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FOOD INSECURITY IN NIGERIA

by Ivuoma Happiness Uche

In parts of the developing world food insecurity is undeniably a socio-economic reality. The situation in Nigeria is no less. Recently, the prices of food rose astronomically, presenting a confounding puzzle. A critical examination of the scenario from post independence era revealed clearly that the level of food production lies below demand.

Food insecurity, is fallout of the Nigerian socio-economic melee, which began with the civil war (1967 and 1970). This brought severe consequences. This was compounded by oil boom in the 1970s. Before and immediately after independence in 1960, food was relatively plenty and cheap. But as the fortunes of the country improved, following the discovery of oil and subsequently oil boom, there was an upsurge in rural - urban migration robbing subsistence agriculture of able hands. This led to a shortfall in food supply leading to massive food importation. By 1999, Nigeria had recorded a food import deficit to the tune of 70 billion, rising from 88.3 million in 1971. Within the first and second quarter of 2000, over 50 billion was spent on importation of vegetable oil and sundry items from Malaysia, which ironically got its first stock of oil palm from Nigeria.

Over the years, successive governments have evolved various agricultural sherries to tackle the huge food import deficit. Several programmes, such as the National Accelerated Food Production Programme (NAFPP), Green Revolution, Operation Feed the Nation (OFN), Integrated Agricultural Development Programme (IADP), River Basin Development Authority (RBDA) and the Directorate of Food, Roads and Rural Infrastructure (DFRRI) were implemented. The goal was self-sufficiency in food production. However, only little success was recorded. Key problems of agriculture, poor farming methods and storage facility, low level of mechanisation, inarticulate and inconsistent government policies, poor credit facilities, poor pricing and marketing arrangements, bad distribution channels, poverty and poor social image among farmers and a mono-cultural export regime remained.

The advent of democracy in 1999 resulted in the creation of Ministry of Rural Development in some states. It took on the functions of DFRRI, a military era brainchild of the General Babangida regime. For instance, in Lagos State, the ministry inherited DFRRI's responsibilities and some of its methods. Its focus is the development of neglected rural areas, and assisting farming households to increase food production. The ministry sends experts to chosen areas. They cultivate plots of land with a wide variety of crops, livestock and poultry. Peasant farmers receive training on the modern methods of farming in the process. Simultaneous secondary school students are involved in the scheme.

There are two possibilities with this system. First, it eliminates some of the barriers and discouraging handicaps which the rural farmer is faced with, such as land clearing. Against his traditional method of cutting and burning, his virgin land gets cleared mechanically and free of charge. Usually, it cost 30,000 per day to rent a bulldozer. Another plus is the likelihood of some school leavers who have participated the programme to behind in the rural area instead of migrating to the city. Second, for funds, Nigerian farmers turn to the Agricultural Credit Guarantee Scheme (ACGS) for a help-line. Commercial banks are mandated to assign about 10 percent of their loanable funds to agriculture. The aims of the scheme remained a tall dream as only the elites, especially retired army generals, can satisfy the stiff conditions for obtaining loan. Small-scale farmers could not scale the collateral hurdles.

The policy thus has not helped the peasant class much. Similarly, inconsistencies in government policies on the subsidies on farm inputs and machinisation, such as the use of fertilisers and improved seedlings, is a great setback to the sector. It is also believed that the nature of agricultural production makes it discouraging to farmers to strive to increase production, especially because of the glut of the preceding year. Under the present circumstances, government will need to reintroduce the now discarded ACGS, with improved implementation guidelines that will make it more peasant-friendly.

It will go a long way to ensure sustainable agricultural growth by way of providing sufficient funds. Small-scale farmers can benefit from it through farmers' cooperatives and societies. In addition, agricultural subsidies, if consistent, will be an effective tool in curbing the mass drift in search of better opportunities. The Federal Government is making a lot of efforts to woo the organised private sector to invest in agriculture, especially since it is shedding itself the burden of direct involvement in food production.

The issue of incentives has a role to play. So far, it has taken the first step towards providing the necessary infrastructure plus an enabling environment. To make land available, the Agricultural Land Holding Authority (ALHA) was created. With it, intending farmers can now acquire land at a greatly reduced cost. Other factors as fertiliser procurement/ production drives and irrigation schemes are also needing urgent attention. The former has mostly been enshrouded in controversies bordering on supply modes to the end user, and its availability is highly limited. Perhaps the solution is for government to establish one or two production factories. On the other hand, there are several abandoned irrigation schemes scattered across the country, such as the Bakolori in Sokoto and Ikere Gorge in Iseyin, Oyo State. They need to be re opened. Lately, a super price hike in food items has been making news headlines. Economists have engaged in endless speculative exercises to determine its remote and immediate causes. But, while they are at it, no one can deny that expensive pricing of marketable items is a general phenomenonin the present economic state of things. It does not necessarily indicate that there is food shortage, as some seem to suggest.

Rather, what should more concern our lawmakers is that the situation places a strong emphasis on the further impoverishment of the poor. His basic needs, of which food tops the list, has gone further out of his reach. The price of staple foods such as 'garri' (cassava flour), beans and maize jerked up alarmingly, just like the imported food items. A bag of rice (from Asian countries) is now sold for 3,400 on the average, as against 2,600 a few months back. A bag of 'garri', hitherto sold for less than 1,000, is now 4,000. Some have attributed the 'garri' price mystery to a shortfall in production, others hold the view that lately the item's industrial value has risen.

These claim that there is, going on at the moment, a large-scale export of both the raw and processed cassava to the international market. Cassava farmers have doubled their production efforts but it will take a year or two before it manifests.

Ivuoma Happiness Uche is a Reporter at The Comet in Lagos, Nigeria.