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Furthering knowledge: Potentiating food and security for national development (1)

Being the lecture delivered by Professor Placid C. Njoku,  at the 8th convocation lecture and silver jubilee of Michael Okpara Federal University of Agriculture, Umudike, Abia State

Nigeria’s fundamentals

Nigeria is today at the crossroads. Its large stock of 32.7 billion barrels of proven crude oil reserves is the primary base of its mono-commodity economy, with petroleum products generating over two-thirds of national income and over 90 per cent of foreign exchange receipts (World Bank, 2017). When oil prices drastically declined in 2015 and 2016, the total national receipts dropped very significantly and, in 2016, Nigeria went into a recession as the gross domestic product (GDP) contracted by -1.5. As the price of crude oil is growing again, and Nigeria is creeping out of recession, the latest news from China, India and Europe is that, by 2030, they would totally switch to electricity-powered vehicles and would, therefore, not license any vehicles powered by oil products. In effect, Nigeria will have very limited market for its crude oil reserves. This is a very serious threat to the national economy as the nation is broiling in poor infrastructure and utility provisions; poor education delivery; weak agriculture and mining sectors – essentially under traditional management systems; under-developed service sectors – air, rail, marine, hospitality, tourism; very poor human development indices; a multi-ethic (with over 300 ethnic groups), multi-cultural and multi-religious population of over 180 million (with over 62 per cent below 25 years of age) and growing at an annual rate of 2.63 per cent.

Retail trade in Nigeria is buoyed essentially by imported goods as the people prefer foreign products to locally-produced products. This attitude has over time been sustained by the high availability of foreign exchange, which has created a huge import burden on the nation.  With the decline in foreign exchange receipts, Nigeria is unable to raise its stakes to meet the funding needs of the sectors even though it is the largest economy in Africa and the 22nd in the world.    

Other natural resources of the nation include 192 trillion cubic feet (ft3) proven reserves of natural gas, the ninth in the world. Furthermore, the country has a total land area of 923,767 km2 out of which 412,938 km2 is under cultivation including 344, 577 km2 arable land and 68,361 km2 on permanent crops. Nigeria also has a large stock of livestock, the largest in West Africa and the third in Africa. This population is estimated at 19.5 million cattle, 41.3 million sheep, 72.5 million goats, 7.1 million pigs, 974,499 donkeys, 278,840 camels, 11.6 million ducks, 2.1 million turkeys, 145 million poultry and several other micro-livestock.

These huge national resources underscore the fact that Nigeria is a very well-endowed nation and truly should be an economic power to reckon with. Unfortunately, Nigeria has been reckless in the use of its huge resources. For example, the nation earned over N96.2 trillion in the 58 years of crude oil sales (Ndujihe, 2016) with N77 trillion in the last 17 years (Eboh, 2017) of democratic governance, (Obasanjo’s rule, 1999 – 2007: N27 trillion; Yar’Adua administration, 2007 – 2010: N9 trillion; Jonathan administration, 2010 – 2015: N51 trillion; and Buhari 2015 to 2016: N6 trillion).  Despite these huge earnings from just one sector, Nigeria has been unable to develop its infrastructure and utilities, eliminate poverty currently at over 60 per cent of the population, eliminate overall unemployment now at 14.2 per cent, and  youth (15 – 35 years) unemployment at 42.24 per cent of eligible labour force (Thisday, 2017), very high food insecurity (Umoru, 2017), stunting at 37 per cent or over 11 million of under-five years children (Sowole, et al 2016)  and with 50 per cent (over 10 million) of out-of-school children, the largest in  the world (FGN, 2017; Maduabuchi, 2017). The scenario is in fact dreadful but true.

This discourse will attempt to find purpose and relevance for the universities of agriculture in Nigeria in the light of the horrible indices afflicting the nation. In the circumstance, the topic of the lecture, Furthering Knowledge: Potentiating Food and Security for National Development, is very topical as experts have warned that Nigeria faces a serious threat of famine, if the issue of food provision is not given prime attention. Recognizing further that those nations where malnutrition and stunting are very low maintain the highest levels of human development indices as well as the highest levels of national development, universities, in the critical sector of agriculture, have no option but to further the frontiers of knowledge to foster decent living, safety and peace among the people.

Given that the three universities of agriculture were  created in 1992 when the nation had over 30 other universities with faculties of agriculture, it clearly shows that they (universities of agriculture) were portended to be cornerstones that would be critical to the future rise of the nation through the production and dissemination of knowledge through the development of technologies that drive food production and food security, and through the generation of satisfaction and affirmation of personal worth for life that engenders need for personal security and, ultimately, national security. Consequently, the motto of this university, the Michael Okpara Federal University of Agriculture, Umudike is KNOWLEDGE, FOOD and SECURITY. The motto was well thought through and the Vision and Mission of the university were wrapped around it.

