Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari has called on farmers to ramp up food production in the wake of the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, as experts indicate the continent’s most populous country needs to take a number of major steps in order to increase the supply of food.

Buhari addressed farmers, calling on them to improve production: "We don't have money to import so we must produce what we have to eat."

Part of the solution includes moving investments towards agriculture and away from petroleum products. Money that could have bolstered Nigerian agriculture had been spent on food imports.

Nigeria produces 60,000 metric tons of wheat per year, while the annual demand for wheat totals at 4.7 million metric tons, leaving a considerable deficit.

Buhari’s calls for farmers to provide for Nigeria is not new, according to Nnamdi Obasi, senior adviser on Nigeria for the International Crisis Group (ICG). Buhari has made some effort to ban the use of foreign exchange to import items, including rice, in order to boost local production.

“In August 2019, he directed the central bank to block food importers and requests for foreign currency because of reports that food was being smuggled in across the borders from neighbouring countries,” says Obasi.

The borders were locked down, too, which was reinforced by the recent Covid-19 restrictions.

“The oil price crashing, the fall in export revenues, and the very significant cuts in the budget for 2020 have added extra urgency to that policy, so it certainly deserves more attention now than ever before,” he adds.

Food supply was exempted from most restrictions during the height of the lockdown in Nigeria, but it was still indirectly affected by falling consumer incomes and other shocks, according to a report out by International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), co-authored by Kwaw Andam, director of the Nigeria Strategy Support Program.

The Nigeria: Impacts of COVID-19 on Production, Poverty & Food Systems report, out this month, also indicates that Nigeria lost 1.2 billion euros in the agriculture sector over the 5-week lockdown period.

“The restricted movement plan took place at the start of the planting season, so this obviously affected agriculture,” says Abuja-based Andam.

“On inter-state passenger travel, the lockdown had some implications in terms of labor availability for farmers, and how easily they can trade their food,” he adds.

The IFPRI report projections indicate that millions of Nigerians will fall into poverty for a short period as a result of Covid-19. “Higher income and urban households experience larger income losses as lockdowns target cities, and the non-poor are more likely to work in manufacturing and services,” according to the report.

“But incomes of rural and lower-income households will also fall, mainly due to effects of food system disruptions on smallholder farmer incomes and the closure of urban informal markets where urban poor often work,” it added.

Concerted efforts to improve agriculture production will require discussion about dealing with the ongoing violence in the northern part of the country, says ICG’s Obasi.

“It's a major issue now as far as feeding the country is concerned, because the Boko Haram insurgency in the northeast has been a major setback to agriculture in parts of the region… whether we talk about crop production or livestock production,” says Obasi, author of the ICG report, Violence in Nigeria’s Northwest: Rolling Back the Mayhem.

The violence has killed over 8,000 people since 2011, and displaced over 200,000, some into neighbouring Niger.

Hausa farmers and Fulani herders competing for the same resources—land and water—have been at the core of inter-ethnic violence in the area. Those issues, in addition to the presence of Boko Haram separatists, jihadist advancements in the region, and spill over from Niger has created a dangerous and volatile area.

“The conflicts have also affected agriculture in the northcentral regions, the middle belt, and now in the northwest, and I must say it's not only farmers that are affected, but herders, too. In many cases, they have lost huge amounts of livestock, sometimes by cattle rustling,” says Obasi.

“And without improving security, it will not be possible to ramp up farming in the northwest-- I think everybody is quite clear about that,” he adds.

“The government will need to work on a system of reforming the livestock production, but also the crop production order to ensure that they are no longer conflictual,” he tells RFI.

Some programmes have already been put in place, such as the National Livestock Transformation Plan (NLTP), part of a government solution to quell farmer-herder clashes in the region.

The plan includes investment, conflict resolution, law and order, humanitarian relief, and education.

Obasi contends that the NLTP is the best solution so far, also citing state governments that are creating grazing reserves for herders, which would also provide for social amenities and some infrastructure.

“That would reduce the friction between herders and farmers long term, implementing the national livestock transformation plan over the 10-year period for which it is planned. It then produces a more stable environment for both livestock and farm production, crop production and minimises the violence,” he says.

An increase in dialogue between the Hausa and Fulani communities at a local level, not only at state level, will also improve the situation, says Obasi.

Part of the solution would be to earmark funds, if the violence is quelled, for the return of the 200,000 displaced people, for resettlement and livelihood recovery— if there are funds to be had.

“The country is facing a national emergency and it needs to respond with a sense of urgency to that emergency,” he adds.

Short-term solutions are viable, according to IFPRI’s Andam, starting with the restrictions on food markets. While a number of other countries are allowing food markets to operate with longer hours in the hopes that a flow of people will prevent the spread of the disease, Nigeria operates on the opposite principle.

“Here in Abuja, until recently, the market was allowed to open only two days a week; now they’ve expanded it to three, and this is the same across most places in Nigeria,” says Andam.

Allowing food markets to operate for longer hours and for food to be sold in several locations, not just the market, would help farmers, he says.

Increasing farming efficiency in order to make better use of arable land to produce more per hectare, which has not been done in the past, says ICG’s Obasi.

Ramping up productivity could include “what seed varieties are used, like the rice sector, which demands a lot of improvement. And secondly, infrastructure, roads, getting access to markets-- that would help to inch towards getting more benefits for Nigerian farmers,” says Andam.

“Nigeria does have a lot of what is required: labor pool, a large share of the population being young, the irrigation potential, land, the market in terms of consumers,” he says.

“What would make this aspiration come to pass would be to put in place the right policies to stimulate agricultural activity,” he adds.

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