Nigeria can’t afford to do business as usual in agriculture –Akinbamijo

Africa’s future as far as banishing hunger and ensuring food security are concerned can only be sustainably guaranteed when adequate attention is given to the place of research and innovation in agricultural systems. In this interview with MESHACK IDEHEN, the newly appointed Executive Director of the Accra, Ghana, based Forum for Agricultural Research in Africa, FARA, Dr. Yemi Akinbamijo, says that preparations for future food security must immediately commence.

In what capacity were you functioning before becoming the executive director of this forum?

What exactly is the mandate of FARA? The endorsement for this appointment was made on the 20th of July 2013. Prior to this, I have been with the African Union Commission in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, where I served as the head of agriculture and food security for the last seven years.

I have also been privileged to occupy positions such as the director of Inter-African and Sanitary Council based in Yaoundé, Cameroun, I was the chief animal research officer of the AU inter-Africa bureau for animal resources in Nairobi, Kenya. My professional experience and capacity has before this appointment also seen me being an animal research scientist and nutritionist.

I was engaged in the International Livestock Research Institute in Ethiopia and in Kenya. I have also served as a visiting scientist to the Centre for Tropical Veterinary Medicine based in Edinburgh, Scotland for a number of years. My research work dates back to 1986 and terminated 2006, that is 20 years.

I am multilingual, fluent in four European languages and five African languages. As for the question on the mandate of Forum for Agriculture Research in Africa, FARA, it is important for me to make the description between the secretariat of FARA and FARA de Forum. In the main, the secretariat of FARA services the interest of the forum, while FARA de forum is the agglomeration of all the stakeholders in agricultural research for the continent. It is a delegation that is composed of a crosssection of stakeholders, with the head of Agricultural Research Council, Professor Abubarkar, being a Nigerian. We also have two representatives of the Director General of the International Institute for Tropical Agriculture, IITA, based in Ibadan. There is also the Director General of the International livestock Research Institute, Dr. Jimmy Smith.

You recently led your agency on a visit to the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development. What does your visit mean in regards to boosting agriculture in Nigeria in particular and Africa in general?

Solving Nigeria’s food challenge is actually solving 25 per cent of African’s challenge, because the demographic information available to us today shows that Nigeria’s population is a quarter of the continent.

So whatever we can do to support the programme of the minister and his co-workers in the ministry, especially in the context of the Agricultural Transformation Agenda, ATA, is equally a deliverable for us in FARA. Specifically, we were in Abuja to meet with the minister because an invitation was received to have an exchange with the Minister of Agriculture, Dr. Akinwunmi Adesina.

As things presently are, Nigeria is a leader on the continent in many fronts, and the country plays a leadership role in peace and security, in democracy, in supporting infrastructure across the continent, and in supporting institutional mechanism that are in place by the AU. Nigeria plays a very critical role in the economic life of the continent, so it is my desire to have Nigeria to continue to play an important role in the domain for agricultural research and development in the continent.

Putting it in perspective however, it must be said that this is the very first mission that I will be undertaking after taking office, and it is very interesting for me in particular because I am a Nigerian and I thought it right that I should commence my engagement with the international community from my home country.

I came to see the minister as the head of a delegation of FARA de Forum. This visit means a lot in terms of boosting agriculture development in Nigeria and on the continent. From what I am beginning to see over the last couple of years and this is not peculiar to Nigeria, investment in agricultural research had been down. Across the continent today, the key supporters of African research and development have been the European and American countries. Now however, we feel Nigeria should now come to the fore and support the effort of FARA de Forum and the secretariat in its drive to have a food secured Africa.

It should be noted that late President Bingu wa Mutharika in his tenure as the chairman of the AU made a pledge which we still try to uphold, even though the former Malawian president did not live to see it. With the visit, alongside other outreaches and networking we are making across the continent, the forum is hoping for an Africa where no child will go to bed hungry. Through and by that visit, it has become a win-win scenario for both FARA and the government of Nigeria to actually now step-up collaborative engagement in the quest to providing research tools for our stakeholders in agriculture and food security.

