Of entrepreneurial skills among peasant farmers

PHOTO: worldagroforestry.org

The recent live broadcast of the interaction between the Senate Committee on Agriculture and the Minister of Agriculture was very interesting. The optimism of the minister of the possibility of an agrarian miracle in our time was almost contagious but for his expressed concern over discouraging views from certain quarters of agriculture as an unviable business in this country. And because I share in the minister’s optimism, I would like to use this platform to encourage him and members of the Senate Committee on Agriculture that agribusiness is the fastest way to put prosperity in the lives of our citizens through building the economy from the ground up. This can be achieved for example by inculcating an entrepreneurial spirit into farmers and making rural communities the fulcrum of new wealth creation in Nigeria. Yes, the narrow minded, the short sighted and especially the unpatriotic will thumb the nose at this! The truth is, the rural communities have fed us up till now, and I recognize there is need through economic inclusion to work with them and build capacity in the sector for the common good.

The desired development of the agricultural sector of our economy requires holistic government policy with consistent implementation over a period of 10 to 15 years, but we must start from somewhere particularly now and in a manner that will impact directly the rural communities and provide life-changing occupations for the teeming youthful population. As a food deficit country, continuous reliance almost completely (in spite of the few big farms) on subsistence agriculture is inadequate and unacceptable. A concerted affirmative action towards increased agricultural production makes common sense in view of government’s effort to diversify the economy away from fatalistic dependence on oil and over-reliance on import that gratifies excessive conspicuous consumption.

What we desire to achieve in the agriculture sector is possible for we have example of other countries like Brazil as mentioned by one of the participants in the live broadcast. Another country we can use as case study is Afghanistan which has some similarities with North Eastern Nigeria both in terms of extreme weather conditions and the urgent need to resettle the ravaged communities which are also part of the important grain producing areas of Nigeria. After decades of war and insurgency that devastated the economy, Afghanistan began to enjoy a relative time of peace. And with a then growing population there was need to forestall serious food crises. Therefore, the ravaged farming communities needed encouragement to shift attention from the lucrative cultivation of poppy plant to the cultivation of the much needed food crops. The government did not have petro dollar to simply throw at the problem. But it looked at the best possible means to stimulate local food production in a sustainable manner. This was achieved through concerted efforts including the particular intervention by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations working with the Afghanistan Ministry of Agriculture, Irrigation and Livestock under the sponsorship of the European Union.

This intervention resulted in the Seed Multiplication Project under the title, ‘Strengthening National Seed Production Capacity in Afghanistan.’ This was executed through the seed department of the FAO with which I was privileged to work as marketing communication consultant under the Technical Consultancy for Developing Countries (TCDC). The strategy was to stimulate food crops production by making locally produced and affordable high quality seed easily available to farmers. With experience gained through interaction with farmers in the eight provinces of the country FAO was able to group them into eight Pilot Seed Enterprises and worked with them through effective training-support to create viable businesses, and multiply higher quality seeds. For nationwide use, training manuals were translated from English into Dari and Pashto the major languages of the country. The first publication focused on developing entrepreneurial skills and attitudes among farmer groups who were interested in private seed businesses. The second publication looked at seed processing and sowing as guidelines for seed producers in Afghanistan. These and the overall initiative contributed to increased crop productivity, farm incomes, food security and freedom from hunger.

The immediate stakeholder farmers were the first to benefit from the prosperity so generated. But there is the multiplying effect where others outside of the initial pilot enterprises were able to key-in single-handedly. I met such a farmer-entrepreneur at the outskirt of a province called Chadara just before the Chadara River. After making money from seed production, he decided to diversify his investments into other areas of the economy including land acquisitions. This farmer who would by Nigerian standard be an illiterate, had an eye for business, was quick to recognize an investment opportunity and tap into it. This was possible because of the quality and intensity of extension work that had effectively reached out to the communities.

He struck me as the quintessential seed business entrepreneur. Though he was not part of the pilot seed multiplication project. However, about five years before then, when FAO introduced a better wheat variety than the prevailing one, he had been quick to seize the opportunity and as directed, stepped up his own seed production through a number of strategic moves. Though he started with 20 metric tonnes of wheat seed production, he was at the time of our meeting producing about 150 metric tonnes for his customers in the district. His farmer-customers had come to prefer the new variety and were introducing it to the remote villages.

This man who would be deemed unsophisticated in our country definitely had a strategy for growth. With the introduction of new wheat variety, he gradually reduced the cultivation of the old variety as he increased the acreage of the new variety. From the initial 4 hectares, he was able to increase new variety cultivation to 60 hectares on his own fields. He also introduced sub contract growers in order to attain higher capacity and to meet the growing demand for seeds. As awareness increased through testimonies of users so did demand, he explained. He was able to acquire more farm lands which he hired out to others to farm and the produce was shared with the tenant farmers at a predetermined ratio. This ratio depended on the input of each party in terms of land, labour, seed, fertilizer, harvesting, etc. This way he was able to obtain more wheat for processing. He bought wheat from other farmers for processing. He hired uncultivated fields from the owners, farmed them and shared the profit with them, again at a predetermined ratio.

The above indicates the cumulative and far reaching effect of programmes that touch the grassroots directly. We can introduce life-changing programmes that will create prosperity and draw people back to the farming communities and villages. Let’s consider for instance, the major wheat growing states of Bornu, Yobe, Jigawa, Sokoto, Zamfara and Kebbi. Starting from the North East, local farmers can be mobilised and grouped through the cooperative scheme system to come together as grassroots entrepreneurs to partner with government as Pilot Seed Enterprises that will be aided to provide high yield seeds to local farmers, with the ultimate aim of export, when domestic demand has been met.

The seed being the form in which anything springs is essential to life. It is the first principle from which growth and increase flow. Because the principle of production is embodied in the seed, it behoves the relevant authorities as a matter of strategic importance to put the first things first by articulating a seed policy with relevant laws as part of the overall agricultural policy that must focus on capacity building, not in the cities and towns but within the farming communities. It is important to remember that the quality of seed we plant today determines the harvest and prosperity of the future. From the foregoing we can see that agriculture is the sure way of building the economy from the ground up, making meaningful growth to be inclusive, from the rural communities to the cities. It has the huge potential of putting wealth in the hands of citizens who in turn are able to drive the wheel of industrial growth.

Ogunlaiye is a Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), TCDC Consultant.



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