In the face of Boko Haram terrorism, farmers-herders conflict and natural disasters such as flooding, JESUSEGUN ALAGBE writes about revolutionary agricultural technologies that can be used to bypass the crises and boost food production in the country
Musa Abdullahi couldn’t hide his frustration when asked why he looked dejected on a rainy Saturday when our correspondent met him at the Mile 12 market in the Ketu area of Lagos.
“Business is no longer flourishing as it used to be,” the dark-complexioned 41-year-old from Borno State grumbled. For the past decade, he has sold groceries such as tomatoes, pepper and onions, often selling them in bags to retailers who would then resell them at smaller markets.
The father of seven children, however, said in the past five years, the business had been tough because he could no longer order a large number of bags of groceries from his farmer friends in the north as he used to. The reasons were no more than the Boko Haram insurgency, farmers-Fulani herdsmen conflict and banditry that have ravaged the region.
“As of 2013 and 2014, if I called my people in Maiduguri (Borno State capital) that I needed 20 bags of groceries, they would load a truck the following day and send them down to Lagos. Within two or three days, I would get my goods.
“But right now, getting three bags of groceries is difficult. If my people are able to fulfil my order at all, it could take up to three weeks for them to get me three bags of tomatoes and pepper. Boko Haram has sacked all my people away from their farms,” he said.
Abdullahi said the situation had taken a toll on his business and his staying in the business that had fed him and his family for years was shaky.
“The quality of tomatoes we get these days is not good. And if we insist we want to go for the best tomatoes, they are costly and many consumers are not buying them again,” he said.
On the day our correspondent met Abdullahi, he tucked a 40kg basket of round-shaped reddish tomatoes under his table. This particular species of tomato was more expensive (around N8,000) than the long-shaped specie, a 40kg basket of which cost around N3,000.
“The more expensive tastes better in soup or stew and takes less time to fry because of low water content, but the longer one has a lot of water, hence it takes a lot of time to fry. It doesn’t also taste great in soup. However, this is what people are buying because of the crisis in the north,” he explained.
Another trader in the market who deals in cereals such as beans, wheat, maize and rice, simply identified as Abdulrahman from Sokoto State, similarly said business had not been the same again in the past five years due to the activities of terrorists in the north.
“Beans and other cereals are more expensive than before because of the insurgents. We no longer get some particular species of beans again and if we get, they are usually in low quantities.
“The farms where our people used to grow these products have been destroyed and raided by terrorists. Most of our people are not even there to farm again. They have run away,” he said.
Insecurity affecting food production in Nigeria
Since 2002, Nigeria has battled Boko Haram insurgency, particularly in the north-eastern states of Borno, Adamawa, Bauchi and Yobe. Once named as the world’s deadliest terrorist group by the Institute for Economics and Peace, Boko Haram has killed more than 70,000 people, according to the New York, United States-based Council on Foreign Relations.
The insurgent group’s activities have also led to the displacement of over 2.4 million people from their homes, according to the International Organisation for Migration.
It is estimated that 200,000 displaced Nigerians, most of them women and children, have fled the country to neighbouring countries such as Cameroon, Niger and Chad.
Lamentably, attacks are still being carried out in the region by a faction of the Boko Haram called the Islamic State West African Province, which has about 3,000 fighters.
Endorsed by the Islamic State, ISWAP, split in 2016 from forces commanded by Boko Haram’s longtime leader Abubakar Shekau, over disapproval of his attacks on Muslim civilians.
Since a large population of the north are said to be into farming, most farmers in the region have left their farms while many have been killed as a result of the crisis in the region.
Consequently, food production has dropped drastically in the country as the latest forecast by the Food and Agriculture Organisation showed Nigeria’s efforts to achieve zero hunger by 2030 were being undermined.
At the last World Food Day on October 16, 2018, the Rome, Italy-based FAO said 2.4 million people in Adamawa, Borno and Yobe states, the three areas hardest hit by the Boko Haram insurgency, faced dire food shortage.