What is the vision of FARA in relations to the value chain approach of Nigeria’s agriculture sector managers?

As an animal scientist that have made his mark when it comes to livestock research and livestock integrated systems, I am particularly delighted that the minister has chosen to pursue the value chain approach because that is the way to go.

If we look at nations that have broken the food insecurity barrier of late, say in the last 30 years, we will find countries like Brazil and China; these two countries paid the heavy price of investing in agricultural value chain.

Brazil is a model to emulate. if you go to China, it is another scenario where you have demand approach to research from farm to fork, which means that you disaggregate every segment of the chain from the farm until it reaches the table. In other words, as part of the vision for value chain approach, we need to adopt what I referred to as demand driven research as opposed to the supply driven research. When we look at the table and see what the demand on the dining table of Nigerians is and what will be the demand facing Nigeria 50 years from now, it then behooves on us to see to it that if Nigeria is not to be a food insecure nation by then. Preparations has to be on board as from today, because what that does mean for us is that we are now looking at the trend of the daily lives, the evolution in the demography of Nigeria, the migration that we see from the rural to the urban scenarios, the kind of demands people are making which is beginning to appear like the middle class is increasing and the demand for high protein commodities are on the rise. Now the question facing us is, when all these are considered is if we will be able to meet this demand.

How do you think Nigeria and other African countries can deal with the issues of post-harvest loss?

There are a few things we still have to do. It is on record that about 45 per cent of the foods we produce do not get to the table because of post-harvest loss, and one of the key issues in the reduction of post-harvest loss is definitely the issue of value addition, processing and transformation of products.

When we look at the value chain, there are issue when you have to deal with the inputs, agro-dealership, fertilizers, seeds, access to credits and enhancing the capacity of the farmers not to do business as usual, because just like Albert Einstein said, if you do the things you always did, you will get the results you always got, and we know it that the result we always got is not the result that will sustain drive. At the moment, food import bill on this continent is in excess of 40 billion US dollars annually.

We in this continent have the capacity to reduce this bill because this is the money we do not have, so it is incumbent upon us that we do anything we can to reduce this bill. We have the technology, we have the competence and we have the resources. If we have these three and they are judiciously harnessed I can tell you that the dream of the minister of elimination post-harvest loss, making Nigeria wheat secure and meeting Nigeria’s demand for wheat will become a thing of the past and definitely be surpassed because we have the technology, resources and competence to do so.

Nigeria is also a signatory to the West African productivity programme and all of these are converging towards addressing the food insecurity through combating harvest loss, especially using the value chain approach.

Talking of wheat brings into focus the question of cassava and its usage in bread and confectionaries making. What would you say is the role and place of cassava in the whole issue of guaranteeing food security for Nigeria and the continent, and what is FARA doing in that aspect?

Now I want to digress a little to my own area of interest in research. Let me start by saying that cassava is no longer a food crop, with the kind of technology that is emerging from a segment of FARA, which is the international technology center. Let’s take the example of the International Institute for Tropical Agriculture, IITA, where there has being tremendous input in the cassava value chain.

What that means for us as a people is that the growing of cassava is now a business not just the production of Garri and Akpu, and with this business beginning to emerge, we can see that IITA is now developing technology that can handle 10 tonnes of cassava per day.

What that tells me is that we are not just meeting our requirement for cassava, we now know that there is cassava been integrated in the bread that we eat in Nigeria which was not the case 5-10 years ago. With the progressive inclusion of cassava in our diet in this country of over 160 million people, that means if we eat 40 per cent inclusion of cassava, there will be a time when we will need to import cassava to meet our needs because the demands is becoming overwhelming.

