The first time I took notice of wheat farming in Nigeria was during the IBB years when he launched the National Accelerated Wheat Production. This was in response to the crisis of the importation of wheat with which bread was made. The prices of bread were rising and making the popular and convenient food to be out of the reach of the ordinary people. While there were experiments to move to using cassava to produce bread by far the most ambitious initiative to deal with the problem was to produce locally enough wheat both for local consumption and for export. The crisis of the importation of wheat was painstakingly documented and analyzed in the book by Profs Bjorn Beckman and Andrea Gunilla entitled The Wheat Trap. Trap it was since Nigerans got hooked to bread which is consumed by both the high and the low but whose production solely dependent on almost 100% importation of wheat. Even as of now, with so much interest in wheat farming, the country still imports about 90% of our wheat consumption.
The government decided to support the local production of wheat through the National Accelerated Wheat Production and targets were set for states that were found as potentials for contribution to the national record. Although Kano, Jigawa and Bauchi states were part of the states where wheat was to be produced, in those years, I cannot remember seeing any major wheat farm in any of the three states. A friend who is late now told me how civil servants creatively measured the wheat production and get the incentive of millions of Naira meant to boost production. He said they had a figure of average yield per hectare, and they simply multiplied that with the number of available hectares of land in the state for wheat farming and hurrah, they had millions of tons of wheat produced. Where it was, was left to everybody’s guess.
By the time the game came undone, the country had spent millions of Naira for phony wheat that was never produced, remained deeply trapped in the wheat trap and banning of importation did nothing to stop smuggling of wheat into the country. With time the ban itself lost its effectiveness and purpose and was finally abandoned and the ban was subsequently lifted.
While no such national wheat accelerated production programme was announced last year, wheat buying agents worked assiduously to get many farmers in the both the northwest and northeast to go into wheat farming. In the previous farming season, I noticed a number of isolated wheat farms in both Jigawa and Bauchi State and many of those farms did excellently well by harvest. The success of these and lobby by the wheat buyers spurred made many people to shift from rice to wheat this year. The lobby is led by the Flour Mill Association off Nigeria (FMAN). Until 2020, FMAN is reportedly to have spent about NGN 250 million in four years in intervention for wheat farming in the country.
Of course, there were additional reasons. For example, with wheat requiring less water than rice, the rising cost of petrol made people to abandoned rice for wheat. On the other hand, tomatoes farmers, fearing that their tomatoes will be ready for the market at the same with the election, fearing that postelection conflict could prevent them from sending their produce to south, particularly, Port Harcourt and Lagos, decided also to shift from tomatoes to wheat.
In the end, there appeared like an organic, grassroots build up to wheat farming and many thousands of hectares of wheat were planted in Kano, Bauchi and Jigawa states among other states in the country. By the time of the planting season, wheat was selling at about 65 thousand Naira (N65,000) per 100KG bag. However, since many farmers got their seeds from the FMAN, they did not care about the prices.
This April was harvesting time for wheat farmers and everywhere I go in the wheat farming communities of both Jigawa and Bauchi States, there were two major issues: one is the poor yield from the farms. Nigeria has one of the lowest yields per hectare, put by several studies at an average of two tons per hectare, compared to India’s 3.4 tons per hectare, Mexico’s 5.1 tons or even Sudan’s of 2.5 tons per hectare. What is the reason for this year’s dismal yield that estimates put at less than 1.5 tons per hectare in most of the northern states: was the soil not good for the wheat variety? Was the harmattan too short or not sufficiently cold for the healthy growth of the wheat seedlings? Were the specific seeds distributed to farmers not good ones? They are asking these questions because the yield was disastrously poor, but no one is giving them any answers nor coming to their aid to deal with the calamity that has befallen them.
But the second issue has a solution, but nobody is coming to apply the solution, as farmers harvested their crops and look up to the buy agents, they were shocked to find that the prices have hit the bottom, buying at the rate of N27,000 per 100KG bag. This is not just crash in the price: a fall from N70000 to N27,000 is completely irrational and inexplicable to the farmers. In the context of poor yield, this crushing of prices is simply a knockdown for the farmers. Many of them have been broken as they cannot recover their investments. Those who took loans are hard to put on how to redeem their commitment,
While the cash crunch of the poorly implemented cashless policy initially was responsible for bringing down the price, the final nosedive was due to the action of wheat buyers (FMAN) who unilaterally set up their prices ways that ensure they derive the maximum advantage from the farmers. There is something inexplicable in the way a government that claims to want to diversify the economy through agriculture will see farmers being crushed and does nothing about it. Government did not make inputs available to the farmers. It did not provide incentive for the farmers. On their own, the cleared tracks of land and build their small-scale irrigation systems which are critical to wheat farming in the north since wheat has to be planned during the harmattan to take advantage of the low temperature, thus requiring irrigation for watering since there is no rainfall durign the harmattan period. Most bought their seeds, got all the inputs they needed. The government has been upbeat about boosting agriculture, but farmers are merely being scammed. State government simply fold their hands, wrongly believing that supporting farmers is the responsibility of the federal government when each year, they budget homologous amounts of money for agriculture which are never used to support farmers or even improve agriculture but oil state executives and civil service in fleecing state treasuries.
They produce crops which they sell cheaply; they buy things they need which are costly. Is there any sense of fairness in the system? Wheat is used to produce bread, biscuits, among other products in the country. In spite of the crushing prices of wheat, the prices of these products have remained at high levels, as defined by national inflationary trends, but they get their raw material cheaply from farmers. In other words, wheat users are making a kill from the misery of wheat farmers.
In the olden years, we have farmers protection bodies which insulated farmers from the scrupulous market and assured them of not only stability in prices but also make sure they do not sell their produce at prices that will be injurious to both their wellbeing and food security in the country.
There is a claim that the government wants the cost of food items to come and is artificially depressing prices. This is counterproductive for in the end farmers would opt out to other activities, creating two different problems. One the one hand, they shift away from food production, thus pushing the country to a situation of food insecurity. On the other hand, they could add to the population of the unemployed in the country, thus worsening the already bad situation of unemployment in Nigeria. This is not to add to the fact that when things get bad, unemployed people become the reservoirs for recruitment to violent activities and criminality.
It would seem that either this government is hopelessly inept or simply it does not care about the wellbeing of Nigerians. Whatever it is, we must tell it to urgently address the need to protect farmers in the overall collective interest of the country.