In our series of letters from African journalists, writer and novelist Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani examines why some of those essential to boosting agricultural production in Africa’s most populous nation are giving up.
Rotimi Williams was seen as one of Nigeria’s most successful rice farmers seven years ago, but now the 42-year-old’s land is fallow.
The problem: insecurity, which has brought his farms to a standstill.
In 2012, Mr. Williams left his career as a banker and ventured into farming. He was profiled in international media and described as the second largest producer of rice in Nigeria, with farms thriving in the north.
But the threat to his life and the lives of his workers became too great.
“There was one time when my car was shot at on the way back from the farm,” he said. “There were also kidnapping attempts.”
Over the past three years, a sharp rise in insecurity has led gangs to kidnap hundreds of people for ransom in Nigeria, and workers from affluent farms have been particularly targeted, forcing many farms to cease or reduce operations .
More than 350 farmers have been kidnapped or killed in the 12 months to June 2022 alone, according to a Nigerian security tracking website.
Most of the attacks took place in the northern region, where there are large tracts of undeveloped land and some of the largest farms in the country.
In January 2022, five people were killed in a shootout between security agents and gunmen on motorcycles, gang members known locally as “bandits”, who attacked the property of GB Foods, a tomato processing plant in the northwestern state. from Kebbi.
When the multimillion-dollar plant, partly funded by the central bank, kicked off to much fanfare in 2020, it was described in the media as Nigeria’s second largest food processing plant, including the country’s largest tomato farm.
Bandits then tried to kidnap some of the staff. They failed, but the factory has been out of business ever since.
“There is nowhere else in the world where people need armed security to go to the farm,” said Mezuo Nwuneli, the managing partner of Sahel Capital.
His agricultural investment company is in the ninth year of a 10-year contract to invest $66 million (£54 million) in the agricultural sector on behalf of the government and its partners, including the UK government and some Dutch investors.
On one of Sahel Capital’s farms, a security officer was killed during an attempted kidnapping.
“They used to work comfortably until 10pm, but the attack has made them feel unsafe to work late. In other parts of the world you can run a farm 24/7.”
Prior to the discovery of crude oil in 1956, Nigeria was known for a long list of cash crops, such as palm oil, cocoa, and groundnuts, but the government’s focus on the booming oil sector led to the underdevelopment of non-oil sectors. such as agriculture.
This began to change after Olusegun Obasanjo was elected president in 1999 and made an effort to revive agriculture. His government offered farmers improved irrigation, as well as new machinery and crop varieties to increase agricultural productivity.
The magic really started to happen, however, when the succeeding government appointed the sleek, bow-tie-wearing, charismatic Akinwumi Adesina as Agriculture Minister in 2010.
“When Adesina was minister, he was able to communicate the opportunities in the industry in a way that was exciting to people,” said Mr. Nwuneli, a Harvard Business School graduate who founded Sahel Capital in 2010 when he was 35 years old. was old.
“Around that time there was a lot of excitement and interest from the young people and the many people who came into the industry at the same time.”
In the following years, many young Nigerian agricultural entrepreneurs emerged, such as Mr. Williams and Mr. Nwuneli, in a period described in many reports as Nigeria’s “green revolution”.
“From 1990 to 2010, 20 million young people entered the oversaturated workforce. As far as we are concerned, we are committed to unlocking the power of agriculture and job creation with the goal of creating 10 million jobs by 2030,” says Kola Masha, another Harvard graduate, who in 2010 founded Babban Gona, which means “Big Farm” in Hausa.
His company uses innovative technology to help the more than 20,000 smallholder corn growers improve crop yields, reduce production costs and increase selling prices.
In 2017, Mr Adesina, then head of the African Development Bank, was awarded the World Food Prize “for driving change in African agriculture” and “his pioneering achievements as agriculture minister”.
‘We have lost 300 farms’
All that progress now seems to be unraveling, with nearly 25 million Nigerians at risk of starvation between June and August 2023, the UN said.
“We lost about 300 farms,” says Stella Thomas, who founded Techni Seeds in 2011, at the age of 32. Based in the northwestern city of Kano, the company applies scientific research to produce quality seeds which it then distributes to thousands of farmers across Nigeria, guiding their work from planting to harvest, to ensure maximum yield.
“We call them ‘outdoor growers’. We found out that because most farmers use stored seeds – they recycle their seeds – [then] over time they don’t get enough output. So we give them the seeds they use, and it’s our responsibility to make sure they’re doing the right thing.”
The insecurity has forced hundreds of her “outdoor growers” to leave the network of controlled farms.
Mr. Williams loved to spend months at a time on his farm, hosting barbecues for the farmers at the end of a hard day’s work, complete with stereo and loud music.
He is now moving his rice production to other West African countries such as Gambia and Senegal, which also consume rice in large quantities.
His current calculations show that transport costs would make it unprofitable for him to supply rice from those countries to Nigeria, and he predicts that rising food inflation in Nigeria will only get worse – if the government continues to slack on security.
“If there is no security, there is no agriculture,” he said. “It’s that simple.”
Bola Ahmed Tinubu was sworn in late last month as the new president to take over from Muhammadu Buhari – and the uncertainty is his problem to solve.
“We all have hope that this issue will be resolved,” Williams said, reflecting on the future, “but we’ll see.”
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