Tuesday, February 9, 2016 5:02 pm
By Olukayode Oyeleye
Two years ago, I was invited to attend a birthday anniversary of a woman who just clocked 40 then. The jester who doubled as the Master of Ceremony was publicly making a remark on the dress worn by the daughter of the woman. The dress must have been bought from Brazil, he suggested. But the mother wasted no time as she countered proudly and loudly that she bought it from the UK.
Although the audience laughed and sounded amused, the message was not lost on me as it occurred to me that her loud retort was a deliberate attempt to make a statement of class or social standing. The vainglorious response of the woman was symptomatic of the vanity and warped judgment of superiority of imported products, which must be established at every opportunity, particularly in social gathering.
That woman’s case was not an isolated one as this thread runs through the very fabric of Nigerian economy and has largely contributed to our national economic decadence over nearly half a century to date. It has not only become a fashion and a pastime to rate imported products so highly, it has also led to a preponderance of sub-standard imported products within the country.
The growing affinity of Nigerians for imported goods was bred and nurtured on a fertile ground of absence of regulation, poor or absence of regulatory capacity, incompetence and corruption on the part of regulatory personnel, non-coordination of regulatory frameworks, archaic laws and statutes that are not responsive to changing demands of modern times, instability of local currency, porosity of borders, misplacement of priority in gauging acceptable sources of national income, and outright insensitivity to the downsides of unbridled importation.
The downsides have actually plunged Nigeria’s economy into a near-abyss, with consequences such as a run on the naira value through gradual but continuous devaluation, unemployment and exportation of jobs to exporting countries, with attendant closure of local manufacturing outfits, severe reduction in locally-generated revenues (especially corporate taxes), widespread presence of assorted sub-standard products, especially goods and commodities that could very well be locally produced.
In the food industry, a visit to any local grocery or supermarket is all that is needed to elicit a confirmation. From beverages to beers, confectioneries to canned foods, chocolate to cheese, cookies to cornflakes, meats to margarines, pears to potatoes, tomato paste to textile products or even toothpick, the list is inexhaustible. These have not included the big commodities such as the most common dairy product known as milk, the pervasive rice, wheat and maize. Yet, these products flood the Nigerian markets while the economy continue to nosedive.
The Nigerian economy has taken a lot of bashing through the seemingly limitless demand for foreign exchange to feed importation. A customs officer reported lamented in 2014 that the ban on importation of rice was going to wipe off the glory of the customs service, presupposing that so much revenue coming from importation would be wiped out if attention was focused rather on local production. Such was the height of misplacement of national priority!
Now that the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) is under severe stress that it no longer could meet the burgeoning foreign exchange demands for importation is a time to look inwards and fashion out ways to refocus the economy. Since agriculture has been identified as one sector which could help in the nation’s economic recovery, one of the areas to begin with is our taste. The propensity for consumption of imported food products would need to be addressed. A huge proportion of what goes into food importation would very well address our food challenges, create jobs, bring factories back to work and make Nigeria great economically.
To ensure quality and consumer safety, these will undoubtedly place heavy demands on the various regulatory agencies that have activities directly or indirectly related to agriculture, such as the Nigerian Agricultural Quarantine Service (NAQS), National Food and Drug Administration and Control (NAFDAC), Standards Organisation of Nigeria (SON), and will require a re-awakening of some national research centres such as the Federal Institute of Industrial Research, Oshodi (FIIRO) and Nigerian Stored Products Research Institute (NSPRI), based in Ilorin.
The growing population of Nigerians, which has been estimated at over 160 million is a cause for concern when considering food matters against the backdrop of dwindling oil revenues. The need to free the nation from the stranglehold of massive food importation, while creating jobs and generating revenue provides a clear justification for increased attention to local production of foods. Dependence on food importation is not sustainable even if oil revenue continues to soar and naira value remains unaffected.
From a strategic standpoint, food-exporting nations have been having problems which can lead to sudden shock to the importing countries. The world has not completely recovered from the food crisis of 2007 to 2008 and a repeat of such crisis could spring up anytime soon. The weather-related reduction in wheat harvest in Ukraine in 2014 or similar experience in the US at about the same time should send clear warnings to Nigeria about the vagaries of food importation. The political dislocation of rice exporting Thailand, essentially related to the rice commodity, is obvious enough a threat to dependence on rice importation by Nigeria.
Nigeria’s potential for food production will need heavy investment from the state governments. Apart from Lagos and Rivers states, every other state in Nigeria is basically agrarian. It is therefore to the states’ advantage to earnestly consider prioritising agricultural projects as means of keeping the jobless off the streets as well as generating revenues in lieu of a shrinking allocation from oil revenues. The various agro-ecological zones in the country offer the states comparative and competitive advantages in terms of what to produce – crop or livestock.
It is no longer news that, in the present dispensation, the federal government will prioritise agriculture as the new replacement for oil in terms of revenue generation and as a major driver of the national economy. It is just fitting and proper for the states to adapt and adopt the federal government’s economic direction, fixing all legal frameworks that are needed to make agriculture worth the while within their domains. The social and political configurations should also be in line with the mindset that truly treats agriculture as a business.
While the states are not necessarily expected to be all-out investing public funds into agriculture, they are expected to evolve business-friendly policies and laws that would favour private sector investments in agriculture as well as public-private partnerships that are tailored to the peculiar situations of the various states. It is from the states that the wealth should flow this time, and agriculture can make that possible. Considering the fact that the constitution situates the states so well in matters of agriculture, the states therefore need to wake up to their responsibilities.
One of the ways the states could evolve is by beginning stakeholders meetings, working on areas of common interests, how states can collaborate and support each other, knowledge sharing across states, business transactions involving trades of agricultural commodities among themselves, value chain development involving production, processing, transportation and marketing. The states need to begin to evolve strategies to attract private sector investments, with emphasis on incentives to the investors. So much is expected from the states’ executive governors and from the legislators. They need visibility, but must work hard to earn this. They will be the better for it if they act on time. The time to act is now!
Dr. Olukayode Oyeleye is the media adviser to the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development