To avert looming mass hunger in Nigeria

By Jaiyeola J. Lewu

The Covid-19 lockdown and social distancing have taken such a toll on the economic and social life of Nigerians that many, in a state of desperation, have declared that they prefer to die from Covid-19 infestation than from hunger They say the stay-home order and the stay-safe advocacy have become intolerable burdens when they would prefer to be out searching for their daily bread.

President Muhammadu Buhari ordered the release of grain from the nations silos in order to cushion the effects of food shortages and the skyrocketing prices in the market. So far, whatever came out of those silos seems to have made no significant impact on food shortages and high prices.

Many of those silos were concessioned, but were the concessionaires conscious of the vital role of the nation’s strategic reserves for emergency periods such as Covid-19 pandemic? Those silos are the common heritage or patrimony of the Nigerian people and should be national assets.  They should be regarded resources of last resort; that is why they are very strategic.

The federal government should take back the silos from the concessionaires and should be subjected to no other power except the strict oversight of the presidency on behalf of Nigeria’s 200 million people.

Now that the silos are virtually empty  and  some state governors are buying off available foodstuffs as palliatives for their people, where will sustainability of supply come from, especially as farmers are yet to return to their farms and foodstuffs on-the-counter are not being resupplied, while importation is currently constrained as borders remain closed?

The populace faces the prospect of hunger, the socio-economic and political consequences of which may be worse than Covid-19.

Nigerian farmers need agricultural inputs the most important farm input is SEED. Nigeria has more than 30 seed companies but does not have enough quality seeds for sale to farmers. The seed companies have an organization called Seed Entrepreneurs Association of Nigeria (SEEDAN). It was run down by the Federal Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development, which requested the association to offer national service by producing certified seeds under the Growth Enhancement Scheme (GES) in 2014/15 for distribution to Nigerian farmers. The ministry, through its National Agricultural Seed Council (NASC), introduced many of these companies to GES participating commercial banks to borrow money to effect the supply and distribution of certified seeds to farmers under the GES wallet system that the former Minister of Agriculture, Dr. Akinwumi Adesina had introduced some years earlier. The scheme had a Memorandum of Understanding signed by the Federal Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development and by Nigeria Incentive-Based Risk Sharing System for Agricultural Lending (NIRSAL), Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) and the participating commercial banks with the goal of establishing an escrow account in the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) to fund the scheme. Unfortunately, the escrow account was never funded by the Federal Ministry of Agriculture.

Consequently, seed companies that obtained credit facilities to carry out the GES scheme were thrown into huge, embarrassing debt. The banks that lent them money embarked on penalties and excessive interest charges way above the capacity of the companies to pay back. These companies struggled and moved from pillar to post to get the federal government to pay their banks.  They held a meeting with the vice president as acting president on July 6, 2017, before some payments were staggered from 2015 to 2019, while more payments are were pending.

One of the banks went further to blacklist and charged to court some seed companies and thus barred them from access to facilities from other financial institutions for economic activities that would have resulted in getting the means of repayment. Today, so many of the companies are left prostrate and bankrupt through no fault of theirs but that of the federal government that delayed payments and refused to keep its own end of a solemn bargain.

From the foregoing, it would be very difficult for seed companies concerned to undertake to supply farm seeds without upfront payment or iron-clad guarantees by the federal government. It is a painful case of “once beaten, twice shy”. The Minister of Agriculture, Sabo Nanono, should look into this matter and help resolve it urgently to enhance food security in Nigeria.

Even more ungently, the seed industry apex organization, SEEDAN, should be invited, supported and empowered financially by President Buhari through the Presidential Intervention Seed Fund, to embark on an emergency production, processing and supply of viable quality seeds for distribution to Nigerian farmers for food production to mitigate existing hunger, and to forestall a looming hunger epidemic in the land. There is certainly going to be dearth of supply of good seeds for the current planting season, unless seed companies are empowered to act swiftly and earnestly.

Farm seed is the life of all plants, and it has been the heart, soul and engine of agricultural transformation all over the world. Even if other inputs such as tractors, fertilizers, chemicals and best agricultural practices are applied, without good quality seeds, higher yields will not be attained. Appropriate quality seeds have high genetic purity, uniformity without adulteration, resistant to pests and disease and climate tolerant, resulting in higher productivity and revenue to the farmer. The NASC recently claimed that 81,000 tons of seeds of various cereals are available. Unfortunately, they will not be enough to cover the over 20 million Nigerian farmers.

Incidentally, what is the fate of farmers in other parts of Nigeria who also desire quality seeds for non-cereal crops such as yams, cassava, cocoa, coffee, cashew, oil palm, vegetables, horticultural crops and others? The responsibility of NASC under the recent Seed Law also includes those crops. There should be fair and equitable treatment for all the ecological zones of the country. The federal government should, therefore, give not only necessary but sufficient financial, logistics and technical support to NASC so that its regulatory, monitoring, evaluation and advisory roles can be seen and appreciated not only in the North but also in the Southern geo-political and ecological zones of the country.

The recent federal government foreign loan of $1.1billion for purchase of 10,000 tractors, 50,000 equipment and 632 tractor servicing centres across Nigeria is commendable. However, it is crucial to know that without land clearing, especially in north-central, and southern ecological zones which have trees, forests and swamps, one wonders how some of the 10,000 tractors will be deployed efficiently and effectively for cultivation in those zones.

This scheme definitely calls for the purchase/hiring and deployment of land clearing equipment such as bulldozers and the lowbeds to convey them to and from sites. Besides, efforts have to be made by federal, states and local governments to train operators of these tractors and bulldozers, including mechanics, electricians, electronics and other technical staff for efficiency and maintenance.

Distributions by government and some private philanthropists, of food items as palliatives are only short-term relief measures. The main concern should be what happens when these food items are depleted.  A food crisis would erupt; and to avert it, the nation might have to resort to food importation. That would be a shame if Nigeria resorts to food importation that would invariably create revenues and employment opportunities for other countries at the expense of Nigerians.

President Muhammad Buhari should come up with appropriate and urgent emergency Action Plan and Programmes to avert a looming hunger epidemic in the country which has been exacerbated by Covid-19 pandemic.   The situation demands nothing less.

  • Dr Lewu was Nigeria’s ambassador to Brazil, Paraguay, and Bolivia.


Related Post: