Will Jack find his Beanstalk?
by Tola Sunmonu
While perusing the World Wide Web to uncover the latest news in the Nigerian agricultural space, I came across a BBC interview with Jite Okoloko, MD of Notore. He discussed his reasons for moving back to Nigeria in the 90’s and his belief in the agricultural sector as a beacon of hope for the Nigerian nation. As expected, he made a call for young people to get involved in the agricultural sector. What caught my attention in particular was his claim that a young graduate with 5 hectares of land would make more than they would at an entry level position at a bank. Depending on the crop and the bank, this might be true but I am not going to go through the math to prove it; perhaps another time. What I am more concerned with is the impact that these types of messages have on youth.
It probably comes as no surprise that I am an advocate for young people getting involved in the agricultural sector, after all I practice what I preach. However, I am tired of constantly seeing the message that every young person should pick up a hoe and cutlass, a tractor if you are lucky, and become a farmer. To be clear, there is nothing wrong with being a farmer, I know very successful young farmers. However, I do have a problem with the branding that implies that it is easy to be farmer. I once went to a conference where an energetic, well-established farmer emphatically told a group of young earnest individuals to throw some seeds in their backyard and see what happens. Last time I checked, Jack and the Beanstalk was fantasy.
So, let me share some reality with you. The first reality is farming can be rewarding and very lucrative if done right but it is hard work. Especially in Nigeria where most farmers have to make due without machinery and are forced to endure back breaking work. Some of the strongest people I know are farmers, I have seen 60 year old farmers perform feats that I could never imagine doing in my youth. In addition, it can be very expensive, especially if you choose to mechanize and follow best practices. This is not to discourage the potential farmers out there but only to give you a glimpse of reality so that you are best prepared for your endeavors. Sometime, in the future I will write a piece on how to run a successful farming enterprise, but not today. Today is about discussing the realities on ground.
The second reality is that there is more to the agricultural sector that farming, a whole lot more. If today, every young person decides to heed to the calls of the government and become a farmer, that still would not solve Nigeria’s agricultural woes. Why? Because in addition to hardworking individuals at the production level, we need bright minds further up the value chain and in the agricultural services. We need processors, I challenge a young person out here to start the Nigerian Cargill. We need researchers, I challenge a young person to spend months if not years obsessed with their research on pest resistant high yielding seeds that rival those being churned out of labs in America. We need retailers, I need a young person to establish a chain of Nigerian supermarkets that stock nothing but domestically grown produce. We need agricultural finance gurus, I challenge a young person to lead the way in reshaping how we structure agricultural finance in this country.
The time is ripe for creativity! Expecting hoards of young people to flock to the farm is nothing different from what Chief Obafemi Awolowo did in his day when he established farm settlements. Note that decades later, our agricultural challenges remain the same, if not worse. What we need today is for young people to start thinking out of the box. Nigeria’s agricultural sector is akin to the millions of unused arable land that decorate our landscape, untouched and ready for the taking. If you are like me and enjoy a challenge, the opportunity to effect creative solutions, challenge traditional paradigms and effect real tangible change and development literally makes you salivate. I for one am excited to see what happens the moment our generation catches onto the fact that the agricultural sector is about putting creative energetic minds to work, not committing to a life of drudgery or worse yet expecting beans to sprout into magical stalks.