deploy and the unsanitary environments they work in.
The government and indigenous civil engineers can step in to upgrade the activities of these smallholders through the introduction of semi-mechanised, planned irrigation infrastructure to serve each farm cluster. Sanitary markets can also be developed within those vicinities to encourage the farmers to concentrate on production and to reduce post-harvest losses.
With support, more unemployed and inadequately employed persons can get actively engaged, extend their frontiers through off-season farming and forward integration to add value and create markets for their produce. That level of venturing will dignify their lives and save them the trouble of reporting to work for long months even when they are not sure of getting paid at the end of each month. Official venality is readily premised on the fact that the salary is meagre or delayed but those who can subsist with agriculture can choose to live honestly and enjoy food security.
Irrigation enables off-season farming and makes it possible for food to be available all year round instead of depending solely on rain-fed farming. An extended form of it, called fertigation, involves the introduction of nutrients into the water with which the plants are fed. This is a very efficient way of distributing nutrients to the crops.
One event I attended sometime back gave me ideas I will share here on how small farm holders can earn more from their investments. Engr. Ademola Olorunfemi’s 2009 inaugural lecture on how irrigation farming can help Nigeria attain what he called ‘Food Sovereignty’ was quite instructive. It added empiricism to what a large-scale farm manager, Danladi Budha had told me 10 years ago about how irrigation was the primary reason their 400 hectare farm holding was profitable. They invested in irrigation facilities which enabled off-season farming.
According to him, rain usually wash farm inputs away resulting in lower yields whereas with low pressure irrigation in the dry season, the nutrients remain within the active root zone; providing better harvests than rain fed crops.
So, government can, through the state agricultural development programmes, assist the unemployed, teachers and other low-paid workers to acquire farmlands and small-scale irrigation facilities and also take an interest in mopping up their harvests for proper storage to prevent post-harvest losses. Agric-entrepreneurs, who understand opportunity and can afford it need not wait for the government.
Also, Nigeria’s indefatigable three-pronged Minister, Mr. Raji Fashola, can include the establishment of farm-estates across the country in his upcoming housing projects to provide both shelter and food security for occupants.
About 10years ago, I visited a farm estate in Ikorodu, Lagos which was established by Chief Obafemi Awolowo while he was the premier of the Western Region. Although the environment was dilapidated, it still provided livelihoods for the progeny of the original beneficiaries of allocations in the estate.
The farm estate model can enable affordable boarding school systems in Nigeria. About 20 years ago, former Director of erstwhile British Council Kaduna, Late Dr. Philip Adegbile, showed us round the farms he maintained within the grounds of a boarding school he had just started at Doka, Kaduna.
The holdings included a small cattle ranch, poultry, guinea pig pens, grains and vegetable farms, plantain and banana shrubs, and orchards, which provided practical experience for students and also quality food for both boarding students and resident workers.