Nigeria: Sharubutu - Dearth of Skilled Manpower, Bureaucracy Bane of Agriculture

23 August 2021

Despite its vast arable land, Nigeria is nowhere near food sufficiency or security, a situation attributed to various reasons. To Prof. Garba Sharubutu, Executive Secretary/Chief Executive, Agricultural Research Council of Nigeria (ARCN), the dearth of skills is a major drawback. In this exclusive chat with James Emejo, he shares his aspirations to overturn the existing template for funding agricultural research, strengthen communication between farmers and research institutes as well as publicise the contributions of research to national development, among other objectives

Could you give a brief introduction of the ARCN and its primary mandate?

Thank you. The Agricultural Research Council of Nigeria (ARCN) is a parastatal under the Federal Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development, established as far back as 2007 by an Act of the National Assembly.

It was actually established to coordinate and supervise agricultural extension training and research. Before now, the Agricultural Research Institute, about 15 of them, were operating in isolation and because their operations were in isolation, they suffered two to three disadvantages.

One, they were subjected to the bureaucracy of the civil service and as a research institute, if you subject them to such bureaucracy, certain things get delayed. The second issue that it was meant to address was the issue of publication of research activities. Each research institute needed to be given a specific mandate that would cover a specific crop and in order to do that, it needed a body that would coordinate its activities. Thirdly, the funding or budgetary allocation for the various research institutes were done in a civil service manner: that is it followed the ministerial order. And for research institutes that are supposed to be ongoing and rolling for over 10 years, if you subject them to the type of funding that is given at the various ministerial levels, it is going to be a problem and it would affect them.

So these were the three reasons the government felt that there was a need for a coordinating body for all the agricultural research institutes and this is essentially what the ARCN was meant to achieve.

But in establishing the body, government also in its own wisdom decided to give about nine mandates and they include principally the fact that the council will advise government on policy issues that have to do with agricultural research, extension and training to cover the universities and our research institutes, polytechnics and generally anything that has to do with research.

The second thing is that having understood the policy direction of government, the council will be responsible for monitoring and supervision and coordination of the agricultural research training and extension.

Thirdly, the council will be responsible for the design of researches and the designs are not because the various research institutes do not know how to design but the responsibility of the council is to design it in line with the policy direction of the government.

The fourth one has to do with the issue if establishing linkages with organisations that are outside the government or outside the country. There's nowhere in this world that research will be conducted without adequate knowledge of the government - and so nobody just gets into the country and begin to operate and conduct research, bringing in materials from other places, testing and carting away our various potentials.

So the council will be responsible for linking our various research institutes to international donor agencies so we will be an arbiter in case there's need for intervention.

The fifth one there is that we should be responsible for sourcing out funding for the various research institutes because as a council, right now the world is going towards a one- council operation where all countries key into the CGRA, which is the grand council internationally for regulation of research activities.

As part of that council, we will be able to be negotiating funding for the purpose and the need to do that is because in isolated fashion, government may not be aware of those who are actually assisting in developing our potentials.

So when the council gets the funding, they will inform government during budgetary hearing, they will inform the Federal Ministry of Agriculture and the ministry will in turn inform the Federal Ministry of Finance, Budget and National Planning.

The sixth mandate has to do with documentation. Our research findings must be documented in such a way that it's easily accessible to people. There's no need for a situation whereby people want to know what's happening in this country and then they will not know. If we allow the various research institutes to operate independently, you will find out that there will be no coordinated information. And so we have to document the research works. These are some of our mandates, among others.

It is believed that research institutions exist to find solutions to societal problems, but it would appear that such institutions particularly the agricultural research entities have been failing in this regard. How do you react to this perception?

Well, I have a double approach to this question. The perception may be correct but I am of the view that it is not correct from my own point of view. Now, why do I say that the perception is correct? You know until now that we are bringing out some of our findings, until now that the situation has forced people to now go into farming, people virtually neglected agriculture to the background. And so whatever is happening in terms of agriculture people do not know.

If you listen to all the FM radio stations, we popularise music more than we popularise agriculture, we popularise ceremonies more than we popularise agriculture. You will find out that if a ceremony is about to take place, whether it is wedding or political activity or cultural dance, the publicity given to them by the media or sponsors of these occasions far outweigh what we do in agriculture. You would find out that even in the print media, a small column is always given to the issues of agriculture. So people would not know what is there.

And on out own part, we have an introvert type of activity because we felt we are all-in-all and that people would always come to us for them to get information. So one, we are bedeviled by the fact that people do not even see us as nation builders and so people do not seek information from us to actually know what we're doing.

However, events of nowadays have come to prove that these research institutes have been doing quite a lot. If you go out there on the field, the typical village farmer knows the existence of various varieties of rice, they know the existence of varieties of cassava, and they know the 'mini-sett' technique for yam farming. They know a lot about the horticultural products that are there, which variety of okro is doing well.

