Enabling poor rural people
to overcome poverty



The topic for discussion this evening is one that brings joy to the hearts of everyone working at IFAD. Through our work, we have seen time and time again that agricultural development offers a pathway to food security, economic well-being and social stability for millions of people.  Indeed, numerous studies have shown that investing in agriculture is twice as effective in reducing poverty as investing in other sectors.

In Nigeria, where about 60 per cent of the working population is employed in agriculture, developing the agricultural sector takes on a special significance. But development cannot be imposed from outside. Development can only succeed when it is driven by countries themselves and implemented by their citizens.  This is why today’s topic gives us such hope – it signifies that Nigerians themselves are ready and willing to tackle this crucial area.

Nigeria can feed itself. Of this I am sure. As you know, Nigeria was once a net exporter of major food and cash crops including rice, groundnuts, cassava, cocoa, cotton and palm oil. It has been a food exporter before and it can be a food exporter again. Food self-sufficiency in Nigeria received a significant boost last year, when President Goodluck Jonathan pledged to end rice importation by 2015.

The appointment of Dr Akinwumi Adesina as the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development was another strong signal that the government is taking agriculture seriously. And with agriculture also a top priority in the Transformation Agenda, I feel confident that Nigeria will feed itself. More than that, I believe that Nigeria can be a leader of African countries in contributing to global food security.

In a few minutes I will outline the steps we, at IFAD, believe are needed to achieve food security, but first let me introduce my agency, the International Fund for Agricultural Development.

IFAD is one of three United Nations agencies based in Rome. It is unique in being both a UN specialized agency and an International Financial Institution.

It is also distinct because its focus is, and has always been, the poor but capable people who live in the rural areas of developing countries. For close to 35 years, IFAD has been exclusively focused on agricultural and rural development. As a result of this consistent and uninterrupted focus, we have accumulated experience and knowledge of what works – and what doesn’t work – in agricultural and rural development around the world, particularly in Africa.

Africa has always been a central part of our work. Sub-Saharan Africa accounts for the single biggest tranche of IFAD’s on-going programmes and projects; about 45 per cent of new financing is being directed to the region. IFAD has worked in Nigeria since 1985, and today is partnering with the Federal Government on three programmes to strengthen Nigeria’s rural sector.

The projects that IFAD supports are designed to be environmentally, socially and economically sustainable. IFAD also funds investment in local infrastructure, to provide small-scale irrigation and water control schemes, as well as communications and rural roads.  It invests in agro-processing to reduce post-harvest losses and in better access to market information.  The aim is to strengthen each link in the value chain.

The new Value Chain Development Programme (VCDP), which was approved by IFAD’s Executive Board in April 2012, will help strengthen the existing extension system in Nigeria. A strong extension system cannot be overemphasized because it ensures the link between research and farmers. Extension takes the new technology from researchers to farmers. Through its interaction with farmers, extension feeds back information to researchers to adapt research results to the farmers’ needs.

Nigeria itself is rich, not just in natural resources but also in human resources and it has potential. Each and every one of you in this room has the potential to transform our country into a model of economic growth, with the benefits reaching not just a select few, but the majority of Nigerians.

For this to happen we must, as the title of this talk says, revamp Nigeria’s agriculture.  Today, agriculture contributes about 45 per cent of our country’s GDP and employs around two-thirds of the workforce, including 90 per cent of the rural population. Yet, the nation imports more food than it produces, and most Nigerian farmers are poor.

To reverse this situation we can start right here at the University of Ibadan. Agricultural research has tremendous power to eliminate poverty. Studies indicate that every US dollar spent on agricultural research produces nine dollars’ worth of added food in developing countries.

Agricultural research successfully drove the first Green Revolution in Asia. And it is agricultural research that must now drive a Green Revolution in Africa, as we work to feed a growing population at a time when climate change is starting to affect agricultural productivity.

While agricultural research and development can lead to higher crop productivity and better water and soil usage, research in other areas is equally valuable. Research in medicine and healthcare, for example, can improve the health of poor people and in so doing can also improve their productivity and incomes.

