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Nigeria's Effort to Boost Agriculture Faces Many Challenges


FILE - A farmer holds up a bunch of cassava roots, dug up from his farm in Oshogbo, Nigeria.

FILE - A farmer holds up a bunch of cassava roots, dug up from his farm in Oshogbo, Nigeria.

The pothole-ridden roads that connect Lagos, Nigeria's bustling commercial capital, with Adeniyi Bunmi's leafy farm in southwestern Ogun state are among the many challenges that the entrepreneur faces.

"You can't even drive in to an average farm," said Bunmi, arguing that access to his 150-hectare site, which was a dense forest until it was cleared by bulldozers six years ago, is good compared with that for other rural areas.

The poor transport infrastructure in Africa's most populous nation is one of the major obstacles in the way of President Muhammadu Buhari's aim of boosting agriculture and reducing the reliance on oil exports at a time of low crude prices.

The pockmarked route between Lagos and Bunmi's farm alternates from tarmac to gravel and dirt tracks, making it hard to transport plantain, pineapples and other produce to clients in the city, a bumpy two-hour drive away.

But roads in the southwest are generally better than those in the north, where the infrastructure is far worse.

Africa's biggest economy and top energy producer has been hammered by low crude prices, since it relies on oil exports for around 70 percent of government revenues. Buhari, who took office in May, has said a strengthened agriculture sector would create jobs and reduce the reliance on costly food imports.

"The petroleum we had depended on for so long will no longer suffice," he told an agrarian trade body three months after taking office in May. "We campaigned heavily on agriculture, and we are ready to assist as many as want to go into agricultural ventures."

But five months after Buhari took office, his cabinet is yet to be sworn in, leaving him without an agriculture minister to flesh out policy details.

A proposed $25 billion infrastructure fund to invest in much-needed modernization of road, rail and power networks, announced by Vice President Yemi Osinbajo on Thursday, is still in the planning stage.

Nigeria has tens of millions of farmers, most of whom work on a subsistence basis and live on less than $2 a day, making the warehouses, electricity access and machinery needed to improve efficiency unattainable.

Food imports

The resulting inefficiency explains why Nigeria produces 1.5 million tonnes of tomatoes annually, of which 45 percent perish.

The inability of farmers to feed a nation of 170 million people has led to an increasing reliance on imported food. Nigeria is among the world's largest importers of rice and the biggest buyer of U.S. wheat, while much of its own fertile land lies fallow.

In 2012, it imported 2.3 million tonnes of rice, a record high. Some 4.1 million tonnes of wheat was brought into Nigeria in the same year, nearly double the amount imported in 2000.

The rocketing food import bill, against a backdrop of a weakening naira and strong dollar, has contributed to consumer inflation rising to an annual rate of 9.4 percent in September, its highest level since February 2013.

Buhari has referred to the rising cost of living as one of the motivations for reinvigorating an agriculture sector that in the 1960s was the top source of employment and, until recently, remained the biggest contributor to GDP.

Since last year's GDP rebasing calculation, agriculture has fallen behind the services sector, making up 21 percent of Africa's largest economy, highlighting how far it has fallen since the oil boom of the 1970s shifted priorities.

"It requires a lot of capital," said Bunmi, 37, who used money from relatives to buy land incrementally over the last six years and now employs 125 people.

"People don't want to invest. They would rather invest in a business that would bring a product out very fast," he said.

Corruption

The inability to secure funds leaves many farmers unable to take the steps needed to move beyond subsistence farming, such as hiring bulldozers to clear land for farming, building warehouse facilities and buying tractors.

Nigeria's farmers have received little help from successive governments that vowed to support development, said Otunba Oke, who chairs the Lagos branch of the All Farmers Association of Nigeria.

"The government should assist with grants. The government should work with banks to ensure more favorable interest rate payments for farmers," he said, adding that most farmers were unable to meet the requirements to secure loans.

However, previous efforts at government intervention have been undermined by corruption and mismanagement, agriculture analyst Liborous Oshoma said, with many people profiting at the expense of farmers.

"People are leaving agriculture in their droves and looking for white-collar jobs," added Oshoma.

Bunmi has an image on his mobile phone of his sons, aged 4 and 7, digging on the farm. Would he encourage them, and others, to follow in his footsteps?

"An average person will come into [farming] once they know the toil, the stress, the struggle will not go in vain," he said.

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