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Will food donations from war-torn Ukraine be a wakeup call for Africa?

Food donations will continue to encourage the current apathy and lack of commitment from most African countries in properly funding agriculture and developing the continent's agricultural potential
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On 22 March 2023, the Nigerian Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development, Mohammed Abubakar, disclosed the government’s plan to open a grain hub in River State Nigeria to receive 25,000 metric tonnes of wheat donation from Ukraine. For many self-respecting Africans, the announcement was embarrassing; that African countries, especially giants like Nigeria, rely on food aid and donations from war-torn Ukraine to feed their people was incomprehensible. This situation underscores the urgent need to fully develop and utilize the capacity of African agriculture towards achieving food security on the continent. How to achieve this is a no-brainer.

Nigeria is a country rich in both human and natural resources. The country sits on a landmass of 923,768 km², with an arable land area of 34 million hectares and a population of over 200 million people. Nigeria’s land size and population constitute a huge resource to be taken advantage of to produce enough food for its population and for exportation to other parts of the continent and beyond. A country such as Vietnam (a developing country in Asia) with about half of Nigeria’s population and one-third of its land mass is considered self-sufficient in terms of food availability and food security, and is also a major food exporter to the rest of the world.

State agro-policies, such as a) the 2009 Resolution No 63/NQ-CP, b) the 2020 Restructuring of Agricultural Sector Policy, and c) the 2011-2020 National Action Plan on Nutrition, which were aimed at strengthening the nation’s capacity for scientific research and extension, ensuring 20% growth in agricultural production for national food security and achieving nutrition security by 2030, have been credited for Vietnam’s progress in this domain. Nigeria and other countries in Africa can understudy, adapt and apply some aspects of these policies within their context.

Increasing food production and achieving food security in Nigeria and Africa require a few important steps. First, African countries must at the very least commit to and comply with the principles of the Malabo Declaration of 2014 by reserving at least 10 per cent of their national annual budgets to agriculture. As of today, “out of the forty-nine (49) Member States that reported on progress in implementing the Malabo Declaration during the 2019 biennial review cycle, only four countries (Rwanda, Morocco, Mali, and Ghana) are on track towards achieving the Malabo commitments by 2025,” according to reports.

For instance, according to a Business Day report, Nigeria allocated N228.4 billion to the agricultural sector in 2023, which accounts for only 1.05 per cent of the total budget of N21.83 trillion approved for the year. This is the lowest allocation in seven years at a time when nearly 25 million Nigerians are predicted to be at risk of hunger in 2023. It is no wonder war-torn Ukraine had to step in, a historic shame considering Nigeria’s largely underutilized land mass, agricultural capacity and abundant human resources. Clearly, Nigeria must change its current lip service to the fight against food insecurity and significantly improve its abysmal performance so far.

Second, Nigeria should prioritize the development, adoption, and deployment of appropriate (especially traditional) technology across all agricultural value chains. Experience and evidence from countries in the sub-Saharan African region show that the benefits of agricultural technology development could be very high and far-reaching. Priority should be given to building necessary infrastructure, especially in rural communities, to support smallholder farmers who are at the heart of Africa’s agriculture. They should be provided with tailored incentives such as grants and low-interest loans, farm inputs such as improved indigenous seed varieties, bio-fertilizers, and bio-pesticides. Governments should improve farmers’ access to information, extension services and training on agricultural best practices and the use of technology through the mass deployment of well-trained and informed extension agents who serve as the bridge between agricultural research/innovation and the farmers.

Third, the Nigerian government must reposition its agricultural research institutes by increasing funding for research and providing incentives such as tax breaks for the private sector and businesses to directly fund research and innovation through various agricultural research institutions in Nigeria. Nigeria’s budgetary allocation to the agricultural ministry reportedly shows that research institutions received an average of $78 million yearly (0.007% of GDP) between 2016 and 2020. When compared with Vietnam’s $43 million (0.01% of GDP), India’s $2 billion (0.06% of GDP) and Brazil’s $1 billion (0.05% of GDP), it shows that agricultural research is still grossly underfunded in Nigeria. Increased funding will help to revive these weak institutions and directly boost agricultural productivity in the country.

Fourth, private sector participation is required to establish agro-processing industries across different agricultural zones for Nigeria to boost its agricultural productivity. This will help process and add value to agro-produce by smallholder farmers for both local consumption and export, making agriculture profitable and attractive, especially for Nigerian youths most of whom are currently unemployed.

Africa faces a hunger problem with at least one in five Africans going to bed hungry and an estimated 140 million people in Africa facing acute food insecurity. The Ukrainian government had earlier in January 2023 expressed its readiness to establish grain hubs in Nigeria and other African countries to help resolve this issue and boost its bilateral ties in the context of its ongoing war and geopolitical competition with Russia. However, it is clear that the path to Africa achieving food security and actualizing food sovereignty will not rely on food donations from other continents. Such an approach will continue to encourage the current apathy and lack of commitment from most African countries, including Nigeria, in properly funding agriculture and developing the continent’s agricultural potential.

Most importantly, Africans must not forget that behind the smokescreen of food aid and donations lie other interests from the donors that may be far from the goal of ending hunger on the continent. Therefore, we must ensure that while these countries try to advance their interests, expand market access, and control transnational corporations in Africa through food donations, the interests and agricultural production of our local smallholder farmers are not undermined. Otherwise, we will find ourselves in an unending cycle of hunger and food insecurity on the continent.

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