Nigerian farmers and agricultural scientists have warned that ‘political farmers’ should not be permitted to hijack the Central Bank of Nigeria’s (CBN’s) ‘Agric for Food and Jobs Plan (AFJP)’ and the zero-interest loans meant for smallholder farmers in the frantic efforts to prevent food shortage, hunger and unemployment post-COVID-19.
The apex bank, on June 18, 2020, unveiled plans for a framework for the integration of non-interest window in all its intervention programmes, particularly the Anchor Borrowers’ Programme (ABP) and the Targeted Credit Facility (TCF).
Farmers and scholars have consistent agitated that interest rate on agricultural leans should be lower than five per cent or free, and that conditions attached to such facilities should be made less cumbersome considering that the majority of food producers are either illiterate smallholder farmers or energetic youths and graduates who have no collaterals most of the time.
Also, the CBN and other stakeholders recently launched the AFJP initiative to mitigate the impact of COVID-19 on food production in the country and add 10 million metric tonnes of food to the basket in 12 months.
The initiative incorporates the private sector through some out-growing schemes involving farmers and off-takers to ensure industrialisation of the crops, price stability and sustainable means of livelihood through interest-free.
The job and food increase expected from the scheme, the CBN had disclosed, would be achieved through investment in the sector by providing zero-interest inputs financing options such as fertiliser, seeds, seedlings, pesticides and other farm inputs to the participating farmers in the 36 states of the federation and the Federal Capital Territory.
The palliative scheme would run for 12 months and about two million hectares of land would be cultivated with crop and animal production, with farmers cultivating one hectare each.
“The priority crops and livestock targeted by AFJP for local market are rice, maize, sorghum, groundnuts, cowpea, cassava, millet, livestock, palm kernel and cotton, while sesame seeds, hibiscus, cocoa, hides and skin; horns and hoofs are targeted for export market,’’ a statement had explained.
The CBN Governor, Godwin Emefiele, said during a review session on the ABP, and the strategies for the 2020 agricultural wet season that the creation of a non-interest window was a result of appeals from stakeholders for farmers across the country to also be considered for funding under the non-interest facilities.
The move for zero-interest loans, especially for small-scale farmers, has been commended by agriculturists.It will be recalled that food production stakeholders have consistently agitated for three per cent or less interest rate for long-term farm projects and smallholder farmers.
Professor Kolawole Adebayo, an agricultural extension specialist and former Regional Coordinator of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation-sponsored Cassava: Adding Value for Africa (CAVA), expressed satisfaction about the zero-interest intervention funds, saying, “If implemented to achieve the stated objective, it will be great. The impact on the Nigerian food systems will be immense. I truly hope that all the ancillary requirements to ensure that farmers make the best use of the fund will also be concurrently addressed.
Mr Augie Sahabi, Kebbi State Chairman of the Rice Farmers Association of Nigeria (RIFAN), said the initiative is a welcome development, saying, “I hope that steps will be taken to ensure that only true farmers will be registered to benefit.”Shahabi said removal of interest from the loan would attract more Muslim farmers who hitherto avoided bank loans with interest due to religious prohibition.
Richardson Okechukwu, a cassava breeding and value chain specialist with the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA), said it is an “Excellent way to facilitate agricultural enterprises that have for long been neglected.”
Okechukwu added that the government should ensure recipients are linked to off-takers and utilise improved seeds of good varieties along with quality inputs. He also suggested mechanisation as important to agriculture.
“A shift from hoe and cutlass is long overdue. This intervention, if handled well, will create jobs and reverse rural urban migration. Beneficiary farmers should endeavour to repay back their loans, which luckily, are interest-free, to ensure the facility is extended to other farmers.”
Pa Samuel Akinade, chairman of the Oyo State chapter of RIFAN, said the scheme is a good start. He said experience had shown that avoidable food imports do take away a bulk of the country’s foreign reserves, saying, “If this is properly channelled, it will encourage the smallholder farmers to stay on the farm. They will feel the sense of belonging as their operations are recognised as important.”
Pa Akinade added that the country would be able to use the available reserves only on very essential items that the country could not produce locally and, as time goes on, it would earn more for the nation.
“My recommendation here is that we don’t need to concentrate too much on the youths for now if we don’t want to fail. We should let the youths emerge. Let them grow along with the elderly farmers, no matter their educational or training backgrounds in agriculture,” he said.
Prof. Lateef Sanni, who is the Project Manager, IITA, BASICS-II and President, International Society for Tropical Root Crops (ISTRC), said to avert another recession, the government needs a quick win strategy, which agriculture offers.
“So, in the long run, it is economically viable for the government to stabilise food security and open more avenues for the industrialisation process with consistent supply of quality and viable raw material supplies.
“If industries have access to unhindered raw material supplies, uptime processing will be increased and more money will exchange hands and this will help to reduce inflation. I thank the government for yielding to the clarion call for free interest credit facilities,” he said.
The root and tuber expert, however, urged the handlers of such facilities to be transparent, inclusive and objective.
“I will only plead for inclusiveness of the loan scheme and the release should also be timely to restore businesses and livelihoods of the populace,” he added.