Looming famine: Prize of leaving food production for peasant farmers


Muhammadu Buhari recently responded to the persistent warning on the brewing famine in Africa’s largest economy by calling on all Nigerians to return to farm.

There are fears that the president’s call was not directed to those who could stem the brewing famine.

Olusegun Obasanjo as military head of state made a similar call in 1977 when he launched Operation Feed the Nation. He urged everyone from permanent secretary to messenger to plant food crops in open spaces in their homes.

Operation Feed the Nation was a colossal failure because it was founded on the faulty logic that farming is an all-comers affair.

Hunger and malnutrition would continue to ravage Nigeria until the rulers learn to treat agriculture as a specialized business meant for experts who can use modern technology to achieve mass production.

Nigeria used to be world leader in palm oil production up to the late 1960s. Today it has been beaten to a distant fifth position by nations that use high technology to produce palm oil.

Indonesia leads the world palm oil production with 35 million tons of the produce annually. Nigeria, the former world leader now produces a scant 1.3 million tons of palm oil annually. It supplements the annual of 400, 000 tons with imports from Malaysia which obtained oil palm seedlings from Nigeria in 1965.

About 65 million Nigerian peasant are engaged in oil palm processing that yield such contemptuous annual harvests. The 65 million peasant farmers depend on the millions of wild groves (uncultivated palm trees) for their productions.

The Indonesians that now control world palm oil business cultivate high yield palm trees in millions of hectares of land, harvest them from the ground through mechanized harvesters (not primitive climbers) and process the fruits in high technology mills that squeezes out the last drop of oil from the fibre.

Nigerian peasant farmers harvest low yield fruits from wild untended groves and process them with primitive hand mills that toil to squeeze out only 50 per cent of the oil in the fibre.

The same thing happens in Nigeria’s cattle and dairy industry. About 90 per cent of the dairy business in Nigeria is controlled by primitive Fulani nomads who lead their cattle through miles of trekking in search for grazing ground.

The cattle get to the grazing ground completely exhausted. Consequently, Fulani herdsmen hardly get two litres of milk daily from each of the exhausted cows because their feeding and is left at the mercy of providence.

In civilized climes where cattle are reared in well cultivated ranches and are treated by trained veterinary doctors, the daily milk output per cow ranges from 30 litres.

The Dutch technical partners to WAMCO Friesland, makers of Peak Milk, started an experiment on mechanized rearing of cattle in Oyo state and the result is something to emulate. They produce a minimum of 12 litres of milk per cow in the experimental farm.

Thousands of trucks ferry cows from different parts of the north to Lagos on weekly basis. Each articulated truck carries about 30 live cows and wades through thousands of kilometers of dilapidated roads to Lagos. The cost of haulage by an articulated truck from the north to Lagos is about N300, 000. That factor increases the cost of each cow by N10, 000.

No one considers the fact that if those cows were slaughtered and processed in the north, one refrigerated truck could carry processed meat from 150 cows to Lagos and reduce the cost of drastically. That is the prize we pay for leaving a highly specialized business in the hands of laymen.

These are pointers to the fact that farming is no longer an all-comers affair. Nigeria’s food security crisis would only worsen as long as government keeps calling on every Tom, Dick and Harry to return to the farm. They just do not have the expertise for mass production of food. No one gives what he does not have.

The Government of Zimbabwe, under late dictator Robert Gabriel Mugabe learnt that basic truth rather late. Mugabe seized lands from white farmers who were into massive food production through mechanized farming.

He distributed the land to peasant farmers. They possessed the land but could not produce enough food with primitive tools. Zimbabwe that used to feed the whole of southern Africa now begs for food because the government, like the federal government of Nigeria, called on everyone, not experts to return to farm.

Buhari’s call on all Nigerians to return to farm is a sad reminder of how Nigeria has always moved in the wrong direction. We cannot get different results by doing things the same way. We did it in Operation Feed the Nation. We did the same thing in Shagari’s Green Revolution. They all failed. We are still calling on everyone to do the same thing all over again. It cannot work.

Nigeria’s worsening food insecurity can only be tackled if the federal government is ready and willing to invest massively in mechanized farming. Nigeria is still doing a futile battle against the flow of expired rice imported from Vietnam, Thailand and India because peasant farmers produce 80 per cent of the rice consumed in the country.

Less than 500 mechanized farmers can produce in three months the quantity of rice produced by 60 million peasant farmers in 10 years.

The billions of naira the federal government is investing on the 774, 000 street-sweeping jobs flagged off two weeks ago could have served as seed money for setting up experimental 100, 000-hectare mechanized rice farm in each state of the federation.

That would result in massive food production that would not only create jobs but feed the millions now suffering from hunger and malnutrition. We could have succeeded in killing two birds with a single stone by producing food and jobs at the same time.

The idle funds that pushed the market capitalization of the Nigerian Stock Exchange (NSE) from N14 trillion in the opening week of November 2020 to N21 trillion last week could avert the looming famine in the land if kidnapping herdsmen, armed robbers, bandits, epileptic power supply and dillapidated roads had allowed their owners to invest in agriculture.

It is the responsibility of the federal government to create the environment that would encourage experts to invest in mechanized farming. That is the only way to stem the brewing famine in the land.

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