The subject of popular farming has resurfaced. In his Sallah message to Muslims, the Sultan of Sokoto, Alhaji Muhammad Sa’ad Abubakar III, appealed to Nigerians to respond to the hardship now confronting them by returning to farming.

It is a concern first expressed in August last year by President Muhammadu Buhari, who lamented that our oil economy could no longer sustain the country.

“It’s time to go back to the land,” the Nigeria leader said in Abuja during a reception with Kanayo Nwanze, President of the International Fund for Agricultural Development.

He said his government was ready to assist as many as wanted to go into agricultural ventures, and would work to shorten the tortuous bureaucratic hurdles to official assistance.

Last week, the president told traditional rulers who visited him in Abuja to encourage their followers to cultivate any lands available to them, towards Nigeria being able feed itself in the near future. “Tell our people who have lands to cultivate them even if it is to feed their family only,” he appealed.

Broadening the message, Sultan Abubakar said that Nigeria ought not import food in view of her vast stretches of arable land.

He described farming as the main source of livelihood in the North. “We should go back to the farms and engage in both rainy and dry season farming. With this, we can produce adequate food to be locally self-sufficient and even export the surplus.”

All of this means well, but it is the wrong message. Put another way, it is a message can be richer and more effective if it is modernized and structured.

By this, I mean reinventing farming and the farmer. To ask people to go back to farming is a message to the traditional subsistence farmer. He is the one with small landholdings who produces little bits of food to feed his family. Sometimes, what he produces is insufficient for the twin objective of feeding the family and paying such bills as education and medical care.

In the past, that farmer was assisted by his children, especially the boys. That family structure has changed, as the boys are now away in schools or in the cities seeking modern jobs.

While there will always be room for such a farmer, Nigeria must now broaden the definition of “farmer” to include and attract people with training in, or enthusiasm for, the field of modern agriculture.

I write this story, for instance, at a time of great stress on the Nigeria meal table over a tomato crisis. That is curious because everyone knows Nigeria to be the world’s largest importer of tomato paste, with an annual import bill of over $500m. And doubly curious because we produce large amounts of tomatoes.

It just so happens that Nigeria’s local tomato production market is the one chosen for investment two years ago in the country by a Harvard Business School graduate, Mira A. Mehta, and her School of Public Health alumnus, Shane F. Kiernan, when they started a company called “Tomato Jos”.

Mehta knew Nigeria when she worked for the Clinton Health Access Initiative in Abuja. Visiting remote towns and villages in her capacity as Program Manager, she was struck by the existence of large tomato farms on the road between Abuja and Kano.

Something else was even more striking to her: a lot of harvested tomatoes was often lying on the sides of the road going to waste, unsold, with nobody buying it. “We would pass miles and miles of tomato fields, and the tomatoes were just rotting on the side of the road,” Mehta was quoted as saying. “It’s a striking image.”

When Mehta finished graduate school, she returned to Nigeria, determined to do something about it.

According to the Financial Times (FT), she returned armed with the theory that a profitable agribusiness that also benefits local farmers and consumers can work in Nigeria. She also had $300,000 she raised in seed capital from six angel investors and a Kickstarter campaign, and established Tomato Jos on three hectares in Nasarawa State.

Tomato Jos had placed as runner-up in the 2014 Harvard Business School New Venture Competition, and was accepted into the Harvard Innovation Lab’s Venture Incubation Program. Entrepreneurs Mehta and Kiernan then spent the summer in Nigeria, doing groundwork to prepare for the startup’s launch.

Under their business model, Tomato Jos will oversee tomato paste production from seed to shelf, purchasing some of its products from local farmers, and manage transportation to local factories for processing into paste under its label.

Let us remember that just over 10 years ago, Nigeria’s then leader Olusegun Obasanjo invited to Nigeria a group of white farmers whose farms had been seized by the Zimbabwean government of Robert Mugabe, to farm in Nigeria. He wanted them to continue large-scale farming in Nigeria partly in the hope that their methods would boost agriculture in the country, and they set up shop on leased land in Kwara State.

Obasanjo promised to help them overcome the financial and infrastructural hurdles in their new country. He was a man of his word, because one of the farmers joked of one meeting with him, “Pity I forgot to ask for a Jacuzzi!”

One key problem is that the Nigerian political elite does not see the Nigerian farmer in the same way. We are condescending when it comes to the Nigerian farmer and our farming communities.

At that time, for instance, Obasanjo might have considered extending similar conditions to some of our own farmers, and negotiated with the Zimbabwean farmers to extend some of their expertise to our people. Instead, he preferred to make the white farmers so comfortable they may have been de-motivated.

A similar element of condescension may exist in Buhari’s mass-farming appeal. Now 11 months old, he has renewed his appeal without telling Nigerians what changes are now in place to make their entry or re-entry into agriculture workable and sustainable. I call that 11 lost months.

Such provisions, by way of rules and regulations would make land, equipment, crops, transportation, markets and storage available to attract investors to farming and keep them in it, with all of the benefits for our economy and people.

Rhetoric will not do it. Think about this: while I do not know what happened to the former Zimbabwean farmers who settled in Kwara State, FT made the sad revelation of the 20 who were similarly lured to Nassarawa a decade ago: only one of them is left.

“The rest were defeated by poor infrastructure, confusing bureaucracy and the difficulty of importing essential inputs, such as machinery,” FT said. It is from that survivor Tomato Jos leased its three hectares.

This is why the back-to-farm idea gets it wrong. Instead, Nigeria should commence a “forward-to-farm” campaign, instead: a whole new thinking about agriculture that cannot fail. Some other countries have done it.

All the government has to do is define a clear policy, and get out of the way. The land can feed the people and save the people; words cannot.

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