The agency added that as of 2016, 13 million Nigerians suffered from hunger due to insurgency. This figure was projected to increase exponentially by 2030, creating a further risk as the country’s population is expected to double by 2050, according to the United Nations.
Furthermore, the FAO listed Nigeria as one of the 37 countries in the world in need of external food assistance, noting that agricultural practice in the country was characterised by low technology and low output.
Other threats to food output
Propelled by desertification, insecurity and the loss of grazing land to expanding settlements, the Fulani herdsmen-farmers conflict particularly in the Middle Belt is also another threat to food output in the country.
The farmers-herders crisis led to the massacre of more than 1,300 people between January and June 2018 alone, according to the International Crisis Group.
As a result of this, farmers in the region have also had to flee their farms while the militant herdsmen have destroyed large hectares of farmland, particularly in Benue, Taraba and Plateau states.
The Gwom Rwey of Heipang, a farming community in Barkin Ladi Local Government Area of the state, Paul Tadi Tok, 47, said the conflict had resulted in the discouragement of the people from farming.
He, however, said more would be done to encourage people to farm in commodities the community was known for such as Irish potatoes, digitaria exilis (popularly called acha) and finger millets.
“Insecurity is a big issue, but we will keep on encouraging our people, especially the youth, to grow these commodities. These are foods that have high nutritional value, so we will encourage our people to produce them in commercial quantities.
“We cannot continue to live in perpetual fear and not go to the farm. Farming is our tradition and it is our means of livelihood. We have cows grazing on people’s farms when they’re resting in the night but we can’t discourage our people from farming,” the monarch told our correspondent during a recent trip to the community.
Narrating how one of the farmers in the community was shot dead sometime in November 2018 by the rampaging herdsmen while he was planting crops, the monarch said the presence of mobile policemen would help stem the copious attacks.
He said, “Our people farm Irish potatoes a lot, exporting to other parts of the country. We also produce maize in commercial quantities. However, the volume of export has dropped due to insecurity.
“There is also fear of moving the goods from here to the markets in Lagos, Kaduna, Abuja and the rest. People who used to come here to buy our produce in large quantities now believe if they come, they will be attacked by herdsmen. That’s the impression people now have.
“So the herdsmen crisis is a big issue and threat to the agricultural revolution. If the inland container depot, railway and others are working fine in the country, I think this issue will be resolved.”
Poor farming practice in Nigeria
Apart from insecurity, Nigeria’s agricultural sector has been characterised by low output due to the use of outdated methods and natural factors such as flooding, which has wreaked havoc on farms in food-producing states like Edo, Adamawa, Kogi, Benue, Kebbi, Niger, Bayelsa and Delta.
In 2017, the Federal Department of Agriculture and Extension Services said 10,000 small-holding farmers had their crops washed away by flood after seven days of torrential rain in Benue State.
Similarly, the FAO in 2018 said the agricultural sector in Nigeria faced many challenges such as “a very low level of irrigation development, limited adoption of research findings and technologies, high cost of farm inputs, poor access to credit, inefficient fertiliser procurement and distribution, inadequate storage facilities and poor access to markets.”
The UN organisation said all these factors combined to keep agricultural productivity low with high post-harvest losses and waste.
Even though agriculture still remains the largest sector of the Nigerian economy and employs two-thirds of the entire labour force, the FAO said production hurdles had significantly stifled the performance of the sector.
The organisation said over the past 20 years, the value-added per capita in agriculture had not risen by more than one per cent annually and estimated that Nigeria had lost $10bn in annual export opportunity from groundnut, palm oil, cocoa and cotton alone due to continuous decline in the production of the commodities.
“Food (crop) production has not kept pace with population growth, resulting in rising food imports and declining levels of national food self-sufficiency,” FAO said.
In 2018, a former Minister of State for Agriculture and Rural Development, Senator Heineken Lokpobiri, stated that Nigeria was importing food annually with $22bn.
