Policy interventions drive innovations in agro-business
The challenge of food insecurity has become a global concern and government at all levels and the private sector have made concerted efforts to enhance productivity in Nigeria’s agriculture sector, especially with focus on rural smallholder farmers. In this interview, Mr Fatai Afolabi, an agro expert and a technical committee member, British American Tobacco Nigerian Foundation (BATNF), examined some of the major issues responsible for poor agricultural yields, post-harvest losses, among others.
What is the role of the technical committee of the British American Tobacco Nigeria Foundation?
The BATNF Technical Committee consists of experts drawn from diverse fields including in-house professionals from BATNF. As a team, we provide technical support to the executive arm of the Foundation to ensure that the design and implementation of BATNF’s intervention programmes align with set goals and objectives. As a team, we are responsible for developing interventions that are technically and socially viable and adaptable to the operations of rural smallholder farmers, who form the main focus and target of the BATNF’s interventions. We also strive to develop interventions that are sustainable and supportive of these farmers such that they are able to migrate from the subsistence level, which is the baseline at which we meet them at the point of intervention to a larger commercial scale.
How has the Foundation interventions helped in alleviating poverty among the rural farmers?
BATNF’s interventions are usually informed by the needs of the farmers. First, we seek to understand what their challenges are, and from the feedback provided, we develop interventions that address these needs. The interventions usually arrive ahead of the season. Apart from improved seedlings that are distributed to the farmers in good time, BATNF also provides periodic requisite training to the farmers in a bid to enhance their capacity and expertise. As a result, the farmers are more confident because those challenges no longer exist. Another unique thing about the interventions is that they link the farmers with the market, where they sell directly to industrial buyers and for food consumption such that the farmers’ outputs and incomes have greatly increased. If they are able to achieve more than double what they were achieving before, that will also translate into double more than the income they were receiving before, and more than double our key objective, which is assisting farmers to increase their production and income.
One of the critical challenges militating against agricultural productivity in Nigeria is poor access to improved inputs. What do you think can be done to make more inputs readily available to the smallholder farmers at affordable rates?
To get out of this problem, a recommendation is to let farm input procurement and distribution be managed by private sector but with regulation. The input companies should be allowed to engage the farmers directly. In this case, it is the input companies that will market their brands to the farmers. With that in place, farmers can draw comparison and make informed choices based on the performances of the inputs or the brands that they have opted for, or the durability or effectiveness of the equipment that they have bought. If the market is competitive, input suppliers will compete favourably among themselves, which is a good development for smallholder farmers. Another good thing about this is that it will make inputs more readily available to farmers and they too can in turn sell their produce at prices dictated by the open market.
Studies have shown that a challenging financial environment constrains growth in agriculture, especially for smallholder farmers, who find credit facilities inaccessible. How can rural farmers easily access credit facilities to enhance their farming operations?
Lack of access to credit facilities has been a recurring decimal in our agricultural production system. To enable rural farmers have easy access to credit facilities and foster rural agricultural productivity, I think that we should consider a wholesale packaging of rural farmers. We should encourage cluster or group farming in which farmers are organised into cooperative groups. This is what BATNF is currently doing and the Foundation has recorded significant successes in this regard. When farmers operate as a cooperative, it will be easy for the group to access facilities from financial institutions because they will be regarded as a considerable aggregation and size that is viable.
However, there is need for bankable feasibility study or business plan wherein all costs and benefits sharing will be expressed. The existing individual single digit loan interest offered by the government is good, but it is difficult for individual smallholder farmers to benefit from this. Loan processing, administration and recovery also become easy for the financial institutions while the risk of loan recovery is reduced or eliminated when they deal with a group. Imagine if you have about 500 farmers in a cluster, and each farmer has a hectare, that will be 500 hectares of land and you now package this in a project. What you are putting forward to the bank, as an example is 500 hectares rice farming project for the cooperative group.
Insufficient land has been an issue confronting smallholder farmers in rural communities across the country. How has BATNF intervened to bring succour to the smallholder farmers?
Land has not been much of an issue for BATNF because the beneficiaries are existing farmers who operate at subsistence level. What BATNF does is to upscale the level of technology that is applied in their operations.The Foundation supports the farmers such that they get more values from cultivating even on the existing land. If a farmer is operating half a hectare, for instance, because we want to assist does not mean that they have to acquire more hectares. What we do for the farmers is to first identify what their challenges are, and how this could be overcome to enhance their productivity.
