REPORT ON SUSTAINABLE CONVERATIONSTM .
Thistle Praxis Consulting, a registered Assessments, Strategy, Corporate Sustainability & Responsibility (CSR) and Management Consultancy firm in Nigeria, in conjunction with the Etisalat Corporate Social Responsibility Center, recently hosted the second edition of Sustainable Conversations, a Thought Leadership Breakfast Series on Sustainable Development with the theme; Driving Sustainable Agriculture for National Development. The event which took place on Saturday 21st of April 2012, at the Four Points by Sheraton, hosted some of the leading policy makers, experts and practitioners in the Agricultural sector. The aim of the discussion was to significantly access the road-map to the revival of the Agricultural sector through sustainable agriculture.
The discussants at the event were a mix of professionals with local and international experience. They included the Moderator; Mr. Alex Aligbe, an international Agricultural expert with experience spanning over 40 years’ experience in several countries; Mrs. Lucy Kanu, of the Idea Builders Initiative, a Social Entrepreneur, Management Consultant, and enterprise idea broker with over 14 years national and international experience working in both the private and social sectors; Mr. Larry Umunna, West African Representative, Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN); Mr. Zano Mataruka, Team Leader, Agribusiness, International Financial Corporation; Mr. Rasheed Sarumi, Group Managing Director, SARO Group, a 20 year old group of companies operating in West-Africa involved in the Agribusiness value chain- from upstream to sourcing and origination, food processing and consumer goods; and finally, Mr. Onajite Okoloko, GMD/CEO, Notore Chemical Industries, represented by Mrs. Ivana Osagie, Managing Director of Notore Seeds Limited.
Other participants worthy of note include: Professor Chris Ogbechie - Director of the Etisalat CSR Centre; Ibrahim Dikko – Director, Government & Regulatory Affairs, Dr. Mrs. G.N Elemo, Director General of the Federal Institute of Industrial Research, The Lagos and Ekiti State Commissioners for Agriculture, Prince Gbolahan Lawal and Mr. Babasola Arowosafe.
In her opening statement, Mrs. Ini Onuk, the Lead Consultant/CEO of Thistle Praxis Consulting stated that; It was difficult to imagine that Agriculture was once the mainstay of the Nigeria’s economy, yielding a substantial percentage of our National GDP, and employing about 70% of our population. She pointed out that as other sectors with much potential, the challenge of good leadership and failure to evolve with trends, ensured the steady decline and near comatose of the sector. She also indicated that the partnership between Thistle Praxis Consulting and the Etisalat CSR center was in recognition of the credible work that Etisalat has done in line with their commitment to CSR development in Nigeria. Mrs. Onuk also stated that that the event was initiated due to the recognition of the absence of different fora for dialogue on the important issues, not just talking, but coming up with practical solutions to the problems facing Nigeria. In her words, “Sustainable Conversations is our opportunity to provide practical and usable solutions for necessary change. Our goal is to proffer an innovative sequence of thought, action, change and impact.” Finally, Mrs. Onuk stressed the importance of driving sustainable agriculture as a means of achieving the Millennium Development Goals.
In his remark, The Director of Government & Regulatory Affairs - Etisalat Nigeria, Mr. Ibrahim Dikko, maintained that Etisalat believes that CSR is about how business conducts itself with regards to all its activities, which includes operating ethically, fairly dealing with all stakeholders and impacting the communities in which they operate. He further stated that Etisalat opened its CSR center at the Lagos Business School in April 2010 and that the partnership has worked very well and continues to grow. He highlighted the center’s essence to advance CSR knowledge and to encourage best practices through a convergence and exchange between business community and academia. Speaking about the theme of the event, Mr. Dikko stated that although the focus of the center has been on education, the center saw this as an opportunity to act as a thought leader, thereby helping to spur corporate organizations to do whatever they can do by practically affecting the sector or acting as catalysts for development in the area of Agriculture. Mr. Dikko lamented the lost glory of Nigeria’s agriculture and expressed his hope for a revival of the sector in the near future. Whilst concluding, Mr. Dikko expressed his delight that one of the key outcomes of the event would be a document that would be produced at the end and given to the government as a recommendation.
