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‘How Nigeria can ensure food security amidst economic crisis’

In this interview, the managing partner of Sahel Consulting Agriculture and Nutrition Ltd, Ndidi Nwuneli, explains how Nigeria can wade through the looming economic crisis and avoid food shortage posed by the COVID-19 pandemic globally.

The well-garlanded official also spoke on the potentials the country possesses, which major agricultural outfits and smallholder farmers can leverage on in order to benefit maximally.


PT: How can food security and zero hunger be attained in Nigeria?

Nwuneli: Our collective ability to meet SDG 2 – Zero hunger by 2030 globally appears elusive unless we take urgent action. Over 821 million people were food insecure in 2019, primarily driven by conflict and social unrest. The World Food Programme estimates that this number could exceed 1 billion, given the impact of the COVID-19, weather extremes, and economic shocks, including job losses, declines in remittances, and disruptions to supply chains and trade.

Nigeria is experiencing the same trends. Rates of malnutrition remain high because nutritious food is unaffordable and not easily accessible for low-income and most vulnerable populations. Rates of obesity are also rising linked to unhealthy food choices and lifestyles.

In addition, our food systems are not sustainable, resulting in adverse environmental, economic, and social effects, further compounding the pre-existing issues of hunger and food insecurity. The Nigerian food ecosystem is fragmented and fragile. We have not diligently leveraged innovation, technology, and catalytic financing to increase our farmers’ productivity, reduce the high rates of post-harvest losses, and ensure market linkages.

As a result, many smallholder farmers continue to operate at a subsistence level, with relatively low productivity levels, and limited local processing and access to markets.

There is limited coordination and cooperation between the key actors who should work together to drive a cohesive and integrated action plan to ensure food security at local, state, federal, and regional levels. This lack of coordination is especially relevant because food and nutrition cut across multi-sectoral actors in health, agriculture, water resources, science & technology, the environment, trade & investment, gender, education, and financing landscapes.

As a result, attaining food security in Nigeria requires a collective and urgent collaborative action between the public, private, nonprofit and development sector to feed our most vulnerable, increase our farmers’ productivity, reduce the high rates of post-harvest losses, enhance value addition and local processing and ensure market linkages. We essentially need to increase the availability and affordability of food in Nigeria.

PT: Are there lessons Nigeria can learn amidst COVID-19 pandemic and post COVID-19?

Nwuneli: COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted and exacerbated the numerous gaps and deficiencies in the Nigerian food system. The full and partial lockdowns caused disruptions of supply chains, challenges transporting produce from farms to markets and difficulties importing inputs.

In addition, some aggregators and retailers started hoarding and price gouging. As a result, food prices have risen by 10 to 100 per cent in parts of Nigeria and other countries have faced similar trends. What this has taught us is that we, actors within this sector, need to be part of the policy conversations that directly affect our operations.

We have to be the driving forces shaping our ecosystems and policies that govern them. Many global experts have underscored that this pandemic is a 12-18-month battle and that the world should expect future pandemics and shocks linked to climate change and other crises.

As a result, there is an urgent need to transform and strengthen our food ecosystems so that we are better prepared to keep people nourished going forward. We can start by taking these four critical steps.

First, we urgently need reliable and credible data. Just like the medical community is instituting systems and structures for effectively allocating ICU beds and ventilators, we must leverage technology to accurately track the supply and demand for food in our cities and our countries. In addition, we need to collate data on the activities of input providers, urban and rural farmers, importers, aggregators, processors, wholesalers, distributors, retailers, cooks, caterers, restaurants, and food banks.

We also urgently need to register and monitor our vulnerable populations, especially those under five and over 60-year-old, leveraging the vast branch networks of our financial institutions, post offices, community health care centres and faith-based organisations. Understanding where there is an abundance or shortage of food, and who needs it most will enable actors to design and implement rapid and effective interventions to meet urgent needs.

It will also compel our policymakers to continue to recognise stakeholders across the sector as essential workers and enable the free flow of inputs, produce and processed food.

Secondly, all actors in the food ecosystem need to collaborate by sharing information across value chains and between sectors. This is especially critical during times of crises, given the irrational behaviour of actors around hoarding and price gouging that is often fostered by fear or misinformation. Similarly, data on the excess capacity in restaurants and catering facilities will enable a more coordinated and cost-effective response towards the distribution of food to the most vulnerable populations.

