Story

Farming and Famine in Nigeria

A generation ago, the African nation of Nigeria launched a plan to embrace modern farming. But today the country is more dependent than ever on imported food. To find out what went wrong with these agricultural efforts, reporter David Hecht travels to a Nigerian village he first visited in the 1980s.

Transcript 

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KATY CLARK: I’m Katy Clark and this is The World. More than a billion people are chronically hungry, according to the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization. The vast majority of the world’s undernourished live in Asia and Africa. Many aid agencies and think tanks have tried to understand why Africa, in particular, has had such a hard time feeding itself. For reporter David Hecht, the question is more personal. Twenty-five years ago he visited Africa’s most populous nation Nigeria. It was a time of optimism. The country was working to modernize its farms, but Nigeria’s grand vision didn’t work out as planned. David Hecht recently returned to Nigeria to find out why. He sent us his personal reflections.

DAVID HECHT: The first time I went to Africa, it was not as a journalist. I was a love struck young man. I went with my Dutch fiancée to meet her father. He was working on a farm in the far north of Nigeria, but the visit didn’t go well. Soon after I arrived, my intended father-in-law decided I was not the right man for his daughter and my fiancée agreed. So there I was with a non-changeable return ticket stuck for several weeks in Northern Nigeria, jilted, dejected and alone. I killed time by wandering the area. I walked along cow paths, through villages with mud huts where children would run shrieking because they’d never seen a white person before. In one village I met a young man who spoke some English.

He was the local chief and he invited me to his compound to drink sweet green tea. We were both in our mid-20s and had a lot to talk about. He wanted to know about the modern world, particularly modern farming. I wanted to know how he could have three wives while I didn’t even have a fiancée. The village was called Kuki. Recently, I returned to Northern Nigeria and went looking for my friend. I enlisted the help of a journalist, Aminu Abubakar. He had never heard of Kuki, so we drove around asking for directions, and looking for the home of my friend the chief. His name was Ahmed Tijanni.

HECHT: Yeah, this looks like it. I recognize this. That’s his house there. The round dome there. I’ve been here. This is it.

AMINU ABUBAKAR: The question is, is he still here?

HECHT: Yeah. [Foreign language] I am looking for Ahmed Tijanni. You are him? You remember me?

TIJANNI: David I remember you. When you come with the Corina.

HECHT: A Corina who broke my heart.

TIJANNI: I even ask you, if there is a problem with Corina. Leave the Corina. Let her go. Maybe you get another one better than Corina.

HECHT: I came all the way to see you.

TIJANNI: Thank you very much. We missed contacts. No address. No phone number. No nothing. I don’t know that David is alive ore he don’t know whether we are alive.

HECHT: The chief gave me a tour of the village. It looked much as I remembered it. Women milled grain by grinding it between stones, just as they have for hundreds, maybe thousands of years. They sang as they husked corn by hand. When I first met the chief it was 1984, and he was convinced that Kuki would be modern and prosperous by the 21st Century, certainly by a decade into the 21st Century. He believed this area was about to see a revolution in its farming practices.

TIJANNI: A new system of farming, mechanized farming.

HECHT: Machines would replace the need for back-breaking labor. Farmers would no long be subsisting but would grow crops for export. Kuki would look like any rural area in Europe or America. The chief’s vision seemed plausible. Nigeria had started building roads and power lines across the country. Thanks to the nation’s vast oil riches and the government had just constructed a huge dam near Kuki. It was supposed to irrigate farmland in the dry season. But now on my return visit, the chief told me what happened with that dam.

TIJANNI: We have some mismanagement from the leaders.

HECHT: The government never built irrigation channels to bring the water to Kuki’s farms, and to make matters worse, the dam flooded low lying wetlands where farmers had traditionally grown crops year round.

TIJANNI: This dam brings no development for us. It has underdeveloped our town.

HECHT: Why has it underdeveloped the town?

TIJANNI: Because all the farmland has been covered in water. And there are some towns that have surrounded us that now the water has covered their villages.

HECHT: So you are more isolated now?

TIJANNI: Yes we are. We are worse off.

HECHT: There was one farm that had benefited from the dam. That was the big farm where my ex-fiancée’s father worked. It had huge pumps and concrete channels and the latest irrigation machinery to grow crops efficiently and in large quantities. I wanted to see how that farm had fared over the last 25 years. I asked my guide, Aminu Abubakar, to take me there.

AMINU: Actually, this is where the other farm starts.

HECHT: It looks abandoned.

AMINU: Yes, it does.

HECHT: I think I stayed in one of these houses.

AMINU: Okay, one of these houses when you were here.

HECHT: And this is the chicken coops.

AMINU: Yeah, abandoned.

HECHT: It’s just all abandoned. Look at these buildings just going on forever and ever. What a waste, yeah.

AMINU: A waste. Really a waste.

HECHT: But we weren’t exactly surprised. Many industrial farms created during Nigeria’s oil boom have failed. They were no match for the country’s volatile and chaotic business environment. The price of fertilizer would suddenly skyrocket, making farming too expensive. Periodic fuel shortages would make it impossible to get goods to market. In the end, Nigeria’s push to modernize farming backfired. It actually decreased total food production. Today Nigeria’s population of over 150 million is more dependent than ever on imported foods. And in remote villages like Kuki people can’t afford the imports and sometimes, my friend the chief says, they just go hungry. On my last evening in Kuki, the chief told me he no longer sees industrial farming as the great savior he once thought it was.

TIJANNI: Mechanized farming is very expensive, and all we need from the government is to just give support to the masses. Give them some loans that they can use for farming on their own farms. Otherwise, all the masses should remain under.

HECHT: Does Islam teach you anything about how to survive and farming?

TIJANNI: Yeah. Farming is very important in Islam. There is one Hindu saying that [Speaking Hindu]. It’s not granted for you to do to whatever you want to do until you know what God asks you to do and what God ask you not to do.

HECHT: So another way of putting it in English is that people are putting the cart before the horse.

TIJANNI: So I can say yes. If you jump far …

HECHT: You will fall down.

TIJANNI: Yes, you fall down, but if you go step by step, step by step maybe no matter how far you’re going, you will not fall down again because you know the stuff you left behind.

HECHT: And that’s particularly the case with all these efforts to have mechanized farming? That’s exactly what the problem is?

TIJANNI: It does say the problem.

HECHT: Life in Kuki hasn’t lived up to the vision the chief had when he was a young man. But he says he’s content. He still has his three wives and now he has enough children to fill two soccer teams. And as for me, in the past 25 years I’ve had two wives. Neither marriage lasted, but I do have a young daughter who came with me on this trip.

DAUGHTER: Papa?

HECHT: Yeah.

DAUGHTER: Papa, I want to walk through there.

HECHT: Okay, you can walk there. If she returns 25 years from now, I hope it’ll be to a continent that can finally reliably feed itself. For the World, I’m David Hecht, Kuki, Nigeria.

DAUGHTER: Papa, I’m hungry.

HECHT: There’s nothing to eat at the moment.

CLARK: David Hecht’s travel to Nigeria was funded in part by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting. News headlines from around the world are next on PRI, Public Radio International.