I started the policy lessons from history series last month with the story of the National Accelerated Food Production Programme (NAFPP). For the benefit of those who missed that article, I will provide a brief recap.
The programme was geared towards increasing the productivity of famers and improving their livelihoods through research, technological improvement, extension, and agro-service delivery.
This scheme reported a tenfold increase in the yield of wheat, which competed favourably in international markets, and other improved seed varieties. However, its record of fund management and disbursement was less impressive. The takeaways: effective coordination among all government bodies, transparency, and consistent service delivery, especially to farmers with less wealth.
Moving on, we are immediately confronted by the NAFPP’s successor – Operation Feed the Nation. This programme was the brainchild of the former head of state, Olusegun Obasanjo. Introduced in 1976, its goal was twofold: first, to increase the food production capacity of the nation and to tackle nutritional challenges among Nigerians; and second, to increase the engagement of youths in agriculture, facilitating knowledge sharing from institutions of higher learning to the sites of food production – the farmlands. If any of these seems vaguely familiar to my under-thirty readers, it is because these are some objectives of the present transformation agenda.
While it was hoped that the rural farmers will benefit tremendously from having students work with them and introduce them to new techniques, the objectives for the youths – who were mostly third- and fourth-year undergraduate students – were as spelled out in the policy documents as follows:
(a) As leaders of tomorrow, students should be made to work on farms and to appreciate the problems of the farming communities. (b) Students should be made to appreciate the dignity of labour. (c) Students should be involved in the mass mobilisation now going on in the country for the production of food.
Put differently, the 1976 policy was supposed to be a win-win strategy. The country was to benefit from the cheap labour offered by the students; the farmers were to benefit from the interaction with educated and vibrant young people; and the young people were to benefit from the experience by developing an appreciation for the field and committing themselves to sustainable economic development. And at the time, it seemed that no arrangement could be more ideal.
But four years later, the national food import bill was at N1 billion. And by then, a new government headed by Shehu Shagari was already in place and had done away with the old agenda. At this point, it is necessary to ask: what really went wrong? Was it the same handicaps that crippled the predecessor scheme? Were there new challenges that were beyond the control of the government? Or did this have something to do with the high-interventionist, almost socialist, nature of the scheme in an economy that many argue should be left to the ‘natural’ forces of the market?
Evidence points to the same bureaucratic challenges that befell the NAFPP scheme. Rivalries between the state committees and ministries of agriculture continued, as the former felt their turf was being encroached upon and they were being sidelined by the latter. What’s more, many inputs – such as fertilisers – did not make it from the head or branch offices to the rural farms. As a result, the funds were not effectively utilised and a lot of wastage occurred at the institutional level.
Commenting on the range of schemes introduced between 1970 and 1980, Arua, a professor at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, noted: “All these efforts have shown few encouraging results mainly because agriculture lacks the institutional structure to absorb these massive injections of funds. High agricultural productivity and food sufficiency cannot be achieved by a number of single and isolated measures such as those which have characterised Nigerian agriculture.”
Several analysts and past ministers have also identified the key problem as over-centralisation on the part of the government. They suggest that rather than guarantee minimum prices for key crops, the government should have played a more efficient role by establishing storage depots and processing units, enabling farmers to compete on the basis of standard and quality. Furthermore, this would have prevented post-harvest losses and ensured that many crops remained available when they were out of season.
Given the strong imperial language of the documents, it also seems apparent that the government missed the chance to cultivate real partnerships between the academia and the field. This issue remains a source of tension between many Nigerian agricultural stakeholders. On the one hand, many argue that agriculture cannot progress without being embedded in research and innovation, and that students remain a vital part of this process. This point is very relevant: the field experience and relevant training in business management and innovation must be part of the agricultural education curriculum. On the other hand, others decry the debasement of rural farmers, some of whom have been in practice for 30-60 years, as ignorant and needing the intervention of ‘ill-prepared’ novices to improve their businesses. This kind of thinking, they argue, does not reflect the true value of farmers and inflates the ego of university-educated students.
The other issue concerns the exact role of young people in agriculture. Should they be admonished, coaxed, or coerced into returning to the land, or should they, as Simi Lawson said last week, capitalise on the growing opportunities in the services sector? Is the real problem with the rhetoric: this whole idea that agriculture needs to be pitched to young people in order for them to take it seriously?
The jury may still be out on the OFN scheme but a few takeaways are already apparent. One is that at this point in our journey, we cannot afford a repetition of the coordination battles and challenges that have characterised Nigerian agriculture. A clear delineation of the roles and responsibilities of federal, state, and local bodies is essential and must be done before any policy implementation or release of funds. The transportation of memos, inputs, and citizen feedback must be complete, going from the administration to the implementation point or vice versa. The importance of transparency and rooting out corruption cannot be belaboured. Extension and training should be structured and seasoned farmers, scientists, and other experts should jointly lead this. This should not be a task completely delegated to students.
Additionally, the government should stay away from parental roles. Sending youths off to the farms – like a parent does when he/she sends his/her child to summer camp or boarding school to learn valuable life lessons – is not the best way to indoctrinate a teeming population of young adults into national service (the best way to develop the national and leadership consciousness of young people is through sustained quality education right from the nursery and primary levels). Instead, for the purposes of agricultural transformation, the government should create incentives in the market or simply focus on providing key infrastructure for economic growth. This way, enterprising young minds, who will begin to notice opportunities in the agro-service sector or on the farms, can exercise their economic free will and enjoy agro-entrepreneurship in a country that goes beyond paying lip service to feeding the nation and actually provides conditions for young and old Nigerians to rise up to the challenge.