Nigeria: How irrigation holds the key to food security

Nigeria: How irrigation holds the key to food security

Nigeria, Africa's most populous country is facing food insecurity.
At least 90% of agriculture in the West African country is rain-fed / Photo: Reuters

By Abdulwasiu Hassan

Garba Yusuf Maitama Kura's face wears the bountiful happiness of a good harvest. He is particularly delighted this year because the produce in his small barn came through the dry season unscathed.

Irrigation is to farming what money is to banking. Garba, a farmer based just outside Kano in northern Nigeria, knows how having access to land equipped with irrigation facilities makes the difference between a fruitful and unproductive season.

"My one-hectare plot yielded 67 bags of paddy, which I was able to sell for N27,000 to N33,000 a bag," he tells TRT Afrika.

Unlike most Nigerian farmers, Garba has the luxury of sowing during the dry period and reaping the benefit of high prices when off-season produce hits the markets.

Nigeria is blessed with a lot of surface water waiting to harnessed:Photo/Reuters

This is against the backdrop of a sharp overall rise in food inflation, which is currently at Nigeria's highest in 10 years, according to data released by the National Bureau of Statistics.

Many Nigerians are struggling to feed their families. Their worries are accentuated by inflation not cooling off even close to the end of the rainy season when new produce arrives in the markets and helps drag down food prices.

Fears over runaway food inflation have prompted the Nigerian government to declare a state of emergency and roll out a series of short--, medium and long-term actions to tackle the problem.

Ninety percent of farming in Nigeria is rain-fed:Photo/Reuters

In the immediate term, the government intends to deploy some savings from fuel subsidy removal into agriculture and focus on revamping the sector, according to minister Dele Alake, who used to be President Bola Tinubu's spokesperson.

Perils of downtime

Farming in Nigeria is largely seasonal, with many agricultural activities taking place during the rainy season.

At least 90% of agriculture in the West African country is rain-fed, according to the Country Food and Agriculture Delivery Compact put out by the African Development Bank.

The data implies that only about 10% of Nigerian farmers practising irrigation agriculture are left to shoulder the burden of producing food for Africa's most populous nation when the rains cease.

"The President has clarified that we cannot be comfortable with seasonal farming. We can no longer afford to have farming downtime," Alake had said at the time of declaring a state of emergency.

There was a suggestion that all essential items be included within the purview of the National Security Council.

Alake also pointed to the need for synergy between the Federal Ministry of Agriculture and the Ministry of Water Resources to ensure adequate irrigation of farmlands to keep agriculture going throughout the year.

Barely six million hectares are being used for cultivation out of the more than 30 million hectares of Nigeria's arable land.Photo/Reuters 

Unused water resources

Nigeria has abundant surface water resources spread across the country, including 12 river basins that are estimated to be enough to irrigate 3.14 million hectares of land.

In reality, only a negligible portion of farmlands within the country have access to irrigation.

"According to various sources, approximately 400,000 hectares of farmlands are currently equipped with irrigation facilities in Nigeria," Prof Abba Aminu, executive director of agricultural services at the Hadejia Jama'are River Basin Authority, tells TRT Afrika.

Some consider this estimate too generous, pegging the quantum of land with access to irrigation at just about 100,000 hectares out of the three million-odd that need it.

Nigeria boosted it rice production in recent years due to a ban on import but local needs not met yet. Photo: Reuters

Experts say barely six million hectares of farmland are being used for cultivation out of the 30 million-plus hectares of arable land. Even if these are equipped with irrigation facilities, the bulk of the farmland will still need irrigation facilities.

"Poor market access and prices, coupled with inadequate storage and handling facilities, were some of the major challenges of dry-season farming in the past," says Prof Abba.

The country's current economic reality needs to be more conducive for individual enterprises to take irrigation to farmlands that don't have these facilities.

"The major challenge is the cost of irrigation, particularly for farmers who use petrol-powered water pumps. With the current petroleum prices being what they are, the cost of irrigation is expected to increase dramatically," warns Prof Abba.

While most farmers who want to farm in the dry season are up against multiple challenges, those with access to irrigation facilities are already looking forward to the dry season.

Future target

The rainy season in northern Nigeria, where the bulk of the country's food is produced, runs from May till September.

As the rains taper off over the next few weeks, those into dry-season farming like Garba are already readying for the next spell of sowing and setting targets for themselves.

“My strategy is to focus on wheat because this crop can be stored for months. The other potential dry-season crops are all highly perishable," says Garba.

"God willing, I won't plant anything less than three to five hectares of wheat. I can get up to 30 bags of wheat from each hectare."

About 90% of agriculture in the West African country is rain-fed. Photo/Reuters

For most farmers to be able to take part in dry-season farming and help increase food supply, the primary requirement is increased investment in irrigation facilities.

"We must develop innovative methods of irrigating our crops, bringing in solar-powered pumps and drip irrigation schemes, among other options," says Prof Abba.

Till that happens, the bragging rights will belong to a lucky few like Garba.

TRT Afrika