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COLUMNIST, Echoes of Business

Agric As Business

Posted: Jul 26, 2015 at 12:00 am   /   by   /   comments (0)

Echoes of Business

Last week’s admission by the Federal Government  that the country spends N1trillion every year to import rice, sugar, wheat and fish, which amounts to  over N10 trillion from 2005 till now, is not new. Rather, it has become a chorus in the endless song by successive governments to revamp agriculture after the country’s lost glory in the pre-independence era, as a net exporter of food.

Nigeria boasts of huge agricultural potential, with over 84 million hectares of arable land, of which only 40% is cultivated.  The country has a population of over 170 million, making it Africa’s largest market; and 230 billion cubic meters of water, making it one of the richest sources for agricultural growth in the world.

Perhaps, there is need to change the approach to our food production. Agriculture should be treated as business. In this light, the staple crop processing zones become instructive.

The Staple Crop Processing Zones are meant to attract the private sector to the rural areas to process and add value to all the crops available in the country. At a time crude oil and gas have been discovered in the United States and other parts of the world, this initiative if vigorously pursued  not just  provide the means to feed the teeming population, but would become a veritable source of revenue and foreign exchange.

The development of Staple Crop Processing Zones  is expected to involve 14 zones across the country and is intended to attract the private sector to set up food manufacturing plants in areas of high production, for import substitution.

Already, the project to which N1.22 billion was allocated in the 2012 budget has attracted global financial institutions such as World Bank , African Development Bank , USAID, the International Fund for Agricultural Development , DFID, UNDP and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, who are backing the scheme with commitments totaling $2 billion. This is in addition to Government receiving  23 Letters of Intent from indigenous and global private-sector investors with commitments worth N370 billion.

The planned investments in the  processing zones would cover farm mechanisation, retail outlets, production and/or processing in rice, cassava, dairy, beef, maize, sorghum, poultry, pineapple, orange, mango, palm oil, soybeans, sugar, tomato, wheat, cotton, fish, and rubber.

This initiative needs to complemented by the Electronic Wallet System, introduced by the last administration which allows farmers to receive electronic voucher to redeem subsidized fertilizers, seeds and other farm inputs directly from private sector seeds and fertilizer companies.

It replaced the old fertilizer and seedlings distribution method the Federal Government handled through middlemen, states and local governments which succeeded in enriching cabals, cartels and politicians who fronted as farmers to rip off the nation.

Already, the scheme which kicked off two years has saved the Federal and State governments not less than N25 billion after over 1.2 million farmers received subsidised fertilizers, seedlings or other relevant farm inputs under the scheme.

However, the project would need to be fine tuned, especially with the planned intension

to distribute 10 million free mobile phones to its farmers in two years ago in order to deliver fertilizer and seed subsidies to e-wallets on their phones. Even so, Government was silent  on how the mobile phones would be recharged since the mere possession of the facility does not translate to usage.

Much as Government wants to open the doors for farmers to take advantage of the programme, there is need to ensure that those who lost out under the former regime of fertilizer and seedlings distribution do not resurface under different guises to frustrate and undermine the scheme.

The issue of public enlightenment, especially in rural areas must not be taken for granted, more so when biometric registration is required before identity numbers are given to the farmers for the operation of the e-wallet system.

For the Staple Crop Zone initiative to succeed, there is need for the amendment  of the Land Use Act which conveys the right of ownership of fragmented lands on families so that there would be unfettered access for the use of land for the project.

The present administration is, however, not playing the  ostrich over the issue.

Last week, the Ministry of Agricul¬ture and Rural Development  stated that the members of the food crisis prevention network have decided to embark on the first evaluation of the char¬ter for provision of food in 2014/2015.

The Permanent Secretary in the Ministry, Sonny Echono,who stated this at the two-day Consultation, Dialogue and Validation Workshop on Food Crisis Prevention and Management Charter (PRE¬GEC), noted: “Our coun¬try became net importer of food and major importer of wheat, rice, sugar and fish, which consumes over N1 trillion in foreign exchange yearly since 2005.”

Echono, who was repre¬sented by the Director, De¬partment of Agriculture, Dr. Damilola Emmanuel, also said, “the report of Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) showed that Nigeria is the world’s largest importer of United States’ hard red and white winter wheat with annual food import of N635 billion. “It is also the second largest importer of rice (N700 billion in 2014), sugar (N217 billion) and fish (N97 billion).”