In the 1960s, before it turned to oil, Nigeria was one of the most promising agricultural producers in the world. Between 1962 and 1968, export crops were the country’s main foreign exchange earner. The country was number one globally in palm oil exports, well ahead of Malaysia and Indonesia, and exported 47 percent of all groundnuts, putting it ahead of the US and Argentina.
But its status as an agricultural powerhouse has declined, and steeply. While Nigeria once provided 18 percent of the global production of cocoa, second in the world in the 1960s, that figure is now down to 8 percent. And while the country produces 65 percent of tomatoes in west Africa, it is now the largest importer of tomato paste.
Nigeria’s minister for agriculture, Akinwumi Adesina, reels off these statistics with regret as he discusses the country’s deteriorating agriculture sector. “Nigeria is known for nothing else than oil, and it is so sad, because we never used to have oil – all we used to have was agriculture,” he says.
Nigeria’s oil has come at the detriment of the agriculture sector, he claims, “and that is why we had a rising poverty situation. We were having growth but not robust enough to impact millions of people because it is not connected to agriculture.”
That might explain why Nigeria’s economic statistics are so puzzling. While the country has been posting high growth figures, and makes it into Goldman Sachs’ ‘Next 11’ emerging markets group, absolute poverty is rising, with almost 100 million people living on less than a $1.25 a day. The National Bureau of Statistics says 60.9 percent of Nigerians in 2010 were living in absolute poverty, up from 54.7 percent in 2004.
But it is not just oil that has hollowed out the agriculture sector, with knock-on effects on poverty rates.
Restrictive trade policies also had an effect, especially in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Tariff increases, a rise in import licenses and duties, and export bans and tariffs – as well as a centralisation of marketing of agricultural produce through the formation of crop-specific commodity boards – all created a lumbering, inefficient private sector, as well as opening up many opportunities for corruption. Today, Nigeria has transitioned from being a self-sufficient country in food to being a net importer, spending $11bn on imports of rice, fish and sugar. “It just makes absolutely no sense to me at all,” says Mr Adesina. “My job is to change that.”
The change needed, he says, requires a shift in mindset. “We were not looking at agriculture through the right lens. We were looking at agriculture as a developmental activity, like a social sector in which you manage poor people in rural areas. But agriculture is not a social sector. Agriculture is a business. Seed is a business, fertiliser is a business, storage, value added logistics and transport – it is all about business.”
I want to change the sector’s image, putting it at the forefront of national development. “Agriculture is the future of Nigeria”, and by that I mean agriculture that is modernised, productive, and competitive. We must be a global player!
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