By Kayode Crown
The Yoruba will say (permit me to translate it): if you take “lack of food” from poverty, there is really no poverty.
Recent statistics released by World Data Lab shows that Nigeria has just overtaken India as the country with the largest population of poor people in the world, though India’s population is about five times ours, just to give the context.
While a lot of efforts have been put to expanding the economy, to diversify from having petroleum as the mainstay, not enough attention has been directed at cheap availability of food and targeted subsidy in that direction. So whatever gains in the economy is wiped out through skyrocketing inflation, especially as regards the cost of food.
Many developed economies don’t joke with making sure that food prices are very low. For example, the United States, according to available data from the Department of Agriculture (USDA), spends $25 billion or more a year on subsidies for farm businesses based on the clearly defined goals of the government to mitigate the effects of inflation and other market forces on the prices of food.
The issue of availability of food is not just left to the whim of the people involved in the business.
The government knows that “irorun igi ni rorun eye.”
That is a Yoruba proverb which translates: If the tree is calm, the bird on it will also be calm. How that applies to the matter under discussion is that it is as the people have sufficient food and the lower the percentage of income that is needed to eat well, other aspects of the work of the government becomes easier.
The people would be willing to pay the required tax if food is readily affordable and available. They would be in the right frame of mind to contribute in meaningful ways to the economy for the benefit of all.
There won’t be a big pool of malcontents, constituting themselves into clogs in the wheels of the progress of the society, hardened by hunger and predisposed to upending the society and becoming saboteurs in different forms.
While the Ondo State government has organised and observed an Education Summit to bring attention to the different needs in the education sector, we need an Agriculture/Food sufficiency summit also.
While we don’t expect the government to now turn itself into “farmer”, it needs to assist farmers in every way it can with the aim of controlling the price of food.
Rice is produced in the state in different places. With just a little attention and minimal price regulation, they could expand their efforts to feed the whole state, especially with the availability of the right processing facility.
According a recent market survey, imported rice costs about 550 per rubber, while local local rice goes for N700.
That is a difference of N150. Does that make sense from the food sufficiency point of view? It doesn’t. Why should the retail price of imported rice be much more lower than that of the local rice?
What kind of factors are responsible for the pricing the local rice as something of a luxury good?
Has the right attention been paid to locally available resources and help given to the local farmers to scale up? Those are the questions that need answers.
We can also speak about yam, which is also produced in the state. It is sometimes priced beyond the reach of the commoner. This is not right and is something that needs to be looked into going forward.
We should not just focus on bringing big companies into the state, we need to see to the local farmers also.
And it’s not just about provision of loans, everything needs to be dovetailed into reduction of price of food. That really is the key.
It’s not just about giving the people jobs, but what about food? It does not matter how much money people have, if they are so squeezed when it comes to provision of food for themselves and their families, it may that may not count for much.
And if people don’t have disposable income, and most money you get is spent on food, then other aspects of the economy will be stifled, and sometimes grinding to a halt.
Even if the people have money generating ideas, they cannot explore them well since many are basically living from hand to mouth and that is even if there is anything in the hand to put into the mouth.
And the way things have been is that when there is salary increase, the price of food also jumps up, and whatever gains the salary increase might have brought is wiped out almost overnight. So the price of food is chases the little increase in salary and catches up fast.
All I have been saying about price regulation may need the input of Agricultural Economists. They have devoted years to that sector and it is time we allow them to put their intellectual prowess to work.
The past Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development in the country and the present president of African Development Bank, with responsibility of jump starting development on the African continent, in the person of Dr Akinwumi Adesina, studied Agricultural Economics up to PhD level.
He has won awards and has been praised for the policies he has initiated both in Nigeria and also on the African continent. He could arguably be regarded as the most famous Agricultural Economist in Nigeria and through him we can see how vital the role of that course in generating ideas and policies in areas where agriculture and economics overlap.
Bringing such people on board, the genuine intellectuals, not the political ones, can breathe a new lease of life into the matter of food sufficiency inclusive of low price of food. They should be trusted and given the necessary support to drive this agenda.
What we have had till now is money merely thrown at the agricultural sector as loans or grants to farmers or even provision of farm inputs. There needs to be an independent audit of how effective those lines of actions have been all these years so that we don’t continue to say that since that is what has been done, that is what should continue to be done.
The Agric Economists are expected to not only have an intellectual grasp of the sectors their discipline overlap, they should also have “on the field” experience and a keen understanding of the peculiar environment of the state.
Bring such people together, put them in a room and tell them to grind out policies that will ensure low prices when it comes to some specific food items, at least for starters.
And that can be an example the whole nation can learn from. This can actually be a missing piece in the government’s agricultural policy all these while.
It is going to be a win-win situation for everyone at the end of the day as food becomes widely available for all and priced low enough.
The cost of food in the market should be the concern of government because it intimately affects the people they govern.
Rather that watch as the cost of food constantly skyrockets, driven to and fro by the wind of inflation and other vagaries; rather than just say that the people are lazy and don’t want to work, this matter needs to be on the front burner.
And it should be reiterated that it is not just about availability, the cost should be low enough that only a very small percentage of the income is spent on food, even if you earn is exactly the minimum wage. The latter should actually be the reference point.