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Thursday, May 13, 2010

Discourse 291 Technology and Nigerian Agriculture

Friday Discourse 291
By Dr. Aliyu U. Tilde

Technology and Nigerian Agriculture

We will briefly take advantage of the confusion in our political atmosphere to touch on other equally important areas. In the second part of our series – Technology Our Saviour – I set out to discuss the imperative of technology in achieving food security for this country and the West African Sub region.
God has blessed this country with enough land that could be put to economic use by cultivating different crop species. We may add that He has also blessed it with over 120 million inhabitants who are ever willing to consume the produce. Beyond our borders, we also carry a moral obligation of making food available to our neighbours who for reasons of geography, famine or war cannot cultivate enough for their millions of inhabitants. The market for farm products is almost unlimited.
With such generosity of nature, why are over 91 million Nigerians living under poverty? Since nature has met its promise of rain and land, the only remaining factor that may be responsible for this failure is the human input. In evaluating human input, we need to focus not only on the number of farmers but also on the quality of their input.
Three things are involved. First, I am ready to concede that my earlier assertion on the availability of vast arable land is a bit inaccurate. Though vast arable land exists, it is not accessible to all farmers in the size they may wish to have. In the Southern part of the country for example, access to arable land is difficult due to its scarcity, topography and restrictive tenure system that operates there. Even in the North where abundant land exists, socio-cultural reasons combined with growing inadequate security and the desire to enjoy modern facilities such as education, health and market for produce has in most places concentrated farmers to a strip of less than 2 kilometres along the main roads, leaving the hinterland increasingly unattended to. In addition, the land tenure up here is also restrictive, though to a lesser extent than in the South. I live in a rural area, and if I look around I can confidently say that only about half of the population has farms to plant, and only about 25% of such farmers cultivates up to a hectare.
This leads us to other limiting factors in addition to land. Even the abundance of human resource we mentioned earlier is not accurate. Majority of farmers depend on their labour which cannot cultivate more than half a hectare. Though farmers have children, such children in many communities hardly contribute to food production because they are preoccupied with school, both secular and religious. And those who desire to cultivate more than half a hectare must depend on expensive labour.
Mentioning labour brings money into the equation. Majority of farmers would be struggling to feed their families during the farming season. The money they can afford to invest in farming is pretty little. Thus, majority of them will depend on their personal labour. Money, therefore, becomes the third limiting factor to our food security.
From the foregoing, if this country wishes to achieve food security, agriculture must be saved from the inadequate hands of our peasant population which, as we have seen, is limited by lack of access to land, labour and funds. Attempts were made to achieve exactly this in the 1970s and 1980s. However, most of the farmers who attempted large scale farming have abandoned it. I deplore, for example, the absence today of the beautiful scene of Ammani Farms which adorned the highway few kilometres away from Funtua on the way to Sokoto in the 80s.
This is where technology comes in. Large scale farming must utilize machinery and modern inputs in every operation. With the proper technology, few farmers can produce food in millions of tonnes every season. I have seen dairy farms that produce 12,000 litres of milk each daily with only four people on their payroll.
Technology in agriculture requires selection of appropriate crop for the ecological belt, improved seeds, use of machinery for land preparation, planting, fertilizer application, spraying herbicide and harvest and processing. The mistake that our farmers often make is to think that a tractor and its three basic implements – plough, harrow, and ridger – is all they need for large scale farming. This thought often leads to failure because, according to the concept of limiting factors, the pace of a reaction is determined by the factor that is most scarce. Partial mechanisation is always doomed because manual labour, which is employed in some of the operations, is often characterised by inaccuracy, delay, high cost, and above all, mismanagement.
Let us also dispel the notion that technology in agriculture is limited to mechanization. It encompasses all techniques necessary for optimal production including breeding, crop protection, irrigation, soil conservation, etc. It also involves the improvement of livestock and the marketing of their products. As the yield of a hectare can be improved by using modern techniques, so could the yield of beef and dairy products. A good breed of cow, for example, can start cycling at the age of nine month only instead of three to five years that is common among our local breeds. Likewise, a good breed can yield milk up to 10 to 20 times that of a local breed. And so on.
