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Youth Involvement in Agriculture: The Image Factor (Nigerian story/perspective)


Years ago, I asked a friend whose father was first an agriculturist before becoming a politician (a serving senator) how his father got rich, and he told me pointedly that “through farming”. Ever inquisitive, I asked “How?” and his response was “Bunmi, if you go into real agriculture, though you might struggle for some time, but once you become established then it’s almost like money ritual”.

Naturally I would have had a problem believing his answer, but having known him for years, plus the impression I got from meeting his father a few times, and my ‘limited experience’ in the field of agriculture then made me believe him completely.

Truly agriculture is a goldmine, and the ever-expanding population (over 167 million at last estimate) means more and more people are (and will be) depending on your service for nourishment and other vitals to stay alive.

Yet, despite this somewhat obvious fact and the monstrous level of unemployment among the youths of Nigeria, few people are giving any thought or really willing to explore this goldmine. And looking at it over the years, as a trained agriculturist (never mind I later veered off into environmental biology), I have come to the conclusion, though I won’t claim credit for this, that the major obstacle standing in the way of young Nigerians from going into agriculture is the image problem.

Yes I know there are a myriad of other problems like the land tenure system, somersaulting government policies, bad linkage roads, electricity etc… but all these and many more seemingly intractable problems exist in other endeavours where the indomitable spirit of the Nigerian youth has triumphed and is already establishing Nigeria on the international map.

The music industry, or probably the entertainment industry in its entirety, is a classic example of this. Nollywood, comedy industry, fashion design, even literature and arts. Despite perennial problems of piracy, inadequate or outdated equipment, paucity of funds, initial lethargy or low response of the populace etc, Nigerians (mostly youths) in these fields have been able to excel, building up entirely hitherto non-existent industries in the process. Gone are the days when someone introducing himself as a professional comedian will elicit reactions like disbelief and rolling of the eyes, or when an introduction as a fulltime actor will be trailed by hard questions.

Back to agriculture; as I posited earlier, the major factor preventing the youths in Nigeria from going into farming is the image problem. Nobody wants to be identified with hoe and cutlass (which sadly are still the lot of our peasant farmers) in this age of jets and SUVs; nobody wants to till the land and wait a year or more for a meager profit when his contemporaries in other fields sit behind computers in air-conditioned rooms and make cool cash.

Even at the university level, most students who studied agriculture and related courses studied it not because they wanted to but more often because of lower SSCE and UME scores, intense competition for limited spaces, and the Nigerian factor (Man-know-Man), which prevent them from getting the courses of their choice. They are what a professor I once attended his inaugural lecture referred to as academic refugees. In the end, some get to see the light midway and embrace it, but for others, even after graduation, it’s a no-win contest; the banks and cool offices are the ultimate destinations, and after five years of active service, the plants and animals can fend for themselves. Little wonder all the Back-to-Land, Feed-the-Nation and other green revolution programmes have failed.

Still, we can get the youths back to, and get them engaged in, this tasking (it takes patience) but productive and profitable business. But first, we need to revamp the image of agriculture from an endeavour fit only for villagers, illiterates and retired military officers (with easily acquired lands and lots of money to invest in machinery) to one that is profitable for youths and needs their energy, drive and innovation.

And just like in other industries where people are celebrated for their contributions, we need to tell the success stories of those who have made it, and/or are still making it, in the farming business - and you would be surprised there are many.

We need to celebrate those doing a good job of feeding us, because beyond government intervention, policy and direct pumping of money into agriculture, getting youths engaged in agricultural productivity, for the purpose of food security and employment (which itself will solve many other problems), will involve dismantling the negative notions or persuading them to unlearn the negative things they have learned about farming. The battle is mainly in the mind and has to be won there.

Once that single battle is won and the youths are persuaded, or get to see agriculture as a profitable venture, then the ‘Invisible hand’ can take care of the rest – just like in the entertainment industry.

Picture: Myself and colleagues during our farm-only one year as fourth year undergraduates. The picture was taken 7 years ago and we were engaged in one of the stages (pressing) of processing cassava into garri (cassava flakes), a widely popular local food commodity (especially for the poor) in the Nigeria. It was an on-the-farm processing unit. Nice time, it was!