By Patricia Pessu
Even though it sounds like ancient history now, agriculture was actually once the mainstay of our economy. From rubber and oil palm in the Midwest and the East of Nigeria to cocoa in the West and groundnuts in the North, ours was an agricultural haven in the ‘60s and early ‘70s.
Due to the oil boom of the 1970s, agriculture gradually descended in our order of priorities. It is instructive that oil is now in decline globally. With countries setting targets for the deployment of electric cars and global focus now increasingly shifting towards green energy, there is an imperative for developing countries like Nigeria to strategically plan an exit from their decades-old over-reliance on oil.
Thankfully, not only is Nigeria blessed with an abundance of arable soil and good weather, our human resource endowment is also formidable. Simply, we have all it takes to reap bountiful harvests from agriculture to feed ourselves, and with enormous excess for export.
In the last few years, Nigeria’s agricultural value chain has witnessed a steady incursion of dozens of educated professionals, young and old. Retired top civil servants, former bankers, IT experts, and indeed, entrepreneurs of different hues are steadily embracing farming and giving a new lease of life to a vocation with boundless potential in Nigeria.
While the agricultural value chain is steadily growing, majority of entrants into the agriculture space, appear to be focused on such aspects as more efficient cultivation of crops and animal husbandry, value addition to agricultural commodities via food procession, logistics and others.
These are all critical elements in the continuing growth of the agricultural sector in Nigeria. Entrepreneurs, however, must also spare some time to examine the prospects of food storage.
Food storage is particularly critical in Nigeria because of the sheer volume of food that goes to waste after harvests annually. From grains like rice, beans, soya beans and maize which may get infested by insects such as weevils or moulds; to tubers like yams and potatoes which become rotten and even vegetables and fruits, which wilt and rot; tonnes of food commodities are wasted after harvests annually. Farmers and other members of the agricultural value chain often have challenges in the handling and storage of these agricultural commodities.
Entrepreneurs can examine effective ways to consolidate a good proportion of these commodities that would ordinarily be wasted. They could store these commodities when they are in excess supply in the immediate aftermath of these harvests and then release them for sale in the medium term; when being out-of-season, these commodities are in short supply.
This would be a big win-win scenario for farmers whose losses would have been considerably mitigated, the consumers who will have food more readily available and at a cheaper cost, and the entrepreneurs themselves, who will make a decent profit from making this happen.
Interestingly, there is a growing number of innovative storage facilities that are home-grown, with which agricultural entrepreneurs may execute such a strategy. What is particularly instructive about these home-grown facilities is that having been developed by scientists locally, they are very cognizant of Nigeria’s weather and other peculiarities, so by design, they are practically fit-for-purpose.
This is as opposed to facilities of this nature that are imported from other countries. Secondly, the storage facilities are constructed by local engineers largely from local raw materials. For this reason, among others, construction costs are much reduced and the facilities, much more affordable.
Grains, for instance, can be stored in inert atmosphere silos. These are silos that have been developed locally by the Nigerian Stored Products Research Institute specifically to aid grain preservation in our environment without the use of pesticides. Beans can remain fresh and in fact retain its original food quality even after storage in these silos for more than three years.
Entrepreneurs can invest in these silos, engage farmers either directly or through the farmers’ cooperatives and buy off much of the surplus for which farmers may have had challenges handling or storing appropriately.
Entrepreneurs can, therefore, make a respectable profit in supplying these grains long after the harvests and when the grains are no longer in excessive supply in the market.
Food storage, in this case, I must clarify, is not referring to hoarding of food. Rather, we are looking to evolve a system where we systematically mitigate post-harvest losses in such a manner that entrepreneurs turn what would ordinarily have been losses, into profits even while helping to make food more readily available and at a cheaper cost, for the country.
The same principle applies to fish. All over the country, it is common to see agro processors smoking fish directly over open flames. Such smoked fish, though avidly consumed locally, find very little acceptance in international markets for many reasons, including presentation and hygiene. But specialised smoking kilns suitable for this environment have since been developed by the Nigerian Stored Products Research Institute as well.
These kilns smoke fish in a manner in which the fish is dried uniformly and comes out in an attractive golden-brown colour with any unnecessary oils carefully eliminated. With good packaging, they are widely acceptable in international markets. There is, therefore, a great opportunity for entrepreneurs to buy up fish from fish farmers for fish processing, and sale both locally and internationally.
There is a lot of work currently ongoing in the search for long-lasting and effective preservation methods for fruits and vegetables. Traditional evaporative cooling mechanisms for preservation, for instance, which have been used in traditional societies for decades, are currently being examined by local scientists with the hope of gradual step-by-step improvements.
In the near future, we envisage the introduction of affordable innovative mechanisms which can preserve fruits and vegetables for a reasonably long period of time and which can be profitably deployed by entrepreneurs to store fruits and vegetables for purposes not only of mitigating waste but of doing so in a manner that is profitable.
Entrepreneurs who can afford it may also look at other ways such as freeze-drying and refrigeration, by which they can preserve fruits in season for instance. Refrigeration in this case, should consider the possibility of alternative energy sources, given Nigeria’s electricity challenges. This way, rather than allow excess fruit to go to waste as commonly happens here, these harvests can be stored and made available for consumption well after the said fruits are no longer in season.
If Nigeria is to fully optimize the potential of our vast arable land and our incredible human resources, then an increasingly creative approach to agriculture is required. Entrepreneurs must begin to look more creatively at the potential of food storage.
Dr. Pessu is Executive Director of Nigerian Stored Products Research Institute, Ilorin