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Any nation that cannot feed itself has no business existing. It is said that a hungry man is an angry man so a nation filled with angry people is bound to be in crisis continually. Recently, the Emir of Kano, Alhaji Lamido Sanusi and Aare Onakakanfo of Yorubaland, Gani Adams, warned against hunger and poverty in the land, urging the Government to take urgent steps to address them. In this chat with Vanguard, Alhaji Babagana Zanna, former MD of Chad Basin Devt Authority, says Nigeria can be self-sufficient in food production if the adequate effort is made. He asks the government to immediately resuscitate the nation’s dams.

By Ebele Orakpo

Tell us about the wheat project in the Chad Basin that would have seen Nigeria exporting wheat today. What really happened?

I was the Managing Director of the Chad Basin Development Authority from 1988 to 1995. It was a Federal Government, FG, project. Wheat is a temperate cereal crop and the climate in the Chad Basin region is suitable for growing spring wheat. Since the 50s, before independence, small irrigation projects were established and what was being grown in a pilot scheme. As a result of the 1970s’ drought, the FG established the water basin development authorities to create irrigation projects that will enable farmers to produce crops of various types using irrigation, with water available in the Lake Chad. An area of about 67,000 hectares was identified and most of the irrigation facilities were constructed. Other crops were also being produced; for wheat, we had a very good harvest.

Wheat importation ban

The first harvest was in 1984 and drought set in again and by 1988, the lake had recovered and that year, the FG banned importation of wheat so there was a lot of encouragement for farmers to go into wheat production; they had the market and it was profitable as the millers were paying a good price. At that time, total production was about 50,000–60,000 tons nationwide and within two years, nationwide production had jumped to over 500,000 tons. If I could remember, installed capacity for millers was over 2.5m tons although they were not importing much wheat local production was coming up and millers were mixing wheat flour with cassava flour.

(Cuts in)..at that time? I thought the cassava bread thing was a recent development?

No, it was on when the ban was in place. It was another ingenuity to make up for the lack of pure wheat flour but unfortunately, there was a lot of external pressure on the country to lift the ban and by 1991/92, the ban was lifted and the farmers were no longer able to sell their products so they went back to other crops.

Good weather

All along the Sahel and Sudan-Savannah Belt, the weather is good, the land is there and what can only be grown in the dry season. It requires low temperature at night and in the day time, the temperature normally doesn’t go beyond 30-35oC maximum which is most conducive for spring wheat. It can’t be grown in other parts of Nigeria as it needs the harmattan cold to thrive. Wheat grows very well in that belt and because it is in the dry season; you have to use irrigation to raise the crop.

Dams underutilised Government over the years, has put up quite a number of dams but they are underutilised. If we put in place infrastructure for irrigation, we could start producing wheat and reducing the amount of wheat imported. As we keep building capacity internally, we’ll be reducing import. In that way, we will become self-sufficient. The advantage is obviously job creation; building internal capacity has a multiplier effect and the big advantage is that we don’t have to look for foreign exchange to import. Up till 1990, the exchange rate was something like N18 to $1. Today, it is N360!

In 1984, a bag of wheat was about N14; I don’t know how much a bag of flour is today but you get 1.5 to two bags of flour from a bag of wheat. Now, since we can’t afford the foreign exchange, we should utilise the money in other areas. We can produce wheat locally because in the long run, whether we like it or not, with our population growth and everything, we have to start producing these things locally and the facilities are there.

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Lake Chad needs govt intervention

There are few dams in Sokoto, many in Kano, Katsina, Hadejia-Jama’are River Basin Devt. Authority in Jigawa covers Kano and Jigawa states and the Chad Basin which has challenges. Government has to do something about Lake Chad.  Once you have those facilities, you can have a minimum of two cropping cycles or three. The wheat season is 120 days. Let’s say the harvest takes another one month, that is 150 days, so you could have about two cropping cycles for crops that are of less duration like 70-80 days.

Climate change: The Lake Chad area has very rich black cotton soil. We tried quite a number of varieties of crops and most of them did well. For example, we tried Irish potato in Baga, it did very well but the area is hot so we had to take it to the market immediately as storage/preservation was an issue. We also tried sunflower, barley, rice, sorghum and millet. It is a flat area and very vast. The irrigation scheme alone was 67,000 hectares and there is a lot of lands still to be developed so land is not the issue.

When the project was ongoing, water was not the problem either. It is climate change that has thrown up this challenge of water but something can be done about it.

