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 itself is generally about biotechnology and specifically genetically modified (GM) crops, Juma implicitly struck on a point that resonates with me: value-added agriculture is crucial to overcoming poverty in Africa. In fact, I do not see how the SDG goals of no poverty, zero hunger as well as good health and well-being by 2030 can be achieved without a proper focus on value-added agriculture in Africa.
According to the World Bank, 1.136 billion people (that is 14 percent 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.
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 at least. 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 on the basis of the sheer amount of money it makes or spends but by the welfare of its people. The most basic indicator of this fact is GDP per capita – that is, economic output per person. Research suggests that higher GDP per capita is associated with an 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 the162nd position. Between 2018 and 2020, Nigeria’s GDP per capita barely increased from $2,028 to $2,097.
As far as I can tell, most of the indices of poverty that are currently used, including the ones I just 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 prioritize is not. Thus, if Nigeria would prioritize her STI efforts appropriately, agriculture must not be far from the top of the list – in fact, I think it should be at the top. Like my people would say, when hunger is no longer a concern, the problem of poverty is virtually solved.
Why do I think agriculture is 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 percent of all Nigerian households are engaged in subsistence agriculture. Over 40 percent are also said to own or raise livestock. Two, agricultural activities account for very large shares of national employment and GDP. Data from the International Labour Organisation shows that over a third of all workers in Nigeria was in agriculture in 2013. In 2020, agriculture contributed 24 percent of the country’s GDP, almost as much as industry. Three, 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 it exported.
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.
Strictly speaking of agriculture, one can think of very many things that can be done. Let us abstract for now from the problems of physical infrastructure and agricultural financing that create loads of problems. Supposing that farmers had pervasive access to high-yielding, disease-resistant and resilient seeds and seedlings; supposing that when crops are harvested they are such that it takes twice the usual duration before the onset of decay; supposing that instead of expensive tractors there were some devices that worked just as well but much less bulky and costly; supposing 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; supposing that imported machinery was replaced with domestic alternatives; supposing that imported materials were substituted with locally sourced materials everywhere applicable…
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 whether anyone will 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’s more a matter of knowing what to do and actually doing it. If Nigeria had to choose only one application of STI, I would strongly recommend one that focuses on agriculture.
Egbetokun is of Science Policy and Innovation Studies National Centre for Technology Management, Ile-Ife.