Our research institutes are not adequately funded — Olabanji

The Executive Director, Lake Chad Research Institute, Dr. Oluwasina Olabanji, says by 2015, Nigeria will have reduced its importation of wheat by half, but laments the poor funding of the institute and others. He spoke with OKECHUKWU NNODIM

What do you do at the institute?

The Lake Chad Research Institute has the national mandate for the genetic improvement of wheat, millet and barley. It also has the mandate to research into the production problems of the popularly grown crops in the North-East zone.

With respect to wheat, what tangible thing have you done?

For wheat research in the LCRI, we have done a lot of work on its genetic improvement. As at 1976, the average yield of wheat was 1.2 tons per hectare. But, with the launch of the wheat transformation agenda, we have been able to develop some improved varieties that can give us an average yield of five to six tons per hectare. This was achieved through collaboration with the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre in Mexico and International Centre for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas in Tunisia.

Can Nigeria be self-sufficient in wheat production?

We have the potential to produce our own wheat. We have 600,000 hectares of land in this country suitable for wheat production, out of which only 10 per cent  is utilised. But, within the agricultural transformation agenda, we have proposed for 2013 to 2014 to cultivate 150,000 hectares of land in the wheat-growing areas. These are 10 states in the northern parts of the country.

Similarly, we have rain-fed wheat in Nigeria. And this rain-fed wheat is cultivated in the highlands. These Nigerian highlands are in Mambilla Plateau in Taraba State, Jos in Plateau State, and Obudu in Cross River State. These are potential areas for rain-fed wheat production. We have about 80,000 hectares area of land in these areas that are suitable for rain-fed wheat production.

What do you mean by wheat transformation agenda?

With the Wheat TA, we emphasise value chain, not just producing the wheat. We have started processing the Nigerian wheat into flour. We also have recipes that are made from this wheat flour, like the bread. We have 100 per cent Nigerian made bread. Our wheat flour is comparable, if not superior, to imported flour.

Between now and 2015, we should be able to produce half of our demand in this country. Our demand for wheat is 3.7 million metric tons, and by 2015, we should be able to achieve 50 per cent of this national demand. And that will reduce the cost of importation by 50 per cent. Presently, N635bn is spent annually on importing wheat into Nigeria and this can be reduced by half in 2015.

We are trying to partner companies that are ready to help us commercialise these products, like the wheat flour. We want bakers to come and bake our own wheat flour into bread. The cassava wheat composite bread is also good. It will reduce the importation of wheat into this country. We could also use sorghum wheat flour for baking bread. But I think the best nutritional value is 100 per cent wheat bread and the cassava wheat bread.

Are there challenges in achieving this target?

There are challenges. For instance, the provision of adequate and quality seeds is a challenge. Seed is the major constraint to crop production in Nigeria. But, with the emphasis now, through the use of these value chains, whereby the seed companies are brought on board for seed production, the national agricultural seeds council is also there to certify these seeds. And we in the agricultural research institutes are mandated to produce breeder and foundation seeds. And these will be made available for the seed companies to help them to produce certified seeds for our farmers.

The second challenge is poor extension service delivery. There is what we call Refill, which is part of the research component. It has been very weak, meaning that the interaction between farmers, researchers and end users has been weak over the years. But with this value chain approach, we are organising stakeholders’ workshop whereby all the stakeholders will be brought under a platform where we’ll discuss these challenges and proffer solutions so that, in due course, we will be able to meet our national target of being self-sufficient in wheat production.

Is there adequate infrastructure for this?

We need irrigated water, which is to be provided by the River Basin Development Authorities. That is why they are established. And also, land preparation is their mandate. We are trying to collaborate with them through the stakeholders’ platform, that the RBDA will be able to key into the wheat agricultural transformation agenda by providing these facilities for our wheat farmers.

These irrigation facilities need to be improved upon. Borno State has more than 100,000 hectares of land suitable for wheat production, but the irrigation facilities there are depleted. We have to work on them. We have to rehabilitate the irrigation facilities in all the RBDA. There must be synergy between the Federal Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development and Water Resources. We can’t work in isolation. The RBDAs are to provide facilities such as water and land preparation. That is their mandate.

In what ways are you reaching out to wheat farmers on these initiatives?

We are working on how to get these farmers into a corporation. We have started registering the wheat farmers and they are already in associations so that inputs can be made available to them at the right time. We have platforms that are going to link up all the stakeholders in the wheat production. The researchers are to generate the improved technologies for the farmers’ use.

After generating these technologies, we also train farmers and youths, as well as empower them in wheat production. We train farmers through the field farmers’ schools. Last year, we trained farmers on crop management practices so as to increase their production and productivity. The farmers benefited. We want to catch these young farmers as early as possible. That is why we also train the youth on wheat production. The present age of our wheat farmers is between 50 and 60 years. We need to catch these young farmers so that they can replace the old ones. This will ensure continuity of wheat production in the country.

When we talk of extension, the Agricultural Development Programmes are also there in the platform to disseminate the technologies that have been generated in the research to our farmers. They work closely with farmers so that the technologies disseminated are properly applied by our farmers to increase their production and productivity.

Research institutes complain of poor funding; do you share this view?

We don’t have money. Research institutes are not adequately funded. There are certain equipment that we need to have. I received a letter from Scotch Whiskey Research Institute in Scotland. They are now telling us that the yield of wheat for making ethanol is higher than that of maize, millet and sorghum. In Scotland, they are now using wheat for ethanol.

They have requested for the Nigerian wheat samples, because they have heard that our wheat is very good. They are ready to collaborate with us. There are some equipment they use for this value chain of wheat. We have not exploited all the products that can be made from wheat. It is not just food; ethanol and diesel are all from wheat. Even pharmaceuticals are from wheat. We need to exploit all these products. But before you can do that, you need a well equipped laboratory.

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