For food’s Sake, how will Nigeria develop?

Diversification! Diversification! Diversification! Develop more sources of FOREX! Tackle growing unemployment, and on and on and on. That’s what I see in the dailies; so called professionals and experts proffering solutions to Nigeria’s economic recession. But no one is really asking HOW? I am referring to the question about the ‘SMART’ tasks, activities and jobs that must be undertaken to get the Nigerian development machine to work optimally. I am particularly irked by the export protagonists. Yes, I am vexed with all of you who are hatching puerile schemes to send stuff out of the country so you can make a score in dollars. Before you send me to the guillotine, hear me out.

Export is imperative for any country to achieve meaningful economic development, if for nothing else, but to maintain a healthy balance of trade. This raises the all important question, what are we exporting? Finished, value added goods and services or raw materials? This question strikes at the very heart of Nigeria’s woeful tale of underdevelopment. For over 50 years, we have contracted foreigners to drill our crude oil, only to export same to Europe, USA and India, and then scamper for FOREX to pay for the more expensive, value added, refined products. It is the same for cocoa, cashew, cassava, and just about anything else we produce in this country. Even in areas where we have developed some kind of traditional processing capacity, as is the case with palm oil, we have been content to remain in the past with our Stone Age innovations.

Indeed, nothing tells the story of our underdevelopment better than our indigenous food value chain. Since the forebears of the Ibo, Efik and Ibibios of Southeastern Nigeria discovered the Afang leaf and made a (now) national delicacy out of it, this herbaceous leaves are still being shredded manually; a process that takes up to 45 minutes to shred a kilogram.

At one kilogram every 45 minutes, shredding afang manually is highly unproductive.

It is no different for bitter leaf. The sight of a small army of unkempt boys raining sweat as they knead basins full of bitter leaf, in the most utterly despicable and unhygienic conditions of Onyigbo market, should send chills down your spine. Nor can I ever forget the disgust I felt when I saw a young woman step out directly from her slippers riddled with all the grime from the ground of Apongbon market, into a bowl of beans. I was later to learn that this was a less stressful alternative to the back breaking kneading-while-kneeling process it takes to wash beans for moimoi or akara; you can take your pick. I have seen things on my many trips to our local markets in Lagos.

The common thread in all of this ‘gory’ tales is that we have refused to develop even the most basic tools or machines to process what we eat every single day. Now I ask how dare you talk of export. Except off course, you are content to export raw materials and earn peanuts for it. This article by Feyi Fawehinmi, “Nigerian cashew farmers are going nuts” is very instructive, should you desire to know just how much we short change ourselves as a nation by exporting only raw materials.

Perhaps, the point I am so painfully trying to make is still very vague to you my dear reader, then let’s take a brief lesson in history. A cursory analysis of the beginnings of the industrial revolution reveals that it started with the need to process food. Europeans simply got tired of the back breaking work of milling corn and harnessed the power of moving water to drive watermills to get the job done. The windmill came next, and then the steam engine and so development continued until electricity was developed to power just about anything from a table top food processor to industrial furnaces. Just take a look at any present day technological marvel, and you can almost certainly trace its developmental origins to the some modest attempt to solve one basic problem or the other. Now my people that is how developments happens. It starts with solving small problems and then you grow your capacity to tackle bigger challenges. You can spare a few minutes of your time tomorrow to watch any of the technology based documentaries like “Megastructures” on Discovery channel, to verify this.

Here in Nigeria, we want the quick fixes that would never ever be sustainable. It is either we are importing the solution or we are just content to ship out our challenges abroad. Just try to name one sector of our economy that doesn’t fit into either of these two ‘molds’. Even in the business of retail (buying and selling what we do not produce), we are still second best to the South Africans and Lebanese. I have told a few of my acquaintances in recent times that if the white man eats bitter leaf, he would certainly have some sort of device that performed the onerous task of washing (the process of getting rid of the bitter pigment) it. Lest you think I am ‘hyperventilating’ on this matter, think of the number of jobs, if nothing else, that a company like Kenwood or Phillips creates just by making household appliances for the most ordinary household chores.

What am I saying in essence? We need to rethink our development or the strategies towards achieving it. Any development this nation has recorded since its existence is at best a serendipity. Real inclusive development that changes the very fabric of the Nigerian society has to come from among us. We must start to develop solutions to basic everyday problems and build value chains around these. Indeed, it’s okay to copy; the Asian tigers have developed by copying expertly. And we should too. Even the inventors of today’s tech marvels stand on the shoulders of long dead pioneers and their ground breaking innovations. Again, I say, the trick is to start small by mechanizing simple tasks like shredding vegetables and shelling nuts.

My clarion call is to all Nigerians home and abroad. To the bigwigs in government, don’t set up committees to look into this matter, just give us steady ‘Light’. The turnaround this country would witness if this happens would be like magic I ‘swear’. To the large corporate organizations that have perfected ways to make a killing from our import dependence or other skewed aspects of the Nigerian economy, I beg you to look inwards. There are dozens of money spinning ventures supported 100% by local consumption. Aliko Dangote is living proof that Nigeria is a gold mine for any serious mined businessman. We forget all too easily how large a market we have here.

To the academics, it’s time for more meaningful research to find homegrown solutions to our myriad problems. It doesn’t have to be physical solutions; there must be reasons proven models don’t seem to work in Nigeria. We need bespoke solutions. A case in point is this thing called democracy. You can ask me in camera about my reservations about the suitability of this political system to Nigeria. I’m not about to become a scapegoat to the Nigerian security agencies.

To my dear entrepreneurs, it’s time to solve real problems. The like-Uber business craze can only do so much for our national development. We need more real sector based startups. I must commend the efforts of Diamond bank in supporting small businesses through sponsored training with Nigeria’s business elite.

To you my compatriots ask yourself why apples from South Africa are packed in branded cartons, shipped in reefers and stored in cold rooms at Ijora, while the oranges from Delta and Benue states rot in heaps at Ketu Market. You should see Ghanaian pineapples, dried fruit products or cashew nuts and compare them to ours. Yet you go on the internet to start bragging that your jollof rice is better than the Ghanaian version. Let’s stop chasing shadows.