HARVESTING THE HEARTLAND

Nigeria 2018 | AGRICULTURE | REVIEW

A lack of irrigation and access to technology has led to stagnating agricultural production, forcing Nigeria to spend billions on food imports.

Nigeria depends on food imports to feed its rapidly growing population, but government officials have plans to strengthen the agricultural industry, turning the country self-sufficient, creating new sources of employment, and building a more diverse and resilient economy. Institutional reforms are underway to increase agricultural productivity using new technologies and land practices, with the long-term goal of reshaping the way the country thinks about land. It will be a difficult task, but there are precedents: India, for example, has gone from experiencing severe food shortages in the 1950s to becoming an agricultural exporter. Adding to the importance of agricultural development is its effect on the social fabric of the country. A nation, like an army, marches on its stomach, and improving access to food will raise human capital and alleviate social turmoil, building a path to a better future.

While oil has become Nigeria's economic driver, agriculture remains the single largest source of employment in the country; more than two-thirds of all Nigerians work in the sector. According to the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS), agriculture's share of GDP was 24.43% in 2016. The sector's output grew by 4.11% over the previous year, making it one of the fastest-growing sectors of the economy and putting it behind only the services sector for contribution to GDP. NBS subdivides the sector into crop production, livestock, forestry, and fishing; in 2016, crop production accounted for 88% of the sector's output. It also posted the majority of the sector's growth, increasing 4.35% YoY in 4Q2016 while none of the other three grew by more than 2.22%. Some of Nigeria's primary crops include rice, cotton, cassava, palm oil, peanuts, and cocoa; in 1Q2017, the largest agricultural exports were sesame seeds, soy beans, and frozen shrimp. Agricultural exports have shown steady increases in recent years as the government has formed new ties with Asian and Middle Eastern markets. Early 2017 saw this trend continue, as agricultural exports grew in value by 82% over the previous year.
Yet these growth statistics belie the development of the sector. The majority of Nigerian agricultural production comes from sustenance-level farming, with individual households working small plots of land with minimal technology. The lack of access to agricultural technologies that have become widespread in other areas has continually held back the sector, limiting yields and the country's ability to meet its food needs. Irrigation, for example, is present in less than 1% of the nation's cropland, leaving farmers vulnerable to weather-related disruptions. Moreover, the country has been unable to take advantage of its natural resources due to poor infrastructure and social instability. The United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization reports that the lack of technological advancement in the sector has led to more than USD10 billion in lost annual export opportunities due to falling production; per-capita value added has risen by less than 1% per year over the past two decades, so far below the rate of population growth that Nigeria has had to become one of the largest importers of food in the world.
Nigeria spends more than NGN1 trillion on rice, wheat, sugar, and fish imports, and in recent years has become the world's largest importer of wheat and second-largest importer of rice. Though it produces more than 2 million metric tons of rice per year, that amounts to less than half of the country's total demand. As such, in 2016, Nigeria imported 2.3 billion tons of rice, and estimates are that more than 500,000 metric tons of rice entered illegally. Rice's status as a staple crop has made it a priority of particular importance as the government looks to increase production. Nigeria's agriculture minister claimed in early 2017 that the nation would produce enough rice to meet demand by the end of the year, but gaps in the infrastructure and logistics chain mean that this is likely overly ambitious. Aside from improving irrigation and fertilization technology to boost output, industry leaders believe that additional transportation and storage infrastructure are needed to handle the volumes demanded by the country. In addition, structural changes are needed to increase access to credit for farmers; many rice farmers are only able to obtain high-interest loans that make acquiring the machinery needed for increased production impossible. Improved financing methods would allow for more capital improvements and a more mature sector.