Nigeria’s looming food crisis: The ugly truth

by Ore Fakorede

It is truly sad that a nation blessed with Africa’s largest oil reserves and some of its most fertile lands cannot feed its 140 million people, and relatively minor reductions in rainfall could set off a regional food catastrophe. Before oil was discovered off the coast of Nigeria in the 1970s, the country was a major agricultural exporter. However, as it developed into the world’s eighth-largest oil producing country, its big farms and plantations were neglected.


According to the World Bank, today, about 90 percent of Nigeria’s agricultural output comes from small inefficient farms and most farmers have little or no access to fertilizers, irrigation or other modern inputs. Most do not even grow enough food to feed their own families.

Nigeria, in spite of its oil reserves, is still fundamentally an agricultural country, at least in terms of the population working on the land. 71% of the Nigerian workforce is engaged in agriculture. Over 90% of Nigeria’s agricultural output comes from peasant farmers who dwell in remote rural areas where 60% of the 150million total population lives.


Agricultural landholdings are generally small and scattered, with the average number of farm plots per household ranging between 2 and 28 plots increasing from the South to the North. Nigeria cultivates over 25 million hectares of land for various food crops. And yet, despite all these obviously abundant human and natural resources, Nigeria is still unable to feed her citizens.

Nigeria produces only 500,000 tons of rice while annual consumption is 2.5 million tones. Nigeria is the world’s second-largest rice importer after Singapore. Before now, Nigeria spent over $350million on rice importation alone. Nigeria has become one of the world’s biggest importers of food staples, particularly rice and wheat, both of which the country could potentially grow in large enough quantities to be self-sufficient. Even with the imports, about 38 percent of Nigerians younger than 5 suffer from moderate or severe malnutrition, according to UNICEF, while 65 percent of the population, roughly 91 million people, are what humanitarian organizations call “food insecure.” They are at risk of waking up one morning to find that they have nothing to eat.


With increased variation in weather patterns, experts envisage far worse to come. Nigeria is “high-stakes,” said William A. Masters, associate head of Purdue University’s Department of Agricultural Economics and a specialist in agriculture in Africa. “Malawi’s successes or Zimbabwe’s failures are small compared to what happens in Nigeria,” he said. The people who have suffered most from Nigeria’s unreliable agricultural output are its impoverished neighbours. In 2005, when Nigeria had a bad harvest, traders imported grain from Niger, which borders Nigeria to the north. The increased demand caused food prices to spike beyond what locals in Niger could afford. Aid organizations sent in food aid, but much of it was also bought up by traders and diverted to markets in Nigeria. Nutritional surveys suggest that untold numbers of children died.


Aid organizations say that they are now better prepared for food shortages in Niger and other countries around Nigeria, but that Nigeria itself remains problematic. “Its economy is so big and complex, we can’t really get a handle on it,” one senior aid official in the region said on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media. “The idea of a major drought or other disaster in Nigeria is almost too frightening for anyone to contemplate.”

In theory, Nigeria could cope with a food emergency. The government is supposed to have the capacity to hold 300,000 metric tons of grain in reserve. But in practice, many of the silos for these grains have not yet been built, and those that have stand empty or are half-full. “At best, the government’s capacity is 300,000 metric tons and that capacity is only being half-utilized,” said Guido Firetti, a silo contractor who recently took over the job of completing a 25,000-ton silo that has been under construction for more than 15 years.


For many in Nigeria, including some government officials, the global food crisis in 2008 was a wake-up call. Prices of imported food soared, and the country panicked. Fearing food riots, the government announced it would spend $600 million to buy rice regardless of the price. The plan was quickly shelved when it became clear that getting the imported food to the people who needed it would take almost as long as growing the food locally. The government then shifted gears. The money for importing food was reassigned to food self-sufficiency projects and, according to Nigeria’s 2009 budget, the government’s spending on agriculture is set to increase. The spike in world food prices, the worldwide recession and the slump in oil prices have spurred the government on, said Salisu Ingaw, the head of the National Food Reserve Agency. “Now we have to become more food self-sufficient,” Ingaw said.

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