Niger state is endowed with abundant natural resources, which, if well harnessed, will galvanize the state to economic buoyancy.
With a land mass estimated at 86,000 sq km or 8.6m hectares or 9.3% of the total land mass of the entire land of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, Niger State also enjoys favourable climate suitable for the cultivation of all cash and food crops. The rainy season in the state lasts for between 5 and 6 months another advantage that can make agriculture thrive in the state. It is said that the fertile land of the state is suitable for the cultivation of rice which can be planted 2 times in a year in virtually all parts of the state, melon, cotton, beans, millet, sorghum soya beans, yam and sugarcane.
The climate is also suitable for breeding of cattle sheep and other animals that can be for domestic consumption and industrial use.
With a population of nearly four million people over 80% of which are engaged in the farms the state and its people have no business being classified as poor if these advantages are well harnessed.
However poor funding of the agriculture sector, lack of political will by successive governments and attachment to the old ways of farming which breeds drudgery has not only made the sector weak in the economy of the state but reduced the number of people engaged in the farms. It is still a common feature in the state to see people farming using the archaic methods a practice that has reduced the hectares of land that can be put under cultivation and in the long run the harvests from the land.
Attached to this is the high cost of basic farm inputs like improved seeds, fertilizer, agro chemicals as well as high cost of acquiring agricultural equipment and machines such as tractors bulldozers and animal tractions.
Small scale farmers in the state are also hindered in the drive to expand their farms because of lack of access to credit facilities as a result of stringent conditions given by commercial banks and other financial institutions. This situation has left large scale mechanized farming in the hands of very few people, a development that has led to limited contribution to the economy of the state from these few large scale farmers.
However the Governor Muazu Babangida Aliyu administration has been working to change all these ills to positive for the overall economic transformation of the state and in its people.
Rice which is a food and cash crop is being given attention to the level that it will not only be cultivated for local consumption but will also be for exports to other states and outside the country. The entire zone A senatorial district suitable for planting of rice is being used to achieve that goal.
Apart from providing the area with 50 tractors and their implements the government has also encouraged the farming communities in this area to form themselves into cooperative societies which will enable them access loans from agricultural banks at little or no interest rate. Under the Niger state Rice consortium project an initiative of Governor Aliyu the Government is partnering with the Central Bank of Nigeria CBN to support 10,000 rice farmers with inputs , labour, soft loans, improved seeds and fertilizer at 40% subsidy to ensure they produce with ease increase the size of land under cultivation and hence increase production from the present 500,000 metric tonnes of rice annually to 1m in the first instance and 3m metric tonnes in the next 3 years.
Since processing of the envisaged harvests will lead to increase in the income of farmers the Government is also collaborating with the Federal Government for the establishment of 7 rice mills across the state. The rice mills are to be sited at Wushishi, Badeggi, Wuya, Auna, Kwakuti Doko and Jima Doko.
Similarly the government is cooperating with the Israeli government in the area of mechanization of agriculture, as a result of which Israeli government has opened a pilot farm in Minna where some crops are to be cultivated using the most modern but cheap irrigation facilities.
Inaugurating the scheme recently the Israeli Ambassador to Nigeria Mr Moshe Ram said dependence on oil is not good for the country because 'oil will dry but agriculture will be there forever.
The envoy said the 'simple method of irrigation' introduced on the pilot farm can be replicated across the country to serve as avenue for employment and income generation for the teaming unemployed youths. The government is also taking full advantage of the Federal Governments Growth Enhancement Support an agricultural initiative targeted at small scale farmers to turn things around for farmers and the state.
So far 100 small scale farmers are already engaged with both the federal and Niger state governments sharing the subsidy to be given to these farmers in the provision of farm inputs Farmers on their part will be paying back only 52% of the cost of whatever they may have benefited.
If the teeming unemployed youths in the state return to the farm as being planned and given financial and material support by the government as promised there is no doubt that benefits from the farms will more than double in all ramifications.
To attract more good hands to the farm the Aliyu administration has over the last 5 years purchased 242 tractors at N1.5b which have been sent to 25 local government areas for the opening of tractor hiring schemes in the rural areas while government has been purchasing an average of 25,000 metric tonnes of fertilizer annually for the farmers To date 85,000 metric tonnes have been purchased and sold to farmers at reduced rates
To further make farming more attractive government has been committed to the payment of its counterpart funds to Fadama111, the Root and Tuber expansion Programme the National Programme for Food security and the Rural Access and Mobility project while these schemes have been tending to the needs of the farmers in all parts of the state.
The Commissioner for Agriculture Alhaji Kpotu Abdullahi recently said the state has even surpassed other states in the country in the implementation of these programmes adding that the states success' has attracted study tours by other states and neighbouring countries
With the series of interventions by the Governor Aliyu administration there is no doubt that with more interest shown and commitment by small and large scale farmers the state will not only feed itself but will have abundant surplus for export which will in the long run increase the income of the farmers and boost the economy of the state.
Laleye is a media aide to Governor Aliyu.