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Driving maize production with the CBN import forex policy

By Femi Ibirogba, Head Agro-Economy
03 August 2020   |   4:25 am
As human population rises, so is the demand for maize – industrial and direct consumption. However, production and availability have remained a challenge in Nigeria.

Maize farm

The Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) recently directed all commercial banks and other authorised dealers in forex to immediately stop processing applications for maize importation. However, Nigeria’s current production, about 12 million metric tonnes, remains insufficient yearly. Head, Agro-Economy, FEMI IBIROGBA, examines how the policy would stimulate farmers’ capacity, increase production and force backward integration in maize economics if smuggling is prevented.

As human population rises, so is the demand for maize – industrial and direct consumption. However, production and availability have remained a challenge in Nigeria.

The United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA’s) Foreign Agricultural Service (FAS) Lagos office research forecasts that Nigeria’s corn consumption in 2019/20 is at 10.7 million metric tonnes, down over five per cent or 600,000 tonnes lower than Post’s 2018/19 estimate of 11.3 million metric tonnes.

It adds that corn consumption occurs in the form of maize flour for feed mills and confectionary; and maize “roasted, boiled or prepared as porridge and is boiled or roasted on its cob and served as a snack.”

Over 60 per cent of Nigeria’s production goes into animal feeds, especially for poultry; 10 -15 per cent is directly consumed by individuals in households, and the balance goes to raw material/ingredient utilisation in food manufacture, the agency’s report said.

Most poultry, aquaculture and other livestock operations in Nigeria spend about 70 per cent of their operational costs on feeds, reflecting the huge demand for feeds in the sector, and this directly translates to demand for maize. The major products used in animal feeds are maize, soybeans and wheat. Groundnut, sorghum, cassava, cereals, fats and oils are also inputs for animal feeds, but in smaller quantities.

Demand is surging up, and so is the importation to meet up with industrial utilisation, especially during off production seasons. This is buttressed by Professor Samuel Ajala, a maize breeder at the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA), who had said Nigeria needs about 16 million tonnes of maize a year to meet demand, and to be fully secure, additional four million tonnes are required.

Also, several thousands of tonnes produced locally are not fit for industrial food processing due to high level of aflatoxin and other contaminants, according Prof. Damian Chikwendu, Team Lead, Cultivating New Frontier in Agriculture (CNFA), prompting importation to meet industrial demand.

However, the CBN said to increase local production, stimulate a rapid economic recovery, safeguard rural livelihoods and increase jobs which were lost as a result of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, all “authorised dealers are directed to discontinue the processing of Form ‘M’ for the importation of maize/corn with immediate effect,” starting from Wednesday, July 15, 2020.

Sharing his views, Professor Jamiu Azeez, a maize breeding researcher at the Federal University of Agriculture, Abeokuta (FUNAAB), said Nigeria could meet up with the local demand with a policy change and provision of enabling environment.

He said: “The very first question is that: do we have enough land that can produce maize in enough quantities? The answer is yes. Then the next thing we need to do is to cultivate the land and do the needful in terms of allowing experts to do their jobs and providing the enabling environment.”

To do this, he said, first, marginal land should be avoided for cultivation but prime land should be cultivated for optimal production. Marginal land does not have most of the qualities the crop needs to perform well. They at times have permanent hindrance (which could be natural) to the good performance of the crop, while prime land is fertile and has the required qualities with little or no serious additional inputs.

He said: “So, personally, I support the government, but they need to work the talk by engaging the maize farmers in ways they could be assisted via policies that are farmer-friendly.”

However, he said large-scale production could utilise farm mechanisation at all stages of operations and turn the table around for industrial mass production.

“What we are talking about here is not a small or medium-scale production. We want the big farms to come up with ideas of cultivating thousands of hectares of land. Imagine if the stretch of land on the Lagos-Ibadan expressway is used for cultivating maize, instead of allowing it to fallow all these years,” he said.

Policy very good, but storage is a challenge
Professor Shehu Garki Ado, a maize breeder and Vice Chancellor, Al-Qalam University, Katsina, said the country could close the deficit in maize production soon if the policy is implemented and available resources utilised.

The policy, he added, is apt and timely, as it tries to diversify the economy. Diversification of the economy requires strong political will and decisive policy implementation. No matter how momentarily painful, the gains would unfold in the nearest future.

Prof. Ado said improved maize varieties have been bred by agricultural research institutes and multiplication of such seeds was ongoing, and this would make the varieties to become cheaper and more economical to the farmers.

The zero-interest loan facilities introduced by the apex bank in the Anchor Borrowers’ Programme, he added, would encourage more maize farmers and the associations to explore such, thereby reducing their cost of production and revving up productivity through the use of harvest-boosting inputs such as fertiliser and mechanical means of land preparation and planting.

He, however, reiterated that post-harvest managements of the grain would become a challenge following the lease of silos in the majority of the Strategic National Grains Reserves.

He said leasing of such facilities was in a hurry and counterproductive to the food security efforts of the same government. He suggested that storage facilities must be constructed not only at the local government, but also at the ward levels to boost grain production and post-harvest management.

