Everybody in Nigeria now says diversification is the solution to our economy. They add that agriculture holds the vital key to it. Few ask or offer any suggestion about how to achieve the goal and when we can expect results.
The truth is agriculture as the centrepiece of our diversification programme will not begin to manifest lasting results until well after 2019. Large-scale expansion of agricultural output is a long-term project, not a short-term event. It is an economic and social marathon and not a sprint.
A casual look at our economic history reveals that the diversification of Nigeria’s economy before the advent of oil was never planned. The major export products at the time – coal, cocoa, palm oil, groundnut, hides and skins, tin, iron, gold, columbite, aluminium, timber, rubber – were natural resources, not planned products. Unlike Malaysia which had to borrow seedlings from Nigeria to start its palm oil-based products sector, Nigeria’s oil palm largely grew abundantly in the wild.
The Regional and the Federal Governments only expanded what there was, and the Marketing Boards acted as agents for producers and buyers. Certainly, nobody thinks we planned the deposits of coal, tin, iron or other minerals. The truth is; we have never had any national experience or success in planning anything. Thus when “experts” point to the diversified economy of the past, they are referring to a situation which occurred by accident: an act of God which we merely exploited.
Most of what is written or said is wishful thinking – even by those in government. For agriculture to play its vital role in our economic recovery, it must involve plans, programmes, priorities and disciplined funding. If properly planned and executed, we might not be out of the woods until well after 2019.
Agricultural products fall into two broad categories – food and cash crops. Given scarce financial resources, every nation which had successfully embarked on agricultural revolution had invariably chosen one as its focus.
India and China selected food first and proceeded to produce surpluses of certain crops which led to exports. In the process they imposed strict import/export prohibitions on food items – especially grains. And from that starting point, it was easy to select the food items whose massive production was promoted officially.
At the moment, Nigeria’s agricultural policy lacks that focus and without it all stakeholders – farmers, extension services providers, agronomists, inputs providers, banks and insurance companies – are directionless. Yet under the best of conditions, it requires at least two years to mobilise all the resources for a major agricultural revolution. That explains why the current effort might not yield results until well after 2019, if at all.
We have not even made the first and most vital decision.