Can technology save agriculture in Nigeria?

Daily Nigerian
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By Nasir Yammama

A man in a white robe and matching white turban stood, hands stretched out towards a uniformed man who handed him an award. They were surrounded by a crowd amidst the flashes of cameras. “FASCOM Best Cotton Farmer, 22 Sept 1987, Kaduna, Nigeria” read an inscription above the gilt frame of the picture. I grew up admiring this portrait of my father, collecting a prize from a Nigerian governor in the eighties. As a child, I used to rehearse the speech I would give when I grew up to win awards of my own. Looking at the picture two decades later, I saw like a crack in the wall, the bane of Nigeria’s food and agricultural production.

Now almost defunct, the Farmers Supply Company (FASCOM) was a state limited liability company that had facilities across the nation with well-established wholesale and retail outlets that reached even the remotest areas of the country. Coupled with the Marketing Boards, they were so reliable that huge input companies and financial institutions depended on their structures. All stakeholders were familiar with each other, and agriculture was not only supported but incentivised.

All farmers were as visible to the market as it was to them and smallholders farmed with the certainty of an existing market. The robust structures and networks enabled the easy flow of information and helped bring down the amount of time and money it cost the farmers, cooperatives and even agri-businesses to manage the risk of farming and dealing with unknown partners. As a result, the agricultural sector flourished and the economy boomed.

Today, Nigeria’s agricultural production has decreased while imports are increasing.  Small holders remain in their localities with neither the money nor the voice that the market can hear and as such, they grow only what they subsist on, or trade locally.   These are the same smallholders that were responsible for the economy that funded and sustained the country before and in the early years of its oil discovery and exploration. They are the same smallholders who are key to Nigeria’s ability to feed its growing population cost effectively and grow its economy.

Despite advances in basically every aspect of agriculture from crop and animal production to agricultural processing and manufacture, Nigerian agricultural sector has only retrogressed, especially if you assessed it based on the country’s historical agricultural yield and potential. You could blame this on any number of issues; which Nigeria is in no lack of. Agricultural policies hardly translate into meaningful vehicles for production, Commercial banks and the banking sector have continually failed to respond to the credit needs of the agricultural sector and agricultural extension is a mirage for the ever increasing population of farmers across the nation.

To succeed in sustainably increasing food production, major innovations in agriculture are required that increase agricultural productivity and improve the efficiency and resiliency of the entire sector. It is not only  about input intensification, land expansion or increased labour.

Decision making for instance, must be efficient. We need data to know how much food is produced or lost in Nigeria. Policy makers, farmers and agri-businesses need more and better data to make good investments and decisions. If better data is the ingredient for better decisions by governments, donors and farmers which ultimately lead to better lives, think of what absolutely no data is doing to the Nigerian agricultural economy.

Information however, is just one piece of the Jigsaw. We need innovations along the entire agricultural value chain through which the productivity of our farming systems can be improved. We must find the innovative solutions that can help us produce with significant improvements in resource efficiency, while simultaneously transforming our agriculture into an economic powerhouse and solving a myriad of social problems. How can we produce more units of output with fewer units of input? How can we organize and harness the activities of the millions of smallholder farmers across the nation? Beyond just fertilizers, what can we bring in terms of advanced seed genetics, on-farm agronomic practices, software and hardware innovations to drive yield?

While Nigeria has lacked the sustained investment, collaboration and enlightened public policy to achieve this, it is not too late to turn things around. In fact, there is a tremendous opportunity to do it it now with greater upsides, higher benefits/risk ratio, lower barriers and better returns than there has ever been.

Mr Yammama is a Creative Technologist and Entrepreneur. He is the founder and CEO of Verdant AgriTech. Nasir made the 2017 Forbes “30 Under 30” among Africa’s 30 most successful entrepreneurs, change-makers and innovators under 30. He also received the 2017 Queen’s Young Leaders Award from Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II for his work’s impact. He is Interested in technology, renewable energies and agriculture.