Technologies to boost agricultural production
As Nigeria’s population is projected to hit about 402 million by 2050, experts have identified various technologies that can revolutionise agriculture in the country for increased food output.
In their emerging agriculture technologies report, Policy Horizons Canada identified the various technologies related to agricultural and natural manufacturing.
The technologies were grouped under the four key areas of: Sensors, Food, Automation and Engineering.
They explained that ‘sensors’ could help in agriculture by enabling real-time traceability and diagnosis of crop, livestock and farm machine states.
Under ‘food’, farmers may benefit directly from genetic tailoring and potentially from producing meat directly in a lab rather than wait for years to rear cattle and others.
Speaking of automation, it will involve the use of robots to check and maintain crops at the plant level while engineering involves technologies that use organic chemistry and smart devices.
The use of air and soil sensors enable a real-time understanding of current farm, forest or body of water conditions. Another aspect of sensors is equipment telematics, which allows mechanical devices such as tractors to warn mechanics that a failure is likely to occur soon.
In livestock farming, neckbands which have been enabled with the Global Positioning System, Radio Frequency Identification and biometrics can be worn on animals to automatically identify and relay vital information about them in real time.
Instead of prescribing field fertilisation before application, high-resolution crop sensors can inform application equipment of the correct amounts needed.
Optical sensors or drones can also be used to identify crop health across the field using infra-red light.
Infrastructural health sensors can be used for monitoring vibrations and material conditions in buildings, bridges, factories, farms and other infrastructure.
Coupled with an intelligent network, such sensors could feed crucial information back to maintenance crews or robots.
There are technologies that can produce genetically designed food, which is a departure from Genetically Modified Food. The GDF involves the creation of entirely new strains of food for animals and plants in order to better address their biological and physiological needs. GDFs are engineered from the ground up.
Another asset of food technology is in vitro meat, also known as cultured meat or tube steak. In vitro meat is a flesh product that has never been part of a complete, living animal.
Although no meat has yet been produced for public consumption, several current research projects are growing in vitro meat experimentally. The project became scientifically viable in 2017, is projected to go mainstream in 2024 and is expected to be financially viable in 2027.
Under automation, there are aspects such as variable rate swath control, rapid iteration selective breeding, agricultural robots, precision farming and robotic farm swarms.
The variable rate swath control builds on existing geolocation technologies and could help save on seed, minerals, fertiliser and herbicides by reducing overlapping inputs. By pre-computing the shape of the field where the inputs are to be used and by understanding the relative productivity of different areas of the field, tractors or agricultural robots can procedurally apply inputs at variable rates throughout the field. This method became mainstream in 2014 and was deemed financially viable in 2016.
The rapid iteration selective breeding is the next generation of selective breeding where the end-result is analysed quantitatively and improvements are suggested algorithmically.
Agricultural robots, also known as agbots, are used to automate agricultural processes such as harvesting, fruit picking, ploughing, soil maintenance, weeding, planting, irrigation and so on. Agbots are expected to become mainstream in 2020 and financially viable in 2021.
Precision agriculture deals with farming management based on observing (and responding to) intra-field variations. With satellite imagery and advanced sensors, farmers can optimise returns on inputs while preserving resources at ever larger scales.
Robotic farm swarms are the hypothetical combination of dozens or hundreds of agbots with thousands of microscopic sensors, which together would monitor, predict, cultivate and extract crops from the land with practically no human intervention. Small-scale implementations are already on the horizon.
Here, there are three main areas, namely closed ecological systems, synthetic biology and vertical farming.
Under the closed ecological systems, farming ecosystems do not rely on matter exchange outside the system. Such closed ecosystems would theoretically transform waste products into oxygen, food and water in order to support life-forms inhabiting the system. Such systems already exist in small scales and are projected to go mainstream in 2020.
Synthetic biology is about programming biology using standardised parts exactly the way people programmes computers using standardised libraries.
