Nigeria: Govt Can't Reopen Borders Now - Agric Minister

29 October 2020

Alhaji Muhammad Sabo Nanono is the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development. In this special interview on rice, he explains why it will not be in Nigeria's interest to reopen borders.

It is almost two years now that you have been minister, can you share specifically what interventions and or changes you have introduced in the agriculture sector?

I have been in the office for just a year and some few months. All the same, if you are talking about agricultural intervention, you have to start by what we have or what we found in place. This is a large ministry with about 23 departments in the head office, 42 agencies and four universities of agriculture.

We came in on the promise of the Federal Government: food security, creating a platform for the development of value chain across board and development of livestock.

Food security means you produce enough to feed your population, produce and eat what you produce and reduce dependency on import.

I think at the time President Buhari came to power, his major concern was importation of rice, because he realised that the import bill on rice was extremely high. And any sensible person who looks at the geological set up of the country, with vast water resources; these are products that you can produce in probably four states. Jigawa, Kebbi, Niger and Taraba can produce the rice that will be enough for Nigeria. Any other one coming from other states will become bonus for us to export. So part of the strategic food security policy started on rice; then we moved to maize, sorghum, millet and the rest of them.

Now how do you achieve these food security objectives, because there are so many challenges across board. Africa holds about 60 per cent of arable land for agriculture, and if Nigeria is key in this percentage; maybe we take 40 to 45 per cent. This gives us an enormous opportunity. If you look at it very carefully, we have 84 to 92 million hectares of arable land, but we are only tilling about 34 million hectares; and even this 34 million hectares is not yet at optimum level, because if you take the average tonnage per hectare across the board of all the crops, we're ranging between 1.2 to 1.6 tonnes per hectare, while the standard is eight to 10 tonnes per hectare across the board.

I think at the early stage when this administration came in, it realised one of the impediments was fertiliser. I think that's why they came with the Presidential Fertiliser Initiative (PFI). They entered into an agreement with Morocco for raw materials and Morocco graciously gave us 25 per cent discount on imported raw materials, and in the last three or four years the agreement has been going fairly well and fertiliser is being sold to farmers at N5,500 per a 50kg bag. Uriah, we don't need to import it. In fact, we export it.

But then, there are other issues. Still, farming is primitive - machete, hoe and other local implements. So if you want to meaningfully increase production, it means that you have to mechanise; and what is the state of mechanisation in this country? We have only seven tractors per 100 square killometres. In most developed countries, it is 1,200 per 100km2. Kenya, which is in Africa, has about 27 tractors per 100km2. If we have to even catch up with Kenya, we have to have 60,000 additional tractors, so how do we go about it. If you look at it very carefully, we have to import tractors and distribute them. You know how government tractors are being used - they have become political tractors. In some states, they have imported 200 tractors, but not distributed, they are just there as political tractors and there is no value for money spent.

So we introduced what is called the Green Imperative. We entered into agreement with Brazil for the mechanisation of the agricultural sector in this country. And this involves a period of three years; to have 10,000 to 15,000 tractors spread across 632 local government areas, and also to revive six assembly plants - one in each geopolitical zone. These tractors are going to come in parts and are going to be assembled in some of our abandoned assembly plants; so that is one effort.

Everything about this has been done; what remains is the approval of the National Assembly. The financial obligation has been finalised and knockdown parts are ready to be shipped. Hopefully we will get the approval of the National Assembly and hopefully by the end of December or the beginning of January next year we will ship them in.

Another aspect is extension services. You know the standard ratio of extension workers to farmers is 1:25. In the country, we are ashamed to calculate what we have because officially we don't have more than 20,000 to 25,000 registered extension workers. These extension workers are very necessary because we are losing a lot of money and opportunities to even export some products.

So what we are doing now is that this ministry is going to train over 75,000 extension workers. We have already trained over 35,000 extension workers. And we make sure that by the end of next year, we are going to have 75,000 extension workers.

In addition to that there are private organisations that are going into this extension service work which will complement the effort of government.

Apart from the issue of extension services, we are taking the issue of good seeds seriously; which is going to come from our research institutes. There is a lot of work going on right now. For example, Lake Chad for wheat, IAR, Zaria, for maize, cowpea, sorghum, etc., Badegi in Niger for rice, and we have quite a lot of rice research facilities in a number of states. So a lot is going on in the agricultural sector.

Talking about the rice sufficiency drive in the country, many believe that without functional irrigation facilities, it will be difficult to achieve it. What is the ministry doing regarding this?

The issue of dams and large irrigation facilities is not the responsibility of the Ministry of Agriculture. It is for water resources, but what we have, if you take major irrigation sites like in Kano, Goronyo in Sokoto and some few other places, have not been able to utilise them sufficiently, and we could do more to achieve that. But also, there is a surface irrigation system - tube wells.

In Kano, we have 10 LGAs with fadama facilities. Just one and half metres down and you get water. The water can run for 24 hours without a break, so people are taking that advantage to cultivate rice and maize, and of course vegetables like tomato and pepper, but rice and maize are taking the lead now - especially rice. Not only in the fadama areas, I have noticed that even in the upland where the water level is high, people are now irrigating - sinking two boreholes about three to four metres they can get water and they can irrigate. I have seen this in many parts of Kano and Jigawa states.

The quantum of dry season farming rests with these small scale farmers because they are in thousands. Of course, the big irrigation facilities in Goronyo, Kano and Hadejia and other places like that are contributing substantially. So we need to improve on that capacity.

You emphasised the importance of educating farmers, and you also said currently we have only about 25,000 extension workers. How quickly can we improve on their number?

To tell you frankly, it is a major problem for this country. We deliberately abandoned it. For example, if you go back to the olden days where we had informal extension workers called Mallamen Gona in the North, they were just trained on how to guide farmers. They didn't speak English. But we're talking about the educated ones; that's where we have lost our bearing and most of the states have very small numbers of extension workers.

Now we are planning as I said earlier, to train about 75,000 extension workers over a period of two years. I know some of these donor agencies and fertiliser producing companies are doing the same. Probably we will change the space within the next two to three years. But still we need more considering the large population of farmers in this country.

Closing the borders has helped in promoting the local rice industry and now many people are asking if the borders would be reopened any time soon?

We're not going to reopen the borders. Let me tell you, before the closure of the borders, most of our rice clusters that you see around Kano and Jigawa were just there. But with the closure of the borders there were incentives for them to produce. In Kano now we have about 42 integrated mills with a total capacity of 100 to 400 metric tonnes per day and there are so many across the country. I know in Bauchi, there is one that will be soon commissioned with about 600 tonnes capacity per day. All these are employing people from 200 to 300 directly; not to talk of indirect employment.

I always tell people, that it was a blessing that this policy was taken and also the general policy on importation of rice and other food items. What would have happened with this COVID-19; we would have been in trouble. No matter the price now, at least we are producing and eating our own rice - and that is a big plus.

Recently, the Ambassador of Guinea came to me and said, "Can you help us to produce our own rice." What was the situation? He said, "Previously 93 per cent of our rice was locally produced, but now we are importing more than 90 per cent of rice."

I have been telling people to cook our own rice; even outside your house you'll feel the aroma. There is so much potential in our local rice.

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