By The Nation Newspaper
As tough negotiations continue at the Conference of Parties on Climate Change (COP 28) the fate of millions of Nigerian farmers may hang on Nigeria’s ability to negotiate favourable terms from the world. Seun Akioye spoke to Enock Chikava, Interim Director for Agriculture at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF) on how Nigeria should approach the negotiations in Dubai.
We know that Africa is disproportionately affected by climate change and the agricultural sector especially has been hard hit. How strongly do you think issues affecting food systems, small holder farmers in poor countries in the global south will come out in the negotiations at COP28?
I think COP28 has been building up from COP27 and the issue of food systems has been elevated. It is very important and then in September 2023, if you remember we did the first Africa Climate Action in Nairobi again emphasising the need for adaptation.
So we are looking at COP28 as that key moment when we expect partners, not only to continue to make pledges as we have seen at the PARIS Agreement-we saw that in Glasgow as well- but we are looking at doubling the adaptation funding and we believe this is the real moment for the global community to understand that we have more than three billion people in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia where small holder farmers are the engine for economic growth, employment and income.
And as you said agriculture is very vulnerable to climate change, increase in temperatures and also climate extremes we have seen in the horn of Africa, with severe drought and then in Nigeria. The reason why Africa is very vulnerable is because unless you begin to focus on the needs of small holder farmers who constitute more than 50% of the population and particularly come up with innovations that are appropriate for them and I’m sure you know that these disproportionate impact is because not so many people particularly those in the global North understand the real need of the small holder farmers.
I can give you a quick example here, when you look at what they often call food globally, the global food system is just made up of four commodities; they talk about wheat, maize, rice and soyabeans. But we know there are more foods than those, that’s why its super important as we get right here into COP28 to begin to focus on the innovations that already exists.
We are speaking about the opportunities that we have through the global research organization called the CGIAR which has three centers that are located in Africa, we have the IITA located in Ibadan there in Nigeria. They are responsible for improving the crop varieties like cassava, sunflower, sorghum, millet, sweet potato and yam.
These are already handy crops which are acceptable already all these are the neglected value chain because they are not visible from the global food chain point of view.
So we believe COP28 should be highlighting the need for more resources, more investment in deploying what already exist first but also begin to work on the next generation of innovations in crops, livestock and in digital looking into the future, so we believe now this is the right moment.
Talking about statistics, you know in Nigeria over 70% of the farmers are smallholder farmers and they produce approximately 90% of the food that we eat in the country, yet data shows about 72% of these farmers still live below poverty line and it is majorly because of climate change challenges. Talking about Nigerian representatives at the COP, what should be their ask at this very important meeting aside the general ask but what do you think Nigerian representatives should be asking the world regarding the farmers?
I will say three quick things if I will really advise the Nigeria delegation here. Firstly, I think they need to know what is food for Nigerians and we know cassava is very important commodity there, we know rice and cowpea are very important. The question is what innovations we have in those commodities which are natural or that will be able to withstand the kind of conditions that we have.
So I think what Nigerian delegates should be looking at is, we have the innovations right now today but the adoption hasn’t been wide spread because we are going to be needing more resources to be able to deploy the new generation of cassava varieties that have been developed today again using the ITTA working with the national agricultural research organisations within Nigeria.
We have that innovation ready and we’ve been working with farmers including women to include some of the things that are important for women like the cooking properties of cassava the test, colour and so on and even in putting vitamin A within the cassava to improve the nutritional value, we have in the pipeline already but we need to be distributing that to many farmers as possible.
There are several things that are needed to do that, we need the network of the seed multilayers and making sure that they are distributed to all the states that are important for cassava.
We need to focus now on the new chickens that we have that is locally adaptable but can produce five times more eggs than the indigenous chicken, we are working there with Armour farm that they need now to go throughout the whole country.
Armour farm is going to be needing more resources or new company need to come in to distribute this at scale. We now have new varieties of breeds of Tilapia. Again you focus on fish , fish is the most effective converter of your feed into the animal protein.
The conversion rate for fish is 1kg of feed you are getting 1kg of meat so which is both very important for nutritional purposes but also it is also important to reduce emissions because it is mainly the manufacturing of feeds where are generating more emissions. So the real issue is we have the innovations but those innovations must get to scale that’s why at COP here we are talking about the candid plans which Nigerians should be very clear to say if you got the money where should that money go?
They need to be able to articulate these areas; cassava is very clear, cowpea where we have more than 100 million of Nigerians who eat cowpea everyday, yam and many other and the pipeline that is available.
So I think the time is right for the Nigeria delegation to be very specific, move away from the global, talk about what is needed in the country and if they get the resources where should the money go?
Let’s go back to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation; you’ve done so much here in Nigeria. But particularly regarding agricultural, many people view that the foundation has not been too strong. Is there any role specifically that the foundation is thinking about playing in helping smallholder farmers to solve some of these problems number one, access to financing, access to climate resilient seedling and training, is it something that is in the works from the foundation?
Yes Nigeria is a focus country for the foundation and we are right now in deep conversations with the new government on what we call the “Can Led Inclusive Agriculture Transformation” it’s realising that you won’t be successful if the government is not leading the process. The government has to be identifying what are those value chains that are so important for their own country.
One of the challenges we have as we work across Africa is when the government is not paying too much attention to agriculture in terms of funding it. like If you look at the total budget they have and how much they allocate to agriculture versus other sectors.
Nigeria is one of the countries on the coordinate that are still budgeting less than 2% of their national budget to agriculture.