Now, let me narrow down to the few achievements that we have recorded recently. Look at what the National Veterinary Research Institute had done in Vom, in terms of keying into the issues of diagnosis of COVID-19. Right now, it is a center for diagnosis of this disease within the North-Central zone. Before now, in 2004 or thereabout, we had been a regional centre for fighting animal diseases for West and Central Africa. This is our research institute but because this does not come into the focus of the general population, they don't see anything. The typical herdsman, the pastoralist knows of the existence of the National Veterinary Research Institute because we provide the vaccines even though not adequate, for fighting animal diseases.

When Rinderpest came out in 1992 or thereabout, it was our research system in this country that brought about the end of Rinderpest to the extent that we have eradicated Rinderpest in this country, and it is the efforts of our research institutes.

When the Avian Influenza was reported in this country, the research system coupled with the universities, the research institute in Vom and of course, government policy were responsible for the control of the Avian influenza far before countries. That is for veterinary research.

Now, if you go to Shika, where you have a new breed of chickens that we have come up with - that is Shika Brown - if you go to the Federal University of Agriculture, Abeokuta, they have developed a new variety of chicken that can grown very fast. Now, if you go to the National Root Crop Research Institute, Umudike, they have succeeded in developing a variety of cassava that has incorporated vitamin A in order to solve the problem of eyesight. The National Institute of Horticultural Research conducted a research during the dreaded tomato blight.

We were the ones that developed the control of that tomato blight in this country and of course, the tomato farmers know that very well because it was devastating. If you go to ABU Zaria, just recently because of the problem of cowpea - beans- everybody knows about the problem of low productivity of cow pea. The insect pests that are destroying the beans right from the field to the extent that it made it very difficult for us to export our beans.

Right now, with the collaboration of the African Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF), we have come up with a variety of SAMPEA 20-T; we developed this in this country and this is to fight against that pest.

So, with these chains of activities you see it's something big. If you go to the South Western part of this country you will find out that the various state governments know the contribution of the Institute of Agricultural Research and Training in Ibadan. The Ahmadu Bello University Institute of Agricultural Research has the responsibility of bringing various varieties of millet, okro, sorghum and maize. These are all available.

What we need to do is to move from out cocoon, burst the cocoon and come out and tell people that this is it. I told you initially that the perception that the research institutes may be right - it's because for each research institute we have created sub- stations but these sub-stations, because of the funding situations, have remained dormant. They are non functional so to say. We have personnel and infrastructure there but the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development, Alhaji Sabo Nanono, in his own wisdom has decided to direct that these sub-stations must start functioning and he has directed that every Institute's budget must reflect what activity they are going to do at each of the substations and he meant it very seriously because he didn't just communicate verbally, he communicated in writing and in public activities.

Apart from that, he said our extension activities in order to augment what the state governments are doing, our extension activities must kickoff. So he wants the establishment of outreach centers not located in the cities this time around but in areas of concentration of the farmers and that involves not only out research institutes but also involved our federal colleges of agriculture.

In recent times, there has been mixed feelings among farmers and Nigerians to a large extent over the safety of genetically enhanced crops, animals and birds. These concerns have come amidst isolated cases of food poisoning, among others. As an authority in the food research space, are there really side effects to these genetic alterations in agriculture?

Thank you very much. Productivity is driven by policy. Policy is the handwork of a government. Without singing praises, the current government decided that there would be no policy somersault but rather they will prefer to build on what had existed before. The President MuhammaduBuhari regime has created and strengthened existing bodies that have regulatory functions on some of those things, and it is based on this that I am telling people that if products get into anywhere and they are adjudged as poisonous then you know that it is not the regulatory mechanism that has failed, but may be there's a criminal involvement.

So, what are those things that have been put in place? One, the Soil Science Council has been put in place to regulate what goes on with the soil. The Plant Protection Bill has just been passed and signed into law by President MuhammaduBuhari. The seed council has been strengthened and given better capacity and funding to exist. The National Agricultural Quarantine Services has been strengthened, the bill has been signed into law and very strong executive powers have been given to the council to ensure prosecution. The National Variety Release Committee has also been strengthened.

What we have done to assure people is that there is now a synergy in the strengthened organisations and the new ones that are created by President Buhari. How is that being done? We developed at our research institutions new crop varieties and we are not allowed to develop and propagate. These are subjected to environmental and human safety procedures. These are now sent to the national seed council which deliberates on it, sends them to the National Biotechnology Development Agency (NABDA) again for human and environmental safety.

From there, there is a meeting of variety release committee and before an item is released by that committee. It is a very tedious process; you have to defend and convincingly tell people that this thing is safe. Now, it is only when it is approved by the variety release committee that these things are being sent to the public.

Now, the direct sending to the public is not also done; we get offtakers, those that are interested. Reputable seed companies have to key in, take off these products; develop them and they also in their own laboratories subject the seeds to quality assurance before being released to the public.

So these are some if the things that this government has done. Before then, yes, some of these organisations existed but in order to strengthen and ensure safety, more have been created and of course to ensure synergy for us to do that. And you know that these are not organisations that are under one ministry. The Ministry Of Science is there, Ministry Of Environment is there and the Ministry Of Agriculture is there.

