“For somebody who has lost all that he laboured for, he will have to start afresh”

Dr. Oluwasina Olabanji is the Director of the Borno State-based federal body Lake Chad Research Institute (LCRI), which is in charge of managing agriculture in Nigeria’s conflict-affected northeastern zone. He has lived in Borno State since 1988 when he started working at the LCRI and has been working with farmers in the region ever since. He speaks to TAP about how violence in the northeast has affected food prices in Nigeria, how farmers in conflict-affected states have fared over the last 6 years, opportunities for agricultural development in the northeast, and what he believes the federal and the region’s state governments must do to get the region’s farmers resettled and the region’s agriculture-based economy working again. 

Thank you for agreeing to speak with TAP. Your name and title, Sir.

I am Dr. Oluwasina Olabanji, the Executive Director of Lake Chad Research Institute. I joined the Institute on 1st December, 1988. The institute has a national mandate for the genetic improvement of wheat, millet and barley, and is responsible for the total farming system of the [northeast] zone.

How long have you been living in Maiduguri?

I have been there for 26 years.

So you have had a lot of contact with the farmers over the course of that time. Can you give a brief outlay of the trends in agricultural output in the northeastern zone over the last 10 years? Peak years, output, etc.

The zone is largely agrarian, with men, women, and youth all involved in agriculture. The popularly grown cereal crops in the zone are millet, sorghum, maize, wheat. For legumes, we have groundnuts, bambara groundnuts, beans, soyabeans, and a host of others. For other crops like cassava, they’re largely restricted to certain areas. Cassava does well in some parts of southern Borno, Taraba, and Kaduna.

I also understand that aquaculture is part of the output.

Yes, as we are aware of the Lake Chad is a body of water which more than 20 million farmers live on in the Nigeria part of Lake Chad. Cereal crops and leguminous crops also thrive on the Lake Chad shore. The farmers along the shore grow their crops under residual moisture, because the soil is always moist because of their edaphic nature. Even during the dry season, the underground water is able to support the growth and development of the crops. The soil has the ability to retain water for a long time.

Can you give an estimated naira amount was made from agriculture in this region in peacetime, and how much change there has been over the past 5 years?

Our farmers in the northeast, particularly the enterprising ones, made a lot of money from agriculture. Particularly in the production of wheat, maize, rice, and cowpea. The trend in terms of income, though, we can’t quite quantify…

An estimate is fine.

OK, to trace impact on food prices, let’s take a particular crop. In the past 5 years, a bag of beans 5-7,000 per 100kg. But today, that only buys a 50kg. It’s constlier now. The same thing with onions, which are major crops in the north. Their onion also very unique; the onions from Monguno, you can store them for 6 months without getting spoilt.  Previously, four years ago, a bag was 4 to 600 naira, but today that 100kg bag is between 7 to 8,000 Naira. By December, that bag of onions can go for as high as 17,000 naira. Two years ago, it was  23,000 naira in the south. So you can see that the farmers in the northeast they have potential if all the necessary equipment and input are made available to ease their production.

The cost over the last few years has it been impacted largely by the violence.

The crisis started about six years ago, and it has affected agricultural practices in the zone. In fact, I pity the farmers from Borno, Yobe, and Gombe. Those are areas where the violence has seen the biggest impact.

Can you talk about the ways in which the farmers have been affected by the violence?

I am the team leader of the wheat value chain, and we thank God that when the value chain was established in 2012 we encouraged most of our vegetable farmers to go into wheat production. We supported them with inputs such as free seeds and fertilisers at 50% subsidy. In 2012 to 2013, the farmers were very happy. One farmer produced 200 bags of wheat, and we bought a bag for 13,000 naira per bag. He made more than two million, but today those farmers have been displaced. They’re all in Maiduguri now. They can’t farm. For any farmer to go to the land to cultivate is not possible, because of fear of the unknown.

The Institute had adopted villages to enhance extended service delivery, but we could not go to these places for fear of violence. [The farmers] are now in Maiduguri with no work. In fact, my Institute made some contribution [of food aid] to the IDPs for them to eat. There’s no means of livelihood. It’s a very pathetic situation.

