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Little Holds Nigeria Back From Food Crisis

The government then shifted gears. The money for importing food was reassigned to food self-sufficiency projects and, according to Nigeria's 2009 budget, the government's spending on agriculture is set to increase. The spike in world food prices, the worldwide recession and the slump in oil prices have spurred the government on, said Salisu Ingaw, the head of the National Food Reserve Agency. "Now we have to become more food self-sufficient," Ingaw said.

Embracing a Small Scale

Corruption is the usual explanation for why this ostensibly "rich" nation remains so underdeveloped. "But corruption is just the tip of the iceberg," said Masters, the Purdue specialist.

Even the most corrupt Nigerian governments invested in some infrastructure projects because they had so much oil wealth, Masters suggested. The problem is that so little of what they invested in ended up working, he said.

One widely held misconception that Nigerian governments fell for, Masters said, is that big farm ventures were inherently more productive than small ones. "Unless they are to be a link in a larger industrial process, the chances are high they will fail," he said "In most cases, large industrial farms don't have the necessary flexibility one finds in smaller family-style farms."

Nigerian development economist Shuaibu Idris said governments have traditionally seen small-scale farmers as backward, "but there is absolutely nothing wrong with a peasant one-man proprietor farm as long as the farmer can learn to adapt to new realities." Small-scale farmers may need to form cooperatives to share the cost of farm machinery and to buy inputs at bulk prices, he said.

That is also the conclusion recently embraced by the World Bank. In January, it approved a new $150 million Commercial Agriculture Development Project in Nigeria designed to support small- and medium-scale farmers.

The World Bank's new project, which is in the form of a loan to the government, will improve rural roads for farmers to reduce high transport costs and provide them with better storage facilities.

The good news is that Nigeria has boundless agricultural potential. Of the 3.14 million irrigable hectares of land in the country, the World Bank says only 7 percent is currently being utilized. And though large tracts of farmland have been lost to desertification, more than half the country's estimated 98 million hectares of arable land currently lie fallow.

"The opportunities for our farmers are enormous if only they were to get the right institutional support," said Sabo Nanono, the head of Kano state's commercial farmers association. "We could feed the entire West African region; we could produce enough rice in just two or three [of Nigeria's 36] states to feed the nation and even to export."

Somehow, the supply chain that feeds 140 million people keeps cranking along. The country has not seen a major famine for nearly four decades, since the Biafran civil war. But Nanono warned that it wouldn't take much to send this vulnerable country -- and region -- over the edge.

"The reality is that if the rains are bad throughout the region or the price of inputs became unaffordable, there could be massive food shortages, and neither the government nor any other institution stands ready to help," he said. "Then only God could save us."

David Hecht's report from Nigeria is part of the Food Insecurity project, a joint initiative of the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting and The Project for Under-Told Stories. View Hecht's audio slideshow on the project here. A companion story airs on "The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer" by Special Correspondent Fred de Sam Lazaro. The Food Insecurity Web site is an interactive portal that features additional articles on food issues that have appeared in The Post and other news outlets. The Web site also gives users the opportunity to engage with journalists directly and to post their own responses, in video and in print.

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