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COVID-19: Should Nigeria Be Worried About Looming Famine, Food Insecurity?

Before the outbreak of COVID-19, Nigeria already occupied the infamous position of the world poverty capital and its northern region was ranked among the top 10 places with the worst food crises. By putting the bulk of economic activities on hold, not sparing the agricultural sector, the ongoing pandemic threatens to make the situation worse.

According to the World Food Programme (WFP), previous estimates indicate that over 21 million people across West Africa will have difficulty feeding themselves between June and August if not assisted.

With the wide reaching effects of the coronavirus pandemic, the number could rise to 43 million within the next six months with the majority from Nigeria, the WFP added.

The agency’s Executive Director, David Beasley, recently noted that as many as 30 million people across the world could die over a few months as a result of hunger. And that did not consider the huge impact of the global health crisis.

“So, we are literally looking at Biblical proportions of famine, the possibility anywhere from 10 to 36 countries,” Beasley said.

“The actions we take will determine our success, or failure, in building sustainable food systems as the basis of stable and peaceful societies. The truth is, we do not have time on our side, so let’s act wisely – and let’s act fast,” he said.

Over the past weeks, farmers across Nigeria have been complaining about their inability to get produce to the market.

A Lagos-based yam trader, Olatunji Okesanya, told newsmen that farmers could not easily get their produce to the state because of movement restrictions. He explained that the few who were able to bring in products bribed law enforcement agents “and this is making the price to rise.”

Fish farmers in the south are also on the losing end due to inability to properly feed their stock and hand over to customers who had placed orders.

The story is not different for rice farmers in Benue State, watermelon farmers in Kebbi, or poultry farmers in Abuja who complain about inevitable reduction in production, mass product spoilage, and a drastic fall in demand.

The Chief Executive Officer of AFEX Commodities Exchange Limited, Mr Ayodeji Balogun, observed that restrictions on transportation and general loss of livelihoods were bound to cause labour shortages, price hikes, logistic problems and limited market access for farmers.

During a recent webinar with the Guild of Nigerian Agriculture Journalists, stakeholders in the agricultural sector identified other challenges in the sector to include inability to access seeds, other farm inputs and farmlands.

According to Kabir Ibrahim, the President of All Farmers Association of Nigeria (AFAN) Nigeria urgently needs to upscale production in order to prevent food shortage which will be more devastating than COVID-19.

“The pandemic will affect the productivity of agriculture in Nigeria,” Ibrahim said, adding that it could drop by as much as 65 per cent because of late planting in some areas.

“Farmers are already complaining, seeds and other input are not getting to where they are needed from the production levels. We are going to be very lucky to meet the demands of food this year,” Ibrahim said.

He said although the African Development Bank had promised to support farmers with fertilisers, seeds and farm inputs, the assistance had yet to come for the new farming season.

Corroborating the AFAN boss, Dr Bello Funtua, the President of Maize Association of Nigeria, projected that the 2020 target of producing 25 million tonnes of maize could drop by as much as 30 per cent.

Some farmers could not return to their farms to harvest crops from the last dry season due to restrictions on movement, he said.

The forecast of Prof. Nafiu Abdu, who is the President of Soybean Farmers Association of Nigeria, was not different. The sub-sector had set a target of one million 100kg bags of soybeans but, due to the pandemic, it will likely only be able to produce half that quantity.

“Our farmers are apprehensive as a result of the pandemic, especially with the rise in the cost of input,” he said.

“When farmers harvest their produce some will keep it until the price goes up a little bit so they can make profit. But because of COVID-19, the price has remained stable for over three months, in some cases, the price is dropping. And this will affect farmers because they will not get back investment from the last growing season,” Abdu said.

The Wheat Farmers Association of Nigeria likewise said its outputs would not likely to exceed 30 per cent of original projections and the President of Poultry Association of Nigeria, Ezekiel Ibrahim, similarly decried the devastating effects on poultry farming.

Experts have said the various difficulties currently faced by farmers, together with other challenges such as climate change, communal clashes and the global fall in oil price, would lead to both food scarcity and inflation.

AFEX CEO, Balogun, said if the coronavirus spread to rural communities, farm produce might generally reduce by up to 25 per cent,.

According to the Observatory of Economic Complexity (OEC), a total import value of 34.2 billion dollars in 2017 placed Nigeria as the world’s 58th largest importer of food and some of the major goods brought into the country include wheat, raw sugar, palm oil, frozen, corn, and so on.

“We need to declare a state of emergency on the cultivation of wet farming and ensure that there is free movement of trucks conveying food on the roads and ports,” Balogun suggested.

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