opinionBy Nasir Ahmad El-Rufai
A good proportion of young people today were taught from primary school that agriculture is the mainstay of the Nigerian economy. Agricultural Science as a subject is part of our educational curriculum and therefore taught at all levels of education. In spite of the constant emphasis on agriculture as a core aspect of the Nigerian economy in paper, the sector long since ceased to be the main revenue source since the oil boom of the 1970s.
Agriculture is extremely important for the sustenance and development of a nation. Apart from its subsistence uses, it is potentially a huge employer of labour for a country as Nigeria which is blessed with abundant arable land. Agriculture is a means of boosting the GDP and export profile of a nation thereby also contributing to its foreign exchange reserves. The advantages are innumerable; it is therefore atrocious to know that this sector of the economy is not given the priority it deserves.
Israel is the poster child for a nation that has turned the odds in its favour agriculturally. More than half its land is desert and the climate is unsuitable for agriculture, yet, it is a world leader in agricultural technologies and a major exporter of fresh produce. Only 20% of Israeli land is arable yet it produces 95% of its nutritional requirements.
Nigeria on the other hand, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) 2011 statistics, has a total land area of 91,077,000 Hectares with an agricultural area of 76,200,000 Hectares. In simple terms, about 83.7% of the land in Nigeria is arable, out of which less than half is currently under cultivation. Not only do we have vast amounts of arable land, we also have favorable weather for year-round cultivation of crops.
In spite of the foregoing, Nigeria does not produce enough food for internal consumption. In fact, 2010 FAO statistics placed Nigeria as the 5th highest importer of rice in the world, 10th highest for wheat and 18th highest for sugar. Sadly, these are all products that can be grown locally and if managed properly, can be exported in the near future.
It is more saddening to know that Nigeria once shone in its agricultural sector around the post-independence era right before the oil boom. This was the period when agriculture was not as mechanized and technologically advanced as it is now. All these factors notwithstanding, Nigeria competed satisfactorily in world exports. The only produce which is still being exported reasonably and which Nigeria has consistently remained in the top five of world exporters is cocoa.
Nigeria was also the largest exporter of groundnut between the early 1960s and 70s. Devastatingly, there was a decline from around 1974 till date; these days, Nigeria does not feature among the top 20 groundnut exporters. The story of palm oil and kernel exports is not much different. Nigeria, which used to be the largest exporter, has hardly appeared among the top 20 exporters since 1980.
For a country blessed with so much food production endowments, the 2012 Global Hunger Index (GHI) scored Nigeria at 15.7. This index assesses all available data on hunger, undernourishment and the pattern of food consumption within countries, and the higher the score, the more serious the nation's hunger challenges. According to the ranking, the score of 15.7 for Nigeria therefore indicates a 'serious' hunger problem in the country. Ironically, nations like Iran, Libya and Jordan which are substantially desert nations scored less than 5 on the GHI, indicating the near absence of hunger and malnutrition.
What exactly is the problem with past and current governments that the issue of food security - the adequate production and availability of food within the country is treated with such levity? Could it be that the daily provision of about N1m for each of the three square meals in the villa has deluded our leaders from the hunger that abounds just outside the walls of their abode? Are our leaders so disconnected from the citizens that they do not appreciate the hunger and malnutrition problems that many households face daily? Let us look at the 2013 federal budget for some answers or lack of them.
The 2013 federal budget makes a total provision of N81.68bn (1.7% of the total budget sum) for agriculture. Our previous analyses of states' budget indicated that their typical budgetary provisions are only slightly better than the federal government's - ranging from 1% to 7% of the total budget. Consequently, whatever we can deduce from the federal budget also largely applies to the states, and the federation as a whole.
In the 2013 federal budget, the sum of N48.73bn (about 60% of the total agriculture provision) is proposed for capital expenditure while N32.95bn is earmarked for recurrent expenses. In 2003, one of the most prominent decisions arrived at during the African Union (AU) Maputo Declaration on Agriculture and Food Security in Africa was the "commitment to the allocation of at least 10 percent of national budgetary resources to agriculture and rural development policy implementation within five years".