In addition, we need centralised databases that match the numerous interventions attempting to feed the masses, with the biggest pockets of need. This would significantly address the mass movement of the unemployed to higher-income communities where they believe they can find food and minimise the rising rates of unrest and crime.

Third, we need to reorganise the places where people go to buy and eat food. Currently, the food distribution mechanisms in cities and towns do not allow for social distancing and even foster the quick spread of diseases. Addressing this major challenge will require the establishment of clear guidelines and protocols by governments, working in close collaboration with the leadership of market, retail, and food-service associations. These protocols must stipulate the mandatory use of face masks, the provision of automatic hand wash facilities at the entrance points, clear schedules to control crowds and mechanisms for managing waste.

Finally, we must support small and medium-sized enterprises in the agriculture and food landscapes to redesign their business models to ensure resilience to shocks. This will require that they leverage technology, innovations, and data to enhance their productivity and agility.

PT: The recently published Global Report on Food Crisis shows that over 75 million people in Africa are faced with a food crisis, of which 5 million are in northern Nigeria alone. This is a major setback for the fight against this pandemic. What is the way forward?

Nwuneli: The Catalyst2030 Getting from crisis to systems change – Advice for leaders in the time of COVID Report, of which I was part of the working group that came together to address some of the world’s most pressing issues, clearly identifies the urgency for food security globally and provides shovel-ready solutions, many of which can be applied to the Nigerian context.

There are many shovel-ready solutions that we can implement that would see the number of food-insecurity Nigerian reduce, particularly in the North. The first should be to establish a national food ecosystems task force comprising stakeholders in health, agriculture, science & technology, the environment, trade & investment, gender, education, and financing landscapes.

This task force should include the most senior representatives from the government, research & academic institutions, civil society, faith-based organisations, farmer organisations, and the private sector. Through this task force, and the resources it is able to quickly gather, it must take immediate action in scaling national systems that support and connect food banks and other food schemes. They are to ensure that the distribution of food addresses historical inequities as well as racial, religious, ethnic and gender imbalances, this is particularly important as it relates to northern Nigeria.

Secondly, we need to support, secure and strengthen strategic food reserves, and support farmers and food processors to increase productivity and efficiency of our food ecosystem,

PT: Do you think Nigeria has the potential to avert the looming economic crisis posed by the pandemic if it invests in agriculture?

Nwuneli: There is still time, but we need to act quickly and efficiently! We need reliable and credible data which will guide or implementation, operational and governing decisions across the value chain. We need all actors of the food ecosystem to collaborate by sharing information across value chains and between sectors.

We also need to support small and medium enterprises in the agriculture and food landscape in redesigning their business models to ensure that they can continue their businesses. These enterprises hire a large percentage of the marginalised population in the country if they shut down, hundreds of thousands (potentially millions) of workers will become unemployed – leading to an economic catastrophe. I cannot understate how important these steps are in order to ensure that we avert a looming food, economic and health crisis all at the same time.

PT: In clear terms, how do we treat agriculture as a business because I know “from farm to fork” is a mantra you’ve often preached?

Nwuneli: The World Bank estimates that the food ecosystem in Africa will be at least $1 trillion by 2030. The question we must ask ourselves is who will benefit from this sizable opportunity? Importers? Farmers in other world regions? Or African entrepreneurs?

According to the Africa Agriculture Status Report 2019, published by the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), the African private sector handles 80 per cent of the food consumed on the continent. Referred to as the “hidden middle,” these companies are the drivers of growth and innovation. They provide inputs, logistics, processing, and distribution of critical food and cash crops, livestock, and all other support services.

These entrepreneurs require support to drive the transformation required in the agribusiness sector. Just a few months ago, we formally incorporated – a virtual home for agriculture and food entrepreneurs committed to attracting, empowering, equipping, connecting and celebrating over one million dynamic and innovative entrepreneurs who will drive the profitable and sustainable growth of the African agriculture and food landscapes.

PT: If “food is medicine,” as you’ve often said, how do we strike a balance between feeding and economic earning?

Nwuneli: For me, the question is rather “how do we ensure that quality food that is nutrients-dense is affordable and accessible”? We have amazing local foods that are highly nutritious but not available all year round, highly perishable and not convenient for easy preparation. This demands that we invest in innovation, research and development to create affordable and accessible food that is easy to use.

Consider our local beans, which are highly nutritious, grown in the North and largely consumed in the South. There is so much we can do with this amazing product. AACE Foods has launched its beans flour and is launching a range of healthy snacks made of beans. The price points for nutritious products must be under ($0.50) N200 per person, per meal. In doing this, more people, particularly the most vulnerable, will be able to eat nutritious and affordable meals regularly.

