For over 40 years, black marketers literarily held Nigerian farmers and authorities in the agric sector by the jugular. They controlled the fertiliser distribution system and hijacked subsidised farm inputs meant for farmers. The racketeering was hurting efforts at leveraging large-scale agric for job and wealth creation. However, it took the introduction of Electronic Wallet (E-Wallet) platform and creation of a data base for farmers to reverse the trend. Assistant Editor CHIKODI OKEREOCHA writes that the innovation could be the wedge for a continent in search of youth empowerment, food security and industrialisation.

Of all the challenges that stood in the way of Nigeria’s quest for increased productivity in the agric sector, none was, perhaps, as frightening as the activities of black marketers. They are the powerful middlemen in the sector, who allegedly ensured that critical farming inputs from the government never got to farmers.For instance, apart from controlling the Federal Government’s fertiliser distribution system for about four decades, the black marketers whose activities clearly verged on economic sabotage also denied farmers access to other subsidised inputs such as disease-resistant, high-yield rice seeds and palm oil seedlings.

The Nation learnt that the inputs, which would have seen farmers’ output rising and contributing to food security, job and wealth creation, were brazenly sold in the open market or in neighbouring West African countries at exorbitant prices. And the effects of the racketeering on the agric sector were telling.

For one, it was a major disincentive to Nigeria and, indeed, Africa’s efforts at diversifying the economy through commercial, large-scale agriculture. Specifically, the black marketers were hurting the continent’s efforts at empowering its youth population by making agriculture an attractive start-up sector for them.

The former Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development and African Development Bank (AfDB) President, Dr. Akinwumi Adesina, did not mince words when he said: “We must turn rural areas from zones of economic misery to zones of economic prosperity. This requires agricultural innovations and transforming agriculture into a sector for creating wealth. We must make agriculture a really cool choice for young people. The future millionaires and billionaires of Africa will come initially from agriculture.”

This was at the 2017 G7 Summit in Taormina, Italy, in May this year. At the event, Adesina expanded on this vision, saying: “The future of Africa’s youth does not lie in migration to Europe nor should it be “at the bottom of the Mediterranean.”

He proposed rather that an agribusiness-driven economy could be one of the economic reasons Africa’s youth choose to remain on the continent.

Adesina’s vision was one backed by innovation and creativity on how to modernise agriculture, get the youth engaged in the sector and change their perception in a way that allows them to see agriculture as a viable and profitable business.

The AfDB president articulated that vision when, as Nigeria’s Minister for Agriculture from 2010 to 2015, set the stage for what is now acknowledged globally as a revolution in the agric sector through the introduction of the Electronic Wallet (E-Wallet) platform to Nigeria’s food production and distribution chain.

Through the E-Wallet, Adesina pioneered a new way for the Nigerian government to deliver subsidised farm inputs, such as fertiliser and seeds, to local farmers through private agro-dealers. The farmers, in turn, redeem these subsidised inputs from the agro-dealers, using e-vouchers, which they can access through their mobile phones.

To implement the platform, Adesina initiated a Growth and Enhancement Support Scheme (GES), powered it by orchestrating the successful registration of more than five million Nigerian farmers, whose information and mobile phone numbers were added to the GES database.

The database, coupled with the E-Wallet, now allows Nigerian farmers to receive directly from the government everything from fertiliser to high-yield rice seeds and palm oil seedlings. The platform also helped solve other previously intractable problems in the way of commercial large scale food production in Nigeria.

For instance, the E-Wallet platform was a shot in the arm of paddy rice farmers in the country. Since its introduction, not a few farmers have been receiving high yield NERICA rice varieties from the government, which saw their output rise from about five to six tons per hectare.

With thousands of paddy farmers producing a consistent grade of rice, the development was said to have created the opportunity for several agro-based companies to switch from rice importation to local rice production. And the standardisation of the country’s rice output led to large private sector investments in rice milling.

Expectedly, Adesina’s innovation in the agric sector has not gone unnoticed. He recently clinched the highly coveted 2017 World Food Prize (WFP) Laureate award in the United States of America (US).

He was announced winner of the global feat by the WFP for his dogged determination and practical commitment to boosting agriculture and food supply chain both as Minister of Agriculture and President of AfDB.

Adesina earned the laureate in Des Moines, US, where the WFP Board chose him for this year’s $250, 000 prize, highlighting his role in improving the availability of seed, fertiliser and financing for African farmers, and for laying the foundation for the youth in Africa to engage in agriculture as a profitable business.

In choosing Adesina for this year’s award, the organisation also recognised his endeavours at the Bank Group to implement the ambitious High 5 priorities (Light up and power Africa, Feed Africa, Industrialise Africa, Integrate Africa, and Improve the quality of life for the people of Africa), and the positive impact this would have in Africa and the world.