It is important that our leaders invest sufficiently in science and technology.  But it is equally important that researchers – including those of you in the audience – look beyond the ivory tower.

Scientists must understand the environment where their discoveries will be used, and the needs of the people who live there. If they don’t, their research never gets beyond the lab. 

Equally important, we cannot and should not rely exclusively on research done in developed countries to address the needs of developing countries. No one is better placed to know the conditions on the ground in Nigeria and to discover the solution to the challenging conditions in Nigeria than Nigerian scientists themselves.

But in order for our academic work to be world class and competitive, we must take our knowledge and put it to work.  For this to happen, researchers need the right incentives, both financial and material; they must have modern equipment so that they have the tools to do their job, and they must be linked to the global storehouse of knowledge.

For research to move from the lab to the field, it needs to be supported by a strong extension system and enabling policies that link research to products and markets so that the applications benefit both the public and private sectors.

In the years ahead, more research in science and technology will need to be directed towards climate change adaptation and mitigation.

Poor rural people are often the most vulnerable to the effects of climate change. Many live on ecologically fragile land and depend on agriculture, livestock, fisheries and forestry. Climate change is already having an impact on agriculture in many parts of our continent, leading to crop failures, livestock deaths and higher economic losses.

Agricultural research can ensure that the smallholder, the fisherman, the pastoralist, the forest dweller and the herder have the means to adapt to climate change. It can ensure that poor rural people, whose lives and livelihoods depend on the earth’s productive capacity, have the means to produce more and to produce it better.

To revamp agriculture in Nigeria, we must harness the best of pro-poor agricultural research and push the frontiers of innovation. We must develop innovative and climate-resilient solutions, such as seeds that are more tolerant to drought or to floods, and make sure they are available to resource-poor farmers. If we don’t, our agricultural productivity will remain unacceptably low.

It is not always the most advanced technology that reaps the greatest rewards. Sometimes, the best way to grow food is to go back to basics, building a rock dam to stabilize soil and collect water runoff, or constructing cisterns to collect rain water.

This is particularly true in dryland areas, where soils are inherently poor.  It is vital to first increase soil organic matter content, which determines whether inorganic fertilizers can be used efficiently, but also leads to more infiltration of rainfall and increases the water holding capacity of topsoil.

Not only does investment in rural development contribute to food security, it can help stem the flood of immigrants to cities and provide career opportunities for young people.  To show how investment in agriculture can benefit young people, I would like to show you a short film about a village in northern Mali.


As you can see, creating economic opportunities in rural areas can lead to reverse migration.

Young people are the life-blood of their communities. When these young people are forced to leave their homes to search for work, their villages start to die. But when they can make a good living at home, their energy and creativity can be channelled into reviving their villages. 

When you consider that developing countries will need to double their food production by 2050 to meet projected demand, you can see that it is imperative to create vibrant rural economies that offer attractive opportunities to young people. Vibrant rural areas can also ensure a dynamic flow of economic benefits between rural and urban areas so that nations have balanced and sustained development.

We will need our young people to be the farmers and food processors of tomorrow, not just to feed themselves and their villages, but to feed the growing population in urban areas in developing countries.

Investing in young rural people is a simple but elegant solution to some of our most pressing problems. It helps eliminate poverty and hunger, it curtails migration to cities and abroad, and it lays a solid foundation for national, regional and global security.

It is unfortunate that we have recently had to suspend our work in the North of Mali where the project is based. But the current situation in Mali underscores the absolutely crucial need to create steady, reliable, and reasonably paid work for young people in rural areas. 

Young people with prospects will build the foundations for their future. Young people without prospects have nothing to lose, and are more easily swayed by extreme rhetoric.

In addition to improving rural economies, we must change the perception of farming so that young people stop trying to escape the farm and instead look at farming as an attractive option; something that is as appealing as a career in high-tech, in fashion or industry. This means affording dignity to all wage-generating work, whether tilling the fields, running the village store or heading a small business.

