By Gerald Okeke
Official as well as independent projections on the economy are indicating that a more difficult year than we have experienced this 2015 lies ahead of Nigerians in 2016. The recent warning signal from President Muhammadu Buhari himself that Nigerians should prepare for a new level of austerity, though a shock to many, also holds yet a new opportunity to get agriculture right in this country. Every adversity often opens a door for some people to get ahead and that seems to be the engagement strategy of State Enugu governor, Hon Ifeanyi Ugwuanyi through the troubled waters of Nigeria’s oil driven economy.
While federal and state governments are yet lamenting the revenue crisis induced by the sustaining fall in crude oil prices, Enugu State government is taking steps to reposition commercial agriculture. The main problems of agriculture in Nigeria are poor funding and dependence on crude technology. Peasant farmers account for 80% of Nigeria’s agricultural produce but they have no access to bank credit facilities. They depend on the hoe and the cutlass – the crudest agricultural implements that are hardly in use anywhere else in the world.
While agriculture accounts for 22% of GDP, its share of aggregate bank credit swings between 1.5 to 3.5%. A significant government intervention is imperative in the sector if we are to head off serious food crisis in the coming year. A major improvement in agricultural output is needed to feed a large and growing population and mechanization of the sector has become quite compelling.
If the economic fortunes of this nation are going to change, something new has to happen in another sector other than petroleum and the most appropriate sector that can bail us out is agriculture. It comes as good tidings to me and to the people of Enugu State that the state governor has begun to work in this direction. Ugwuanyi is partnering the World Bank to reposition commercial agriculture in the state – a strategy that comes with both money and technology. The two constitute the critical ingredients for a real commitment of any government towards transforming agriculture in Nigeria.
The crude oil market follows unpredictable cycles of rise and fall and therefore crude oil represents an undependable product around which a nation should anchor its economy. Even if the market recovers next year, it is bound to fall again from time to time according to the normal cycles of bull and bear. So, Nigeria needs new revenue lines that can counter the rise and fall pattern in the oil sector, sustain the level of economic activity, keep production and consumption functions at safe levels and meet the job delivery needs of the economy.
The only sector that meets all these national objectives is agriculture, which calls for a general return to agriculture across the nation. Ugwuanyi is the man that has begun the onward match and the rest of the states need to follow. This time, lips service isn’t going to do anybody any good. The handwriting on the wall of Nigeria’s future is adverse and a total commitment to change our fortunes is now an emergency call.
If we take the right steps early enough, we can change the doomsday predictions. If we lay back and do nothing but lament, complain and blame, the foreseen worse economic situation will surely come. Ugwuanyi seems to be in the right spirit – speaking confidence into the system and taking actions in difficult situations. While stressing the commitment of his administration to ride on the back of a strategic partnership with the World Bank to reposition commercial agriculture in the state, he rightly defined the next step forward for the nation as that of looking inwards.
This time calls for few words but more actions on the part of governments at all levels. The Enugu State governor matched words with action recently when he hosted members of the World Bank team and the National Coordinating Office of Commercial Agriculture Development project at Enugu. Most times people are so overwhelmed by challenges ahead that they fail to take actions needed to move forward. That is not the case in Enugu State where Ugwuanyi has given his people a lot of confidence that they are able to overcome.
According to him, despite the economic meltdown, his administration was determined to look inward, cut cost and provide the counterpart fund needed under the partnership with the World Bank. He considers the counterpart funding a great opportunity in his development agenda and his objective is clearly spelt out, which is to take agriculture to the next level in Enugu state.
The World Bank and the National Coordinating Office of Commercial Agriculture Development project team, led by Engr. Tijani Kayode was in Enugu State to determine the status of the state on the implementation of commercial agriculture joint project of the federal government and the World Bank. The commercial agriculture development project has the objective of developing commercial agriculture productivity and creating access to markets.
The project has three variety products specifically for Enugu State and these are fruit variety, maize and poultry. The project is reckoned to have recorded several achievements in the state over the last six years.
Enugu State appears really hungry for investors and Ugwuanyi seems to stand ready to show them where to invest. He urged the visiting team, for instance, to establish cashew plants in the state and cashew irrigation centre at Obollo Afor as, according to him, Enugu State is one of the best cashew variety producers in the world.
Security of lives and property is of essence in Nigeria today as it is all over the world. In this regard, Ugwuanyi has an appealing marketing tip to win over investors. According to him, Enugu State has been identified as one of the states with the best security in Nigeria, which will automatically guarantee total safety to enable investors to do business in the state.
One critical area of need is training in a profession that has been generally abandoned and is long dependent on crude technology with a number of traditional practices standing as stumbling blocks to modernization. The need to train youth and women in agricultural activities is a major programme on the agenda of government, according to Ugwuanyi. His objective is to create employment opportunities and wealth among the people.
The visiting team seemed to concur that the project is in a position to meet the development and employment generating aspirations of government in Enugu State. The project is said to have supported 7,500 small- and medium- scale farmers through capacity building and access to market across the country. It has generated more than 10 thousand jobs for the youth in the state, supported over 71 poultry enterprises and provided access road of over 4.7 kilometres to San-Carlos pineapple farms in the state.
There is need also for effective coordination of various intervention programmes in the agricultural sector for effective results. For instance, the Central Bank of Nigeria recently launched a N50 billion intervention fund for mechanising agriculture. The fund is targeted at setting up 1,200 agricultural equipment hiring enterprises across the nation to be run through a public-private sector partnership.
The operation is expected to provide farmers at all levels access to the use of modern agricultural equipment. If this can be effectively coordinated with state government initiatives across the nation, the investment and employment opportunities that can be generated will be quite huge given the large share of agriculture in the nation’s GDP.
*Okeke, a public affairs analyst writes from Enugu