I am not unaware that employment of modern technology has its attendant problems, and they could be many. I have listed six below. First, it requires money, about 10 million to acquire a complete set of machinery for cereals production, for example. But this may not be a problem to the category of farmers we are talking about, those who will plant 100 hectares and above, and who often have millions as disposable income. If thirty of them in each state of the federation will dedicate 10 million naira to acquire and hire out the machinery to less capable farmers, that alone can change the scope of our food production. If they fail, governments can come to the aid practising farmers by issuing them soft loans to acquire such machinery. Let every state government, for example, issue soft loans of N10million to 30 farmers annually and assuming that each administration lasts eight years, such a government would empowered 240 farmers with machines that will improve food production to unimaginable heights. I will not encourage the past practise of government owning the machines, for they easily become subjects of gross abuse.
There is also a problem with extension services, the spread of modern techniques from universities, agricultural institutes and agricultural development authorities to farmers. These are the only avenues for the farmer to acquire modern techniques but which in recent years government has funded inadequately. As I drive from Bauchi to Sokoto, I often lament the dilapidated sites of formerly World Bank funded Agricultural Development Projects at Nabordo, Soba, Funtua and Gusau, which have become abandoned, along with the entire infrastructures that included dams, offices, stores, houses, mills, etc. These sites attest to the fact that our state governments are not interested in agriculture. On the contrary, today, with little funding, the ‘Sasakawa 2000’ project has made tremendous impact in states it intervened. Through it, even farmers in my village have put into practice important agronomic concepts like optimal leaf area index, fertilizer rates, etc.
The third problem is that machines, as computers do to offices, leave many workers idle. Herbicides, for example, are correctly called kato huta today in Hausaland because they are increasingly limiting the use of manual labour. A single tractor may do the job of 500 labourers. There is the fear that many youths will become idle. This point featured in my debate with a then socialist lecturer colleague on mechanised farming way back in 1984. My answer here is that there is room for both manual and mechanised inputs in our approach to expanded agricultural production. While manual labour will still find a place in subsistence farming, machines can serve the need of farmers who have large farms and whose output is required to cater for the wide shortfall in food production in Nigeria and its neighbouring countries. Otherwise, I cannot see how a large scale farmer can gather 500 labourers at a time in any community in this country. The labourers are simply not there, and were he to find them, the cost of managing them will cause him enough headaches to abandon farming entirely.
The fourth problem with mechanised farming is attention. Our ‘big men’ often take farming casually. They want to be politicians, businessmen and large scale farmers at the same time. Impossible. Farming is a full time job; it requires maximum concentration. The footprint of the farmer, they say, is the best manure for his crop. Without the continuous presence of the owner on the farm, it becomes subject to mismanagement. Most of the failure of previous attempts to mechanised farming can be attributed to this. If such people had limited their ambitions, farming would have yielded enough resources to minister the luxury and comfort they pursue through other means.
The fifth is the cost and availability of inputs of which fertilizer is most notorious. Governments need to find a way of making it available on time and directly to farmers. Right now it is acquired late and distributed late, with a large part of it given out as gifts to ‘important personalities.’ To go round this problem, I will not advise any farmer to rely on government supply of this important input. Instead, he must buy during the dry season all the fertiliser he needs for the coming season, then reserve whatever the government allocates to him for the next season. If he is lucky to get enough in any season from the government, he does not need to buy from the market the following season.
Finally, the market. I agree that sometimes prices of certain commodities could be very bad for a farmer, especially if he is under pressure from his financiers. However, in the past ten years, governments might have taken measures to protect the local market and there is an increasing demand for Nigerian commodities in the West African market, especially from our immediate neighbours. Nevertheless, where glut is imminent there is the need for government intervention to reserve the excess for a rainy day.
So, though land tenure, labour and scarce funding have conspired to hinder the realisation of food security for our country and its neighbours, technology is here to save us. As discussed above, there is the need for private entrepreneurs and governments to employ the various techniques of modern agriculture. And there are enough Nigerians to do this without inviting foreigners from Southern Africa.

14 June 2006

This article was first published on 14 June 2006. For copies of future articles, please send your email address to

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