Ten years after that declaration, Nigeria's federal budgetary provision for agriculture is less than 2%, while the state's average about 4% nationally. This is simply outrageous and unbelievable! While the agricultural sector's contribution to GDP is laudable at N13.41 trillion in 2012 (the highest non-oil contribution to our revenues), the latent unexplored endowments indicate that slightly more attention given to the sector will restore it to its pride of place in the economy.
Scrutinizing the budget further, it is worrying to see how the largest proportions of the funds are earmarked for recurrent spending. This column believes that the agricultural research institutes ought not to be federal responsibilities even in distorted federalism - they properly belong to the state governments or in some cases under the relevant geopolitical zone, and not the federal government. The spending patterns of these institutions only confirm that position. For instance, the Rubber Research Institute of Nigeria (RRIN) has a total allocation of N1.16bn; its capital expenditure is N92.88m while the recurrent cost is N1.06bn. In other words, the capital expenditure of RRIN is about 9% of its recurrent expenditure. Fortunately, we ranked 14th in the year 2010 in terms of global rubber exports. In spite of this, we believe that if the funds were tipped more in favour of capital expenditure on research and development, extension and technical support services, we may just move up to be among the top five sometime soon.
Many more of these lopsided expenditures abound within the Federal Ministry of Agriculture. The National Institute of Freshwater Fish has a total allocation of N845.7m. Its recurrent expenditure gulps the bulk of the amount at N649.13m while the capital expenditure is N196.6m. Nigerian Agricultural Quarantine Service's total allocation is N1.2bn, N275m of which is capital while recurrent is N918.93. One wonders what deliverables accrue to the nation and citizens from all the huge recurrent spending!
One MDA stands out for being different - the Cocoa Research Institute of Nigeria (CRIN). This MDA further buttresses our point that more spending in favour of capital expenditure improves the performance of the sub-sector. Out of its N1.74bn budgetary allocation, CRIN intends to spend N973.56m on recurrent expenses and N765m on capital expenditure - a more sensible ratio. While the recurrent expenditure is still higher than the capital vote, the difference is modest and the percentage of capital expenditure is higher than most of the other MDAs. The likely outcome of this focus on capital investment (supplemented by better quality governance at states' level in the geopolitical zone) is that Nigeria is still a top ranking cocoa exporter today.
For the agricultural sector to be restored as the mainstay of our economy, the spending priorities of the federal and state governments must genuinely reflect a national commitment to the sector. At the federal level, allocating less than 2% of the budget to agriculture, while the best states are allocating some 7% of their budgets for the same, is insufficient to enable us attain the food sufficiency we direly need, much less position us to be a major exporter of cash crops. The AU target of 10% of budget applies particularly more to the state governments where most of the actual cultivation and production of crops take place. Agriculture must be made a priority bearing in mind that our oil is a non-renewable, finite resource that will be exhausted sometime in the future, or replaced by greener or cheaper alternatives.
The budgetary allocation figures also need to be tilted sharply in favor of capital expenditure. Agriculture is a practical and ground-based profession. The enormous personnel costs incurred on redundant government employees add little or nothing to the development of our agricultural sector. Those monies budgeted for the research institutes need to be invested on the real or pilot production sites (farms) and the acquisition of the seedlings, fertilizers, chemicals and equipment required to make them boost crop output. Better coordination with infrastructural MDAs, aggressive investment in storage capacities, low-interest loans and greater extension and support services should command the attention of agricultural policy makers at states' and federal levels.
Studies indicate that every US dollar spent on agricultural research produces nine dollars' worth of added food in developing countries. Agricultural research which successfully drove the first Green Revolution in Asia can also do same in Nigeria. Obviously this does not refer to wasteful expenditure on personnel cost, engaging in excessive domestic and international travel, purchase of un-needed SUVs and other pea-brained budget heads that constitute the bulk of typical MDA recurrent expenditures. Worthwhile investment in biotechnological hardware, software and attracting the best and brightest minds to agricultural research will pay off in the medium to long term. Nigeria must attain food sufficiency so that the paradox of hunger in the midst of plenty will no longer apply to us.