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“The change must be cultural” – Audu Ogbeh, Agriculture minister, Nigeria

By Nicholas Norbrook in Lagos
Posted on Tuesday, 2 October 2018 14:12

Something refreshing happened when Nigeria’s minister of agriculture, Audu Ogbeh, arrived ‘on seat’ in November 2015. He maintained and deepened the programmes of his predecessors rather than replacing them. This included, for example, the Nigeria Incentive-Based Risk Sharing System for Agricultural Lending, launched by Akinwumi Adesina – now president of the African Development Bank. “We did not throw it overboard,” says Ogbeh. “It is helping the big-scale operators to be able to access credit with the commercial banks, given their allergy to lending to agriculture.”

But if Ogbeh has a passion, it is for the smallholder. “By far, the majority of farmers in Africa today own no more than a football-field worth of land. And there are so many that managing their demands and production is beyond the capacity of any single office.”

Reaching them demands an army of extension workers – so called for their ability to extend advice and improve access to inputs like seeds and fertiliser to farmers in the field.

Ethiopia claims to have several hundred thousand extension workers. In contrast, “We have a very poor ratio of farmer to extension worker,” admits Ogbeh. “[Extension programmes] existed in the past under a World Bank scheme, but they withdrew and the system died. But we are reviving them.” Ogbeh says he wants to have four or five extension workers for each of Nigeria’s 774 local government areas.

The legacy of coups

Extension workers are particularly useful in educating farmers about practices that have been proven to increase productivity elsewhere. Ogbeh offers an example: “In Minnesota, at a corn farm, the planting distance of maize on the ridge is six inches apart. In Nigeria, they are one metre apart. In between, the weeds take over. So they have to weed the farm twice, lose all their money and the yield of the farm is so low – two tonnes per hectare, compared to the farmer out in Europe or the US who has 15, 20, 25 tonnes per hectare.”

Ogbeh argues that Nigeria’s periods of military rule were particularly devastating to farming knowledge. “India never had a coup! So they could work through serious problems of poverty, but not us,” he explains. For example, before independence there were clear grazing areas for cattle herders in the north covering 5m hectares. These lands were then encroached on by a growing population and seized by generals.

This plays into the current deadly conflict pitting pastoralists, who are suffering from environmental degradation, against settled farmers, whose crops are trampled and eaten by hungry cows. “We are inviting people to go into farming, and then their farms get destroyed,” says Ogbeh. “We are also interested in the wellbeing of the cattle because we need the beef and milk.” He adds that on their forced marches to find sources of water and food, cows abort if they become pregnant and produce little milk. “And the beef getting to Lagos is as good as plastic.”

The government is seeking to create a system of ranches. That will require finance to create dairy processing plants and feed mills for cattle. It would include reviving grazing areas – “or what is left of them. There were 415 of them before, some gazetted, some not,” Ogbeh says. Then, the idea is to start building mini-­dams to provide the water cattle need. That is to be done in conjunction between the state and federal government.

But the real change will have to be a cultural one, argues Ogbeh. “We are saying to them, stay in one spot. Things do change. We [Nigerians] used to kill twins because they were seen as horrors – that has changed.”

Whether or not he is able to convince herders to change, one thing that is starting to shift is perceptions around the amount of money in farming. Central bank governor Godwin Emefiele claimed last year there were 88,000 newly minted naira millionaires from the rice revolution that has swept Kebbi State.

This, claims Ogbeh, is thanks to government efforts: the Anchor Borrowers’ Programme, which has provided more than 70,000 farmers with enough inputs to grow a hectare of rice in Kebbi State; the lowering of import ­duties on agricultural equipment like tractors and rice mills; and a deal with Morocco’s OCP to supply phosphates.

It is not just smallholders who are doing big things. Minister Ogbeh singles out rice producer Coscharis Group for praise at the other end of the scale. “[They are] about to become one of the largest rice producers of the country. [They have] an 8,000ha rice farm, with some of the most sophisticated combine harvesters I have ever seen,” says Ogbeh. The ministry has given Coscharis free access to a government silo and is importing an additional 10 rice mills, each able to process 30,000 tonnes a year, adding to Nigeria’s existing 27 mills. “The first set of big rice mills were bought by the federal government and sold to millers at a whopping discount, with interest rates of 4% down from 25%,” says Ogbeh.

Reversing migration

At a smaller scale, Ogbeh says that farming has the opportunity to provide employment for young people. The Livelihood Improvement Family Enterprises scheme is commissioning a slew of projects, including small rice mills and palm-oil mills, as well as aggregating farmers into cooperative arrangements where they can pool their purchasing power for inputs. “It’s a strategy for reversing migration both from the village to the city and from the city to Europe,” says Ogbeh. “We will set these things up in village communities where so many young graduates from schools, polytechnics and universities return back to their villages with nothing to do.”

It is quite an agenda. But Ogbeh says the traditional roadblock to reform – a sclerotic administration – is tempered when he reminds colleagues about the crisis to come. “I say to them: ‘When the crisis of population comes, I won’t be here. You will,” the 70-year-old minister says. “How are you going to feed [Nigeria’s] 415 million people by 2050?”

From the September 2018 print edition

Top photo:Audu Ogbeh, Agriculture minister, Nigeria
Credits: Lemmy Vedutti Photography

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