Nigeria's unsustainable food import bill

05.10.2017

IN spite of the Federal Government's reported commitment to diversification of the economy through agricultural production, available statistics from three key government institutions indicate that such efforts are yet to yield the desired results. Figures from the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN), the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS), and the Agricultural Research Council of Nigeria...

IN spite of the Federal Government's reported commitment to diversification of the economy through agricultural production, available statistics from three key government institutions indicate that such efforts are yet to yield the desired results. Figures from the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN), the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS), and the Agricultural Research Council of Nigeria (ARCON) - all point in the same direction- that Nigeria is still a huge importer of essential food items. Latest data from the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) suggest that the country's import bill is on the rise again.

From the NBS figures, import bill for Q1 and Q2 of this year compared, show a rise of N23.1bn from the N200bn recorded for the previous quarter. Compared to the corresponding period for last year, the increase in import bill for Q2 this year is about N88bn. Figures from the CBN for the month of August put Nigeria's monthly import bill at N588.1bn. This is in contrast to what it was in 2005 when oil price was about $50 per barrel for an extended period of time and a monthly average import of N12.4 bn.

According to the CBN Governor, Godwin Emefiele, the high import bill has continued to put pressure on the naira as demand for foreign exchange remains significantly high. The figures from ARCON say Nigeria spends a whooping N1trn on importation of rice, wheat, sugar and fish, annually. According to the Executive Secretary of the Council, Baba Abubakar, Nigeria remains a large importer of key food items despite massive uncultivated agricultural land across the country. Worse still, Nigeria is the largest importer of America's hard red and white wheat with N635 bn annually, world's number two importer of rice at N356bn, N217 bn on sugar and N97bn on fish. This is unacceptable and a drain on the nation's external reserves.

These figures should worry the Nigerian authorities. We cannot develop with this type of unsustainable import bill.

A cursory look at the nation's import bill will show that most of it is incurred on food items, clothing and other consumables. That is why, the Agriculture Minister, Audu Ogbeh has lamented the huge foreign exchange wasted on importing such food items as rice, sugar, vegetable and palm oil, wheat, pastries, noodles and even beans and goats from neighbouring Niger, Chad and Mali. Our people are very obsessed with foreign goods.

Yet, Nigeria has abundant farm and land resources. It is obvious that there is hardly any food crop that we can't grow or any animal, we can't rear, including sea products. Instead of keying into these natural advantages, we would rather look elsewhere to the detriment of the economy.

It has become evident that our challenged economy is badly in need of diversification, and it is agriculture that would drive it. But our lack of seriousness is seen in the percentage of the successive annual budgets that go into agriculture. Only 12 per cent of the federal budget is allocated to agriculture in this year's budget. Other years have probably fared worse.

But if the damning NBS statistic is to be reversed, government at all levels and indeed, the private sector must do much more for agriculture. Our farmers must be encouraged to produce more and add value to their products to meet local demands and package the surplus for export. Because agriculture has worked in this country before, the template is there. In the regions of the First Republic, agriculture worked in this country and was a major foreign exchange earner. The farmers had farm settlements, and extension services. They had crucial information on their trade and adequate support from the various governments and marketing boards.

Why have those things which served us well in the past become very difficult to sustain in the present times? Many have rightly pointed to the discovery of oil and how its abundant money has diverted us from the basics. But in other countries that we look up to like America, Britain, China and now Brazil, food security has remained a critical factor for their success in agriculture.

We can attain self-sufficiency in food production in Nigeria, but the problem is that a good percentage of the food produced is lost through poor storage and evacuation systems, from the farms to the markets in the cities. Road transportation, which the farmers depend on, has been of little help because of their perennial bad state.

What should be done is to provide processing mills close to most of these farming communities so that requisite value can be added to the primary products. That way, a lot of the present losses incurred in the process of storing and transporting the products would be saved.

This will encourage our farmers to produce more and substantially improve their earnings from their exertions.


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