PT: Our agricultural sector is largely consumption-based. Some would say we should replace smallholder farmers with big agricultural businesses. Do you share this belief?

Nwuneli: No, I do not agree with this. The sector is so vast, there is room for many models – commercial farmers working alone, commercial farmers working with out-growers, and clusters of smallholder farmers collaborating to deliver impact. You cannot replace smallholder farmers and their contribution to the industry, but we can support them as they grow from micro to small, small to medium and then eventually large farmers, or support strengthening of clusters of smallholder farmers so that all actors can benefit from economies of scale.

PT: To attain food security one thing that can’t be wished away is post-harvest losses, but Nigeria is neck-deep in this. The country loses about 30-40 per cent of its harvests. What is the way out?

Nwuneli: Researchers estimate that between 20 and 60 per cent of produce, depending on the value chain, cultivated by smallholder farmers in Africa goes to waste. This reality is linked to the archaic storage methods, poor state of the road networks, limited cold storage infrastructure, and energy poverty.

A range of initiatives and entrepreneurial ventures are working to address these critical challenges, which are critical for Africa to feed itself and the world. For example, the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN) has initiated the Post-harvest Loss Alliance for Nutrition (PLAN) to foster appropriate solutions to reducing high postharvest losses caused by lack of functional cold chain system and inappropriate packaging of perishable produce. We also have to invest in local processing. This is extremely critical.

PT: A major setback in this sector is the dearth of data. What are we doing wrongly and how can we set it right?

Nwuneli: Unfortunately, data in agriculture continues to be something that we struggle with. It is extremely difficult to find up-to-date and timely data, which directly affects your research and development capabilities as an agribusiness as well as improving best practices and procedures as farmers, processors and other key stakeholders.

Real-time food balance and price data in our communities, cities, countries, and regions are not readily available, limiting the ability of key stakeholders to implement urgent interventions to feed the most vulnerable, redistribute food and engage in data-driven policy-making.

To date, I am currently working on three national initiatives to address this issue, including the Zero-Hunger Data Roundtable, led by the WFP and the Ministry of Humanitarian Affairs and supported by a range of actors, as well as exploring opportunities to establish a home-grown, Nigerian version of the Food Systems Dashboard.

PT: Overall, the report says over 97 per cent of businesses have been hit by the global pandemic. What can these businesses do to bounce back?

Nwuneli: Agribusinesses must embrace technology and innovation as key pillars of their business models. We must also leverage catalytic financing, and knowledge tools to build our capacity. In addition, we need to foster ecosystem support, and stronger industry associations that provide financing, mentoring, and market linkages to these entrepreneurs.

PT: Your advice shows you support the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) policy. Do you think with Africa’s porous borders and weak policy implementation, it’s time for that?

Nwuneli: The free trade, if successfully actualised, would allow the fast-moving consumer goods companies, international trading companies, aggregators, wholesalers and retailers to work more seamlessly together. This would ensure an efficient and effective provision of affordable food to the masses of people. However, we have been discussing this for some time now, it is important that it is more than a discussion and action is taken for it to be actualised.

PT: If you had the chance to head the nation’s agricultural sector, what would you fix?

Nwuneli: I would start with three clear initiatives. Firstly, promote local sourcing which will ensure healthier diets and also improve the lives of farmers. Patterned after Brazil’s successful Food Acquisition Programme (PAA) and the National School Feeding Programme (PNAE), these programs link the supply of produce from smallholder farmers to the demand of institutional procurement for food-based safety net and school feeding programs.

I would enforce a 30-50 per cent local sourcing requirement. This will foster ‘structured demand,” connecting large, predictable sources of demand for agricultural products to small farmers, which will reduce risks and encourage improved quality, leading to improved systems, and increased income and improved livelihoods for smallholder farmers. As part of this local sourcing strategy, I would include incentives for schools, multinationals, supermarkets, restaurants, and all actors in the food processing and distribution ecosystem to source locally.

Secondly, I would provide support to initiatives that are working towards strengthening and enabling the scaling of SMEs that are driving enhanced productivity, reducing food waste, promoting healthy diets, and leveraging innovation and technology.

Lastly, I would promote data-sharing and data-driven policymaking by strengthening and deepening initiatives such as the food systems dashboard that provides real-time data on the sector.


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