That was not all. Adesina was said to have successfully built strong partnerships that enabled commercial banks and development organisations to provide loans to tens of thousands of farmers and agri-businesses in Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Ghana and Mozambique.

While as Nigeria’s Minister of Agriculture, he also created programmes to make the country self-sufficient in rice production and helped turn cassava into a major cash crop and a strategic raw material for bakeries.

More importantly, Adesina’s success in enabling Nigeria’s farmers increase farm yields through an electronic wallet system, which helped them to obtain fertilisers, led to dramatic improvement in agricultural production and enhanced food security for 40 million people in the country’s rural farm households.

The WFP was founded by Norman E. Borlaug, a native of northeast Iowa, who was awarded the 1970 Nobel Peace Prize for his life’s work on feeding the world through the scientific advancements of the Green Revolution.

This was why the WFP compares the spread of Adesina’s efforts in scale to the “Green Revolution” work of Borlaug, who, in the 1970s and 1980s, introduced high-yield dwarf wheat to Latin America and Asia, spawning “Green Revolutions” on two continents.

At the event, which brought together key players in the world of bilateral and multilateral development, Adesina said he was inspired by a commitment to transform African agriculture into a means for lifting millions out of poverty and is proud his work has been recognised.

“It’s vitally important to show young people in rural regions of Africa that farming can be profitable and can improve their lives…,” he said, committing himself to using the $250, 000 cash prize to set up a fund for financing African youths in agriculture.

Specifically, he said his prize money will be used to establish a World Food Prize Global Youth Institute for Africa, an organisation, he said, will support a new generation of agricultural scientists and innovators across Africa.

This organisation, he said, will nurture and produce graduates known as Borlaug-Adesina Fellows, who will become the next generation of hunger fighters.

Adesina’s feat earned him the US Government’s commendation. A statement signed by US Vice President Michael Pence described Adesina as a man whose “devotion to the cause of fighting global hunger is admirable, and deeply needed”.

Pence said: “As our global food system is stretched, and the need to feed more people grows, agricultural transformation will require persistence from leaders like you in driving change and capitalising on public and private sector expertise.”

Adesina’s revolutionary achievement was also seen as a major public relations boost for President Muhammadu Buhari. The president wasted no time in joining in the global acclaim that came in the wake of the award. Through a statement by his Special Adviser on Media and Publicity, Femi Adesina, he expressed his delight at the development.

Buhari’s words: “Certainly, this did not come to me and many Nigerians as a surprise, given your antecedents and contributions to the development of agriculture across the African continent. We are very proud of you.”

Nigeria as model for other African countries

At the official announcement of the prize during a ceremony at the US Department of Agriculture in Washington D.C., hosted by its Secretary, Sonny Perdue, the Secretary said there were still huge challenges on the way.

While commending Adesina for his tireless work in securing food for Africa and the world, Perdue, however, pointed out, for instance, that as the world population grows, raising the challenge of feeding nine billion people, “Adesina knows that our work is not done”.

The statement was instructive. For one, it underscored the growing expectation that the sustainability of the initiatives that earned Adesina the coveted prize were critical to Africa’s food security, if other countries in the continent could replicate them.

The thinking is that as other African countries start to adopt E-Wallet platforms to get subsidised inputs – and even financial services – directly to their farmers, the innovation would spark a Borlaugian “Take it to the Farmer Revolution across Africa.”

Already, according to experts, Africa’s labour market is expected to absorb 11 million youth every year for the next decade. Despite rapid growth in formal wage sector jobs, the World Bank estimates that most of the continent’s young people “are likely to work on family farms and in household enterprises, often with very low incomes”.

The consensus is that creating jobs for young people in agriculture can help Africa’s economic transformation and also offer a solution to some of the challenges facing the continent and the world namely, the high rate of youth unemployment in Africa; human trafficking and the high rate of illegal migration of young Africans into Europe.

Indeed, Africa’s rapid population growth, specifically the growth of the working-age population, complicates a precarious labour market characterised by poor-quality employment, which in turn creates the urge for the youth to seek better opportunities elsewhere.

For instance, the International Labour Organisation (ILO) estimated that in the next four years, an additional 12.6 million youth in sub-Saharan Africa will enter the labour force. Data from the International Organisation for Migration show that more than 154,000 young Africans have so far crossed the Mediterranean to Europe in 2017.

The organisation said more than 2, 900 have died trying to make the crossing. In 2016, more than 352,000 Africans crossed into Europe and more than 4,750 died.

But with what Adesina pointed out earlier that “the agric sector (in Africa) has four times the power to create jobs and reduce poverty than any other sector,” this is expected to spur other African countries to replicate the innovations now changing the agric landscape, at least from Nigeria’s experience.