A look at what has been holding African agriculture back
More than half a century has elapsed since Africa began to cast off the cloak and yoke of colonialism. Since then foreign aid and development has been poured into African agriculture but the results in making progress to self-sufficiency especially in staples (cereals, root crops, oilseeds and legumes) are disappointing to say the least.
Nigeria with its huge land resources, varied and favourable climatic zones, fertile soils and inherently innovative and industrious farming communities is the classic case in point. For instance, a significant area of Nigeria is natural rice territory but the country still imports 60 per cent of the rice it consumes. Not only does Nigeria have the capacity and capability to feed itself but also to become a ‘bread basket’ for Africa.
This is the strongly held belief of Chris Okeke, a hands-on Nigerian farmer and agricultural entrepreneur who heads Wicklow Limited, a company with extensive landholdings and large agribusinesses covering production and processing. Mr Okeke is also a highly respected lawyer and prominent ambassador for Nigerian agriculture.
African Farming took the opportunity speak with Chris Okeke about his views as to why existing aid, development and other financial programmes are clearly not working for Nigerian agriculture and how the situation can be turned around. He gives a view on how international aid and development organisations, both foreign government backed and NGO’s (non-government organisations), should operate in future to make their money and programmes work for Africa; and how he is ‘putting flesh on the bones’ of these new ideas through his own extensive and fast growing agribusiness operation in Nigeria.
Inappropriate aid and development
Chris Okeke says “large aid and development organisations use models designed for smallholders growing cash crops for the market. In practice they end up targeting subsistence farmers because that’s what most small farmers in Nigeria are, and as a consequence neither they nor their produce gets anywhere near the market”, he told African Farming.
External aid and donor agencies have to show impact assessment. This is the key to them receiving further funding. Consequently it satisfies them to be able to say they have assisted say 30 subsistence farmers rather than saying they have helped two big farm enterprises. Of course the latter would, in the long-term achieve far greater sustainable impact but that is lost on the donors and aid agencies and their masters.
“As an urgent alternative priority they should be targeting and catering for big farm enterprises” says Chris Okeke. This is the way forward for everybody, allowing small farmers to learn from, be supported by and supply large farms’ processing facilities like rice mills and cassava starch manufacturing factories. “Foreign sourced aid and development is fine but it must be appropriate to Africa and I very much regret to say that until now it has invariably not been so, Chris Okeke” told African Farming.
Misdirected and inappropriate programmes stymie the very progress they are designed to achieve says this successful entrepreneur with thousands of acres under the plough and even more in waiting for cultivation, but held back by the investment and infrastructure bottlenecks and restrictions which plague agricultural production and processing in contemporary Nigeria.
Another reason why the ‘wheelers and dealers’ of international development should listen to people like Chris is his commitment to post harvest processing and that magic ‘added value’ ingredient generally absent during the colonial period and still generally elusive to Nigeria and other African countries today. Wicklow has a highly successful cassava processing plant and starch manufacturing facility with on-going diversification into rice milling and animal feed processing.
Mr Okeke clearly has a vested interest but what he says about re-targeting international aid and development projects away from small farmers and into big farm enterprises makes a lot of sense especially in his home country of Nigeria with capacity to feed itself and a lot more besides in Africa.
Listening to the wrong people
“An overriding problem for agriculture in Nigeria is the eagerness of central and state governments to listen to outsiders and their agencies but not their own already successful large commercial farmers,” says Chris. He clearly has a point. After all he and others like him have already steered a path to production through the ‘minefield’ of problems that beset Nigerian farmers and are therefore in the best position to advise others
The gap between consumption and home-grown production is clearly there and no better illustrated than with rice, consumed to the tune of 5 million tonnes annually of which 3 million tonnes is imported despite some of the world’s best rice growing land and conditions located in Nigeria.
Agriculture is the fastest growing sector in Nigeria commanding 42% of GDP compared to an average 15% of GDP for the rest of Africa, and despite all the prevailing investment and infrastructure burdens. On this basis Nigeria should be viewed, valued and treated as a special case says Chris, claiming his country could easily replace the North American Mid-West and Prairie states as the ‘breadbasket’ on Africa’s own doorstep.
“Outside agencies are not in the best position to give advice on farming in Africa, having been grafted from the same colonial administrations who oversaw the beginnings of large scale growth and production of food crops but their export for processing elsewhere,” says Chris.
