“WE FEED WEST AND CENTRAL AFRICA.”

Nigeria 2018 | AGRICULTURE | VIP INTERVIEW

TBY talks to Chief Audu Ogbeh, Honorable Minister of Federal Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development, on Nigeria's crops, encouraging young people, and economic diversification.

How has Nigeria's agricultural sector performed recently?

When the government came to power there was a severe shortage of staples, so we looked at grains such as rice, wheat, and millet. After two years I am pleased to say we are achieving self-sufficiency in rice paddy production, though milling is still a challenge. By March-April 2018 we will have overcome this issue and there will be absolutely no need for Nigeria to import rice. We will have more than we need, and this will be the same for tubers. In terms of the domestic food supply, we are heading toward self-sufficiency by mid-2018. However, we still do not have enough milk, wheat, egg powder, and certain fruits, which, however, can be grown here. We are looking at exports, too, because the oil sector will not last forever. Every country needs foreign exchange, so Nigeria has to find something else to export other than hydrocarbons. Agriculture has to lead the way before other sectors can develop and join in. We are talking about enhancing cashew nuts and cocoa, not only for local consumption, but also for exports. Also in the works are sesame seeds, coconut oil, shea butter, and castor oil for products such as cosmetics. We look at policies to export to India where there is demand and exciting opportunities for such products. Certain countries in the Middle East seek high-quality meat products and the market is quite big, at 120,000 carcasses per week. Nigeria is the world's largest producer of yams and we will enter into the production of cassava chips, as well as industrial starch and ethanol from cassava. We also plan to work on improving our processing and packaging. Some of our current processing methods do not meet international health standards. For example, we do not use stainless steel in some processing and are using polypropylene bags, which are not good for preserving food. We are moving from polypropylene bags to jute bags.

The ministry is committed to engaging the youth in agriculture. What has been the public's response to your measures to increase participation in agriculture?

The beauty is that Nigerians are responsive; the number of people returning to agriculture has never been this large. This includes young people, women, civil servants, and the military. In particular, the average age of our farmers now is about 65 years old, so they do not have long to go. If we can mechanize and invite the younger generations into agriculture, that energy hidden in Nigerians that has not been exploited before will come alive. We are excited to tap into this. Nearly every sector of society is heading for the farms now and it is exciting. Our duty at the Federal Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development is to help clear the land and give them irrigation and approved seeds. Another example is cotton; Nigeria was a leading producer and the textiles industry was the second-largest employer in Nigeria after the government up until 1975. Later, the industry declined. Nigerians consume a large amount of fabric because our traditional garment is made from 12m of material. Now we rely entirely on Chinese and Indian textiles. If our population grows at the current rate, soon we will not have the money to import all this fabric. We need to grow some of our own cotton. If we do research on seed types and farmers' yields go up to about 1.5 tons per hectare then we can satisfy local demand, manufacture our own textiles, and create more jobs.

What is the potential of Nigeria's agricultural sector and what should be done to further support it?

The potential is extremely high that in many ways I am happy we are broke and that oil and gas is giving way to reality. There is nothing wrong with oil and gas; however, we misused, wasted, and misapplied the resources. We need a man of our president's age, experience, and discipline to stabilize the country, despite what the critics say. We need a man of his character to stop this, and this may not be comfortable for those who are used to the old ways; however, he is the best choice. We are now back to reality and agriculture with more discipline. We will not lead the life of a lottery winner—as we did with oil—but of a producer. Nigeria has about 50 million ha of uncultivated land and massive bodies of water and rivers. We will utilize our dams and lakes to make sure we grow food all-year round. This is one of 2018's investments. Once that happens, we invite the world to come. There is demand from Russia and Europe. We already feed West and Central Africa. In another year or two the world will hear great things from Nigeria about food. We also want to educate Nigerians about the need for a healthier diet, because even though we produce certain categories of food, we are not consuming enough fruit, vegetables, minerals, and vitamins. This affects our lifespan, resistance to disease, and immune system. We are slowly educating people that it is not enough to eat yams and cassava, and they are responding. Our children do not have enough milk; they should be having a pint a day for their minds and bodies. Currently, there are too many children with deficiencies in their diet and therefore they can never truly reach their full potential. This is one reason why we are entering into cattle breeding to improve the milk yield per cow.

What is your outlook for 2018?

We should achieve around 3.5-4% GDP growth by YE2018. It could be more if we solve one problem, which is the cost of credit. If Nigerians have access to reasonable credit, we can double that growth rate. I would then expect a more cheerful population; things are tough for people currently. They are not pleased with the high cost of food, school fees, and medical bills. The government is concerned about this; however, we cannot make improvements overnight. However, at least in terms of food the worst is over. We are improving on transportation and building railways and once the cost of transportation drops and good gets cheaper, the population will be happier. There will be more jobs and a lower crime rate because the young people who are frustrated go into crime. Once we achieve this, society will begin to benefit and become a much happier and less violent society than it is today. We are heading for better times.