Edo State and the urgency of enabling an agro-allied economy, By Osarenren Izedonmwen

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Exploring Edo’s Rich History

Edo State isn’t just any sub-national entity, it is a treasure trove with deep historical roots. Its capital, Benin City, once the administrative epicentre of the vast Benin Kingdom, has captured imaginations for centuries. A poignant book, The Benin Massacre by Captain Alan Boisragon, a British survivor of the ill-fated 1897 expedition to Benin City, painted a vivid picture of the kingdom’s bountiful produce and the industries that thrived along the Benin River and its main distributaries. These waterways, which weave into the Atlantic, once hummed with activity. Today, the fertile expanse of Edo continues to play a crucial role in Nigeria’s agricultural landscape.

From Oil to Soil

In recent years, oil took over as the primary money-maker in Nigeria, with the Federal Government collecting revenues and dolling out monthly allocations to all federating units. This newfound wealth being shared from Abuja, heralded a promise of urban prosperity. Rural dwellers who were once dedicated to tilling the land and feeding the nation, found city life, with its allure of white and blue-collar jobs, increasingly captivating. The ensuing rural to urban migration of the productive rural youths who were hitherto farm hands, contributed in no small measure to the decline in agricultural productivity. The most affected sector is cash crop farming, this is because it requires more time and effort to nurture than is required for subsistence crops like cassava, yam, or maize.

But why leave behind farming that was once the backbone of the region’s prosperity? It is now crucial to refocus on Edo’s agricultural sector as a necessary gateway to a sustainable future.

Sustainability: A New Farming Roadmap

It is not just about returning to the land; it’s about doing so sustainably. While the cultivation of cash crops and their export can contribute to the economic development of Edo State, it can also lead to adverse environmental challenges. Traditional farming methods, such as slash-and-burn, harm our planet and are unsustainable. It’s time for us, as a state, to double-down on the roadmap for training farmers in eco-friendly practices. These include approaches like biological pest control, planting quick-growing and pest-resistant crop varieties, and using soil-enriching weed-suppressing cover crops, such as legumes, beneath cash crops. Adopting these methods will ensure the ecological balance of the land, while also providing sustainable yields and income for farmers in the long run. As a complementary initiative, the Edo State government should continue the good work it has already started, by training, encouraging, and assisting small holder farmers in securing international certifications for producing cash crops sustainably. An example is palm oil, sourced from sustainably cultivated plantations that adhere to credible global standards. These certifications, recognised by entities such as the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) – in the case of palm oil, will enhance the acceptance of Edo’s cash crops in the international market, helping to quickly establish a market share for Edo State-sourced farm produce.

A Wealth of Opportunity

I invite you to imagine turning the state’s rich soil into a veritable piggy bank, packed with valuable cash crops destined for export. Consider the multitude of opportunities this could open for local industries!

Take palm oil for example, a close look at the world’s palm oil trade for 2022 shows that this is a US$55 billion export market, with Indonesia as the largest exporter, taking in over US$27 billion in palm oil exports. According to a report by the consulting firm PwC, in the early 1960s, Nigeria was the world’s largest palm oil producer, with a global market share of 43 per cent. However, today, it is the fifth largest producer, with less than 2 per cent of the total global market production of 74.08 million metric tonnes. Nigeria, which used to be the leading palm oil exporter in the world, is now a net importer of palm oil, with its huge local demand. Edo State, therefore, has the potential to both bridge local demand and become an export base for forex-earning cash crops such as palm oil.

The Seed Money for Progress

Edo’s new plantations can be the launchpad for an agricultural-driven industrial evolution. By placing a renewed emphasis on farming and championing exports, we have a tangible solution to curb Nigeria’s heavy reliance on food imports. This essential influx of foreign exchange from agro-exports will also help to tackle our pressing forex crisis and ameliorate our persistent balance of payment challenges – which is at the root of our current economic woes.

The ripple effect of this agricultural rejuvenation will go deep into Edo’s more remote regions. As farms prosper through increased productivity, they will directly elevate the incomes of our hard-working farmers. This surge in rural purchasing power would naturally lead to a heightened sense of commerce and a yearning for a better quality of life. The increased commercial activities in these areas will also create demand for goods and services. An uptick in demand will, in turn, sow the seeds for a rural mass market and the various cottage industries to support it.

But the cycle would not end with the immediate prosperity of farmers. The wealth accumulated by farmers will not just benefit them – it would feed back into our state and national economies. The state government, through well-crafted messaging via mass communication channels, must then strive to entrench a culture of savings over that of mass consumption. If done effectively with incentives to hilt, the surplus earnings of farmers will be channelled into savings. This will bolster our banking sector. A strong financial system, in turn, is positioned to offer credit to aspiring entrepreneurs and more farmers. If this is repeated over a period, a continuous loop of growth and reinvestment will be created, leading to a more prosperous future for Edo State.

Lannd Rights In Edo: Empowering Farmers through Tenure Security 

Soil is gold. Land is not just dirt; it’s a farmer’s bread and butter. Ensuring long-term ownership can inspire farmers to invest more in their lands as their property and thereby increase productivity for themselves and their own prosperity, rather than for the landlord or rent seeker as it is today. How to do this?