The Foundation will then provide those things that will enable each farmer to plant ahead of the season. The improved seedlings we provide go with requisite agronomic practices. We also get the Agricultural Development Partners to give them technical support that will increase agricultural yields. BATNF interventions do not target individuals, but groups and all these benefits go to the group. The premium for the farmers is the quality and the timeliness of the interventions. For our farmers, our interventions upscale them significantly, meaning they get five times the yields, five times the income and five times the food that is delivered to our tables.Lack of storage facilities such as warehouses, paved roads, cold storage and reliable energy have continued to contribute to post-harvest losses among farmers particularly in rural communities.
What will you recommend as solutions to this problem?
Nigeria produces more than enough food to feed its citizens but the challenge is that not all the food that we produce gets to our table. That is where post-harvest losses come in. Most of the food produced is lost from the point that they are leaving the farm gate to the point that they are landing on our tables. The issue is we rely too much on the importation of foods that we have the local capacity to produce. To increase our food production, we need to be proactive and anticipate where these problems come from.
In the event of a bumper harvest, how do you store and process? This is an area we need to focus on. For example, existing government institutions such as Nigerian Stored Products Research Institute, Federal Institute of Industrial Research Oshodi (FIIRO) and the Raw Material Research Development Council (RMRDC) should synergize in a bid to reducing post-harvest losses and re-engineering Nigeria’s storage facilities. These government institutions should also review the agriculture value chain with a view to assisting smallholder famers to achieve on-farm processing. This will reduce the bulk of their harvest and prolong the shelf life of the produce. If this is done, the farmers’ burden of transporting their harvest will be reduced. What will come out of the farm gate in terms of weight and transportation is reduced by half but today, the farmers’ transport 100 percent of what they produce, including the waste. If this is done, that is the beginning of cheap foods for Nigeria.
Climate change is also a critical issue within the nation’s agricultural space. What efforts have BATNF and other organisations in the agriculture value chain made in addressing this issue?
At BATNF, we are supporting rural farmers against the challenges of climate change. We have adopted the climate smart agriculture approach, which aligns with the main objectives of Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO), including sustainably increasing agricultural productivity and incomes; adapting and building resilience to climate change; and reducing and/or removing greenhouse gas emissions, where possible. To further actualize this at BATNF, we have a climate change expert in the technical committee and we are mindful of our footprint. Our implementing partners have received necessary training and induction to the extent that climate smart agriculture is cardinal to the delivery of our interventions. I don’t know much about what other organisations are doing, I can only hope that they are doing similar thing if not better that BATNF. However, I have seen some organisations focusing on the commercial side of climate change rather than focusing on training and capacity building for rural farmers to build their adaptation and resilience to climate change as we do at BATNF.
Food security is very critical to the survival and sustainability of people and the nation. What will you consider as measures for ensuring Nigeria’s food security?
This is a critical area that change is desirable. For food to be available and affordable in the country, we need to unleash a holistic stakeholder approach to the agriculture value chain and food supply chain developments. The attitude of looking forward solely to the Federal Government for food supply or heaping the blame on government for food shortages needs to change. We should start seeing government as just one of the several stakeholders in the food supply chain. In this context, the other stakeholders would seem to have more roles to play than government.
With renewed focus on the role agriculture can potentially play in the socio-economic growth and development of Nigeria including job creation, what can be done by stakeholders to bring about the expected growth in the economy?
Extension services and the markets have to be strengthened with a view to achieving yield intensification and preservation of harvests thus delivering more food on the table. Government must put in place and drive policies that will galvanize and mobilize agriculture value chain stakeholders to revolutionize agriculture. You need to imagine the multitude of the people that will be engaged, either working directly or providing enabling and supportive services from the farm through aggregation of produce, processing, packaging, transportation, marketing, wholesale, retail, catering services, among others. You also need to imagine the enormous job opportunities and socioeconomic growth that will accompany this from the front end through secondary, tertiary and back end of the value chain. Again, I wish to encourage policy makers to focus on extension services; especially private sector led extension services, so as to create and strengthen the market.
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