What are the challenges confronting agricultural research in the country, and how are the various institutions being strengthened to be more effective in their roles?

There is one major problem affecting agricultural research and for our council specifically: it is the issue of the template for budgeting. And I want people to get that very clear. We are not talking about funding because for now honestly funding is on the increase. But the template for the release of funds is our major problem.

If you subject the research institutes to the funding templates of the budget, it is going to be a problem because for research there is always a methodology until the end result.

So, once you have a stop at a certain phase, it would affect the next phase you will enter because researches are expected to be time-bound. So at a certain point in time when the money budgeted for that purpose is not released, then there's a problem.

Elsewhere, from my experience of the World Bank sponsoring our research, they budget the money and that money does not lapse. So you have that money not under your custody but with the sponsoring body - may be at the level of the accountant general or central bank. Once you say okay this research will take N10 million but we phase the costing of this research - may be there are five phases of N2 million each, immediately you are about to finish the first phase, funding should be released on proper accountability for the second phase to take-off.

But a situation where you use the budget template in the country and you release money in April and then the next batch of money is coming in September; now you finish one phase and you have to wait until funding is available before you move to the second phase. This is a major challenge and a very serious challenge.

Now, one other thing which remains a challenge is honestly the issue of capacity. The capacity is a problem because we always give priority to one sector over the other. So if you go to a research institute for example now, you will find out that we tend to align our training methodology toward a particular side. Today we say maize is very important and so everybody wants to go into maize, thereby neglecting other areas.

We need a lot of breeders that are trained to international standards and what we are talking about is a training that would ensure this. The council is now trying to organise what we call twining of laboratories to try and see how we can partner with other laboratories. Even within the country, once you are better in terms of biochemistry for example, we make sure that this laboratory links up with you; we may be better in one part and you are better in other part and so we link up. We want to ensure regular interaction between our various staff and researchers so that we will be able to build this capacity.

And of course one final challenge which I hope the Plant Protection Bill will be able to address is our capacity for conservation. Most of the crops you see in this country now we rely on what is coming from the outside. But with the Plant Protection Bill, with our insistence on trying to see that we establish our gene bank, the issue of conservation will become a thing of the past within a very short time.

You are a major stakeholder in the agricultural sector. What do regard as key challenges to maximising the potentials of the sector?

You see, skills acquisition by our various farmers is crucial. And I have said these things times without number - agriculture is a science, farming is a profession and you must put these two together. If you ask who is a farmer, can you define a farmer? You can't define a farmer and because you cannot define who a farmer is, everybody at his leisure becomes a farmer.

President Muhammadu Buhari, from my own experience, has released more money than any government in this country in terms of trying to help people to farm. Through the Anchor Borrowers Scheme, and the Agric Small and Medium Enterprise Scheme (AGSMEIS), the central bank has made a lot of resources available and I am not arguing whether it reaches the people or not but I can tell you and I have discussed with my state governor - Governor Simon Lalong of Plateau State, and they have all attested to the fact that look, some of these resources had been distributed.

People have confessed that they have seen these resources but you know farming is not about getting the money. One, who is the farmer that had received the money? What is the interest of that farmer that has received the money and where is the farm he is cultivating?

Before we talk about other factors of production, we must recognize that the skills are not there. It is the skill that makes you a farmer. In the comfort of this office, I can be an absentee farmer; I don't know when to plant, I don't know when to grow, I don't know when to weed, I don't know when to do anything and government comes to say take N10 million and go and invest. It's going down the drain. So this is a major challenge.

Acquisition of skill is not just meant for the student of agriculture but it's meant for the farmer because it is only when the farmer has the skills that he will know all these stages of farming and he will know all he needs to do in order to protect his investment.

If you move from Abuja to Keffi, there are many farms established by the roadside, they've all come up and collapsed. This is due to lack of skills not because they don't have money. By merely seeing the infrastructure they have put there you know they've spent money but because the skill is not there those farms are subjected to pilfering and maladministration and poor techniques of doing things, and these also affects out farmer in the village.

Let us subject our agricultural students to internship. Can we train them for a period of three months just like the medical students after graduation are subjected to internship for one year, the student of veterinary medicine to internship... there they'll develop the skills and love.

So, the syndrome of paper qualification will be removed through that internship. Now, those who have successfully passed through the internship can then be the beneficiaries of our anchor borrower scheme and interventions. By do doing; we will not be losing a good number of them to recharge card selling and to fraud or crime, among others.

At the end of your tenure at the ARCN, what legacies would you like to leave behind?

What I need to achieve now is a focused budget on research. We want to redesign the template for funding research. That's one. Two, we want to have a better synergy among all the agencies of government that has to do with agricultural research. Three, I want an effective communication system for the farmers; to take research findings from the research institutes to the farmer and these will involve an efficient agricultural radio on 24- hour service and an efficient television on 24-hour service. For now, our studio is ready, our mast has been erected, we have paid for registration and we are now trying to come out by the end of this year.

Lastly, I want the presence of all our research institutes in every nook and cranny of this country through the establishment of numerous outreach centers so that our farmers will not find it difficult to access information.

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