Commencing the conversations, Mr. Alex Aligbe expressed his delight at being at the event, describing it as “a privilege” to be in attendance. He stated that the aim of the discussion was to arrive at a set of conclusions or results that are concrete, deliverable and implementable within the context of sustainable development. He provided a background on the state of Agriculture in Nigeria asserting that Nigeria has about 34 Million Hectares of land area and 78% or 72 Million Hectares of suitable for various forms of agriculture. From 1996 to 2001, agriculture contributed between 20-30% of Nigeria’s GDP. 2007 till date, Agricultural contribution has risen to between 41-47% of GDP and by 2011 it was estimated to have risen to 44% of GDP. Over 70% of Nigeria’s population of 160 -167 Million, live in the rural areas. In his opening statement, he emphasized that what happens in agriculture impacts on the lives of the majority of Nigerian citizens whilst stating other statistics of the status quo in the sector in Nigeria in comparison to what obtains in other African countries. Before inviting the discussants to make their opening statements, Mr. Aligbe described the various phases of Agriculture as a phase breakdown for the conversations. They include: cultivation or sourcing, processing, transportation, marketing and distribution, and consumption. He also mentioned the financial value chain and the need for research, development and extension, structure of technology, and innovation. The moderator also expressed his hope that the discussion would generate ideas and recommendations that can be implemented by government to provide a positive change.
Mr. Rasheed Sarumi continued the discussion, echoing some of the salient points stated by Mr. Aligbe. He then stated that Nigeria is in an interesting era due to the renewed interest in Agriculture from the youth. He identified four major issues with agriculture in Nigeria which include: Low farm productivity per hectare, the disparity of the growth rate of the agricultural sector in comparison with the growth in population; lack of farm size and the high average age of farmers, the poor perception of agriculture and lack of infrastructure and incentive. Also, over-reliance on government and lack of private sector investment was mentioned as a key challenge facing the sector. Mr. Sarumi then detailed the following opportunities associated with agriculture in Nigeria as: a large population which provides a ready market for agricultural products and value chain opportunities.
Mr. Aligbe raised a concern about the high average age of farmers and the need to encourage the youth to be involved in agriculture. Again, he challenged the discussants to proffer a solution which can be given to the government as a recommendation.
Reacting to the concern raised by Mr. Aligbe, Mrs. Lucy Kanu recommended that agriculture should be seen as an entrepreneurial endeavor. She stated that her organization has visited primary and secondary schools to educated young people about entrepreneurial agricultural. She also expressed her displeasure with the ignorance of some young people about the practice of agriculture and the need to make young children passionate about agriculture, as a way of life. She also observed that many individuals studying agriculture-related courses in tertiary institutions do so, not out of voluntary choice but because they were offered admission in those departments. Mrs. Kanu also added that making young people aware of the benefits of agriculture would encourage them to take up the profession or business as a choice and not by compulsion.
Also speaking on the same issue, Mr. Zano Mataruka observed that individuals are rational people with rational expectations, and that making agriculture viable would automatically attract people to the sector. He cited an instance of a farm in Turkey which was run mainly by young people whom are making more money than their counterparts in other sectors; to buttress the point that agriculture tends to be a family business in Nigeria, and so, the key is to ensure viability for the younger generation to take over from the older ones.
Mrs. Ivana Osagie expressed her excitement at the renewed interest in agriculture because, according to her; the average Nigerian University graduate is more interested in working in the financial and telecommunications sectors, and stressed the importance of a shift in focus to young people working for themselves. She further stressed the importance of creating a market for agriculture, to complement the production and the need to make agricultural products available to international markets. Whilst concluding her opening statements, she re-iterated the importance of sourcing raw materials for local markets for companies operating within the country.
Access to land & Nutrition
Mr. Aligbe continued on challenges associated with access to land and raised posers about gaining access to land that is transmissible to future generations. He cited instances of large agricultural holdings around the country proffering that government should have a policy where 30-40% of the land resources owned by large corporations are made available for small-holder farmers. According to him, new farmers can gain access to land with which they can practice crop production through this.
