IITA’s deputy DG believe agriculture will be key in solving unemployment in Nigeria

Marco Buti

Deputy Director-General in charge of Partnerships for Delivery at the International Institute for Tropical Agriculture, Ibadan, Oyo State, Dr Kenton Dashiell, told Tunde Ajaja the potential farming has for the Nigerian economy

There is an increasing discourse about young people going into farming, and the IITA also has an initiative for that purpose, what informed your interest from the outset?

In 2012, a set of youth corps members here at IITA were due to pass out and our Director-General, Dr Nteranya Sanginga, invited them all to have a brief meeting with him in his office. There were about 75 of them. He appreciated the good work they had done in IITA but out of curiosity he asked what their plans for the future were. He asked how many of them had good jobs they were going back to and only one person raised a hand. He asked how many of them were going to further their education? Only one person as well.

So, he asked what others would be up to and they enumerated how difficult it could be to get a job or raise money for graduate school. So, he told them there were benefits in agriculture and it’s possible for them to work in agric. He said anyone interested should come the following Monday at 8:00am. About 50 of them showed up and decided to buy into the idea. They agreed they could make money from agric; farming, aquaculture, fish farming, post-harvest, among others. That was how the IITA Youth Agripreneur started.

Seven years later, it has grown into one of the biggest programmes we have here at IITA and it is now in many countries in Africa. We continue to expand. But the best news is that it’s not only IITA that is doing this; there are thousands of organisations across Africa that have realised that agriculture is a positive way to go for job creation, income generation and sustainable livelihoods. We really thank God for the visionary leadership of our DG.

How many beneficiaries have you had between 2012 and now?

There are different kinds of beneficiaries. The ones that are the biggest numbers, which I’m sure are in the millions are those who have been inspired and who never dreamt about agriculture but are now making money from it and contributing to food supply. They went to school and were ready for government job or others but couldn’t get those jobs and heard about agripreneur, which sparked the interest to take action on it.

Another type of beneficiaries are those that have actually gone through the programme, they have learnt the skills of the business and the technical aspects and have made a decision to start a business. So, overall, the beneficiaries would be somewhere between 150 and one million.

Years ago, people used to see farming as a job for the poor, when you started the initiative, was there an initial reluctance of youths getting into agriculture?

I would say that was the number one hurdle; and what the Director-General did and what other groups now do is to expose the youths to successful enterprises.

Telecom companies, banks, oil companies and the like are successful but young people weren’t exposed to successful fertiliser companies, seed companies, mechanised farms, food processing companies, ICT companies providing services to farmers. But, all of these different areas are fast-moving profitable businesses that you can start and manage. Some may not be farmers but they are there to provide ancillary services.

If we have an initiative like this replicated across the regions, is it safe to say farming could reduce unemployment in Nigeria?

I’m 100 per cent convinced that it’s going to happen for sure. What I’m not sure about is how fast it will happen. People are working day and night to make this move fast and the truth is it must be fast; it cannot be slowed down because if it is, youths would look for other ways to survive and unfortunately it might lead them to the wrong path.

So, it’s a top priority for Africa and Nigeria. The society as a whole, including government knows it; it’s not a secret. As long as we can all join hands together, we will all be successful.

Do you have plans to replicate the kind of premises you have in Ibadan in other states?

This centre was established in 1967 by the Ford and Rockefeller Foundations, both in the United States. We thank God they had this vision about 52 years ago that agriculture would be very important and set up a centre of excellence in Ibadan, Nigeria.

However, I think it would be difficult to establish this in many places; the capital expenditure is a lot. But there needs to be centres in every state in Nigeria for agriculture and youth.

Would you know what made Ibadan the right choice?

The main reason was because they wanted it to be next to the University of Ibadan. That was the key reason.

The thousands of hectares that we have was donated to the IITA by the Federal Government and the government has really been supporting us all these years, along with many other donors.

What are the challenges you have had to contend with in your operations?

We are an institute that is funded through projects and what I mean by that is that there are many organisations in the world like United States Agency for International Development that call for proposals, maybe on agriculture and they welcome people to send in their proposals and they would give parameters.

So, IITA would write proposals and many other organisations would also propose. So, we do that and we write over 200 proposals a year. We win a lot of them and also lose a lot. It is those proposals that we win that gives us money to do the work and maintain our facilities.

You do all kinds of things like running fish ponds, research and actual farming, and so one would expect that you would generate reasonable income from selling your products and services, does that complement your income?

Right now, I would say we are close to breaking even on those enterprises. We don’t consider those a major priority in terms of getting income. It’s more of providing realistic opportunities for youths to learn. So that when they come, they learn on a large scale.

For example, we have 16 big fish ponds. So, learning here is not just like playing a small game. It’s realistic and we are close to breaking even but we also don’t want to drain IITA’s resources.

The institute won the Africa Food Prize in 2018, which comes with huge responsibility and $100,000 prize; to what extent would that encourage you to do more?

The cash that came with the award, our DG decided that a significant part of that would be used to start a programme he had labelled STEP, meaning Start Them Early Programme. It’s very exciting and we have four youths that are leading that and they are starting it in Nigeria and the Democratic Republic of Congo. It’s very exciting.

What we learnt since 2012 when we started working with youths is that one of the key things that make them to be against agriculture was the experience in primary and secondary schools; the perception and that is why we want to engage those pupils at that early stage.

Before, the only people that went to the farm were those that were being punished and we want to change that whole mindset. We want working on the farm to be a big honour. But working on the farm should not mean sweating your heart, working hard, looking dirty and getting almost nothing. Farming is moving completely away from that high physical labour and small returns to using your brain to grow crops. Mechanisation and high yields have to be there. That is the plan for the STEM.

Apart from the young people that are being introduced to farming by IITA, how do you intend to bring the old farming population up to speed?

We are doing that right now. Remember I said we write proposals and win some while we don’t win others.

Many of these proposals have to do with working directly with farmer groups, farmer organisations and the private sector and we are recording many successes in these programmes. In fact, one of the most successful programmes that we have right now is the one that works with the farmers. The person in charge of that programme is using a tool with which he can reach tens and hundreds of thousands of farmers with this new technology.

For example, what used to take hundreds of hours to weed cassava by women and children now take zero hours, which is weed science. That is just one example and we have so many.

When a farmer combines that with the best cassava variety and with the right fertiliser, you get a yield of 20 to 25 tonnes instead of eight to nine tonnes. When you take that harvest and use modern technology to process it into garri (cassava flakes), you get an efficient production. By the time you put these together, communities could move from being poor to middle income and be respectable communities. That’s our vision and we are seeing that happen.

We want to multiply the impact very well, to make Nigeria to be self-sufficient in food production, integrate more people into farming and make Nigeria a leading exporter of food crops. It’s all three; maybe step by step. IITA is a small part of that, but the real drivers of this are the government at the three levels.

So, things are moving, and IITA likes to be a catalyst and be in some areas leading the way, but we are not the ones to do it, we will do everything in our power to support that movement but really, it’s the private industries and the government that would really move things forward.

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