Nigeria’s Millennials Soil Their Hands On Farmlands

he small room that serves as the conference hall of Strategem Energy Hub, an emerging energy management company that focuses on clean and renewable energy, is full of young and radiant-looking young men and women. It is the type of gathering that would have been appropriate for tech enthusiasts or social media influencers—trendy and elitist. 

Those in this gathering are farmers. With their stylish hairs and fashionable clothes, no one would think they came here to deliberate on how to grow their various farm businesses.  This sort of gathering is uncommon, particularly in Nigeria, where farmers have the reputation of being old, tattered and poor—descriptions that millennials are unwilling to be linked to.

Indeed, Nigerian farmers are old, with their average age pegged at 65, according to a research by the Federal University of Technology.  

That age would increase significantly by 2030 except Nigeria’s teeming youth population is encouraged to go into farming. Every year, thousands of Agricultural Science students graduate from higher institutions, but only a negligible number end up in the sector.

The average age of Nigeria’s total population is 17. 9, 43% of this hugely young population are either unemployed or underemployed and has remained so despite opportunities in agriculture.

“We were over 100 in my class, I can hardly count 10 of us who practice agric in any form,” Olawale Odu, a young agric-entrepreneur, says.  

No one is shocked by this revelation. Odu’s revelation is a common knowledge in the gathering.

According to a 2018 data from the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) on labour force, out of the 20.9 million unemployed Nigerian in the third-quarters of 2018, 8.8 million of them were young Nigerians who became eligible to work but could not find any job.There are numerous opportunities in agriculture but many young people, even those unemployed, are unwilling to become farmers. Experts say this problem has dire consequences for Nigeria and its growing population of over 180 million.

The hope for food security and sustenance become even dimmer with a farming system that is largely subsistent. At least 70% of Nigeria’s farming population is subsistent. A global report on food crises by the United Nations says Nigeria experienced its worst food crisis in 2018. Many Nigerian farmers are unable to meet the feeding demands in the country. 

How then does Nigeria grow its ageing and archaic agricultural sector?

In this room, there seems to be hope. Welcome to the world of Nigerian millennials –youngsters born between 1980 and 2000, who are revolutionizing agricultural practices through peer-engagement, innovation and technology.
 
Youth Engagement in achieving internal food security

Twenty-seven-year-old Tolulope Aina, founder of Youth Advocate Nigeria and Chief Executive Officer of Tolulope Foods and Farms, is on a mission to change the mindset of young Nigerians and help them grow a profitable agric business.

“If young people are left out of agric business, what would be the future of agriculture?” wonders Tolulope.

Tolulope’s question is not the only concern as more youths shun farming. Access to land has been a  perennial problem too. It is expensive to acquire land and when the funds are available, the lands are not readily available as the demand for shelter is on the rise. 

To make the matter worse, when the lands are available, young farmers cannot afford them. Tolulope is addressing this problem, though on a micro-scale, using a leased 100 hectare of land, located in Abeokuta, the Ogun State capital.

 “I have a cluster at Ogun State where we bring together young people to grow and cultivate crops,” Aina discloses.

The land is a large cashew plantation owned by Ogun State government. Between January and April, cashew is planted on it.

Tolulope and her group of young farmers use the same space to grow different food crops once the cashew is harvested. In June, when the farmland was visited, cassava, vegetable and melon were planted on it, while other sections were cleared to accommodate maize. 

Through this initiative, Tolulope not only provides a space for enthusiastic, educated young people to engage in profitable agribusiness, she also mentors and attracts rural youths who have abandoned farming for menial jobs in cities strewn across Nigeria.

Many rural youths, raised on farms, are leaving to seek jobs considered less laborious. In addition, rural-urban migration has taken its toll on farming, thereby making agile human resources for farming unavailable.

Tolulope, who spends most of her time on the farm, says the cluster is a way to reignite the passion of rural youths in farming. The mechanized process is a way to disabuse their mind from the thinking that farming requires intensive labour.

She notes, “The rural youth do not have the capacity to go into packaging but it is a system that accommodates everyone. The rural youth, instead of looking for ways to migrate to the cities, ride motorcycles and become nuisance to the street.  If they are engaged in production, they can live within the rural areaand earn decent living.”

