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In Nigeria, Scarce Water Supply and High Food Prices Leave Families Hungry

April 15, 2009 at 6:35 PM EST
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NewsHour special correspondent Fred de Sam Lazaro reports on how a scarcity of water and high supply costs are hindering efforts to improve Nigeria's food supply.
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FRED DE SAM LAZARO, correspondent: This busy food market in Mayadoua sits just inside Nigeria’s northern border. A lot of produce, like these beans, is from neighboring Niger, even though that nation’s 13 million people are often on the brink of starvation. The economics are simple: Prices are higher in oil-rich Nigeria.

But why is Nigeria even importing food? Agricultural produce used to be its main export. Now it must turn to neighbors to feed its growing population, already Africa’s largest at 140 million.

Most Nigerians live on farms, but today many, like the extended Usman family, can barely provide for themselves. The rains provided a good crop of sorghum and maize this season, maybe enough to get through the dry season. But even as the ladies sing to celebrate a good crop, Ramatu Usman and Aisha Yusuf say each new year brings new uncertainty.

AISHA YUSUF SAY: We’ve had difficult times when rainfall was poor, when we had to rely on leaves and shrubs.

RAMATU USMAN: We pluck them, boil them, sprinkle with salt, sometimes eat them with peanut butter.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Not that the food they enjoy today is either bountiful or balanced. The U.N. says almost a third of Nigeria’s young children are moderately to severely underweight.

In this family’s main daily meal is a starchy porridge, flavored with chilies, dried tomatoes, and monosodium glutamate, or MSG, an additive that mimics the taste of meat, as they rarely have the real thing. The few goats and poultry are the savings account, sold to buy clothes or medicine or to pay for a wedding.

Much of the blame for the poor state of Nigerian agriculture lies with the successive military dictatorships, which since the 1970s promised, but never delivered, on grandiose modernization plans.

Muhammad Sabo Nanono heads a group of large farmers.

MUHAMMAD SABO NANONO, farm organizer: The focus was how to improve farming through a large-scale effort, as well as through the creation of facilities for dry-season farming. And this resulted in the construction of several dams in this country, in several irrigation schemes.

Fuel shortages

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: The Djibiya dam project was one part of the grand plan. Its canal network is supposed to water surrounding fields during the dry season, affording two crops a year instead of one. But much of the network is bone dry.

The water should be gushing through this canal. Instead, there's grass growing in it. The problem is that the electric supply is erratic around there and there's no diesel to run the pumps. No diesel in one of the world's most energy-rich nations.

A few fields have benefited in Djibiya, alongside sloped canals that get water through gravity. But Yusuf Suleiman, a nearby farmer, says many growers have been burned trying to plant dry-season crops.

YUSUF SULEIMAN, Farmer: There were times before when people were mobilized, activity took off very well, but, unfortunately, somewhere in the middle there was a scarcity of water, so some people lose whatever they might have put in to place.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Other farmers say they've been crippled by soaring costs of fertilizers, seeds, and especially diesel fuel.

KABIR ABUBAKER MATAZU, farmer (through translator): We used to get five gallons of diesel for two naira. Now it is 180 naira.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: In Katsina province, Kabir Abubaker Matazu has seen nothing but losses since buying 1,000 acres in the early 1970s.

KABIR ABUBAKER MATAZU (through translator): The aim was to go into mechanized farming, using tractors, et cetera. But as you can see, they are here lying idle; 1987 was the last time we cultivated the whole farm.

No price controls of goods

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Matazu says the government has done little to assure farmers can recover their costs, let alone make a profit.

KABIR ABUBAKER MATAZU (through translator): There should be some control of price of commodities in the market. Farmers need support from government to find a market that will make it work. As it is, there is no control on prices. One season, the price is very low; another year, it's very high.

MUHAMMAD SABO NANONO: So the farmers are exposed to the vagaries of price volatility. Today, if maize was given more money, people will rush to maize next year, and then the price of maize will collapse.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: For decades, the government plan has been to stabilize prices by building a strategic reserve. That would enable it to buy grain and to store or release it into the marketplace to curb wild price swings.

GUIDO FIRETTI, Contractor: Well, this is the 25,000-ton strategic grain reserve for Kaduna. It's presently at 75 percent stage of completion.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: There were supposed to be about three dozen such facilities, but fewer than half were ever completed, and those that were, never been more than half-filled. This one was started 20 years ago, says Guido Firetti, whose Italian firm was hired to finish it.

GUIDO FIRETTI: I believe it was awarded in '89, '90, and construction started here in '91 and stopped in '92, due to some various problems. Some of their materials were missing. And since then, it has been in a state of non-completion, until recently, when it was re-awarded.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: It's one more symbol of a government flush with oil revenues that lost its bearings, says Sabo Nanono.

MUHAMMAD SABO NANONO: The reality of the situation is the easy money that we get from the oil industry has created more problems than solutions, that we became virtually a consumer nation rather than a productive nation. And that culminated into huge imports of actually rice, even maize, and also imports of all other luxury items.

Oil revenues

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: He says oil revenues went to buy everything that should have been made or grown here, policies that urbanized the country, even built a whole new capital city, Abuja.

Thomas Odemwingie is with the non-government group, Action Aid.

THOMAS ODEMWINGIE, Action Aid: A lot of the able-bodied people, you know, who otherwise were involved in our culture now are headed for the cities. The local people, what do they have to show for the big dams? You know, their poverty -- their situation never changes.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Who made the money with all these dams?

THOMAS ODEMWINGIE: Who made the money? The private, you know, contractors who got the contract to build the dams, and most of them are foreigners. They are foreign, you know, firms.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: There are glimmers of hope that things are turning around in a country that only in the last decade or so has moved from military to democratic rule.

Guido Firetti points out that projects like this silo are finally being completed.

GUIDO FIRETTI: And it is the first time in so many years that we are -- we are hearing that they want to increase capacity and they want to boost agriculture. And, of course, we have to believe them until we are proven wrong.

Government's response

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Farmer Yusuf Suleiman, a member of the ruling party, is betting things will turn around, that government will become more responsive. He's investing in a dry-season crop for the first time in years.

YUSUF SULEIMAN: The minister of water resources was in Djibiya about four weeks ago on this project, and he made a pledge that the government is going to supply all the facilities that are required for this irrigation plan.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: You're prepared to bet that this government will deliver the water you need this winter?

YUSUF SULEIMAN: Inshallah, inshallah, by the grace of God.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: It's critical for the larger region that farmers like Suleiman succeed, that Nigeria begins to meet more of its own food needs. With its large population and oil revenues, there's widespread fear that Nigeria will increasingly crowd out its smaller, impoverished neighbors from the region's food market.