Nigeria’s agriculture: Evolution of tradition

  • Feb 10, 2016

FCC Economics is pleased to welcome Manfred Okorobia to our team. Manfred is on a four-month work term from the University of Regina where he’s enrolled in Business Administration and Economics. There are many benefits to developing countries of incorporating large-scale agriculture into their economy, but this post frames the important cost of that introduction.

I grew up in Port Harcourt, a city on the west coast of Nigeria. An African country with a population of 182 million people, Nigeria continues to grow faster than most countries in the world. Its economic growth in 2016-2017 will likely exceed 4% each year and, despite the downturn in prices, be largely driven by oil and agriculture.

Located on the Gulf of Guinea, Nigeria is rich in arable land and rivers. Its diverse agricultural sector produces cassava, sorghum, corn and many vegetables in the east. The nomadic Hausas rear cattle in the north. Aquaculture is mostly a southern enterprise, with its abundance of rivers and lakes, while the west claims fish, corn and cassava. In Nigeria, as in Canada, a rich, diverse agriculture is a way of life for many, not just an occupation.

It’s not just the production of food that’s regionally specific. Consumption of different foods is also highly localized. Many social and cultural events of significance for local populations are centred on locally produced food. The Igbos’ biggest celebration is the New Yam Festival. In Ikuru, my village in South Nigeria, the major celebration is the Corn Festival.

The celebrations themselves are important for family and cultural continuity. In a country increasingly urbanized, many Nigerians work and live in densely populated cities but travel frequently to small, outlying villages. Our family homes are in these villages. Food patterns differ between cities and villages and as such, visiting your village is a way of maintaining your culture. I often visit home, especially for family holidays and religious ceremonies. These are celebrations not only centred on the food we eat. These foods bring people together.

Nigerian agriculture evolves

Decades ago, Nigeria’s agriculture was dominated by subsistence farming. Now, there’s a mix of subsistence farming and small scale agriculture, both of which are based on traditional diets and reliant on locally produced food sources. Over 90% of all animals (cows, goats, hogs, birds) are for domestic consumption.

But Nigerian agriculture is underdeveloped.  With only 42% of arable land in use, the country is far from realizing its potential. Most farmers can’t afford machinery or construct proper storage systems. A majority also lack basic knowledge of equipment and fertilizer application.. There’s little infrastructure, technology and innovation.

Countries such as Brazil and China are investing in sub-Saharan agriculture, with banana plantations and other large-scale projects, the kind of investment many consider key in the development of Africa’s overall agriculture and economic growth.

Such large-scale, intensive agriculture has much to offer Nigeria. Urban Nigerians now consume processed and imported food. Demand for more value-add and diverse agri-food products is likely to grow as population and household incomes increase. With more education, disposable income and urbanity, more people will reap the benefits of a Western life.

This period of transition has a cost however. Not as many people leave the cities to attend social and religious celebrations in their family villages as they used to. Traditional diets – and the family-centred meals of village life – are being increasingly replaced by urban meals of imported or mass produced foods, eaten without the company of family or friends. The customs associated with traditional meals in ancestral homes are important ties for binding families to communities and across generations. I’m all for modernising Nigerian agriculture, but I hope for a balance so the ties I rely on to sustain my sense of family and community can continue. Subsistence farming can’t do much to elevate Nigeria economically, but I trust the adoption of large-scale agriculture will be an addition, not a replacement, to local ways.

Manfred Okorobia, Economics Student Intern