Global oil price instability: Time to return to agriculture?

The uncertainty in global oil price has forced many oil-producing nations to look inwards for alternative means of survival. In this piece, ELEOJO IDACHABA takes a look at the need to fully return Nigeria’s economy to the golden years preceding the discovery of oil in the Niger Delta region.

For over 50 years now especially after oil was discovered in Nigeria from the first oil rig at Oloibiri in the present Delta state, agriculture which was at the forefront of driving the economy of Nigeria suddenly took the backstage as individuals and government at all levels neglected the sector. This was the sector from where institutions like the popular Premier House, Ibadan, University of Ibadan, Ahmadu Bello University, the University of Nigeria, Northern Nigeria Development Company and a host of others were established without any local or foreign loan.

Although still in subsistence method because of the rudimentary implements deployed on the farms, yet the nation was self-sufficient in food production. That was when the epic groundnut pyramid in Kano, the cocoa revolution in the entire South-west, the palm oil plantation in the Mid-west down to the Eastern Nigeria held sway. Little did anyone wonders that it was only a matter of time and all those would become history because of oil. Despite the various agricultural policies of previous administrations like Operation Feed the Nation, Green Revolution, and many others, the impact of the burgeoning oil industry was too heavy on the economic psyche of the nation, such that attentions were not concentrated on using oil to consolidate on achievements hitherto made in agriculture before. Gradually, Petroleum and Geophysics Studies began to replace the study of agriculture thereby relegating it to the background. In many cases, investigations showed that many hitherto faculties and departments of agriculture in tertiary institutions began to lose their appeals because fewer students apply to study in the faculty. With a gradual decayed facility, the sector suddenly became unfashionable. That was how agriculture which was the number one driver of the economy was derided by many especially the youth.

Oil displaces agriculture

The petroleum industry in the country on its part, no doubt, brought unprecedented changes to the Nigerian economy, particularly in the past five decades when it replaced agriculture as the cornerstone of the nation’s economy by rising high to an enviable height as the commander of the economy, thereby contributing the lion share to gross domestic product and accounting for the bulk of federal government revenue and foreign exchange earnings since early 1970s. Investigations, however, showed that despite the early years of oil boom in the country, for some bizarre reasons, Nigeria’s considerable endowment in fossil fuel has not translated into an enviable economic performance; rather, indices on ground shows that the nation’s mono-cultural structure has assumed a precarious dimension in the past decades made susceptible to the vagaries of international oil markets.

Investigations also showed that Nigeria’s extreme reliance on crude oil market triggered structural difficulties for the economy, as earnings from crude oil fluctuated along with market trends, a development that was exacerbated by the country’s neglect of other productive sectors of the economy, particularly infrastructural development. This negative trend had persisted till now despite various economic reforms introduced and embraced by successive administrations in the country since 1980.

Experts’ admonitions

While speaking on the dismal trend, an energy expert, Rolake Akingbugbe-Filani, said Nigeria is unfortunately vulnerable to a prolong period of low oil price, but said the country should take opportunity to deregulate downstream. According to her, “Some OPEC members could decide to go renegade and pump out more barrels in the hope of compensating for the rapid decline in prices. Already, the uncertainty has become so devastating to the oil market and for Nigeria an OPEC member, her path to quickly ramp up production is limited by operational, regulatory and infrastructural challenges due to years of neglect.”

She said further that the only way out for the country to exit the “calamitous development is to return to the golden days of agriculture.”

For Olabukunola Williams, the programme coordinator of Nigerian Women in Agriculture Research for Development (NiWARD), “Prior to Nigeria’s oil boom in the 1970s, the country was the world’s largest exporter of palm oil ahead of Malaysia and Indonesia. Ahead of the United States, Nigeria exported 47 per cent of the world’s groundnuts. As far as cocoa was concerned, in the 1960s, Nigeria was the number two global producer and accounted for 18 per cent of global cocoa production.”

She said, “This was the golden era of Nigerian agriculture to which the government wishes to return. Indeed, President Buhari had promised an increased allocation for agriculture in the 2017 budget.