Government’s Hand in the Soil

Edo State government has the potential to transform agriculture by acquiring and preparing vast swathes of its abundant arable land using mechanised methods. By issuing long-term land rights and acting as guarantors for farmers seeking agricultural improvement loans, the government can significantly boost agricultural productivity.

A key area for state intervention is through agricultural infrastructure. The establishment of new river basin authorities, alongside the existing ones, would pave the way for strategic projects such as dams, water reservoirs, and expansive irrigation systems. These controlled water systems can ensure year-round agricultural activities, thereby reducing our millennia-old dependence on monsoon rains. During the execution of these civil works, the state could efficiently utilise local labour resources, particularly farmers. By organising and mobilising them under a temporary salary scheme, the state can engage these farmers in land preparation and support infrastructure projects during the typically idle dry season. This approach not only breathes life into the land but also fosters a more productive and self-sufficient agricultural sector.

Boosting Per Capita Agricultural Productivity: the Four Pillars

Improving Edo State’s agricultural productivity requires the active participation of the state government. This means significant commitment by the political leadership, state directed investments, and well-crafted policy efforts. Here, I propose four key pillars to boost per capita agricultural productivity. While not exhaustive, they serve as signposts to begin with:

Extension Services: Filling in the blanks: The state government, working with the federal ministries, departments and agencies (MDAs) and research institutes, should set up robust extension services in Edo. These should be thought of as helpful neighbours who know all the farming secrets. Their mandate is to improve productivity by many folds. This they will do by showing farmers how to get the most out of their land using proven best practices and practical knowledge transfer to farmers – which will be learning-by-doing.

Quality Seeds: The right start: research and experience has shown that with the right seeds and hybrid crops, a farmer’s yield can double or triple. The time to maturity and crop yield can also be significantly reduced, ensuring an early return on investment. It’s like giving an artist the best paints; the result will be a masterpiece.

The Two-Way Street: Agriculture and industry don’t exist in separate lanes, they form a dynamic two-way street, each propelling the other’s momentum. As emphasised earlier, the foreign exchange earned from agricultural exports will enhance the ability to import the technology and machinery essential for Edo State’s technological upgrading and initial industrialisation.

A logical first step is agro-processing, adding value to the agricultural produce before export. This aligns seamlessly with the current Edo State government’s ambition to construct a new deep seaport – The Benin River Port. Once operational, this port is poised to be Africa’s premier hub dedicated almost exclusively to the export of agro-allied products. Over time, the vicinity around the port is envisioned to host industrial parks focused on processing agricultural produce to the highest international standards for export. This shift echoes the golden era from the 15th to the late 19th century, when the banks of the Benin river and its distributaries thrived with agro-processing factories, though they were more modest and less technologically advanced. Government must now accelerate this commendable initiative and make the port a reality.

Learning from the Leaders: Other regions in the world, especially in Northeast Asia, have transformed farming into industrial gold, and Edo can replicate this success by following a clear roadmap. A critical aspect of this strategy is to move away from the economic dogma of ‘laissez-faire,’ as advocated by some international development institutions, which often advise against government intervention or subsidies in agriculture. To understand the importance of governmental support in agriculture, we must examine the economic histories of ‘now-developed’ and ‘rapidly developing’ countries during their growth phases. The transitions of Taiwan and China from agrarian to mass-production economies are particularly instructive. In both cases, agriculture catalysed rural proto-industrialisation, boosting agro-productivity, and fostering agricultural diversification. This progress was not the result of market forces alone, as suggested by Adam Smith’s ‘invisible hand,’ but rather the outcome of deliberate state action.

The government’s role is crucial, not only in implementing the four pillars I previously outlined but also in investing in irrigation systems, agricultural infrastructure, and rural road networks, to enhance plantation access. Eliminating rural logistical bottlenecks is essential to streamlining the movement of farm produce to aggregation and processing centres. The government must also play a pivotal role in market creation, both domestically within Nigeria and internationally, focusing on semi-processed and processed cash crops. Edo State needs to strengthen its Ministry of Trade and Industry to collaborate with the Nigeria Export Promotion Council in international market creation. Initiating roadshows and international marketing campaigns is vital to generating interest in our products. Concurrently, mirroring the approach of the Northeast Asian economies, we must emphasise quality control. The quality of our agricultural products should consistently match or exceed international standards. Farmers, agro-processors, and exporters who benefit from government support but fail to meet pre-agreed export quality standards should face sanctions. In summary, the government must be hands-on in ensuring that Edo State adopts policies centred on ‘Export Discipline’ (in Joe Studwell’s words), which is crucial to our agricultural production and trade strategy.

Conclusion 

Edo stands at a crossroads, with paths leading to green plantations and buzzing factories. It’s time for politicians, policymakers, farmers, investors, and citizens to come together, planting the seeds for a prosperous future. Let’s envision an Edo State that’s not only greener but also richer in opportunities and innovations.

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