Food security is simply a measure of availability and access to food; to be food secure; food must not just be available, it has to be affordable in ways that the populace can be able to purchase it. Nigeria pre-COVID-19 was net food insecure with the numbers of hungry Nigerians on the increase.Several factors have contributed to that; low productivity, post-harvest losses, herdsmen farmer crises, and insecurity.The big question on everyone’s lips is whether the COVID-19 pandemic would have any significant impact on food production, and the answer is yes.
First, there is precedent. Historically, pandemics have had immense impacts in not just Nigeria, but across Sub-Saharan Africa. The most recent pandemic in our history was the Ebola outbreak. Ebola had a huge impact on the economies of some African countries’ agricultural production, marketing, and trade. On the production side, due to road blockages, farmers had limited access to inputs such as seeds, fertilizers, and insecticides. And many of the regions faced acute labor shortages. All this resulted in more than 40 percent of the agricultural land not being cultivated. As for marketing, farmers could not transport fresh produce to local and urban markets. In addition, day meal programs in schools were disrupted because food aid could not be delivered to the schools. And trade was disrupted as international shipping services were either delayed or canceled because crew members of cargo vessels refused to travel to those countries for fear of being infected.
As I mentioned, food security has a lot to do with the availability of food. Permit me to zero in on Nigeria. As it stands today, Nigeria is a net importer of foods, especially, processed food. Data from the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) and Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) showed that we imported food at an average of N1.92 trillion per year and N1 billion every day from 1990 to 2011. Nigeria imported US$47.4 billion worth of goods from around the globe in 2019, up by 40% since 2015 and up by 29.9% from 2018 to 2019. Of these imports, 49.6% were from Asia, 30% were from Europe, 11.2% were from North America, 6.5% from fellow African countries, 2.3% from Latin America and 0.3% from New Zealand and Australia. Unfortunately, these countries have now closed their borders and banned food exports. Under normal circumstances, that would have been great news; we could finally begin to look inwards and work towards achieving food sovereignty. Except that the outbreak of the pandemic is nothing like normal.
So, if we cannot import as much food as we require, we then have to ramp up food production, not so? That should be it, unfortunately, a look at the agricultural value chains shows us some major challenges that we must address if we would not experience extreme food shortages. I believe that a value chain approach to understanding food security challenges is the best path, as such, I am looking at contributors like inputs, mobility, finance, markets, and labor; the situation and the potential impacts on food security. But first, let’s take a look at the Inputs sector.
The cost of inputs has shot up by 11-24% depending on the inputs. Why? Because most herbicides used in Nigeria are imported, so baring existing stocks, it’s going to be really challenging if we don’t find a way to quickly scramble local production. Also, some fertilizer companies are only doing skeletal productions. All these points to a potential scarcity of inputs. Basic laws of demand and supply suggest that whenever demand exceeds supply, there will be price hikes. That is exactly what is going on. This leads me to the next thematic challenge of finance.
Now, under normal circumstances, most farmers can hardly pay for inputs, now add the compounding effect of increasing prices. The several intervention programs like Anchor Borrowers have not been as effective so far with the beneficiaries often questioned, and while the NIRSAL MFB could have been helpful, there are lots of restrictions that limit how fast farmers can access those facilities. But that is hardly all the challenge there is. As of today, over 70% of our production is done by smallholder farmers, the majority of whom don’t use mechanization. They rely on labor, some local, others from neighboring countries; most of them have returned home. That is a huge challenge to production. Finally, there is a very crucial challenge of access to markets.
Nigeria Living Standards Measurement Survey data, collected between 2011 and 2016, showed that we spend over 60% of our income on food. Even before COVID-19, our economy was already in trouble. 65% of our revenues went into debt servicing even amidst rapidly dwindling revenues with a 50% Year on Year decline since January 2020. This is no surprise given that the price of crude oil, which has been the mainstay of our revenue has been in a free fall and stands currently at $20 p/b. From the looks of things, there might not be any changes to that overnight. These have very wide-ranging implications. First, monthly allocations to the states will massively decline, meaning that the states would not be able to meet their obligations. In addition, with COVID-19, some companies have either closed down, downsized or even placed staff on reduced salaries. The overall implication of these means that there is a huge reduction in buying power, meaning that even if food is available, people can’t afford it. Viola, there goes food security!
The result released by The UN FAO in Nigeria in the presentation of the Cadre Harmonise analysis for March 2020 in Abuja already indicates that 4 million people from 16 states and FCT will be food and nutrition insecure between March-May 2020. As usual, the usual suspects-insecurity -insurgency, kidnapping, banditry, conflicts between herders and farmers were listed as the key drivers. With this in view, we would find ourselves in a very difficult situation if we do nothing to salvage the already bad situation. Now is the time to declare a food emergency in Nigeria.
Palliative measures including social security safety nets must be implemented. But in addition, the different ecosystem stakeholders should be engaged and government interventions streamlined and thoroughly aligned to the situation. As we try to set emergency centers for COVID-19, let’s work together with stakeholders in the agricultural sector to scramble together a means to produce inputs affordably while placing farmers into effective clusters that allows them to access mechanization, finance and markets easily. And this must be done yesterday. We have lost a lot of time already, but we can still find our redemption if we act decisively now. As the saying goes, the best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now.