I think it’s interesting that even while there was violence they still management to farm. When did it become unbearable for the farmers?

When the violence started, we did not take it seriously. I’m sorry to say this, but government itself was insensitive to the issue, because we thought it was just going come and go like Maitasine, but this one refused to go. Things continued to escalate. This displacement of farmers from their places of abode started just three years ago. Boko Haram was initially in the cities. It was when government began confronting Boko Haram that they migrated into the villages and took over, killing people and converting the young men into militants.

Let’s talk about land availability. This is of particular interest because majority of IDPs are women and children. How easy is it for women to be landowners?

It has never been easy for women to own land because of cultural and religious reasons, as well as capital investment. Women are weaker vessels, they’re not as strong financially as men, so the proposition of women that own land is not as much as men. But the promotion of agriculture in the zone by the state governors, women were advised to form women groups and associations.

Did they?

They did. In fact, I met with some last week who work in Shea Butter Farmers Association and Wheat Association. Women are now giving an opportunity to gain land. From 10% previously to 25 to 30% of farming women in the region have land. It may not be individuals, but their associations have land.

As I’m sure a lot of land programs are on hold because of the situation on the ground, where does federal and state government need to come in? This will be important as peace comes to these places. Also what do you foresee, because there could be people who will find themselves dispossessed. What do you think are things that need to happen?

I want to first appreciate the efforts of the state governors of Yobe, Borno, Adamawa, and Gombe for accommodating these displaced people who have catered for their needs, and Nigerians who assisted with food aid. I also want to thank the Federal Government, but we cannot stop here. These people must return to their places of abode. Their houses need to be rehabilitated. Their villages need to be rehabilitated. If you go there, you will see how [Boko Haram] has devastated our infrastructure. Even the lighting system. There was a time when for three months there was no light in the whole of Borno State. They just fixed it.

Boko Haram did not carry land. The land is there, and it is fertile, but for somebody who has lost all that he laboured for, he will have to start afresh. So government must come to their assistance with provision of input to start their farms again. The government of Borno State has approached my institute they want us to assist in providing seeds of millet, sorghum, most of their cereal crops to distribute to displaced people when they go back. We’re going to enter a partnership agreement with the state government and we want others to do same.

For Federal Government, we want the Federal Government to rebuild their infrastructure, and support the state government in rebuilding houses, the road networks have been destroyed; they’ve been abandoned for the past 3 or so years. The lighting systems, too. So these are the areas I feel that government can target and make people be part of the country.

Are you aware of any other state initiatives to revitalize agriculture in the state?

Like I said, my institute has the mandate to coordinate the farming system in the northeast. We’ve been getting support from the state governors. Every month we have monthly technology review meetings. These are fora where researchers, extentionists and farmers interact on new technologies that have been developed to improve productivity. We use these fora to bring in program managers from the (inaudible) so whatever we are doing, we are getting feedback from the state governments. What we suggest now, is that Adamawa, Taraba, and Kebbi take advantage of the Lake Chad Research Institute established in the region, and the only research institute in the region, to take agriculture forward.

Like I said before, for wheat, the yield per hectare before our intervention recently was 1.5 tons/hectare, but today an average farmer gets between 4 to 5 tons per hectare with this three-year intervention. I personally developed a maize variety that can develop in 65 days. We need fast developing varieties because of climate change. These are the kinds of things we want the state governors to collaborate on. Let every state identify crops they have comparative advantage in cultivating and move forward.

Thank you, Sir. Anything else you want to add?

One more thing I will like to add is to plead with the new government of President Muhammadu Buhari to sustain the agricultural transformation agenda. It will help in no small measure to make Nigeria self-sufficient and food secure. I also want to use this opportunity to thank our former Federal Minister of Agriculture Dr. Akin Adesina. I will never forget him for the support my institute got during his tenure. He is now the President-Elect of the African Development Bank, and I will like the Nigerian government to support him so that he, too, can continue to support Nigeria’s agricultural system.

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