Agric as a business

President Jonathan says his administration has ended the approach of regarding agriculture as a development programme, instead it is taking agriculture as a business.

He told a two-day summit on:  “Realising the Potential of African Agriculture” organised by the Rockefeller Foundation held in Abuja that Nigeria’s agriculture sector has attracted N80 billion in private sector investments and commitments in the last one year.

According to the president, private sector investments were expanding rapidly through sales by fertiliser companies and agriculture processors, who have taken advantage  of the two revolutionary programmes his administration has developed. These are the Staple Crop Processing Zones meant to attract the private sector to the rural areas to process and add value to all the crops available in the country, and the Electronic Wallet System which allows farmers to receive electronic voucher to redeem subsidised fertilisers, seeds and other farm inputs directly from private sector seeds and fertiliser companies.

At a time crude oil and gas have been discovered in the United States and other parts of the world, the government initiative is commendable not just  as a means to feed the teeming population, but as a veritable source of revenue and foreign exchange.

The development of Staple Crop Processing Zones is expected to involve 14 zones across the country and is intended to attract the private sector to set up food manufacturing plants in areas of high production, for import substitution.

Already, the project to which N1.22 billion was allocated in the 2012 budget has attracted global financial institutions such as World Bank,  African Development Bank,USAID, the International Fund for Agricultural Development, DFID, UNDP and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, who are backing the scheme with commitments totaling $2 billion. This is in addition to government receiving  23 Letters of Intent from indigenous and global private-sector investors with commitments worth N370 billion ($2.3 billion).

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The planned investments in the processing zones would cover farm mechanisation, retail outlets, production and/or processing in rice, cassava, dairy, beef, maize, sorghum, poultry, pineapple, orange, mango, palm oil, soybeans, sugar, tomato, wheat, cotton, fish, and rubber.

On the Electronic Wallet System, it involves the use of mobile phones for the distribution of fertilisers, seedlings and other farm inputs.  It replaced the old fertiliser and seedlings distribution method the Federal Government handled through middlemen, states and local governments which succeeded in enriching cabals, cartels and politicians who fronted as farmers to rip off the nation.

Already, the scheme which kicked off in May last year has saved the federal and state governments not less than N25 billion after over 1.2 million farmers received subsidised fertilisers, seedlings or other relevant farm inputs under the scheme.

The e-Wallet System is reminiscent of the hey days when Nigeria used to be the largest exporter of palm oil, accounting for 27 per cent of the global  export.  Ironically, today the country is importing  palm oil from Malaysia  that got its oil palm seedlings from Nigeria.

But government says it is poised to reverse the trend as it has made agriculture the fulcrum of its transformation agenda.

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However, this is one programme that has enjoyed elaborate funding, from the budgetary allocation, SURE-P and other investments under agriculture and rural development sector, aside from support from global financial institution. The susceptibility of the funds being diverted to private pockets cannot be given a wave of the hand, even as accountability poses a serious threat.

Much have not been heard of plans for the government to distribute 10 million free mobile phones to its farmers in 2013 in order to deliver fertiliser and seed subsidies to e-wallets on their phones. Even so, government is silent  on how the mobile phones would be recharged since the mere possession of the facility does not translate to usage.

Much as government wants to open the doors for farmers to take advantage of the programme, there is need to ensure that those who lost out under the former regime of fertiliser and seedlings distribution do not resurface under different guises to frustrate and undermine the scheme.

The issue of public enlightenment, especially in rural areas must not be taken for granted, moreso when biometric registration is required before identity numbers are given to the farmers for the operation of the e-wallet system.

For the Staple Crop Zone initiative to succeed, there is need for the amendment of the Land Use Act which conveys the right of ownership of fragmented lands on families so that there would be unfettered access for the use of land for the project.

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