The bigger picture, Tolulope reveals, is to firmly integrate all aspects of agriculture so that the cluster can be all-inclusive and beneficial to everyone across the agricultural chain. “The future is integrating all of these,” she says. “Doing production, adding value, having out-growers and engaging young people in various aspect of agriculture are important.”
 
Innovation in meeting export demands

There is still a huge gap in attaining food security in Nigeria as the agriculture sector is unable to cater to the food demands of the population growth. The need to move the country away from sole dependence on crude oil has also redirected the focus back to agriculture. President Muhammadu Buhari has signed up for initiatives that ensure that the country not only meets its consumption needs but also gain foreign reserves through export. These two demands have been largely unmet in varying degrees.

For example, Nigeria has been unable to take full advantage of the African Growth Opportunity Act (AGOA) that opens the United States market to over 6,400 products from sub-Saharan Africa. One of the reasons for this is that Nigeria is unable to consistently meet the quality of AGOA eligible goods, according to Babatunde Faleke, Regional Coordinator of the Nigerian Export Promotion Council (NEPC).

Nigeria’s farm produce is constantly being rejected by other countries, particularly the western nations due to poor quality and presence of poisonous substances. In 2015, the European Union banned Nigerians from bringing beans into EU countries because it contained residual of pesticide considered harmful for human consumption. 

Audu Ogbeh, Nigeria’s former minister of agriculture, once expressed concerns over the export of substandard yam to the United States.

PS Nutrac, an agricultural technology company, is solving the problem of poor quality of yam production through its innovative means of planting. The company, co-founded by 37-year-old Samson Ogbole, and 35-year-old Peter Okocha Jnr., uses soil-less farming technology to eliminate plant’s exposure to harmful chemicals and soil pathogens harmful to yams and humans.

“Producing food without harming the crop, human or the environment is at the core of soil less farming innovation,” says Ogbole.

“We need to produce food without causing so much harm. We have abused the use of fertilizers. The farmer gets a fertilizer and applies to the soil without doing soil analysis to ensure the fertilizer [he is] adding is complementary, and by the time [he is not] getting the desired result, all [he does] is add more fertilizers. The farmer forgets that whatever fertilizer is used destroys the groundwater and causes pollution.”

The absence of fertilizers and controlled exposure to chemical substances make the crop healthier. Also, the farming method gives the fruit a higher percentage of phytonutrients which are considered beneficial to human. The issue of pest control is also eliminated, hence the absence of pesticides in crops grown through this method.

The focus of the Nigerian government is, particularly on yam exportation. Despite a huge amount of yam produced in the country annually—Nigeria produced over 32 million tonnes in 2012—a small percentage of these gets exported. However, with PS Nutrac, and three other seedling companies, the government distributes yam seedlings free of diseases to farmers who cultivate them for export. The technical committee on Nigeria’s yam export says the government would distribute 9 million yam seedlings to farmers this year.

These seedlings are grown through the aeroponic system at PS Nutrac’s smart farm in Ogun State. Explaining the multi-layered system employed in the process, Gbolahan Folarin, the chief agronomist of PS Nutrac, States that the seedlings go through different processes before they are certified fit to be handed over to the farmers.

“On the aeroponic system, the plan takes three months before we employ another technology called vine cutting,” Folarin explains. “The vine cutting helps us multiply the plant while aeroponic helps us rapidly grow the plant.”

The aeroponic and vine cutting take place in the screening room before the offshoots are transferred into the nursery where they are planted into sterilized soil certified by the International Institute for Tropical Agriculture (IITA). For another one month, before they are finally transplanted into the soil to grow into yam seedlings that are then distributed to farmers.

As Folarin shows his smart farm, a fizzling sound buzzes from the rectangular boxes that serve as a bed for the plants. “Oh, the plants are now feeding,” Folarin reveals. The plants are sprinkled with water and other nutrients at intervals. 

The mister, a cylindrical plastic tube, supplies the nutrient-rich water to the plant every 15 minutes.

“The plants feed for one minute and rest for 15 minutes, all day long” explains the agronomist. This technology produces improved yam seedlings that germinate into health yam tubers. Simon Irtwange, the chairman of the Technical Committee on Nigeria Yam Export, says 5.760 tonnes of yam would be exported in 2019. 

Producing quality yam, fit for export, is the first step towards achieving this.
 