In addition, Mr. Larry Umunna started with the importance of government policies that link access to ownership of land to clear agricultural outcomes. He also raised a concern that even in communities with abundant agricultural land; the land is being used for other infrastructural projects. Among his concerns was the need for individuals provided with land to have set goals and targets for agricultural production. Furthermore, he expressed the need to encourage agricultural practitioners in adopting new technologies which will increase productivity in order to ensure that farming in Nigeria is no longer largely on the subsistence level with the farmers still using rudimentary tools such as hoes and cutlasses.
Mr. Mataruka also identified access to land as a key challenge stating that in cases where there is access to land; farmers still find it difficult to acquire loans and credit facilities needed for massive production. Mr. Aligbe also echoed the need for incorporation of science and technology, posing a question on how an increase in per-hectare output through the use of science and technology, can be achieved.
Mataruka also noted appropriate breeding, appropriate varieties, pest control, integrated pest management and soil fertility as key practices. Whilst giving a brief account of the land use decree of 1978, and recounting the decisions of previous administrations to discourage excessive importation of raw materials; Aligbe concluded with a caveat that unless there is a legal framework in force to encourage this activity and financial incentives, Nigeria will continue to ‘crawl instead of running’.
Mr. Sarumi then detailed the pre-requisites to attaining a significant increase the productivity of the average farmer in Nigeria as: re-orientation of the farmer to ensure the productivity campaign has to start with the seed. Affordability of crop protection and soil fertilization techniques using appropriate fertilizers must also be guaranteed as well as agricultural extension services, which should be seen as a more viable means of solving problems rather than fertilizer importation.
Mr. Umunna raised the need to improve nutrition as well as the need to ascertain the nutritional status of agricultural produce. This, he added should start with plant breeding, where farmers are made to recognize the impact and benefit of improved crop varieties. Mrs. Osagie suggested that the government should put more effort into extension activities to motivate farmers to use these improved varieties.
In response, Mr. Aligbe suggested an instance of a previous initiative in which farmers were provided with necessary tools for crop production in ‘starter boxes’, but lamented the demise of the initiative due to corruption. Mrs. Osagie also added the use of improved seeds which produce an increased yield whilst stressing the importance of educating farmers about the need to invest more in superior varieties of seeds and fertilizers for increased productivity.
The suggestion on setting up of processing industries for mass production and the production of certain crops in certain areas of the country that are suitable to the climate and topography of such regions kick started the conversations on Agricultural processing. All discussants agreed on the urgent need to stop the importation of consumer goods such as corn flakes, which can easily be made from agricultural products found within the country. Whilst stressing the need for government to make this a priority in the policy on Agriculture, the moderator asked the discussants to make comments on the role of the financial sector in assisting small farmers to contribute to reversing the trend.
In reaction to the question, Mr. Mataruka stated that the Nigerian agricultural transformation agenda focuses on value chain development. Using the Tomato crop as an example, he stated that Nigeria is one of the largest importers of tomato paste in the world and that there has been a work-group put together to address this potential. He also stated that Nigeria has the potential to not only be provide tomatoes for itself but to export the product. With regard to offering financial support, he explained that agricultural practice in Nigeria is still mainly subsistent and there exists a dearth in a critical breed of full-time farmers or viable entrepreneurs. Mataruka cited his observation that bankers have realized the need to diversify their investment and concentrate more on agriculture, but also expressed regret that most bankers do not seemingly understand the Agricultural industry. Noting the contrast between Nigeria and some other African countries where farmers are given special credit facilities to execute the agricultural production, as a case in point. Mrs. Kanu proffered a solution on investing in “travelling” machinery that can be used in several places without individual farmers having to purchase these equipment due to costs.
Marketing and Distribution
Mr. Mataruka identified challenges in marketing and distribution as important obstacles which must be overcome to ensure progress one of which is the urgent need to improve infrastructure. He noted that many farmers suffer significant post-harvest losses due to lack of infrastructure and lack of access to ready markets. Mr. Sarumi noted that there are various opportunities to be exploited by the private sector. Using South Africa as an instance, he noted that the private sector should provide harvesting, marketing and distribution services to farmers whilst the role of government should be to provide basic infrastructure such as roads and storage facilities to farmers as well as checkmating simple challenges such as Police checkpoints that slow down road transportation of produce on highways.
