Nigeria pins green revolution hopes on cassava

Nigeria is the world's largest cassava producer Copyright: Flickr/IITA Image Library

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[ABUJA] Nigeria’s drive to boost the quality and processing of cassava, launched two months ago as part of a larger plan to turn the country into a powerhouse for food production, now has a leading cassava scientist at its helm.

Martin Fregene, director of a team of scientists known as BioCassava Plus at the Donald Danforth Plant Center in the United States, has been appointed as special advisor to the country’s agriculture minister.

But the approach to agriculture being adopted by Nigeria has been criticised by a board member of the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) for failing to acknowledge the needs and capabilities of peasant farmers.

Nigeria’s agriculture minister, Akin Adesina — former vice president of the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa — announced Nigeria’s plans to transform its agricultural sector at the IITA two months ago (11–12 August).

Adesina lamented Nigeria’s absence from the global cassava market, despite the country being the world’s largest producer, citing "poor product quality" for the failure of Nigeria’s attempt to export to China.

He added that farmers must look for ways to add value by finding ways to turn their cassava into products, such as flour.

Fregene, who was appointed to lead the revolution last month (15 September) and is assisting Adesina with an action plan said: "We must … deliver a green revolution that will make Nigeria self-sufficient in food production".

Adesina said the revolution will focus on the provision and availability of inputs such as seeds and fertilisers, increasing crop yields and establishing crop-processing zones. It will also aim to reduce pre- and post-harvest losses, provide access to financial services and markets, and improve links with industry.

But John Pickett, an IITA board member and a researcher at the UK-based agricultural research centre Rothamsted Research, was concerned that industrialising Nigeria’s agriculture could have "disastrous" consequences for its farmers unless they are involved throughout the process.

"By and large it is just about making money out of industrial agriculture. I am not in any way convinced that the green revolution has much to offer the large majority of farmers in Africa."

"They don’t buy seed or fertiliser, and they don’t use pesticides. Talking about value chains is nonsense when you have people who don’t sell anything. Most [smallholder farmers] go to bed hungry. Food security is really the base for all agriculture."

Pickett said that there are some elements of the revolution he can support, such as the focus on smallholder crops. But he added that small farmers would struggle to intensify production if they cannot afford the inputs.

He said that push-pull technology is an example of a way forward. Cereals such as maize are intercropped with a pest-repellent plant bordered by a plant that attracts pests, leading them to lay their eggs in this trap plant rather than the crop. This kind of push-pull technique, he said, has helped more than 45,000 small farmers in Kenya to intensify their yields.

Fregene told SciDev.Net that research and development would be the driving force behind the green revolution. The plan involves strengthening agricultural research institutions, training a new generation of scientists and improving partnerships with farmers and the private sector "to ensure that the products of research meet the needs of stakeholders".

Adesina said that the revolution would also focus on infrastructure development, improving rural institutions, strengthening farmers’ associations, and women and children.