An evaluation of Nigeria’s food import bill

Audu Ogbeh

At the 19th edition of Catholic Brothers United in Lagos last week, the Minister for Agriculture and Rural Development, Chief Audu Ogbe revealed that Nigeria spends $22 billion on food importation annually. This staggering figure exposes why Nigeria’s balance of payment has remained in the negatives whilst it continues to wallow in the doldrums of dependency. The country imports more than it exports.

As staggering as it may appear, the minister has not revealed any new figure; rather he only reiterated the same figures he released exactly two years ago. At the unveiling of the agricultural roadmap themed “The green alternative: Agriculture Promotion Policy-2016-2020,” the minister had informed the audience that Nigeria spends over $22 billion annually on importation of various food items like wheat, rice, fish, and poultry products among others. Of this figure, milk and tomato paste importation gulps over one billion dollars (N300 billion) and $400m (N1.2 billion) respectively annually, according to the minister.

It was in response to this anomaly that the government introduced the Agriculture Promotion Policy- 2016-2020 developed after consultations with various stakeholders between November 2015 and April 2016. Apart from transforming the agricultural sector of Nigeria, the policy also seeks to generate employment. In launching the new policy, the Vice President, Prof Yemi Osinbajo disclosed that the government would engage 100,000 extension workers that will help in agricultural information dissemination. This is in addition to other initiatives in the policy.The new policy is not a complete departure from the Agriculture Transformation Agenda of the immediate past administration. To clarify the government’s choice of building on existing agenda, the minister said “We are mindful of the fact that government is a continuum, hence the need to build on the foundation we inherited from the previous administrations in the country. This we have done by building on the successes and lessons of them all, including the Agricultural Transformation Agenda (ATA) of the previous administration. “Regarding the latter, it entails closing the observable gaps of ATA, consolidating on the agenda and developing new initiatives to address emerging and future concern.”  However, the government re-introduced eleven new elements into the new policy. But in actual fact, whilst the nomenclature of the policy may have changed, the content really did not change much.  Halfway into the implementation of the new policy, it appears not much has changed as the country clearly still spends billions of dollars on importation just as it did two years ago.

This shameful reality is an indictment on the nation’s collective existence when its natural endowments are considered. Everything about Nigeria potentially positions it in the league of a top nation in every respect, including food sufficiency. With a population in excess of 180m according to the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) and 51% of that population in rural areas, there is abundance of human capital to spearhead an agricultural revolution. The country is blessed with a land mass of 92.4 million hectares, large expanse of arable land amounting to 82.0 million hectares, and an abundance of food crops in virtually every state. In addition to this, there is hardly any year the country does not experience constant rain. It was no coincidence that agriculture was the mainstay of the nation’s economy. The sector was responsible for 65.7 percent of the nation’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in 1959, but upon the discovery of crude oil and the profligacy that followed, its contribution began to shrink and now contributes barely 25 per cent to the annual GDP. Whilst the country spends trillions of naira importing food, it earns less than $1.5 billion from food export annually.

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The situation has remained the same because government seems to have engaged more on solutions that do not have long term lifespan. It is important to note that whilst Nigeria’s population has been on the increase, there appears to be no deliberate food programme or policy to accommodate the unabated population explosion.The minister of agriculture stated that the government has put in place series of programme, including introduction of new technology, to improve agriculture in the country. At various forums the government often refer to programmes like the anchor Borrowing, conditional cash transfer, school feeding programme and many other initiatives to transform the agricultural sector in the country. There is no gainsaying that significant progress has been made in the local production of rice to reduce the incidence of rice importation. However, it is alsovisible that the policies of government have not translated into a significant departure from what obtains in the past.

What is puzzling however is that inspite of the many programmes, and well-intended in some cases, the nation’s food import bill has not reduced and the prices of food have not reduced. If government agricultural policies were to be measured by the immediate impact on food importation, the current state of affairs connotes a negative scorecard for policy makers.

There is clearly a need to reappraise the nation’s food policy in a manner that will transform the food situation of the country. A nation that is overly dependent on importation to feed its people is susceptible to food crisis and cannot boldly declare food security. Perhaps a re-evaluation of the nation’s strategy with focus on the things that are driving the heavy importation will drastically reduce our import bill. Whilst the government has rigorously pursued a ban on rice importation in order to increase local capacity, it is important to also reflect on other consumables that are responsible for the huge chunk of what Nigeria spends on importation of food. Data from 2016 show that fish importation is a leading enabler of the nation’s high import bill. Yet Nigeria is blessed with water and visible population of fishermen and fisherwomen.

Studies have shown that a primary reason for the discouraging state of affairs in the agricultural sector is lack of sustainable government policies and direct support for farmers. Many farmers in Nigeria lack access to basic technology to advance their occupation. They are faced with the challenge of limited farming inputs, such as seedlings, pesticides and fertilisers. The result of these limitations is low yield per hectare for the farmers. Additionally, the process of moving agricultural produce from areas of abundance to other regions where they will be consumed is also troubled with many challenges, especially transport and infrastructure. Nigeria still transports food mainly by road when this is done by rail in developed countries. To worsen the situation, the country is faced with an increasing population of bad roads. Poor infrastructure across different sectors has remained an albatross for many years. The link between the universities and other research institutes and farmers is also missing. In any case, it is common knowledge that the nation’s allocation to research is practically non-existent. This is why there has been no significant change or improvement in the processes deployed by the farmers. The few researches that are carried out often end up in the archives.

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Apart from the dearth of sustainable and well implemented policies to drive food sufficiency and reduce the nation’s food import bill, the sustained conflict between farmers and herdsmen has also added a huge blow on crop farming in the country. This shows that the government has to proffer a lasting solution to the conflict in a way that allows both parties cohabit and support the nation’s economy through their diverse agricultural occupations – farming and pastoralism.

It is also a call on the minister of agriculture to redirect his energy and policy focus from food export to local sufficiency. What is the essence of driving export of yam when there is no sufficiency of the same crop at an affordable rate locally? In some instances, the crops are produced massively with no adequate preservation and transportation system. Whilst states in the north are blessed with a large expanse of land and many good crops are produced, transporting the crops from the north to other parts of the country remains a challenge largely due to the nation’s abysmal transportation ecosystem. These are issues bedevilling local food sufficiency, hence the continued importation to meet local appetite.

Nigerian farmers are also faced with the challenge of lack of government support just like any other sector of the economy. The developed countries have prioritised farmers such that they are highly subsidized to encourage their occupation and ensure food sufficiency. Nigeria should have no business empowering farmers in other countries with billions of dollars for the same crops that can be produced locally. It is no wonder the country has been rated the capital of poverty worldwide as it is clear that many citizens do not have access to basic things including food. Ultimately, government will have to go beyond organising roundtables and formulating policies that do not have lasting impact on sectors of the economy. The focus now should be on producing what we eat locally before we begin to push for export of food. Until we change focus from food exportation yearnings, to local food sufficiency, our import bill may not experience any significant reduction.