The feedback I get from readers of this column persuades one to vouch that this country is well endowed with industrious citizens. Nigerians are not lazy and are indeed very creative. However, a lack of awareness of where to direct their energies as well as the lack of institutional commitment to the progress of businesses, especially in the areas of primary production and manufacturing, has greatly discouraged the youth.
Some years ago, I was at a farm where the investor had acquired large acres of land, to develop an integrated farm settlement. Eight years later, at the time of my visit, what started as a booming business is now a shadow of itself. Only the ostrich unit remains productively strong because of the hardiness of the birds and the novelty of the niche. The tortoises are also still there because they are cheap to maintain, although there are few buyers. If the farm owner’s dreams of unfolding the tourism aspect of the venture had progressed as envisaged, they would have been attracting revenues for him by now.
Like I told him, which is still my conviction, agriculture remains the business of the future and he must not abandon his dreams. I am often told that only about seven per cent of the American population is engaged in agriculture yet they feed their people and export to the world. In our own case, ‘about 60 per cent’ of Nigerians are engaged in agriculture yet cannot meet the food needs of the people. The question is what kind of agricultural production are those ’60 per cent’ engaged in? How profitable and sustainable are their businesses?
Most of those included in that so-called 60 per cent are people who farm when there is nothing else to do; and they will keep looking out for ‘real jobs’. When they ram into contracts, they quickly abandon the farms. This disdain for agriculture (by the government and people) is one of the reasons why Nigeria lost at least 15 youths in their quest for non-existent immigration jobs in 2014. It is one reason for rampant industrial unrests in workplaces – because pay cheques cannot meet the food security needs of families; possibly a reason that boarding school systems have virtually collapsed. A clued-up, focused support for agriculture and the business chains that it can spawn will reduce the reasons for corruption by the working class and steer those working at low-paying jobs into viable agricultural enterprises.
Government can fund publicity campaigns that sell agriculture, especially untrodden niches. It is also important to help create markets for the products of primary producers. This was a challenge for the enthusiastic farmer mentioned earlier. He sometimes had to sell at give-away prices to enable him pay workers and buy feedstock. It is stressful being both producer and marketer at the same time. It was such debts that finally got him grounded. Government must step in to alleviate farmers’ vulnerability by studiedly setting up markets for diverse agricultural produce including livestock.
Visits to farms need to be included in the excursion programmes of all schools and students of agriculture need to, as part of their training, go and work in farms – not only the ones owned by Generals and multinationals, but also other medium and small -scale farms. This will not only offer practical and realistic exposure to the students, but also provide farmhands to support agricultural production.
During my youth service in 1989, we were made to ‘work ‘at a large poultry farm in Ipaja, Lagos every Friday but it turned out to be our happy TGIF day because there were no birds in the farm; only a stench that greeted you as you approached the place. This was quite off-putting at a stage when we should have been posted to thriving farms (no matter how small) to whet our desire for farm ventures. Many years later, while living in Kaduna, I tried poultry farming and found it very profitable, at least, until the bird flu hoax in 2007 ruined our investments. Government did nothing to cushion the losses faced by poultry farmers during that sad season. Eleven years on, one wonders at the extant status of agricultural insurance in the country.
Institutional support for agriculture would also include the promotion of new ideas. Mandates of research institutes should be expanded to consider new areas of agricultural venturing, areas that would be readily profitable because of their novelty. Agriculture is only attractive when it is lucrative and innovation is one of the titivating factors. A fund should be developed for this purpose.
Following previous write-ups promoting ostrich farming, a reader who has been into traditional livestock like poultry and piggery called to ask how he can branch out into this new area, recognising that diversification is the essence of good business. Nigeria has a lot to benefit from developing this area as ostriches have been globally identified as the livestock of the future with the potential to rake in more profits than cattle and other customary livestock.
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