So one of the areas that we are working with the Nigeria government, I know they’ve made some trips to Ethiopia for example Ethiopia is doing very well when it comes to transformation that’s because for the past 15 years they have been funding their agriculture sector to the tube of 12% every year and this is focusing on their own national research, improving the road infrastructure, focusing on the extension that is needed, that’s exactly what we need in that conversation. And we are aligning on five systems which the Nigerian government can really play a role and with our help.
It is focusing on the seed system. All the global research that we do in cassava, yam, millet, at the national level are we able to test this varieties and release them to different states and making sure that we allocate or we distribute them according to high potential areas. So seed system is one area we are working with the government of Nigeria. The second is the extension system. If you look at the extension to farmer ratio in Nigeria, it is one of the poorest. There is one extension officer in Nigeria and is responsible for 10,000 farmers. So where do you start? We believe there’s a room for digital to play a role because we have more than 80% of Nigerians that owns a cell phone.
We can disrupt that by making sure that we have digital extension. So we are waiting on digital extension system for Nigeria. The third thing is around the soil health.
A lot of African soils including Nigeria soils are over mined overtime. They are very poor; they don’t have any soil nutrient. We now have a digital mapping system where Nigeria can know 20 characteristics of your soil and you can make some soil amendments and rehabilitation, we are working with them to establish National Soil Information System.
The fourth thing is around the markets. Take cassava for example, you have cassava it must be processed within 48 hours. Do you have sufficient processing facilities to make sure that once cassava is harvest it gets to the food system. You can actually substitute the need for wheat by using cassava, the blending and so on. Look at rice, why is Nigeria still importing over 6 million tons of rice? We have the land, farmers, pipeline of new rice varieties that can perform very well. We can’t reduce that Nigeria has been doing a good job in terms of growing its own rice but it’s still about 2million tons we can close that gap. I’m just talking about the concrete things we are working with Nigeria government but again they are at the forefront, development partners have only been helping them to make sure that they achieve their own vision.
I think you made very valid points regarding the how the foundation is going to work with the Nigerian government. Now talking about getting all these things right, you know Africa contributes just 4% to greenhouse gasses and then only 2% of climate financing is going to the farmers. I know you mentioned at the start some of the strong points that Africa should be demanding but then just specifically in terms of financing, how can Africa get the world to do right by her farmers?
You are right they contributed only 4% then getting precisely 1.7% of that funding is going to smallholder farmers, that is the climate injustice that is to be corrected. But also realise that it’s not just about making money available it’s also associated with reforms with regards to the financial system ,you don’t want Africa to be borrowing on top of the debt crisis they are in. This was the topic in Nairobi in September that Africa is considered risky by a lot of investors, they are paying five times more on the interest rate than borrowers in the global North.
So that is to be corrected, it is now the financial architecture and structure at the global level, we are looking at the World Bank, IMF, and all the multilateral lenders, they need to come to the party and understand what are the needs for Africa. And again one issue that increase the risk is just lack of knowledge about what’s going on and part of that knowledge is to understand the smallholder nature of agriculture in Africa, we don’t have irrigation.
About 95% of the farming in the continent is rain fed, that’s why it’s very important to understand where those risks are coming from and you need a lot of resources if you are going to get into irrigation but in the meantime you need to focus on the appropriate innovations that are relevant for rain fed.
Again going back to those value chains that we know, cassava is the hardest crop because where maize fails, where sorghum fails cassava does well but is the world aware of that. If they were aware they want to address food security but if you don’t do that we are going to be increasing the humanitarian crisis which you know that we have peanut budget of $14billion. So it’s either you prevent the crisis or you have to pay much more. Every dollar that you put in preventing the crisis, if you don’t do that you need $34 to come later on through humanitarian means.
So that’s the decision I think Africa is going to be presenting, you can’t ignore 3 billion people and still meet your SDGs, so a real focus on the real needs, smallholder farmers, understanding and reduce that perception of risk. It’s not actually the real risk it’s just a perception of the risk, that’s why we want the partnerships.
Finally Adaptation is expensive for many of these farmers but do you think artificial intelligence can help? Should Africa governments consider the use of A. I and if yes, in what areas do you think these will work the most?
There are many applications of artificial intelligence the foundation is also focusing in that area. There are several applications one; artificial intelligence can really help even in terms of the crop selection and making sure that you can use artificial intelligence to bring together what will be the temperature of let’s say in the future you can do modeling. To zoom into 2030 today and begin to understand what the temperature will be, you are to know the soil type, the kind of diseases that might emerge at that time and use that information to work backwards and begin on how to develop the crops and livestock of the future.
If I know the temperature in a particular region is going to be 40°C, then use that information and feed into the machine and begin and work backwards and say what will be the right crop in that time and you begin now to work on crops of the future, livestock of the future, looking at heat tolerant trait within your livestock, cassava, sandflour, or whatever crop that is important that’s one area.
Looking at all these traits under a good climate condition use now the machines to customize what kind of product you need then and begin n to work on those products today. The second one is around some of the language barriers, if you come up with these kinds of innovations you get into advisory or the extension system. Right now you could be using the voice technology; I’m based in the US and the time I want to speak to Siri. I may need to change my accent because Siri doesn’t understand my accent.
You can begin to do your harvesting of local languages and accents and voices in order to building what will be the kind of tools you can use to relay information about the market or the prices about agronomy. All these are very important and you need to start to work today so then a quick answer yes it’s the appropriate time for Africa to get and consider the use of artificial intelligence and the foundation is concerned that you don’t include the needs of small other farmers and the poor they will be left out of these very powerful revolution.