Sarumi also noted that in many cases, farmers are forced to pay bribes to officials at the security check points and borders which increase time wasted and contributes to the deterioration of produce. He stated that marketing also has to be driven by the private sector, and that products such as rice which are currently being imported should be produced locally. Also, he asserted that although products such as tomatoes are being produced locally at a higher cost than what it costs to import them, the products still find their way into local markets and is therefore necessary to develop a competitive advantage. Highlighting other examples of crops which can provide value-chain opportunities, Umunna pointed out the importance of establishing cooperatives and helping small farmers to get access to markets. In reaction to this, Mataruka sounded a note of warning that comparisons with other case studies in Africa should be made with appreciation for reality and feasibility. He concluded that achieving self-sufficiency in food production is not going to happen in a short time, but rather over a long period, through sustained effort.
Dr. Peter Okereke started off the open discussions by echoing the observations of the discussants on the use of old and worn out seeds in production. He noted that the government should purchase improved seed varieties for rural farmers to improve their yield.
Mrs. Aisha Muhammed Oyebode, CEO, Asset Management Group; noted that creating an enabling environment for agriculture at the Federal, State and local levels, should provide infrastructure for agricultural development.
Another speaker suggested giving recognition to successful farmers as a way of encouraging others to take up agriculture as a profession, especially the youth. He also advocated the provision of incentives for agricultural practice whilst another participant suggested increased emphasis on teaching Agricultural sciences at the secondary school level of education. Whilst narrating her personal experience as a University graduate in an agricultural discipline before a foray into the banking profession because of a lack of support, infrastructure and capital to acquire land; the participant noted the existence of an Agricultural fund set up by the Central Bank of Nigeria however, the challenge of rural farmers to access this fund.
Another speaker expressed displeasure at the perception of agriculture among the youth and the reluctance of parents to support their wards who may be interested in pursuing agriculture. In a recent development, a policy of the National Youth Service Corps which makes mandatory the posting of corps members to rural areas to work in areas of agriculture, rural health, infrastructure and education; was disclosed by a participant in reaction to educational interventions to ensure sustainable agriculture. She spoke about the challenges in acquiring seeds for gardening, as well as lack of proper information flow from policy makers.
Reacting to the suggestions raised, Mrs. Kanu stated that agricultural extension work can be improved in rural areas by setting examples to show that the innovations introduced are effective. She lamented the deterioration of agricultural studies in schools and the lack of passion in the teachers and students for the profession. Mrs. Ivana suggested the use of the internet to disseminate and acquire information on agriculture whilst Mr. Mataruka gave another instance in Malawi which showed the potential of the country to become a net exporter of food.
In his contribution, Lagos State Commissioner for Agriculture, Prince Gbolahan Lawal highlighted current efforts of the Lagos State Government to improve agriculture in the state. Some of these activities include: a training programme for the youth, improved access to land in specific areas of the state which has increased the yield per hectare of land for each farmer.
A participant from India noted the importance of irrigation in Agriculture with India as a case study which has contributed to the attainment of agricultural independence of the country. Hence, India does not import any agricultural product and is completely self-sufficient.
In her contribution, the Director-General of the Federal Institute of Industrial research, Dr. Mrs. G.N Elemo stressed the importance of food security and the role of an institute set up specifically to drive development in the sector so that there is ‘a link between the laboratory and the market’.
The need to involve rural farmers in discussions and policy making were highlighted and the platform of the event commended. The role of support agencies in research and development was also commended whilst farmers were encouraged to practice improved processing methods. Suggestions on the importance of power and its fundamental contribution to facilitating productivity across board resonated with all participants.
To round off the open discussions, a participant noted the emphasis of the Nigerian Agricultural sector on farming and crop production over fishery, livestock production and animal husbandy. In reaction to this, Mr. Aligbe agreed with the observation but stated that crop production was of overall importance because products from crops are relevant to all other aspects of Agriculture such as feed for fishery, poultry and livestock.
The conversations ended after about three hours of enlightening and stimulating discourse on sustainable development of the agricultural sector. Plaques were presented to the discussants for their contributions to the event and the sector and Etisalat Nigeria conducted a raffle draw where Mr. Kenneth Onoh of the Nigeria Development Foundation won a gift.
The conversations continued at the breakfast table with networking and further deliberations to wrap up the event.