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Nigeria – The agriculture minister speaks

Nigeria – The agriculture minister speaks
  • PublishedJune 13, 2013

Agriculture is a new priority for President Jonathan’s administration, and his minister Dr Akinwumi Adesina has introduced numerous innovations to boost the sector. He spoke to New African about his vision.

Anyone who has attended a road show or conference on Nigeria recently will have noticed the presence of Dr Akinwumi Adesina, Nigeria’s Minister of Agriculture. A minister of trade and investment, the minister of finance or the central bank governor usually headline investor forums – and agriculture will often be relegated to a side panel, if discussed at all.

But all that is history now and it is no coincidence that agriculture is front and centre of any Nigerian Investment Summit. For the fact is that Adesina is a man on a mission, and you cannot but be impressed by the man’s energy and the complete mastery of his brief, with facts and statistics effortlessly recalled.

He is undoubtedly one of the cabinet’s superstar ministers and, clearly for him, agriculture should be given a top billing at investor conferences because, above all else, the one message that comes across is that agriculture is a business.

This year marks 10 years since the Maputo agreements were signed, where heads of government across Africa agreed to devote 10% of their budgets to agriculture. It has been widely agreed that an agrarian revolution can transform the continent. In Nigeria, the sector has been neglected with the country’s focus on oil and gas. In fact, Nigeria spends some $10 billion on imports of both wheat and rice, crops that it could grow itself.

Africa has the potential to be the world’s breadbasket, with 60% of the world’s uncultivated arable land. However, as Adesina is keen to remind us, potential does not feed mouths. Unlocking this potential does. Nigeria is far behind the Maputo commitments. According to a report by One, the advocacy group, at the moment investment stands a little under 2% of its – admittedly oil-inflated – budget.

But the impression one gets from Adesina is that agriculture is not a budgetary problem, far from it. There is a clear business case for agriculture and as such, the private sector is well equipped to fund this green revolution.

“First and foremost, let me say that I have always felt that simply talking public sector on agriculture is the wrong way, because everybody focuses on the fact that if you just increase your public money, just spend your public money on it, that is the answer. No! I disagree.

“Agriculture is not a development programme; agriculture is a business and we have to make that fundamental shift in Nigeria. I don’t see how agriculture is going to recover until we treat it as a business. As a business, if it is well structured, you will attract significantly more private sector investment to unlock the potential of agriculture, and that’s what we have done in Nigeria.”

Adesina has managed to garner support with one big victory. In a matter of 90 days he reformed the way fertilisers were distributed to farmers. Fertilisers are subsidised in Nigeria, and for many years the main beneficiaries of the subsidies have been the middle-men. However, with the creation of electronic wallets, the use of mobile phones and registering these farmers on a centralised database, the government has managed to reach the farmers directly, eliminating practices which were costing the government millions and yielding no productivity results.

“The farmers are getting access to the inputs that they need to be able to raise their production … Today as a Minister of Agriculture and Land Management, I can tell you that we ended the corruption of 40 years in 90 days and we now run a system where as a minister, I can tell you which farm has got what and where they got it, how much they got and how much they paid. In other words, we have used mobile telephony to fight corruption.”

Any discussion with Adesina is always engaging and refreshing. His scientific and rational approach to his responsibilities inspires confidence. “Agriculture accounted for 40% of Nigeria’s GDP,” he comments, “and 70% of employment in 2012. We have about 84m hectares of arable land, of which no more than 40% is cultivated and even then, no more than 10% of all that land is actually cultivated optimally, by that I mean in terms of using the high yielding varieties, using fertilizers, irrigation and mechanisation – so the potential is huge.

“We have roughly 279 billion cubic metres of water,” the minister adds, “and we have three of the largest rivers in Africa. We also have low labour costs. We are working to make agriculture in Nigeria efficient, productive and globally competitive. I want the agriculture productivity in Nigeria to be on a par with that of Brazil and others in three years from now.”

Adesina is ambivalent about whether to follow the large-scale mechanised model that has worked in Brazil or the labourintensive communes that we see in Asia. For Adesina, it is more an issue of creating the environment for all to thrive, stressing that smallholders, given the right technology, access to finance, and suitable infrastructure, can be highly productive.

Citing how his ministry, alongside the Ministry of Finance and the Central Bank, provides guarantees for loans to farmers, he is further intending to leverage $2bn in commitments from the World Bank, the African Development Bank, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and others, such as DfID and USAID, to fund his programmes. The guarantee programme has already resulted in an extra $20m being lent to agro dealers. The default rate has been an astonishing zero per cent, showing that access to finance is not the issue, but rather, creating the right conditions for banks to lend.

Adesina is also pushing hard for another of his initiatives, the development of export processing zones, with all the necessary infrastructure, power, water, roads, to process crops, lowering the costs of production and creating access to markets, both local and international. Some of the biggest agribusiness groups, such as Cargill, Unilever and the Transcorp group, have already committed to take part in these.

His ministry has also set targets to considerably increase yields, which by world averages are very low. By ensuring inputs reached the farmers directly, the minister claims yields increased by 70%. “The point I am trying to make is this:

The most important thing is the farmers can do wondrous things as long as you can reach them, you empower them, you make sure that what belongs to them gets to them … we can reach them by mobile phone in terms of loan and savings products; we can reach them with weather information.”

The minister’s scientific and calculated approach clearly prefers facts and figures to hearsay or anecdotal evidence. At the same time as Hurricane Sandy was causing chaos on the East coast of America, Nigeria was suffering from devastating floods. There were all kinds of hue and cry in the media and even talk of famine.

To verify the true effects of the floods, Adesina brought in the world’s leading agroclimatical water management agency, International Water Management Institute, and used satellite imagery and remote sensing to map all the areas in Nigeria to monitor the true extent of the flood problem and its impact on agricultural development. As our interview came to a close, Minister Adesina was asked what he thought the secret to his success had been. This time he refrained from statistics and kept to the political line, praising his team and the Nigerian president before adding: “It’s all about leadership, tenacity and consistency”. He has plenty of all three.

Written By
New African

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