“The same situation is still largely in place today because development organisations like the foreign governments they ‘front’ are too slow to turn around,” says Chris. “I am not saying there is no role for foreign consulting expertise to play but purely in an advisory rather than a dictatorial context and capacity,” he says.
Chris’ interest in Agriculture was kick-started 41 years ago when he assisted his father to establish his own agribusiness enterprise including 6000 hectares, after the Nigerian Civil War. As a measure of what needs to be accomplished across Nigeria as a whole only one tenth (600 ha) of this holding is under the plough. “Primary reason for this gap between the land-holding and proportion in production is people’s views and expectations on rights of land access, which are increasingly backed up in Nigeria by legal rights” says Chris Okeke.
Wicklow’s current landholding Nigeria-wide is now a massive 71,000 ha but only 2,800 ha comprising 1400, 600 and 500 ha in, respectively, Kwara, Imo, Anambra states, and a further 300 ha divided between Edo and Delta states, is in production. The Anambra landholding includes its cassava processing and cassava starch manufacturing facilities at Ihiala.
Cashing in on Cassava
Wicklow is diversifying all of the time but cassava is still the key crop within its increasingly diversified and pan-Nigerian agribusiness. Chris told African Farming how Wicklow tries to concentrate its own cassava production and other important sources as close as possible to Anambra state where the processing capacity is currently concentrated. “This policy” says Chris “helps to overcome one of the biggest burdens on Nigeria’s crop processing growth, namely the appalling condition of the country’s roads.” His factory at Ihiala in Anambra state receives cassava root tubers from farms in Kwara State 700km away and presenting large and looming logistic problems right through the year. Between 600 and 700ha is harvested from Wicklow’s own farms with significant additional amounts provided by four Zimbabwean farmers at Shonga in Kwara state who are under contract to NSM Foods Ltd, one of Wicklow’s companies.
The strength and sustainability of NSM Foods Ltd and other companies has been built and based on local intelligence and he wishes international organisations would adopt the same policy when setting up their development projects. “The track record of projects and businesses in Nigeria not based on local intelligence is appalling” says Chris, adding how most rely on international consultants, brush aside any local intelligence input and subsequently prove to be a complete waste of time and money.
He also has something to say about scientists and science in general. “They may be well educated and qualified” says Chris, “but invariably forget that until their ‘lab’ findings are applied to working farmers’ who can secure an equivalent yield then it is all ‘Peter Pan land’. It’s all very well achieving exceptionally high crop yields under controlled experiment conditions but the key step is raising farmers from their traditional residual yields to something approaching this figure.”
Chris identifies the main constraint on achieving this goal as ‘lab’ designs and protocols not designed locally but in London and Washington and then applied blanket fashion across Africa to, for instance, Nigeria, Liberia and Kenya with no thought or mind for local differences in climate, soil, agro- and socio-economics. “I am not saying science is useless but it needs to be more on target and a little more useful at least” he says.
At this point Chris returned to his theme of ‘local intelligence’ and the need for local people with local knowledge and experience to convert ideas into real tangible progress in crop production and processing. Crucial factors like land ownership and land access together with infrastructure development must be relevant to Nigeria as it is today and not half a century ago.
“It is pointless talking about agricultural heritage in Nigeria because historically no-one owned farms,” Chris Okeke told African Farming. As for infrastructure he cites the railway line running from Kano in the north to Lagos Port in the south, built by the colonial administration to transport cereals and oilseeds for shipment and processing overseas. “After independence there was no grain and groundnuts to move because the ‘master’ (the colonial power) took the ‘seeds’ and the market with ‘him’ when he left, he says. “The Empire [British] was only focused on food production being exported for processing elsewhere. Even after all these years of independence the error of that concept appears not to have been fully learnt”, says Chris.
Education and training
Chris is uncompromising in his belief that more emphasis must be given by the aid agencies, donors, and indeed the Nigerian government towards training. “Apprenticeship schemes need to be introduced whereby young people can take up agricultural work and gain evening classes, eventually resulting in a professional qualification. Of all the business sectors in Nigeria, agriculture offers the greatest opportunity for the employment of many thousands of people, thus alleviating the present chronic unemployment amongst the youth,” he says.
We continue to report on our discussions with Chris Okeke in the next issue of African Farming, when he sets out and considers the hard facts and figures underpinning the gap between food consumption and home-grown production in Nigeria, the potential to bridge it and the reasons why at the moment this is just not happening.
By Dr Terry Mabbett