 Congo River to Lake Chad

It’s all part of the climate change, the water level is very low and government presently is making a lot of efforts with neighbouring countries to see what can be done – to transfer water from the Congo River to  Lake Chad. It is quite feasible but it will require a lot of resources and political understanding because the transfer canal will go through a number of countries so they have to have that agreement and understanding.

We will transfer less than one per cent of water from the Congo River into Lake Chad and once it picks up, we stop. It is not a continuous thing unless of course, the activities within the lake become so much that we may need a transfer of water on a continuous basis. The advantage of getting that lake working is for the fishery. Lake Chad has freshwater fish.

Other crops

We tried sunflower. We got the seeds from Egypt and the yield was much better than what they were getting in Egypt.

So what stopped you from producing sunflower?

At the time we tried it, milling was a problem because we had to take it to Makurdi for milling to get the oil which was of high quality but the logistics of moving from Maiduguri to Makurdi was not economically viable.

Was it not cheaper than importing it?

Yes, but it’s better to have the mill at the point of production. I believe the sunflower can grow in the northern states and it doesn’t require much water as wheat or rice. Then we have to look for good seeds because a lot of seeds that we used then were not the best but I knew a lot of research was taking place in Zaria and the Lake Chad for improved spring wheat seeds to get much higher yields and better grains. In Egypt, they were getting over six tons per hectare ie three times for every hectare what we were producing here so that is also possible through proper agronomy practices.

Way forward Mechanise

For agriculture to expand, we need to mechanise. The subsistence and manual method would not do. We also need to start looking at manufacturing some of the agricultural tools locally. If you manufacture them here, you will be able to maintain them easily.

I don’t think it’s a good idea to just import these things because sooner or later, they will require maintenance or repairs. Fortunately, something is being done in the area of fertiliser because the petrochemical industry is trying to come up with the production of fertiliser in increased quantity and hopefully, the government will intervene somehow.

Govt. intervention

Certainly, we don’t have much of a choice because with the population now put at almost 200 million and projected to be 300m-400m by 2050, I don’t think oil and other things that we have can pay for food when we can produce. If we are producing, we are also creating jobs. We can manufacture many of the equipment ourselves, they don’t have to be sophisticated. Since we have the population, the simpler equipment are okay and whatever we produce, we have the population to consume internally so it’s not like we have to compete with people in the international market.

Encourage farmers Everybody is saying don’t subsidize but we really need to encourage farmers (I’m not saying give them money.) There’s no place where farmers are not encouraged to produce, so you have to look at areas of intervention that are not susceptible to a lot of abuse either through pilferage or hoarding or whatever. We were in Egypt when they were trying to increase wheat production from two to four million tons; they had to look at some areas of intervention and that element of assistance to farmers (I don’t want to use the word, subsidy because everyone is running away from it,) but the farmers are really too poor to be expected to come in, in a big way within a very short time without assistance; it is unrealistic, you have to find the most effective way to assist them.

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Put the dams to use

For all these crops, particularly in the northern part where it is dry, I’m not saying build new dams but put into use all the dams that are there for irrigation. There is a lot to be done and we have to make that effort. I believe there are enough Nigerian engineers and experts today so use them instead of using expatriates. Give them that opportunity to go and work on those dams. If we can do 200-300 hectares every year in all those places, within a short time, you start talking about thousands and you build up.

What is happening to Nigeria?

Nothing! Agriculture is a long-term plan. It takes time. When

we talk about irrigation, you need to put the infrastructure in place like the dams, canals and meanwhile, you train the personnel and you continue expanding. As I said, some pilot schemes were started, they shouldn’t have been abandoned, they should have built on that and grow. By now, we would have reached a substantial acreage and production level. But because a lot of these things were left and became dormant, it will require some efforts to resuscitate. It is never late. If the will is there, you strategise; look at the rice thing, they are making some progress. You can look at other important crops also; give it a lot of attention.  You know that rice production improved because the farmers were also given another incentive, it just didn’t happen; so you need to do that for other crops.

Then as I said, the first way forward for me is that those dams should be put to good use. I read in the papers that there is a water shortage in quite a number of states; one or two of those states do not have dams but we could build water treatment plants. We have not reached a situation where you could recycle water but treat the one you have stored. It’s not like those places are in the desert, and there are available sources of water. We have to pay attention to it and sustain the attention even though it seems like it is not a big issue now.