Among the various aspects of the transformation agenda of President Goodluck Jonathan, none in my opinion is as important as the agricultural aspect. In a country where poverty, estimated to be in the region of 70% of the 160million, is easily drenched in hunger, lack of proper nutrition and food insecurity, one sure way of reducing poverty is the transformation of the agricultural sector. All other transformational exertions can only be meaningful and sustainable in the long run if the agricultural transformation is successful. No need going to the moon when majority of your citizens can't feed well.
It is good at this point to appreciate the efforts of the minister of agriculture and rural development Dr Adewunmi Adesina whose enthusiasm for the job of making a success of his work is incomparable to other ministers of the Federal Executive Council.
At the Ogun State Economic Summit recently where one heard him speaking about government policies leading to the elimination of fertilizer cabal, promotion of local production of rice and cassava, proposed re-introduction of privately run Marketing Boards, introduction of improved varieties of cocoa and palm trees among other ongoing initiatives, it was clear all things being equal, at last we have a man that can turn around the fortunes of agriculture in Nigeria with the benefits of not only alleviating poverty but diversifying our economy.
Of note are the areas of priority that the Minister is pursuing fanatically to transform our agriculture for poverty reduction, diversification of the economy and also conservation of our foreign exchange. One is talking about rice and wheat importations that swallow our foreign exchange in spite of local production and/or alternatives. Indeed, one cannot fault his fixation on saving us foreign exchange.
From available figures dished out by the minister in his advocacy for us to consume what we produce or have alternatives to, Nigeria spend N356 billion on rice imports annually. The sad aspect as revealed by the minister is that most of our rice imported is expired by about 15 years! Sadder still is the fact that in virtually all geopolitical zones of the country rice production is going on or could be embarked upon on commercial scale. So one is in total agreement with the minister on the need to transform this importation anomaly to save our foreign exchange.
His promise of using high yielding seeds for local production and improving value added to the ensuing production through establishment of rice mills is a welcome development. The initiative has all the potential of saving us foreign exchange as well as creating employment and of course forms a critical aspect of our food security. Definitely we can meet the target of total ban of rice import by 2015.
The second area of priority is that of cassava. Well this is a plant that produces not only staple food across the nation but also raw materials for industrial uses. Also it is a plant that can be cultivated in at least 80% of Nigeria arable land.
But Dr Adesina's drive is to make this plant a replacement for wheat flour in the production of bread, another staple on the Nigerian menu. This angle is equally geared towards addressing a dependence that is making us lose billions of dollars in foreign exchange for something we have an alternative to here. Cost of our annual wheat import from official record is N635 billion.
So anything to reduce or eliminate this huge expenditure is a welcome development. The promotion of cassava based bread is a step in this direction and the presidency has fully bought into this if what we read and see demonstrated is anything to go by. From the farmers producing cassava to Bakers making bread and other stakeholders, incentives are being put in place to ensure that this versatile crop is used to save us foreign exchange, improve rural farmers' incomes as well as ensure patronage of local products. Equally a higher tariff is expected to come on stream soon on wheat anytime soon.
Farmers, a key variable in the transformation equation benefit through the policy of Growth Enhancement Scheme, GES, which aims to make farming enterprise a wholly commercial venture. Apart from rice and cassava, farmers engaged in cocoa and palm production are expected to benefit from the scheme which basically subsidized their operations. The e-wallet programme to actualize this is on stream.
But, in my view, a critical aspect is missing in the ongoing agricultural transformation. Not much is being done for now about transforming aquaculture and fish farming which in the last decade or so has gained some popularity among Nigerians interested in investing in agriculture.
Let me state my subjectivism at this point as one involved in the popular trends of investing in agriculture. Of course Nigeria is blessed in the area of aquaculture and fisheries. About 9 states have coastal boundaries with the sea and many inland states have rivers where fishing activities take place. We should ordinarily be able to supply our fish needs which in my view are of essence in adequate nutrition and food security as there is no religious or social restriction on fish consumption.
But that is not the case as there is a serious shortfall in meeting demands. According to Dr Gbola Akande, Director of Fish Technology at Nigerian Institute of Ocean and Marine Resource, NIOMR, annual fish demand in Nigeria is 2.5 million tonnes with local production from all sources amounting to a paltry 650,000 tonnes. The reasons for this shortfall range from polluted waters, piracy and illegal fishing by foreign fishing trawlers to lack of development of aquaculture and fish farming.
So we end up expending about $800 million annually importing fish to meet the shortfall in local production. This I think is as scandalous as the case of rice and wheat if not more so considering the health and human well being implications. Not only is fish a ready source of protein, a major component of any balance diet, it contains all manner of vitamins and chemicals for human health. Regrettably, so far the transformation agenda has not touched this sector and its practitioners. As in the case of rice the shortfall can be met or greatly address through local production through aquaculture and fish farming.
For now fish farmers are not getting the positive treatment that the above mentioned sectors are getting in spite of the fact that the sector will also save scare foreign exchange, provide employment that is attractive to young graduates and ensure food security. Many budding fish farmers who invested millions are not only struggling with inputs like feeds and fingerlings but ending up without market stracture for their produce, which considering the level of poverty as defined above is devastating.
Chief Kayode Odunaro, Abeokuta.