Nigeria is Africa’s most populous country as well as its biggest economy. About 30% of the population is directly employed in agriculture – a sector that contributes to 21% of the country’s GDP. Nigeria was heavily dependent on its crude oil industry until 2014, however a sudden crash in international prices majorly impacted the economy. Since then, the government is trying to shift from its earlier mono-economy framework to a more diversified one by taking active measures to revive its agri sector, while also reducing Nigeria’s over-dependence on imported food.
Jacquelyne is currently the Head of Agribusiness at Guinness Nigeria. She has 16 years of scintillating professional experience in the Banking space before venturing into the Agriculture domain nearly 2 years ago. Previously, she has held prominent positions at NIRSAL and Zenith Bank. Jacquelyne holds a Masters degree in Banking and Finance. Additionally, she has been trained in ‘Executive Leadership’ at Harvard and Wharton. And, she is currently based in Lagos, Nigeria.
Jacquelyne walked me through the agriculture scenario in the Sub-Saharan region, and the various opportunities that are available for the government and private sector to improve the lives of smallholder farmers, who produce nearly 90% of Nigeria’s food.
How has the agri sector evolved in Africa, specifically in Nigeria, in the last two years?
Jacquelyne: It is getting better organized for smallholder farmers; farmers are getting into cooperatives and beginning to have some structure.
Agriculture in Africa, especially in Sub-Saharan regions such as Nigeria, is basically done by subsistence farmers, typically holding about 2.5 acres. Some may have bigger farmlands. However, they do not have access to finance to cultivate their entire farm holdings. The value chain is thus broken.
Over the last 2 years, several clusters—different people working in different sectors—have tried to bring the fragmented parts together. Farmers are being clustered, and a bit of technology like field mapping has come into the space. Some people are using drones, but I am not aware of any cluster that is not a commercial farm that is using drones. There has been a lot of emphasis on agriculture, and it is becoming more structured than it used to be. It is still very highly fragmented, yes.
Why do you think the region is getting more structured? Is the Government trying to help the farmers and the organizations in the ecosystem?
Jacquelyne: Yes, the government is trying to help the farmers a lot. But, government interventions can only do as much. In terms of scaling up, it still has to be the commercial banks that will run this. As you are aware, the price of oil dropped badly in 2015, and Nigeria is an oil-dependent country. We have to diversify our economy, and leverage our strengths: arable land, great climate etc. So, agriculture is the way to go. In addition, the median age in Nigeria is about 18 years now, it means that there are unemployment issues and agriculture is one way where we could quickly catalyse employment.
What are the major challenges that agribusinesses face in Africa?
Jacquelyne: It is a cocktail of several things, to be honest. Some of the major ones mainly in Sub-Saharan Africa include:
- Poor infrastructure (logistics and storage)
- Lack of access to finance
- The farmers themselves being unlettered, so there is no good agronomic practice
- Poor extension support on the field.
Could you give us an idea of the infrastructure issues, for our understanding? What specific challenges are you talking about?
Jacquelyne: We are talking about poor or no roads, lack of electricity, no railroads for cargo haulage, and storage. Talking about logistics, which is the driver for all supply chains, it is expensive to move by road, thus it makes local farmer produce expensive.
Apart from the lack of access to the right package of practices, are there any other challenges?
Jacquelyne: Access to finance and access to structured market.
Why do you think banks in Nigeria, or whole of Africa, are not in a position to provide farmers the right access to finance?
Jacquelyne: Farming in Nigeria is still very subsistent. It means, most of the people that are involved in it are unlettered, and most likely they have no bank account. So you start from the very basic things such as financial inclusion. If you don’t have a bank account, how does the bank give you a loan? So, they have no financial history. If you haven’t done some transactions with the bank, how does the bank extend credit to the farmers? That is one aspect of it. So, lack of financial inclusion and credit history of the smallholder farmer in itself is a challenge.
The second aspect is that banks don’t understand agriculture at primary production. They don’t even have the manpower to be able to supervise. Because, remember that when loans are extended, they require monitoring. The administrative cost (to the bank) vis-a-vis the revenue from the loan does not usually match, thus making it an unprofitable transaction for the bank.
Is the local government taking any steps, or in the recent past, has there been any policy changes, especially around infrastructure upliftment?
Jacquelyne: Advocacy groups are causing traction in that direction. These groups are pushing for Government to be enablers and not actors. Open up the feeder roads or the village roads, and access to electricity is a right and should not be seen as a privilege. Government should be the catalyst or the enabler.
The Nigerian government has tried; sometimes the policies are there but implementation is a different ball game. Sometimes the policy is not implemented because all the i’s have not been dotted and the t’s have not been crossed. As we continue to take the baby steps, we will learn how to run and then learn how to fly. So, I think perseverance and a bit of consistency, and doing it a bit different—using a business model with the farmers rather than a developmental model where farmers see access to funds as grants and they have no interest in paying back. Developmental model serves its purpose and it keeps farmers at subsistence level. There are no aspirations and cannot be scaled up.
Apart from Government, are there private sector players trying to help the farmers?
Jacquelyne: Yes, there are several stakeholders working in partnership with farmers in several value chains. It is not about helping farmers, it is about creating value. That is what we should bring to the ecosystem.
When you talk about private players creating value for the farmers, what did you mean by that? Private players can’t do much about infrastructure or can they?
Jacquelyne: No, we can’t provide infrastructure. What we can do is, look at the entire value chain and see where we can step in—things like adding technology to the ecosystem, and providing financial inclusion or economic inclusion as you progress. These are all value creations. Bring unadulterated inputs to the ecosystem, that would be value creation, even something as little as supplier credit. Recently from AGRF (African Green Revolution Forum), I also learnt about psychological resilience in the event of crop failure etc. Thus, we will introduce resilience to our training models etc. Or perhaps they want a health insurance, so that when they fall sick they can quickly get a treatment; fair pricing for their grains—these are value adds. We could go on and on.
What would you advise to our readers and the agriculture community in general?
Jacquelyne: It depends on what perspective you are coming from. Let us begin to approach farming as a business. Also, from a nation’s perspective, I think you can synchronize whatever your policies are. Whatever is pertaining to agriculture, whether it is environmental issues, whether it has got to do with education, or it has got to do with infrastructure, all the various ministries should work together as one body to see that the traction that is required would eventually help the subsistence farmer.
Because, to be honest, it is about sustainability. It is not about a handout. And so, if we don’t get a model that is sustainable, it then just means that after 3 or 4 years, that system or model breaks down. And you want a situation where 5 years, 10 years down the line, 20 years down the line, that ecosystem is still functional, better and thriving.
Therefore, I would encourage that one, there is synchronization of policies at the federal level because that is what will help the entire ecosystem, and of course, in today’s world, you have to layer technology into agriculture for you to achieve any kind of a traction. We should also add a bit of sincerity of purpose.
These farmers are unlettered; they are uneducated. It will be nice if we stop selling them bad seeds. A bit of profits with vision or profits with purpose—whatever you want to call it—that is alright. But the system sells bad seeds to the farmer, adulterated and expired inputs, and at the end of the day we expect yields to be at par with developed markets, how? You’ve made your profits, and then what happens to the smallholder farmers? So, sincerity of purpose is key. When people begin to do the wrong things, I think we should call them out.
I know it is going to take up a lot of effort, but sharing of information will help. Thank God, it is an information age! I can now take learnings from what happens in India without going to India really. So that would be my counsel to the agriculture community, and let us do something about access to finance.