By Prof. MK Othman

No doubt, the Covid-19 pandemic with its subsequent lockdown in virtually every nation, globally, is already having terrible consequences on food security. The pandemic indeed caught the world unprepared and thus unplanned for its devastating effects. No one saw it coming, perhaps except China, even then couldn’t prepare for its devastating consequences. The most developed nations of the world, such as the US, UK, Germany, Japan, France and Italy, are still taking the worst hit in the death counts. Nigeria with less than a thousand deaths is among the least affected, compared with our large population. Unfortunately, the pandemic is yet to be over. For an agriculturist in Nigeria and similar countries, this brings to the fore three burning issues.

The first concerns the health and safety of farmers and other Agricultural Actors. With the over-two month stay-at-home order of government before the relaxation, everyone was eating indoors and no one was in the field cultivating. Agricultural produce was being sold across the country without the stores replenished. How are farmers farming while observing the Covid-19 protocol of staying; use of mask and social distancing? Bear in mind that over 80% of Nigerian farmers are subsistence with the average age of 54 years and low literacy level. This is a call for concern for all those involved in the food value chains, as well as for policymakers. How do we meet the food security benchmark now and after the Covid-19 pandemic?

The second burning issue concerns our 2020 budget which has about 45 MDAs, was allocated the sum of 138.48 billion of the budget. The sector’s budget is about 1.73% of the total budget, and shows an increase share of the sector’s budget to the national budget from 1.5% in 2019. However, the quantum of fund in 2020 is less than the 2019 budget. This amount also falls short of the Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Programme (CAADP) benchmark that stipulates at least 10% of the national budget to the agricultural sector. Can we recover from the devastation of Covid-19 pandemic with a paltry budget allocation and deficit?

The third issue thrown to light by the pandemic, which is not new but a nagging old one, relates to the challenges of climate change, such as rising temperatures, decreasing soil fertility, increasing incidences of pests and diseases, among others. Climate change is grossly affecting onset and cessation of rain; hence, the need to make available to farmers planting materials that are high-yielding, tolerant to drought, and responsive to depleting soil fertility, as well as work towards enhancing food utilization through advanced processing techniques.

This article presents the response to the challenge of climate change on agriculture through effective collaboration between NAERLS, ABU Zaria and IITA Ibadan. The International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) was established in 1967 as a non-profit institution that generates agricultural innovations to meet Africa’s most pressing challenges of hunger, malnutrition, poverty, and natural resource degradation. IITA works with various partners across sub-Saharan Africa, including NAERLS, to improve livelihoods, enhance food and nutrition security, increase employment, and preserve natural resource integrity.

National Agricultural Extension and Research Liaison Services (NAERLS), one of the research centers of ABU Zaria is one of the 17 National Agricultural Research Institutes (NARIs) under the Federal Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development. The Institute is responsible for development, collation, evaluation and dissemination of proven agricultural innovations and to research on extension methodologies and policy. The extension and research activities of the Institute takes into account the long-term ecological, economic and social consequences of changes in rural life and linkages. These activities are conducted in partnership with NARIs and other national and international collaborators, such as IITA.

Since the 1980s, IITA and NAERLS have formed formidable partnership in research for development (R4D), providing solutions to hunger, poverty, and the degradation of natural resources in Nigeria. In recent years, the partnership has focused mainly on maize improvement and adoption. For many who know, maize crop improvement is historically one of IITA’s top areas of research with accomplishments such as the remarkable success with the development of drought-tolerant and striga-resistant varieties, as well as high-yielding and disease-resistant varieties that are adaptable to Nigeria’s agroecologies.

The Stress-Tolerant Maize for Africa (STMA) Project was birthed in 2016, following the success of the Drought-Tolerant Maize for Africa (DTMA) project (between 2007 and 2015), to aggressively increase adoption and utilization of maize in the country through the development and promotion of stress-tolerant maize varieties. The STMA project deals with the development, production, testing and promotion of mainly four varieties of maize (that are tolerant to climatic stresses) in sub-Saharan Africa. These varieties are: Drought-tolerant, striga-resistant, disease/pest-resistant, and low-nitrogen tolerant.

