Saturday, 13 April 2013

Utomi: Agriculture and the boundaries of poverty

Friday, 15 March 2013 00:00 By Pat Utomi Opinion - Columnists HOW people notice shifting emphasis so subtle that even you who is the object have not been as deliberate about it, puzzles me. When a friend recently asked how come agriculture was my new thing, I paused to wonder how true that was. Then it dawned on me I was speaking more and more about poverty and agriculture as critical to its alleviation. But my response to the friend was that I had always been passionate about agriculture and was actually on my third missionary journey into farming and agro-allied business. If I was not emotionally connected to the land when I first farmed plots allocated by the Benin Owena River Basin Authority in 1983 along the Ogwashi Uku – Kwale road, I should be now. Middle age suggests the earth will sooner consume my mortal remains in higher probability than when as 27 years old I was just driven by a sense of opportunity in agricultural enterprise, and finding anchor to my country cousins. Today though, the urgency is much higher. Poverty gnores at us and the conscience of the still sane in our land is troubled by the unequal society we have created and the ticking time bomb, so those who still think, ponder where the solution can come from as they cast envious glances at Brazil that dramatically reduced poverty during the Inacio Lula DaSilva years. For some of us, a big part of redemption possibilities come from agriculture not only for enhanced incomes to a broad base of the population but for food security and for feeding value chains where Nigeria has factor endowments and must become globally competitive to and claimed the promise of a leading economy on the planet. I am a cheerleader for the Agriculture Minister, Akinwunmi Adeshina. This is not just because he is smart but because of his understanding of his mission, what status may surface here and there in mastering the context so implementation can be seamless. I felt this way from the time of his appointment but I grew in appreciating him when by happenstance we sat next to each other on a flight from Abuja to Lagos. I told him how agriculture must become business and have sex appeal so a new generation that aspires to a high quality of life can see in it much attraction. As I told him my farming story and initiatives I was working on to help farmers overcome the middlemen that keep them poor and therefore see incentives to grow more, and to bolster the value chain, I could see his eyes pop up like a Christmas tree, I knew for certain then he was the man for the job. What has challenged my missionary journeys into agriculture. It is an insight into the Nigerian condition and led me to horrifying conclusion that will shake Thomas Hobbes in his grave about the Leviathan and man’s escape from the brutish state of nature.The reason Nigerians are poor is without doubt in my mind the nature of the governments and politics of Nigeria. My farming Odyssey is a good illustration of this. America’s rise as an economic power was profoundly affected by 18th century Act of congress that ceded to anybody who could cultivate certain acreage of land. Hernado De Soto in his discussion of the mystery of capital and institutions that sustain intermediation follows many others who anchor the American ascendancy on law that, this is why as you fly across that vast country all you see is cultivated land. The land grant university system that would follow and hire purchase of farm equipment innovation by John Dare round up to the rise that equally endowed Argentina failed to capture. The lack of imagination here is that those who desire to farm lack access to it and so all you see is bush, vast stretches of uncultivated rich lands in country of people strangely malnourished. As the UNICEF deputy country representative said at a recent forum, when the statistics of malnourishment in Nigeria presented to the Governors Forum, Chibuike Amaechi, its chairman, exclaimed, in this Nigeria? This clear show of the disconnect between policy makers and reality is at the heart of why government is sadly the trouble with Nigeria. My first missionary journey into farming, which I said started in 1983, was abandoned when I discovered one danger of the absentee farmer. On a visit my partner found that the farm lands for whom we had built lodging rooms inside the farm had covered one corner of the 70 hectares into a private venture of their own, growing Marijuana. We quickly shut down the farm. It would take nearly 20 years for a trusted childhood friend who had been manager of several big farms to be free and fully available to be on ground, to try again. With 12 hectares from the 1983 location we started out, seeking government help to acquire more. When Delta State Government wanted to showcase its gains in agriculture it was to that farm they brought a film crew. But the bureaucracy continued to play games with our desire for more land to expand. If with none to zero financial capital and other goodwill we could have the showcase farm why would the needful not be done? The ways of governance in Nigeria