In this interview, Prof Garba Hamidu Sharubutu, the executive secretary of the Agricultural Research Council of Nigeria (ARCN) and past president of the Nigerian Veterinary Medical Association and the president of the Veterinary Council of Nigeria, spoke on state of the ARCN and the way forward as the COVID-19 pandemic ravages the world, Nigeria inclusive.
Having grown through the ranks to your present position, how did you meet the ARCN?
I met the ARCN at a certain stage of its development that was not pleasant. Capacity was greatly depleted, the ability to perform functions was very low, the National Assembly had denied it funding and the Ministry of Agriculture was barely trying to tolerate us.
Remember that the function of the ARCN is to advise the government on policy issues that have to do with research, coordinate research and seek funding for research. Now, when the foundation executive secretary was running the ARCN, it was viable, but because of the depletion in capacity, most of the funding gave way. And unfortunately, the subsequent leadership was not properly positioned to run because a non-technical person was heading.
Secondly, apart from capacity, there was also leadership crisis. The agric minister, however, gave us the mandate to settle the various crises. We had over 15 headship tussles, but within a short time, we settled all these.
And there is too much traffic of our personnel to the universities. We have 26 research and training institutes in Nigeria, four of them belong to the universities. When we train staff up to PhD level, they move to universities because the conditions are better. They benefit from TetFund, PTF, CBN, NDIC etc. They are better than research institutes that depend solely on budgetary allocations, and maybe foreign aid, which is dwindling.
Then we are managing the little equipment we have. Thank God that what Minister Nanono is bringing has to do with national agricultural technical and innovation platform. The National Assembly has also tried, especially the House of Reps, in setting up a separate committee for agric research institutions and colleges.
Another problem is the non-commercialisation of our research outputs. We have not been commercialising our research results. Now, the minister has directed that they be brought out of the shelves, and has tasked us to look for off-takers. We have already submitted a report to him, on those who are ready. Once we develop a certain seed or variety of crop, we have people who are ready to get it, multiply it and supply.
The minister also introduced something called peer review. He said one institution must copy from the expertise of another. He also said we must undertake accreditation of our institutions. This will help him focus on the 2021 budget. The team is ready, and as soon as COVID-19 is over, we move.
What have you done since you came on board?
What I did was to set up various committees, including the Staff Audit Committee, which submitted their report. We are now implementing recommendations of the committee, putting square pegs in the right places. I also set up a Monitoring and Evaluation Committee to monitor, on a regular basis, how we are conducting our affairs, whether it is in line with government's policy on agriculture.
There is an impact of research institutes on neighbouring communities. I formed an Impact Assessment Committee. Also, the issue of extension is within our mandate.
Again, there is the issue of radio agriculture, where you need radio to reach the rural areas so that people can access us easily. We wrote to the minister and he said we should work on it. It has been captured in our budget. With our 15 research institutes and 11 colleges of agriculture, any head can come and talk to Nigerians on what they are doing.
But establishing a radio channel is capital intensive.
It is, but Rome was not built in a day. We can start with FM, then begin to look for booster.
We will develop our library to international standard. Our budget is just N400 million per annum. Last year, it was N200m.
How do we get our youths to key into agriculture?
We need a serious effort. The youths are no longer in the villages; they have moved to the towns and cities. So, for agriculture to be something meaningful, we must encourage them. There must be a gradual shift. There should be an urban rural drift and not vice-versa.
Our governors should develop the rural areas by ensuring there are better schools, better road network. They should also ensure that markets are established, as it is done in China. So, it is not about research institutes, it is the states' responsibility to make rural areas viable.
Secondly, when we retire, we are writing to PenCom; there must be internship in agriculture. You can imagine that I receive my gratuity today and put it in poultry, for instance, it will collapse because I am not an expert; so you have to bring a vet doctor. So, unless you undergo internship in agriculture, you will never get it right.
How will it work?
Good. It is because the owner doesn't know the secret of farming, he doesn't know whether it is the first or second rain, he doesn't know when to prepare his farm, he is not an expert. So in order to succeed we need to undergo internship or have a policy that three months to retirement, instead of going on retirement leave, let the government look at those colleges of agriculture and provide specialised hostels for senior officers that are retiring into agriculture to go and undertake internship. You can even sponsor them. By the time people do that, they will be more interested in it. You will learn on your mistakes.
How is the COVID-19 pandemic affecting the agricultural sector?
For our crop production there is likely to be glut. Farmers produce but there are no markets because of lockdown. People cannot even afford the commodities. Two, because of the closure of our borders, our excesses will not be exported. Even inter-state movement is restricted despite, presidential directive.
And farmers are not able to go to their farms because the over zealousness of security agents won't even allow them. This is complicated by insecurity in the North-East and North-West. So we are into a big problem. Also, pest and post-harvest losses will be very high. Talking about mechanisation, where are the tractors or fertilisers?
What is the way out?
The minister has said we should bring out our reserves, so we have compiled and submitted to him. Example, IAR Zaria produce feed, at the Oil Palm Institute in Benin we have nothing less than 3 million seedlings; 2 million date seeds in Jigawa. In Badeggi, Niger State, we have rice. So, if government says we give these things even free of charge, it will boost agriculture. But we need off-takers; let people come and take them.