In his paper, Technological Abundance for Global Agriculture: The Role of Biotechnology, Calestous Juma wrote: “…the ability to add value to agricultural production via the application of scientific knowledge to entrepreneurial activities stands out as one of the most important lessons of economic history. The Green Revolution played a critical role in helping to overcome chronic food shortages in Latin America and Asia.”
Although that paper is generally about biotechnology and specific genetically modified (GM) crops, Juma implicitly made a point that resonates with me. Value-added agriculture is crucial to overcoming poverty in Africa. Fact is, I do not see how the SDG goals of zero poverty, zero hunger, good health and well-being by 2030 can be achieved without proper focus on value-added agriculture in Africa. According to the World Bank, 1.136 billion people (that is 14 per cent of the world’s 7.753 billion people) lived in sub-Saharan Africa in 2020. Two out of every five of these live in extreme poverty; that is, they are only able to afford $1.9 per day on consumption, including food.
Poverty and the need for STI-driven agriculture in Nigeria
There is at least one reason to look closely at Nigeria: projections indicate that Nigeria will be home to the largest number of the world’s poorest people, at least, until 2030 – a trend that began in 2018. In other words, since 2018 most Nigerians have been unable to feed well and will remain so until 2030. This seems surprising because, according to World Bank data, Nigeria’s nominal GDP was the 26th largest (out of 211 countries and territories). How come she appears to be so poor? My argument, based on the statistics, is that a country is defined as rich or poor – not based on the sheer amount of money it makes or spends but – based on the welfare of its people. The most basic indicator of this fact is the GDP per capita (the economic output per person). Research suggests that a higher GDP per capita is associated with the increased ability of individuals to pay for inputs that lead to better welfare. But, in the comity of nations in 2020, Nigeria’s GDP per capita was in the 162nd position. Between 2018 and 2020, Nigeria’s GDP per capita barely increased from $2,028 to $2,097.
As far as one can tell, most of the indices of poverty currently in use, including the ones cited above, are related to what people do and eat. That is why I believe strongly that if Nigeria was constrained to make only one choice of where to direct her science, technology and innovation (STI) efforts, it should not hesitate to select agriculture. Although being constrained to make only one choice of focus area is rather far-fetched, the need to prioritise is not. Thus, I extend my argument by noting that if Nigeria would prioritise her STI efforts appropriately, agriculture must not be far from the top of the list. Infact, it should be at the top. As my people would say, when hunger is no longer a concern, the problem of poverty is virtually solved.
Why do I consider agriculture so important? The answer lies in three inter-related, structural characteristics of the Nigerian economy. One, the Nigerian society is fundamentally agrarian. Some estimates suggest that over 70 per cent of all Nigerian households are engaged in subsistent agriculture. Over 40 per cent are also said to own or raise livestock. Two, agricultural activities account for a very large portion of the national employment and GDP. Data from the International Labour Organisation (ILO) shows that over a third of all Nigerian workers had delved into agriculture in 2013. In 2020, agriculture contributed 24 per cent of the country’s GDP, almost as much as industry. Thirdly, despite the vast arable land and a large agricultural labour force, Nigeria is a net importer of food. In 2019, the country imported four times as much food as she exported.
Adding value to agriculture in Nigeria
Achieving any form of STI-driven growth and development in a context like Nigeria’s requires a deliberate attempt at initiating and sustaining structural change. This change will ensure that resources are shifted around within the economy in a near-optimal, if not optimal, manner. This kind of structural change is not what a country achieves by disproportionately spending on technologies such as satellites and ICTs. Rather, it is achievable through sensible targeted STI that focuses on priority areas.
Speaking of agriculture, one can think of very many things that can be done. Let us explore issues around physical infrastructure and agricultural financing that creates loads of problems. Suppose that farmers had pervasive access to high-yielding, disease-resistant and resilient seeds and seedlings; suppose that when crops are harvested it takes twice the usual duration before the onset of decay; suppose that instead of expensive tractors [we opted for] devices that worked just as well but are less bulky and costly; suppose that, instead of human cartage in the remote agrarian clusters (what we like to call ‘rural areas’, though they now supply most of the food we eat in the cities) there were some cheap cartage mechanisms; suppose that imported machinery was replaced with domestic alternatives; suppose that imported materials were substituted with locally sourced materials everywhere applicable…just suppose.
One could keep on ‘supposing’ because the possibilities of simple innovations that will have huge productivity effects in agriculture are almost limitless. The question is ‘will anyone see them and seize them?’. There are pockets of progress here and there but the current rate of progress is too slow to drive structural change. Poverty reduction, economic growth and development have absolutely nothing to do with national ego or pride; it is more a matter of knowing what to do and doing it. If Nigeria had to choose only one application of STI, I would strongly recommend [she opts for] one that focuses on agriculture.
Dr. Abiodun Egbetokun is the assistant director of research at the science policy and innovation studies department, National Centre for Technology Management, Ile-Ife. He can be reached on email@example.com.