Challenges facing these young farmers

These efforts and innovations are not without challenges. Aside from the perennial issues of access to land and finance earlier mentioned, experts consider the knowledge gap in the sector as the greatest challenge. Many older generation farmers, according to the co-founder of PS Nutrac, do not have the required knowledge to enhance productivity.

“When farmers are unable to meet their productivity demands that their counterparts are getting, they rather call it Satan, demons or any other thing except knowledge,” Ogbolw says. 

Introducing technology to the older farmers, who are accustomed to the old ways of planting and cultivating, is always greeted with resistance. 

“The older generation can be very hostile to change,” Tolulope adds. “They believe in their old system and they are not willing to change it.”

Adapting to new situations is generally not an easy transition. However, Tolulope and Ogbole agree that Nigeria can only maximize its potential in agriculture by creating a conducive environment for innovation and creativity. Younger Nigerians and open-minded traditional farmers are looking forward to that.

Furthermore, making the market space more profitable is also one challenge that young Nigerian farmers have to grapple with. Tolulope says young farmers take their product to the same market space as the traditional farmers, which reduces their selling power. With the extra cost they might have incurred in the process of producing better and healthier products, they lose much. 

Except young people can access a better market that would appreciate good quality, Tolulope says the sector will stifle innovations.

“There are lots of solutions that are increasing the cost of production on a daily basis,” says Tolulope. “So, as the cost of production is increasing and there is no better market, it becomes a problem.”

She adds, “Agriculture in Nigeria is not well-structured, there are lots of lapses and loopholes here and there. The policies are not favouring the sector. Older generation farmers are finding it difficult to make sense of the sector, how much more young people who are just coming in?”

“Innovation must be affordable. If you are introducing an innovation into the space that at the end of the day, the current system does not generate them value, it is not worth it. If they take up that practice, they still compete in the system that does not create value. At the end of the day, there is now a technology summersault.”

According to Hammed Adedapo, 31-year-old co-founder of Frotchery Farms Limited and mentor of the Tony Elumelu foundation, there is also the problem of bureaucratic bottlenecks in registering businesses and getting products certified by the National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control (NAFDAC).

Adedapo breeds and brands quality ish through his agric firm. Frotchery deals in smoked fish but uniquely, the young company breeds its fishes with health concerns of the consumers in focus. Its fish pond is located within the premises of IITA.

Speaking on the challenges in getting Frotchery Farms Limited running, Adedapo discloses that the processes were cumbersome owing majorly to several bureaucratic blockages around registering businesses, particularly for young people who are determined to follow due process.

“We need the government to put in place a policy that will ensure ease of doing business in Nigeria,” Adedapo explains.

Youth involvement is the way forward

The creative and innovative nature of young people is the way to build a sustainable agricultural sector that can cater for both domestic and international needs of the country, says the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture.

“Youth are innovative and are always eager to explore more opportunities and agriculture provides them with a vast range of opportunities for job creation and employment for others,” Evelyn Ohanwusi, the head of IITA Youth in Agric business department, says in an interview with SaharaReporters.

“Young people play a crucial role in the prospect for development and should be included in all National Development Plans and Programmes. Agriculture is a sector that could bring development and impactful change to the economy of the country.”

In ensuring this, the institute itself takes off unemployed graduates from the pool of unemployment through its IITA Youth Agripremuers (IYA) initiative, started in 2012. Frotchery Farms is one of the thousands of young agribusiness that emerged from the initiative. The training is an intense 18-month boot camp that not only seeks to equip youth with the skills and knowledge needed to set up profitable agriculture business but also counter negative stereotypes that keep young people away from the sector.

 “The successes from the IYA initiative was noticed by the African Development Bank (AfDB) and adopted for its Pan African Youth in Agribusiness initiative known as ENABLE-Youth,” says Ohanwusi. “ENABLE-Youth is now active and providing agribusiness training and support to many young people in Sudan, Cameroon, Madagascar, Cote’D’ivoire, Kenya.”

Experts say the Nigerian government needs to be more concerted in ensuring the teeming Nigerian youth actively engage in the sector. Thus, Ohanwusi urges the government to fund youth initiatives to attract and keep them.

“Government needs to do more in terms of policies that will favour youth participation in agriculture. There is a need for more commitment in terms of policies that could create an enabling environment for youth to operate freely within the sector,” she says.

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