“The government’s commitment to Nigerian agriculture is much welcomed by the farming industry. Before now, Nigeria has dropped to the world’s fourth largest producer of cocoa— after Côte D’Ivoire, Ghana and Indonesia. Her cocoa exports continue to dwindle year on year and any recent profits are due to high global prices for the raw bean rather than as a result of government assistance or innovations that would see Nigeria exporting cocoa as an ingredient in finished goods. This is the right time to return to the basics considering the current realities where many nations no longer need fuel as a source of energy.”

She noted that Nigeria is well placed to build on its national agricultural research system.

“New innovations and practices can help agriculture regain its position at the centre of a diverse and vibrant Nigerian economy. If it is serious about unlocking the key to the country’s agricultural productivity, the Nigerian government must prioritise investment in agricultural research.”

Sunday Ogidigbo, writing on Farming for Oil, noted that, “The destiny of Nigeria is squarely tied to agriculture. China is the factory of the world, the United States is the centre of innovation and Nigeria is the food basket of the world. We are supposed to feed the world. Until we step into this role, our greatness as a nation would not emerge. Nigeria is a fertile land. I have pawpaw trees behind my house that grew out of the seeds we threw into the bush behind the house. I have harvested tomatoes from the same bush from seeds of tomatoes not consciously planted. It is time for the government to take lead in the drive to farm away from oil. The same energy channeled into drilling oil, a higher energy should be channeled into harvesting cash crops.”

He said further that, “It is time to farm our raw materials and process them too. Our cocoa farms should be feeding our chocolate factories. Rubber plantations should be feeding tyre making plants. We must maximise the value chain of all the crops that we grow. The poverty Nigeria and Nigerians are experiencing despite our great wealth in human and material resources are due to lack of judgment and understanding of our national purpose, identity and destiny. The oil boom became our national doom because past leaders did not understand that the oil was supposed to help us oil the wheels of our agricultural destiny. The United Arab Emirates discovered their national destiny as tourism. They went all out to oil the wheel of tourism from crude oil. Today Dubai is ahead of New York as the number one tourist destination in the world.”

Agriculture in Nigeria, according to a study conducted in 2010 provides employment for about 30 per cent of the entire population. This is because of the erroneous and artificial digression that oil, whose lifespan is already having a spiralling toll on the economy of the country, has come to stay.

The constraints

Evidences have shown that there is immense potential in agriculture ranging from farming and providing innovative solutions to farmers through technology to value addition and food sufficiency.

However, barriers to agricultural advancement among the youth and women have been identified as the lack of access to land, financial services, markets and knowledge, information, and education.

These barriers can be removed through government help and engagements with development partners, who can offer opportunities for workshops, trainings, volunteership contracts and networking. Agriculture is a vast field and there exists myriad of opportunities along fresh farm produce, farm input supply chains, products value addition and food agri-enterprises.

According to the immediate past minister of agriculture, Chief Audu Ogbe, “A lot of food producers in Africa including Nigeria are ageing, which means the youth have to come on board and play a big role in producing food. Therefore, the sector, if well tapped, would create decent jobs for the youth especially in rural areas and increase food production, thereby contributing to effectively achieving SDG1 (no poverty) and SDG 2 (zero hunger) by 2030.

“This also aligns well with the government’s Big Four agenda on food security and nutrition.”

The benefits

Agriculture also has a big room to accommodate the ICT, innovation and technologies that seek to enhance or revolutionise the sector.

For example, far-reaching, long-impact investments start small and grow. It is important to identify a few nodes along that sector that particularly interests one and can have multiplier effects, according to analysts.

An agricultural extension officer with All Farmers Association of Nigeria (AFAN), Mr. Suleiman Adaji, advised that the youth should deploy their creative skills to re-bound agriculture. “Successful businesses and innovations are built on people’s skills; don’t wait to have enough money to start. There is enough opportunities in agriculture presently for everyone with the interest,” he said.

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