What have you been able to achieve as Director-General over the course of the past eight years?
First of all, we decentralised our centre from Nigeria alone and now have four hubs. We probably have the best modern building in Tanzania, another in Lusaka, Zambia, another in the Democratic Republic of Congo and of course, we have the headquarters here in Nigeria. The second major area for IITA is capacity building: degree related and short-term. What we call a legacy here is we started a programme of changing the mindset of youths in agriculture. Hence, we created the first programme of agripreneur, in 2012.
This programme was informed by two events that happened then. The first was the call for job offers by the immigration service where for 5,000 positions, 11 million people applied and about 22 died in a stampede to get into the job screening centre which was a stadium. The second was that we offered some casual work to weed cassava fields and we had 500 persons at the gate, which included graduates, trying to get in here. So, if we don’t get young people involved in agriculture, this continent is going to be at the mercy of other countries. By 2050, agriculture will be a $1trillion business and that business will be taken by Americans, Chinese and non-Africans.
Meanwhile, I realized that we were picking this graduates and it takes a lot of time to change their mindset towards agriculture. So, we decided to go a bit down and created a programme called StartThemEarly where we are trying to teach young people in secondary school that agriculture is business. This is to enable them grow up knowing that we can make money in agriculture.
Research has been critical in the development of foods such as Vitamin A, maize to fight hunger. However, many governments in Africa spend less than five percent on agriculture research.
How is IITA leveraging on its successful research outputs to push for greater investments in agriculture and research?
I was talking about the mindset of young people about agriculture; unfortunately, it is in our government that the mindset has to completely change. Probably 90 percent of our leaders have been considering agriculture as a social activity. They have been proclaiming that agriculture is a priority of resolving the problem of pain and penury, but they are not investing in it. When I became director-general, I kept discussing with the then Minister of Agriculture, Mr Akinwunmi Adesina, on ways to change the way agriculture is done in this continent. Between 2011 and 2015, he managed to change the way agriculture was perceived but he never succeeded to get the government to invest more than three percent in agriculture in Nigeria.
Agriculture, today, is considered an investment and two countries have made that happen. Ethopia is investing about 20 percent of its budget in agriculture; also Rwanda is investing such much in agriculture. Nigeria imports $5billion worth of food per year. The significance of that is that we are exporting jobs. Instead of creating jobs here, we are creating jobs in Thailand and the United States for wheat. Yet we can produce wheat and rice here. It’s the mindset of leaders who basically do not understand that the continent must invest in agriculture. If you invest that $5billion here in Nigeria, you can reduce the unemployment rate from about 60 percent to seven percent in 10 years. Here in Africa, less than 0.01percent is investing in agriculture research because the leaders don’t just understand this. If you kill IITA, then you have killed agriculture research in Africa. I am not saying this because I am director-general, IITA; go to IAR&T, CRIN, a lot is not functioning there to do basic analysis.
IITA stresses the importance of agriculture being approached as a business. But, it is difficult to think of anywhere in the world that has a highly productive agriculture sector that does not enjoy tariff protections, state subsidies. Given that here in Africa neither of those two things are very likely, what are the policies that will create an opening for agriculture to develop as a business?
We will not do miracle in Africa but have to follow what other people are doing. I don’t see any other way of developing agriculture if we don’t facilitate subsidies. In US or Europe, if government does not give subsidies, all those people will leave agriculture. The private sector needs to have some form of tax relief, import relief. I usually wonder why we will allow someone to steal $10billion from a country and not make an effort to invest in some of the things that are useful?
There is a story in Malawi where farmers develop their own solutions to deal with worms; they were using fish soup to attract predators. How does the IITA support and build on this kind of farmer science?
Our scientists explore the feasibility of such, especially when there is a success story. They have to scale that it is not done in one season and not in the next season. They study this knowledge to come up with solutions. It’s being picked in Kenya, Malawi, Zambia as well. At the end of the year, scientists do come here to disclose their results, gaps and future implementation of that.
What do you make of the recent decision of the Nigerian government to close its borders?
If I were President of Nigeria, I will never take such decision in the way it was taken. In my view, it is emotional. You can control border without closing it. Yes, you can’t allow those kinds of imports to disturb your market here. For example talking about rice, Nigeria has the capacity to produce all rice and it can export. It can even encourage countries like Benin and Togo to produce if it doesn’t have enough because the market is really big. For me, that policy is short termed, emotional and won’t go far enough. Hopefully, it will encourage people to produce much here. In terms of investment, Nigeria today is investing only 2.8 percent of its budget in agriculture. Three years ago, I was invited by the Senate to speak on agriculture.
I was very brutal to say to them that if they invest three percent, they shouldn’t expect any miracle. The Malabu declaration says 10 percent, and it’s at that point you begin to have very good returns on investment. I was with Prime Minister of Ethiopia, three weeks ago, and he was telling the people how that policy has helped Ethiopia a lot by first eliminating famine. But they are getting additional money to invest in roads from agriculture. If you start producing food in Nigeria, you will even be exporting to neighbouring countries. I advised President of Democratic Republic of Congo that if he wants to succeed, agriculture is the way to go and use the money got from mineral resources to fund agriculture. So, he has a policy to move from five percent in first year to eight percent this year and his objective in three years time is to move to 15 percent of investment. You can do agriculture if you have a good leadership and that should be the same in Nigeria here.