challenge belief. Then suddenly the land we had been assured of just across from us was allocated to Obasanjo Farms. Obasanjo Farms has utilized less than a quarter of the land, yet those who want to farm cannot find land. The intervention of the governor has resulted in new efforts to make things right but this is classic example of how well intentioned efforts get aborted with consequences for spreading poverty and for the common good, that is untoward. Had I no access to the governor’s goodwill it would never even appear on the radar as one more thing that stalled possibilities. It was almost the same thing that mortally frustrated another initiative, 12 years earlier for a valley type ICT cluster near Asaba, on the outskirts of Illah. In that case people using the cloak of government deliberately set out to frustrate a private sector initiative that could have placed the state in technology leadership in this region of the world. What makes it more scary is that the purpose of our venture is more the hope of example to the local farmers as an out-grower hub than the chase of great profit, even though there is nothing wrong with profit. A personal truth, for which gratitude to the giver of the gift of reason is worthwhile, is that I am already as rich as I possibly can be. Simple minded as it may sound, a decent roof over my head, three meals a day if I desire, but usually two seem enough, and the ability to pay fees for children into whatever school in the world they choose, if they qualify, is the ultimate in wealth and seems to have been within my reach for many years already. So I could not figure out the nature of how governments work in Nigeria. When it fails to incentivize those who can be the source of future taxes and reducing unemployment for the citizens. The farm project was part of a vertically integrated initiative to create a market system that would put profits in pockets of farmers rather than middlemen that add little value. In that initiative we would have fruit and vegetable wholesale markets and retail supermarkets. Working with South African franchisors we approached Lagos and Ogun State governments for land. Ogun came through, bank facilities and equity was raised, and construction started. Then a new governor was elected in Ogun State a watch hunt of which we were not the target ensued. Frustrated investors, facilities in excesses of a hundred million tied up later and we are still wondering why the people are poor. And often it is one civil servant with ulterior motives, driven by the now widely acknowledged disposition to goal displacement who deceives the new governor and lead him to personal embarrassment. But we must not give up because the graveyard and judgment beckon us all. Agriculture has to become attractive business. When one of the big consulting firms invited me to address select officers of the Ministry of Agriculture last year and my staff wondered if they should discount on my speaking fee and how I chuckled. I was going to do something that was duty and joyful play and I would earn more value for it in a way more than some hamlets of subsistence farmers could make in a year. If we all cannot work to raise such income levels of those peasant farmers we have a case to answer. How can progress come when the typical farmer still lives as in Jawney’s metaphor, which opened Scott’s Moral Economy of the Peasant: so deep in water even a ripple could drown him. My commitment to agriculture and its redeeming value even sipped into my academic work at the Lagos Business School. Not long before unhappiness with how political life was crippling Nigeria and my decision to seek engagement in partisan politics, I founded the Centre for Applied Economics at the Lagos Business School. Its core purpose was to focus on value chain analysis with a view to engaging in research to generate evidence showing how building from select factor endowments into global value chains could boost Nigeria’s economic performance. Four of the five factor endowments the centre’s research has to focus on were from agriculture. These were sesame seeds, Gum Arabic, oil palm and my favorite, rubber. My view was Nigeria would create millions of jobs and earn more income from these than crude oil on enclave sector. The fifth was the hydrocarbons value chain for obvious reasons to answer. Well. Guess I will just continue to dig my grave. Six feet may seem shallow but it is a long way to sink when life’s journey is through stone hard poverty territory. Nigeria, unfortunately, and undeservedly, is hard rock territory in quality of life matters. The shame is that government and politics make the rock harder. Surely it should be instructive that the private sector arm of the World Bank, the International Finance Corporation (IFC) will not touch any project that has government interest. Amazing paradox is that what was designed to relieve the pain of the citizen has become a greater source of grief for him. • Prof. Utomi, Political Economist and pioneering professor of Entrepreneurship is founder of the Centre for Values in Leadership.

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