Synthetic biology includes the broad redefinition and expansion of biotechnology, with the ultimate goals of being able to design, build and remediate engineered biological systems that process information, manipulate chemicals, fabricate materials and structures, produce energy, provide food, and maintain and enhance human health and the environment. The method is to go mainstream in 2023.
Vertical farming is a natural extension of urban agriculture, whereby crops and animals can be grown inside buildings in urban settings. Using techniques similar to glass houses, vertical farms could augment natural light using energy-efficient lighting.
The advantages are numerous, including year-round crop production, protection from the weather, support urban food autonomy and reduced transport costs. The technology has been in use in countries such as the United States and even in Nigeria, where agricultural entrepreneurs can sometimes have difficulty purchasing large hectares of land for farming.
Using vertical farming, crops do not need to be grown on farmland, hence the risks of drought, pestilence and others are highly minimised. By 2027, the use of vertical farms will go mainstream and farmers in countries like Nigeria would stop worrying over crises such as terrorists, bandits or armed militia herdsmen sacking them from their farmland. Even natural factors such as rain, sunlight, humidity and so on would not matter in the growth of crops. Vertical farming technology supplies all that are needed to grow crops and rear animals inside warehouses or even skyscrapers.
Experts advise fast adoption of farming technologies
Agronomist and agricultural entrepreneur based in Ibadan, Oyo State, Mr Babajide Oloye, said with tillable land shrinking due to rising population and urban sprawl, farmers must find innovative ways to produce the same or more amount of food from the same or less amount of land.
“Through innovation, careful planning and stewardship of the environment, farmers will be able to continue to boost food production and aid in feeding a rapidly growing population,” he said.
Oloye, who has been into farming for more than 15 years, called for the fast adoption of the various farming technologies and also encouraged the Federal Government to include the technologies in their plans for agricultural revolution in the country.
“The President Muhammadu Buhari administration has been talking a lot about economic diversification and doing some works in agriculture, however, more needs to be done. As we are right now (at an estimated population of 198 million), we can barely feed ourselves. When we double in population, it’s going to be suicidal.
“So, we need to be proactive and move as the world is moving. More youths need to be involved in agriculture. With new technologies, farming is cool, it doesn’t involve sweat. The government should also invest more in agricultural research organisations such as the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture, Ibadan, for innovative farming practice in Nigeria,” he said.
In an interview with our correspondent, the Managing Director/CEO of Ayoola Foods Limited, Mr Segun Olaye, also noted that if there was the deployment of technology in agriculture in Nigeria, more youths would farm.
“Note that we are talking about mechanised farming and not the use of hoes and cutlasses. The problems we have in Nigeria today are enormous, but agriculture can solve a lot,” he said.
An Abeokuta, Ogun State-based agricultural entrepreneur, Mr Johnson Olanrewaju, 34, also believed the use of technologies could help solve food insecurity in Nigeria.
The farmer, who dumped banking for farming, also called on the youth to embrace agriculture and not wait for the government’s motivation before doing so.
“The youth have various opportunities today. If they are serious about it, there are a lot of ways to access grants internationally and not wait for the government. Farming is cool today and new technologies can greatly solve the problems of soil degradation, farmers-herders conflict and others. The future of food is mind-blowing,” he said.
Already, institutions such as the African Development Bank have promised investment in agriculture on the continent, with the AfDB President, Akinwumi Adesina, stating recently that the bank and the World Bank would invest $24bn over the next 10 years.
Adesina said this recently at the 50th anniversary celebration of the IITA, saying the bank was committed to turning agriculture into a business across the continent and to ensure the continent could feed itself within the decade.
The AfDB boss spoke on technologies in this regard, stating, “At the core of this is getting technologies to millions of farmers and the bank has developed the Technologies for African Agricultural Transformation together with IITA and other centres as a technology platform.
“This is to help take high-yielding technologies to farmers for an African green revolution. AfDB and the World Bank expect to invest $800m in TAAT which will be launched this year,” he said.