Maize (Zea mays) is one of the important grains in Nigeria, not only on the basis of the number of farmers that engage in its cultivation, but also in its economic value. Maize is a major important cereal crop cultivated in the rainforest and the derived savannah zones; and has been in the diets of Nigerians for centuries. It started as a subsistence crop and has gradually become more important crop. Maize has now risen to a commercial crop on which many agro-based industries depend as raw materials. With the right application of improved seeds and agricultural practices, maize is generally high yielding. It is also a versatile crop, allowing it to grow across a range of agro ecological zones in the country. Maize thrives best in a warm climate and is now grown in most of the countries that have suitable climatic conditions. It is best planted after the soil temperature reaches 60°F and can be planted alongside beans, potatoes, peas, and cucumber.

Consequently, STMA emphasises the incorporation of multiple stress-tolerant varieties and hybrids that have well-defined product profiles and have abiotic characteristics (in the areas of drought, nitrogen-use efficiency and heat).  More specifically, the objectives are to: develop and test varieties tolerant to drought and low-nitrogen soils, as well as resistant to striga and diseases; promote (make visible to end-users and stakeholders) the produced varieties through various extension packages and platforms; and measure the socioeconomic pattern of adoption of the disseminated technologies.

The IITA-NAERLS partnership is generally to increase utilization of released maize varieties by strategically positioning them so that they are visible and accessible to the Nigerian farming stakeholders. While IITA makes the varieties available, NAERLS carries out activities to: increase the widespread access to and adoption of the varieties; increase awareness among farmers /youths, policymakers, and the private seed sector on the benefits of these varieties; promote access to and commercialization of novel high-yielding varieties and hybrids; and promote the mainstreaming of women groups and youths in the country’s agriculture along the value chain. To achieve these, the Project deploys multichannel strategies for reaching the highly differentiated Nigerian farming stakeholders. These strategies include the use of audience participatory, gender-sensitive programmes, as well as multimedia packages to increase awareness and promote adoption of new DT maize varieties.

In summary, the STMA project has achieved so much for the country in such a short time. First, the Project has drastically increased maize productivity by at least 30% among many farmers across the agroecologies and about 18% at the national level. Breaking the barrier of low yield is one of the targets of the STMA project, which has been largely and successfully achieved in its five years of implementation.

Second, the project has dramatically expanded for farmers the availability and accessibility to improved maize varieties. It has enhanced access to improved genotypes as an affordable alternative to many small-scale farmers in the country. Today, the stress-tolerant maize varieties (both hybrids and open-pollinated) are becoming a great choice for farmers in Nigeria. These include high-yielding, short-maturing and high quality seeds, accessed by farmers, from the Sudan savanna to the southern Guinea savanna of the country.

Third, the import of the STMA intervention project in Nigeria is seen in the fact that the project is laudably and steadily assisting to achieve the Federal Government’s agenda of developing the economy to be among the top 20 in the world. The Project, through its various activities, has drastically increased millions of tons of raw industrial materials for the thriving national economy. Fourth, the Project is strategically attracting the youth to agriculture. With the novel maize technologies developed and disseminated, rural and urban youth are becoming interested in agricultural production. Many youth who had abandoned the sector, constrained by the overt lack of access to improved planting materials as well as scientific and technological information on modern production techniques, are increasing becoming actively involved.

Fifth, the project is also increasing the utilization of maize, as well as empowering women on income generating programmes for economic self-empowerment. In Nigeria, cereals (mainly maize, rice and wheat) supply about 80% of the energy requirements. At the utilization level, maize is easy to process, readily digested and costs less than other cereals. Moreover, the STMA project has a programme for building the capacity of women groups on maize processing and value addition.

In conclusion, as the Covid-19 pandemic, falling oil prices, and climate change threaten the nation with food insecurity, the Stress-Tolerant Maize for Africa (STMA) project has provided for us a platform to relaunch into a post-crisis future with some level of certainty. Thus, the collaboration with NAERLS and IITA has propelled the agricultural sector towards a sure path of food security and improvement of farmers’ livelihoods. If we are better off than where we were five years ago, we can be sure that if the path is strengthened and followed, other things being equal, agriculture would be central to Nigeria’s economic revival. There is the need for other partners to be actively involved in our long walk to food and nutrition security.

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