Specifically, the Vision sees the university as “a vehicle for the attainment of the primary goals of the National Agricultural Policy of self-sufficiency in food and fibre” production. The university aims to provide knowledge through which food and security will be assured … The university was, therefore, envisioned to serve Nigeria and humanity through developing processes that will drive the elimination of hunger and physical insecurity.

Propitiously, by its Mission, the university “… is dedicated to the training of its students to become professionally competent and confident graduates with exquisite dexterity in agriculture. Consequently, the curricula involve intensive teaching and extensive practical training in agriculture. The research objectives must also be relevant to the needs of farmers and local agriculture while the extension objectives are to ensure prompt delivery of well-tested and technically optimized protocols to sensitized and confident farmers; the training of confident and competent educated farmers capable of working on their own instead of the current dependence on government employment; the development of environment and people-sensitive technology and the immediate enhancement of well-being of the farmers constitute the focal points of the university. In essence, the Mission pontificates intensive teaching, extensive practical training, research relevant to local agriculture, and extension through prompt delivery of customized technologies to confident entrepreneurial farmers

It is, therefore, germane that, as the university clocks 25 years, at this silver jubilee of the university, we must take stock and re-tune ourselves to the conundrum that is the Michael Okpara University of Agriculture, Umudike, and consider what it must strive for as it makes its contribution to the knowledge age and furthers Nigeria’s quest for achieving and sustaining food security and endearing national development. I am, therefore, delighted that I was invited and given the privilege to lead in the discussion on the university, its foundational principles, and its expected and unambiguous future course to greatness.

I know I am speaking here after an inter regnum when the universities of agriculture, which were statutorily designed to be under the domain of the Federal Ministry of Agriculture, were inadvertently detoured for 15 years to the Federal Ministry of Education with a concomitant loss of focus and relevance. I am also speaking here after four vice-chancellors have succeeded me with varying levels of appreciation of the basic precepts of the university of agriculture system. I am truly glad that, in the last year, the universities have inexorably been returned to the Federal Ministry of Agriculture.  So, the University of Agriculture, Umudike, continues, along with her sister institutions, to stand tall to achieve the originally intended status as the knowledge base, the technical backbone, the progenitor of applied technologies that must drive Nigeria’s agriculture sector, which currently contributes 23 per cent to the national GDP and 75 per cent of non-oil income. Auspiciously, agriculture is expected to sustain for many more years as the unequivocal mainstay of the Nigerian economy. Constituted as regional, in principle, one in each of the former political regions – Federal University of Agriculture (FUA), Abeokuta, in the former Western Region; FUA, Makurdi, in the former  Northern Region, and MOUA, Umudike, in the former Eastern Region, the universities have the unique opportunity and responsibility to guide the development of agriculture in their respective former regions. In effect, each is expected to primarily concentrate on studying the opportunities and peculiarities of the host region and design specific agenda and modalities for driving agricultural development while working in the collective interest of the whole nation. The essence is to ensure high effectiveness of technologies, maximising resources, guaranteeing sensitivity of equipment and services, and efficient use of personnel – all for the greater productivity and resilience of agriculture.

Further on, this presentation will, therefore, articulate a thesis that shows that knowledge, food and security are critical to national development but that, without doubt, both food and security are actually driven by knowledge. In summary, we shall, therefore, review the essence and relevant issues in knowledge, the import of knowledge on food and security systems and how they all can converge to drive the economic development of Nigeria.

Furthering agricultural knowledge through the universities of agriculture

We shall now consider more specifically the import of knowledge. Basically, knowledge is the state of understanding, appreciation, adroitness, cleverness, or dexterity, which usually derives from close association of one to another or from education. We appreciate that knowledge can come from traditional or cultural exposure. Consequently, the illiterate farmer may not be able to read journal articles but he knows when and how to plant his seed yams and when to harvest them at maturity. And so, he knows! Furthering knowledge, we can now understand that knowledge comes from formal teaching, training and research. So, conventional universities, which are primary centres for the generation of knowledge, have the standard tripartite responsibilities of teaching, research and community service.  In further conceptualization, applied universities such as universities of agriculture, must have four prongs of responsibilities – teaching, training, research and community service/extension. And so, knowledge can be derived from teaching – by repeating things, by training – through imparting skills, by research – through investigation and confirmation of facts, and by extension – through showing. In fact, the Federal Universities of Agriculture Act (1992) specifically charged the universities, in its Objects Section 2.(3).(g), to “provide and promote sound basic scientific training as a foundation for the development of agriculture and allied disciplines, taking into account indigenous culture, the need to enhance national unity, the need to vastly increase the practical content of student training, and adequate preparation of graduates for self-employment in agriculture and allied professions.”

Consequently, the universities of agriculture are distinctly designed to also train their students by exposing them to the actual experiencing of doing. So while faculties of agriculture may just teach the concepts, universities of agriculture are bound to teach, practice and experience the concepts with the objective to produce men and women, confident in their profession, who are specifically and extensively exposed to the agricultural practices fitting for their respective cultures and region within the over-arching concept of collectively providing for national unity.

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