The executive director, National Agricultural Extension and Research Liaison Services ( NAERLS), a university-based institute, under the Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria and Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development, Prof Mohammed Khalid Othman, in this exclusive interview with LEADERSHIP FRIDAY has revealed that the National Farmers’ Helpline, created by the institute, is fully operational in-spite of challenges.
What is the state of the National Farmers’ Helpline Centre?
You may recall, I had in an earlier interview said the centre was 100 per cent completed and as at today, it is operational, though not fully. However, the operation is covering several communities because we are using the phone base whereby distance is not an issue. We are also using sim banks, which is the use of numbers belonging to service providers. Currently, we are using an MTN short-code, which the National Communications Commission (NCC) had given us over a year ago, even though it has not been made functional, because it has not been integrated by the GSM service providers. We have been trying as much as possible to get it and even had to report back to the commission, where we were advised to approach the MTN service provider which unfortunately, has been very difficult for us, because we thought the commission would advise the service providers, being their regulators so that it would be easier to integrate the short code so that the service providers will allow farmers to use. We also have the challenge of manpower, because the farmers’ helpline is Information Communication Technology (ICT) based, meaning Operators must have good ICT knowledge as well as agricultural knowledge. Luckily for us we have developed a knowledge-based application, which allows users adequate information. As it is, we are getting lots of applications from experts who are agriculturalists and also ICT compliant.
What is the concept of the adopted villages about?
We started the adopted village concept about four years ago, but every week we receive applications from different communities asking us to adopt them as their adopted village. The concept is to group farmers into groups of 25 made up of women farmers, youth farmers and conventional groups, making the minimum number in any village 3, comprising 75 people. We first of all do baseline surveys to identify the baseline information of such communities, bordering on agriculture resources the communities have such as manpower, land resources, agricultural practices and farming systems. In the adopted villages, we push out our technology and take feedback. We are currently working with over 200 communities comprised of over 20,000 farmers spread across the nation. We deal with the farmers directly as we realised that working with the ADP is not so effective as they are incapable of reaching out to the farmers as a result of the challenges earlier mentioned. As it is, we receive application monthly from communities asking us to adopt them.
How would you rate the present administration’s efforts towards strengthening farmers, comparing it to the ATA programme of the immediate past?
I would say that the ATA programme is still ongoing, as the Green Alternative was formulated taking into cognisance the challenges farmers are facing and lessons learnt from ATA. So, it is more or less a next level approach. Also, I will say the federal government has been doing very well in terms of agriculture but contribution from states and local governments are required, because the farmers are indigenes of states and local government and as such are closer to those levels of government. The missing link is that this missing link of other tiers of government have not been proactive as the federal government, if they had, the impacts would have been seen everywhere. However the issue of N-Power is also a positive programme the federal government is working on, but like I have said, there is need for the federal government to buy into this programme, even if not directly but at least in support of the federal government, considering these programmes are being implemented in their local governments and states.
Would you say our extension service is working?
No, our extension service in Nigeria is not working. Be aware that the extension service we are operating in Nigeria is ‘Training and Retraining’ and visits extension system, a system that requires an extension agent to visit farmers on their field, advise them, take field problems to research centres. It worked alright when it was initiated in the 70s under the support of the World Bank when the Agricultural Development Programme (ADP) in Funtua and Gombe kicked off as pilot states. At that time, extension agents were seen everywhere and at that time; all states government adopted that system. Today, we have 37 ADPs including the FCT and they all have extension agents, but the agents they have are retired, and there have been no recruitments, many have died and as a result, the farm family extension ratio is very high, you find that an extension agent has to cater for as many as 5000-10,000 farm families, which is practically impossible
What agenda would you be setting for the new government in 2019?
I would start by saying Nigeria has no alternative to agriculture, the population increase is about three per cent per annum and will be the third most popular country in the world after India and China with about 450 million people. And as at today, Nigeria’s population is almost 190 million and agriculture is the highest employer of labour. So, if you look at the agricultural value chain from production to processing down to marketing, it is evident there are several opportunities for lots of people to generate income. Also, Nigeria, being the giant of Africa, is surrounded by other countries that constitute a huge market for its produce. I will suggest that government continues the way it has been doing but should ensure more investments, as agriculture requires investment and once that is done, lots of successes would be recorded. We must also note that agricultural investments are time bound and governments at all levels should be sensitive to timely release of funds, so priority should be on agriculture and once that is done, it would address lots of social issues. We also need to mechanise our agriculture to boost productivity and reduce youth drudgery.
What would you term as the success/ challenges of NAERLS for 2018?
The journey has been very successful because for the first time, NAERLS was able to conduct the agricultural performance survey, which was presented by the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development, Chief Audu Ogbeh, during the World Food Day on October 16. In the past, we lagged behind but this year, we were able to beat the time. We have also continued to service the N-Power volunteers, we produced the manual being used for the training and also launched it on our website, making it available for people to access. Also, the completion and operation of the Farmers’ helpline is a milestone. Our challenges include the short-code, which we have not been able to get as well as issues of making information available, this is because media publicity requires lots of funds. The capacity of manpower is also challenged as a result of poor Internet service and so on.