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EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: How FG Can Make Agriculture Sustainable Post-COVID-19 – Don

May 19, 2020

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Dr. Ikechi Agbugba is an Advisor for the Africa Agriculture Sector Development of the Canadian African Network, African Trade Action Group (ATAG). An academic researcher with the Department of Agricultural and Applied Economics at the Rivers State University, Port-Harcourt, he was recently selected as an editorial board member of the Rome Business School Journal. The don in this interview with AgroNigeria speaks on the impact of the novel Coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic on Nigeria’s agricultural industry and the realities facing her broader economy.

What is your assessment of the impact of the current novel Coronavirus pandemic on Nigeria’s economic sector?

The pandemic has presented an opportunity for the total consumption of home-grown food. It has also reaffirmed the need to develop our agricultural sector. Owing to the lockdown, there has been a hike in the prices of agricultural commodities. The demand for food has also increased because people are now more at home, and there is a greater need to consume. On the negative side, labour has been left redundant as they have also been forced to stay at home. Farmers might have to lay off staff, and labour supply at this point is very low as opposed to how it was pre-COVID-19.

How has the rising cases of confirmed infection and various adjustment initiatives changed agronomy or agricultural practices so far?

It has forced farmers to make less contact with those in the allied fields. Patronage has also dwindled because there is now less freedom due to government restrictions on movement. This has affected the distribution and supply of agricultural commodities. Also, the shortage of labour has made farmers depend more on technology or mechanized farming for the cultivation of their large farms.

The threat to the agriculture sector, as the largest employer of labour, is a threat to livelihood. What are the key things to ensure sustained labour force for agriculture?
One of the ways to tackle the threat of this pandemic on agriculture is to make agriculture attractive, to increase training and empowerment of the workforce. Agric workers should earn a decent living to make them appealing to the public.

What is the fate of Nigeria’s agricultural economy in the face of the looming global recession, especially in the post-COVID-19 era?

More people would fall back to agriculture and it would be a huge force in reviving the economy. The oil sector has proven not to be a good mainstay of the economy because it is susceptible to fluctuations as international market forces determine. The agriculture sector, on the other hand, is more reliable because agricultural goods and commodities are indispensable. There is a huge prospect for agriculture – which would be a huge force in reviving the economy post-COVID-19. People have come to realize how volatile our oil prices can be in faces of health crises like this one.

The Nigerian Export Promotion Council has recorded falls in export earnings from agro-commodity, and predicted more plunges for the country in the international agro-commodity market, especially for cocoa. What can be done to manage the situation on the ground?

To manage this situation, the government has to foster policies on agriculture. There should be concrete policies and development plans for agriculture. Before this time, we had agricultural programmes and policies that were renowned nationwide, people understood what these things were- the goals and objectives – but we no longer have them. This would be a good avenue for these things to come back again. Also, the government should improve on standardization. Our produce here is not standardized. That’s why when they see that our product does not meet their standard, they send them back. Nobody wants to buy a substandard product. So, the standard of our products, whether packaged or processed, has to meet global best practices. Also, our bilateral relationships with other countries have to be visited. Usually, Nigeria has a deficit in trade engagement; our balance of trade is not healthy. In this regard, our agriculture sector is a huge strong point for us.

Also, the government should encourage investment into agriculture, provide soft loans for farmers, and strengthen the capacity of the Nigerian Export Promotion Council. With soft and single-digit interest loans, agricultural production will increase, subsequently leading to an increase in export.

Do you think the recession and dwindling investment power would affect agro-industrialization projects including the Special Agro-Industrial Processing Zone project in Nigeria?

Yes, it will. Post COVID-19, other sectors of the economy will also be demanding for the scarce resources of the government. It will take a government that has the interest and understanding of the importance and efficacy of the agriculture sector in sustaining the citizenry to provide funding for agricultural projects. We have Boko Haram and the military expenditure is increasing, and they are all demanding for resources – there is even the health sector. These would affect agricultural projects across the nation.

How can the government make the agriculture sector sustainable during and post-COVID-19?

In the times of COVID-19, the distribution of agricultural produce must be given the ease of passage across the country, especially inputs and food items from the farm. Farmers should be provided with incentives to keep farming in times like this when people are indoors. Post COVID-19, the government should immediately revisit dead or moribund agricultural agencies. There are many agencies – especially extension agencies – that used to be active but have become moribund. These agencies should be revived because they are pivotal in passing key or relevant information on government policies and actions from the top of the center to the grassroots, that is, the farmers. Also, research institutes should be re-equipped. Furthermore, the budget for the agricultural sector should be revisited and increased. If this budget is not increased, it means the government is not paying a keen interest in improving the sector.

About 183 billion was allocated to the agriculture sector in the 2020 budget. Do you think this allocation is sufficient enough to cause a significant change in the sector?

This is not sufficient. It is not even sufficient to transform agriculture in two regions of the country. We should understand that at this point, the value of the Naira has dropped with respect to the dollar. And some of the processing equipment and facilities used in our farms are imported. We also need to consider the exchange rate and trade policies. For me, if the government means serious business for the agriculture sector in the country, a minimum of N500 billion for agriculture should be our budget. That would go a long way in solving many of our problems in production, distribution, marketing, etc. Agriculture has a long value chain. If agriculture must be properly harnessed to deliver good dividends, absorb a lot of unemployed people from the labour market, then we should create a more reasonable budget for it.

Could you give some insight into what Nigeria should expect in terms of the market price of agricultural commodities post COVID-19 era?

This will all depend on how long the pandemic lasts. The longer it lasts, the smaller our food banks, reserves, silos, and barns, will diminish in terms of storage capacity. If it doesn’t persist for long, then the farmers can easily fall back on the existing capacity to continue with production. But if it persists for a long time, stock capacity could diminish, leading to a dire strait where things would be very hard in the country. I do not see much of a rise in price because, after the pandemic, the economy would be at a recovery stage. Some persons would have lost their job, so the aggregate demand would be lesser. Also, due to the fall in the price of oil, the government would have a much smaller spending power; so there would be lesser amounts of money chasing after available goods.

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