The FUNAAB don Prof. Azeez also harped on storage facilities as the bane of grain post-harvest management and food security.

“It needs concerted effort from the government to provide enough enabling environment like provision of arable land, inputs like fertiliser, herbicides, etc., and above all, storage facility, because this has been the bane of our agricultural development. STORAGE,” Azeez said in a statement.

Critics say timing inappropriate
However, Dr Ikechukwu Kelikume, the Programme Director of the Lagos Business School Agribusiness Programme, said: “The situation spells doom for poultry farmers across the country who are beginning to cut down on production because of the high cost of feed and imported medication for the birds. A negative spillover effect of the high cost of feed is the scarcity of eggs and a consequent rise in its price across the country. The implications of the current challenges in the maize value chain are that the gains of employing more people in the agricultural sector will be rolled back in the coming months.

He said there is no alternative for the poultry farmers, as the poultry sector will face a catastrophic shortage of feeds, a critical input in their business. This situation will render tens of thousands of them unemployed and undo all the gains made by this sector in the past five years. Thousands of poultry businesses will shut down in the face of high operating costs, leaving business owners and their employees without a means of livelihood.”

Reducing maize production cost, maximising yield
Ayo Akinfe, a commentator, said Nigeria is not doing too badly as it ranks the 11th largest maize producer in the world.

Akinfe explained that in 2016, Nigeria imported 650,000 tonnes of maize, but the figure reduced to 400,000 in 2018 and 2019, saying: “If you are a flour mill or brewery for instance, and Nigerian maize is selling for $20 a tonne but imported maize is going for $8 a tonne, surely you are better off importing, especially when the quality is the same, if not better.”

On boosting maize production, Professor Samuel Adelowo Olakojo, a maize breeder at the Institute of Agricultural Research and Training (IAR&T), Ibadan, summarised the steps to successful maize farming in seven points, which are choosing rich farmland that requires minimum use of organic fertiliser; correct plant population of between 53,000 and 55,000 per hectare; NPK fertiliser application at four weeks and urea fertiliser application at eight weeks; prevention of army warm infestation by applying insecticides; good maize seeds with traceable sources; adequate weed control and good land preparation.

Mechanised farm operations and appropriate planting times
Maize planting requires adequate land preparation, including land clearing, plowing, harrowing and ridging. This breaks the soil texture, allows room for enough oxygen, and enhances manure/fertiliser application and utilisation. Tractor hiring services are now available with about N30,000 for both plowing and ridging or harrowing, as the farmer requires. Planting is done manually or mechanically. Semi-mechanical planters are also available with fertiliser hovers to dispense fertiliser with maize seeds. Mechanisation implies using modern tools such as tractor-mounted plough, ridgers, planters, sprayers and harvesters in farm operations.

Also, timing is very crucial in planting maize. Maize requires regular normal rainfalls, hence planting should fall within stable rainfalls. The Country Director of Pioneer Seeds, Mr Olumide Ibikunle, explained in a document that the first planting season begins in March or April in the forest ecologies, depending on whether rainfall is early or delayed, but the second planting season starts from late June to August.

The southwest, south-south and south-east geo-political zones are included in the forest ecologies practicing exclusively rain-fed farming. With irrigation facilities, all grains, including rice, could be cultivated round the year in the southern parts of Nigeria.

In the savannah or semi-arid regions of the north, planting season that guarantees bumper harvests is around June, except for irrigation facilities in the dry season. With some early-maturing maize varieties (40 to 48 days), farmers in the savannah zones could plant the first season in June and the second in very early August.

Plant population, agro-chemicals & weed control
According to Ibikunle, the plant population determines profitability, and no fewer than 20,000 seeds of maize should be planted on one acre, indicating 52,000 stands of maize or more should be standing on one hectare of land as of harvest time.

To achieve this population, experts, recommend 75cm spacing (about three feet) in-between ridges and 25cm spacing on the same row. This way, they explained, farmers would get maximum plant population and yield provided other necessary inputs are added.

Fertiliser is applied at planting and four weeks after planting, and eight weeks after planting. If organic fertiliser is unaffordable, compost poultry or pig manure should be applied two weeks before plowing and harrowing of the farmland. Application of no fewer than eight bags of fertiliser on one hectare of farmland is recommended for a bumper harvest.

To control weeds, experts recommend application of pre-emergence herbicides immediately after land preparation and planting. Pre-emergence herbicides prevent weed seeds from growing on the maize farm for a reasonable number of weeks. Post-emergence herbicides can also be applied to rid weeds after eight weeks of planting. Weed control is germane in maize productivity, for infestations reduce production of maize by as much as 30%.

Improved seed varieties
The most important factor in higher maize yield is the improved seed. The Director of the National Agricultural Seeds Council (NASC), Dr Philips Ojo, advised farmers avoid planting grains as seeds, source quality seeds from accredited dealers or research institutions.

Planting improved varieties of maize seeds would give farmers maximum yield of between five and six metric tonnes per hectares if other inputs are applied proportionately, while grains planted as seeds would give an average yield of one to two tonnes per hectare. Therefore, professionals have urged the government at all levels to assist farmers by subsidizing cost of improved maize seeds, and other critical inputs.