Struggling to fill the food basket

Struggling to fill the food basket

Struggling to fill the food basket
By Obo Effanga

Benue State prides itself as the “Food Basket of Nigeria”, a description it emblazons on vehicle number plate. But recent events seem to threaten this claim. Last year, several agricultural communities in Nigeria were hit by flood, signalling potential crisis in the months ahead. Benue had its own share of the disaster, but apparently, few people thought about the dire consequences to consider a strategic response.

The result is that early in 2008, Nigerians are facing the reality of insufficient food and galloping food prices which have been termed ‘food crisis’. It is made worse by the global trend of rice shortage from Thailand and other Asian countries, while Nigeria depends more on imports for its number one staple food, rice.

Benue is known as the food basket, not necessarily because it can feed the entire country with its farm produce, but because of its fertile soil which, according to its residents, could nurture just any crop. The state capital, Makurdi, is seat to one of the federal government’s specialised universities of agriculture.

Professor B.A. Kalu of that university opines that with “appropriate support” to farmers, the rice produced in Benue and Niger States (two north central states) could meet the consumption needs of the country. This is a view generally held by a cross section of Benue residents including foodstuff sellers and the president of the local farmers association, Chief Sam Kwawa. They oppose the federal government’s decision to commit N80 billion to rice importation, as such would kill the local production of rice. They instead request that the amount should be channelled towards supporting local production. Their position is supported by the National Assembly as the Senate rose recently in condemnation of the proposed importation of rice.

Talking about appropriate support for farmers, the tendency in Nigeria is to focus on provision of fertiliser and sometimes machinery. On both scores, the intervention has failed to address the problem. In Benue State, the government recently flagged off the farming season with fanfare, on which occasion the state governor, Gabriel Suswam proudly announced the release of fertilizers to farmers at a “subsidised” price of N2500 per bag. Curiously, that same quantity sold for just N1000 in the previous farming season.

Even at that, few farmers expect to get direct access to the fertilisers from government. They accuse bureaucrats of cornering the product and redistributing through middlepersons, meaning that farmers might get the product at a higher price, if it even gets to them early enough and not after the planting season. Similarly, the state government hires out its tractors to farmers at the cost of N4000 daily, a cost considered too high for the farmers. The implication is that the price of food would be even higher next season.

Interestingly, even though the state produces rice, its people hardly consider that as ‘food’. For many of them, food has to be a meal of pounded yam and so a measurement of food crisis here must be based on the production, availability and affordability of yam as the staple food!

As is the case with the rest of Nigeria, food production is still at its crudest form in many farming communities in Benue. Prof. Kalu puts the cost of making a heap of yam (which produces just one tuber of yam) at N6, up from N1 four years ago. Add the cost of the seedling, nurturing of the soil (with fertiliser) tending the crop, harvesting, transportation and the profit margin of middlepersons and you see a product slipping out of the hands of many potential consumers.

Today, the price of 100 tubers of yam has risen steadily from N5000 in September 2007 to somewhere between N16,000 and N18,000 depending on the size. Similar increases have been recorded for other foodstuff. Market survey in Makurdi showed increase in the price of a bushel of local rice from N1800 to N3200. The price of garri (a staple food made from cassava) rose from N1500 to N2500 and beans from N6000 to N9500, all within a space of four months. Similarly, a bowl of maize rose from N80 to N100 and guinea corn from N80 to N90. Many sellers interviewed say these products are not only costly but equally in short supply.

One does not need to go far to identify the cause of dwindling supply of food. Fewer people in Benue are involved in farming now than previously, apparently because the earning is nothing compared to other means of income with similar or less physical exertion. Investigation in the state showed that rather than be bothered about tilling ridges for vegetables and raising mounds for yam, youths would rather help construction workers dig up trenches to lay communication cables. The latter certainly pays more and immediately, unlike farming that comes after a gestation period.

Some students of the University of Agriculture Makurdi, admitted that they were not too passionate about making agricultural production a livelihood. Although many of them initially responded that they were into agricultural science studies by choice and interest, given the option of a high-paying white collar job in a bank, many agreed that they would take such jobs and hope to earn enough to be able to establish their agricultural production businesses in future.

Yet another problem associated with production is the limited access of women to land. As claimed by a female farmer, Rosemary Hua and admitted by Kwawa, farmland still resides within the family, which leadership is patriarchal. The result is that a woman’s access to land is tied to her husband’s or her son’s interest on the land.

Production would also be much cheaper if loans were easy to access and without tough conditionality, says Prof. Kalu who posits that government needs to stabilise the economy including the cost of transportation. He says failure to do so means that the farmer would have to raise prices to offset cost and settle personal bills on housing and medicals.

Government assistance through improved seedlings and ensuring that agricultural extension officers pay the required visits to rural farmers are other requests made by farmers in Benue State.

However, another lecturer in the University of Agriculture Makurdi, Prof. G.B. Ayoola holds a different view on the issue of food crisis. According to him, increase in price of foodstuff does not necessarily amount to food crisis unless “all feasible alternatives have been threatened or exhausted”. He sees what is playing out as international politics meant to fight back developing countries like Nigeria, following the soar away price of oil. Ayoola said the panic on food is intended to create an expression of dependency on developed countries and international agencies. He claimed that the price of rice in the international market climbed from $900 to $1600 per metric tonne a day after Nigeria announced its plan to spend N80 billion on rice importation.

Be it international politics are the effect of years of neglect or failure to heed the warnings of agencies like ActionAid who flagged off the HungerFREE campaign in 2007 with governments playing the emu to the issue, the truth is that there is hunger in the land today. To the student who pays more for less food in school or the families who cannot meet their daily food and nutrients needs, all they want is food, not the politics of food crisis, food price escalation or food scarcity.

• Effanga is Parliamentary Liaison and Policy Advisor with ActionAid Nigeria.

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