FARA is now in a stage where there is rapidly growing supply of innovations and technologies to meet this demand. We also have not lose sight on the fact, because as a proactive organisation, we are also aware and working towards solution, knowing that cassava coming through will generate a lot of biomass in terms of wastes.

What do I mean? 10-20 tonnes of cassava peelings (waste) per day tells me that there is going to be enormous production of cassava peels. Now to the uninformed mind, peels of 20 tonnes of cassava is a waste products, but I can tell you that such a biomass is a raw material for a totally different line of industry which can be harnessed in animal nutrition.

Nigeria is a high consumer of poultry and we also produce poultry so how do we meet the need of the poultry industry. Cassava peels are high-energy compliments and can be fed to non-ruminants and ruminants alike. In my opinion, I see a great potential of developing animal nutrition industry emerging from the cassava sub-sector, the cassava value chain itself.

For FARA, we are beginning to see how we can optimise our resources, optimize the crops and the whole value chain of just one commodity where the waste product becomes the raw material of another chain. We at FARA can help develop the necessary institutional support. For example we can contribute to high level capacity development in terms of human resources we can facilitate exchange peer to peer capacity development from other neighbouring or non-neighbouring facilities, we can bring a network of centres of excellence that are offspring research in terms of molecular biology and high level research in the domain of agriculture.

How would you describe the Federal Government’s Agricultural Transformation Agenda?

The plans that are being put into place by the honourable minister of agriculture of Nigeria are laudable and I actually describe it as a trailblazer for the continent.

That is why we at FARA will do everything possible to support this whole agricultural transformation agenda that can become a model for people to follow. I know very well that there are countries within the South-South co-operation, the Africa-South America collaboration, and Africa-China collaboration who are very well informed of what the minister is doing.

The agricultural transformation agenda issue that Nigeria is embarking upon is not only to Nigeria; Ethiopia is also undertaking a reform of its agricultural sector. I said earlier that if we do what we always did, we will get the results we always got and the result we always got has not yet translated into keeping Africa food secure, it has not translated into making Nigeria food secure.

How is Nigeria and Africa faring in the global food aid programmes?

Nigeria and Africa in general are still the largest destination of food aid in the world and we want to change this statistics and in changing this statistics, it means Nigeria cannot afford to do business as usual where agriculture is concerned and not to do agri-business as usual is the hallmark and the very centre of what the minister is leading in the agricultural transformational agenda.

We are now beginning to see the impacts of the Agricultural Transformation Agenda in the sector, it is beginning to yield the envisaged dividends, we are beginning to see that you can actually quadruple the productivity of many of our commodities if we only adopt the right technology, if we provide the enabling agro-inputs in terms of improved seeds, fertilizer, access to credits and access to know-how. If we are able to do all of these, we will certainly see a totally different agricultural sector in Nigeria. And what that will ultimately serve, there are two things; one is that we will get to the triple win scenario.

Normally people talk about a win win-win scenario, but there is a new and upcoming paradigm that describes a triple win scenario in which we will address the issue of food insecurity, within the same context address the issue of youth unemployment and also address the issue of environmental degradation.

What are the cardinal programmes the country’s agric sector is grappling with?

There are three cardinal problems facing Nigeria that must be addressed using a silver bullet, and this silver bullet in my opinion is the agricultural transformation agenda that is now in place in this country. In my capacity as the executive director of FARA, I can attest to it that Nigeria is on track, the minister is doing the right thing and if we see that the whole agricultural system in this country is getting transformed, it’s little wonder because the impacts is there, its speaks for itself, so for us at FARA will do everything possible to ensure that this transformation agenda becomes a success. Now what will we be bringing in into system?

We at FARA will provide the necessary support from the continent wide perspective to ensure that the agenda becomes a success; we will provide all necessary enabling networking scenarios that will support the post-harvest scenario with technology that may be able to import some technologies and adapt them in this case. FARA is a gateway of agricultural innovation in the continent; we are best placed to advice and support Nigeria in whatever innovation the country seeks to bring into the sector.

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