When rural communities offer young people a range of income-generating opportunities to choose from, more will decide to stay in the villages and resist the call of often dead-end futures in the cities, abroad or in extreme religious or political movements.

But in order for rural development to take root and hold, we cannot look at issues in isolation. There is no point in increasing a farmer’s yield if that farmer does not have storage facilities for surplus production, or if there is no demand for what is produced.

There is no point in increasing yields if the infrastructure does not exist for farmers to be able to get their produce to market.

Indeed, one of the most important changes we can make is to shift our thinking about farming. Farming is a business, no matter how small.

And smallholders – women and men – represent Africa’s largest cohort of micro- and small enterprises. It is time to stop treating them as charity cases and instead focus on helping them to meet family food needs and produce a surplus.

When we consider how to revamp agriculture, we must not only improve the ability of smallholder farmers to grow food, we must strengthen their ability to participate in markets, while also improving the way those markets function.

One way of helping smallholders participate is to support the creation of strong farmers’ organizations. IFAD’s experience shows that strong farmers’ organizations enable smallholders to participate in policy dialogue and become significant domestic and even regional market suppliers.

Smallholders need access to financial services so that they can invest in and grow their businesses. This is why IFAD is supporting a scheme to make cheap credit available to smallholders through microfinance banks, financial cooperatives and member-based rural finance institutions.

One of the reasons Nigerian rice farmers have trouble competing with Asian imports is the high cost of transportation at home, which contributes to the high cost of locally grown rice. Indeed, this is a problem throughout sub-Saharan Africa, where more than one third of the rural population lives five hours from the nearest market town, contributing to unacceptably high transport and marketing costs.

We must ensure that there is sufficient investment in rural infrastructure, with paved roads and adequate affordable transportation so that farmers can sell at a competitive price and still make a profit.

In addition, processing and storage facilities are needed so that farmers can safely process and store their produce until they can get it to market, instead of watching it waste on the farm. For example, the water content of cassava is 70 per cent, making it vulnerable to spoilage and making it bulky and expensive to transport.

Good processing is clearly essential for fresh cassava. Turning it into animal feed, flour, industrial starch, ethanol and other products increases potential markets for farmers, while also increasing cassava’s shelf life and reducing the cost of transportation.

And we must ensure a space and a role for the private sector.  Private sector involvement, ranging from large companies to small famers and their organizations, is critical if agriculture is to contribute effectively to food and nutrition security.

If a farmer cannot profitably market her surplus, there is no logical reason to produce more than her family can store or consume. There is no motivation to adopt productivity enhancing technologies, particularly external inputs which are costly.

I say ‘she’ because a significant proportion of farmers are women. Unfortunately, women are also usually the most disadvantaged members of rural societies. 

It is estimated that giving women equal access would reduce the number of hungry people in the world by 100 to 150 million people. And we know, from a number of studies, that when women earn money, they are more likely than men to spend it on food for the family. 

And, of course, we must also consider the impact of our work on the physical environment. Agricultural research successfully drove the first Green Revolution in Asia, but as we have seen in the decades that followed, too often it came at too great a cost to the environment and local species. And all too often, the spectacular gains of early years could not be sustained.

It has become clear that agricultural growth must be ecologically sustainable and that a diverse range of species, genetic variation and ecosystems is necessary in order for the land to provide for future generations of farmers.

This is a historic moment for African smallholders. Demand for food is growing exponentially, driven by emergence of a growing middle class across Africa. Today, opportunities in African markets dwarf opportunities in export markets.

Smallholder farmers have the potential to be the key suppliers to growing urban markets, as well as continuing to supply rural markets. And they have the potential to do so on much better terms and with greater capacity than today.

By investing in pro-poor locally- tailored research, and by approaching smallholder farming businesses and establishing the conditions for those businesses to thrive, and by investing in young rural people, we can create a brighter tomorrow – not just for our rural population but for Nigeria as a nation.

Thank you.

University of Ibadan, Nigeria
13 July 2012