Professor Mohammed Khalid Othman , the executive director of National Agricultural Extension and Research Liason Services in this interview with Leadership newspaper speaks on how to mve the agriculture sector forward particularly the important roles of extension officers and how ICT can be used to promote productivity.
Can you tell us more about extension officers?
Extension officers are officers of the Agricultural Development Programme (ADP), which are located in every state and are under the state government. Their job is to take technology from where it has been given to them and transfer it to the users. Technology involves training of farmers on new farm practices and so on. So, their function is to take this technology to the farmers so that the farmers can also ask them questions on issues dwelling on production, processing and whatever it is as far as farming is concerned for value addition of agricultural products. So, it gives you the opportunity to ask them questions. You can see that extension workers are people that are very influential when it comes to agriculture because agriculture is everyone’s business. Any farmer can pick up agriculture as a business, you don’t need to acquire education, you can be a farmer with any background of education, which is why the issue of extension workers is there to educate you so that you will know what to do because if you go into farming without education, you are not likely to make it because you need education, input and market so that when you produce your commodity, you will know where to sell it at good price in order to make profit. That is why extension workers are very essential for the development of agriculture in any nation.
Many farmers are unaware of the new practices in producing better quality products and some don’t have the technology to go into modern farming practices. What are you doing to ensure that?
Like I mentioned, the extension worker has the responsibility of reaching out to workers but these workers are all employees of states government and unfortunately, the states government are not truly investing much in agriculture so you find out that most of the extension workers in the states are not capable of reaching out. In fact, some states have not been able to pay even the salaries of their staff. So, when the salaries have not been paid, not to talk of the money they should use to do their extension work, it is really a very big problem. Secondly, if you can recall, this EDP system came through the support of the World Bank in the 70s and when it came, there were a lot of funds being used and many people were employed as extension staff but as the support ended in the late 80s and everything was left to them to fund, the state governments started reducing the funding of EDPs and as of now, many EDPs are not given funding at all except to be pay their salaries. Some of them are not even given salaries, so that is the reason why we have these problems but thank God, the federal government is also making efforts to see that another strategy of giving out extension services to farmers is being adopted and one of the strategy is use of ICT. This use of ICT is normally telephone based or Internet based so that information can reach out to the farmers and they will be able to know what to do. So, that is the hope we have and we are hoping that at least, even if extension workers are not as adequate as expected, the extension services can reach out to farmers on time.
Recently, the National Agricultural Extension And Research Liason Services (NAERLS) embarked on capacity building workshop to train members of staff of the federal department of agricultural extension in the area of ICT.
How beneficial has that been?
You see, the most important thing is that ICT is indeed technology that came to us and not only that, people need to know about ICT, people need to know how to practice it and at the same time, this is not static. It is one of the dynamic issues that change every day, there are always new things coming up so what we did was that the ministry of agriculture, under the federal department of agriculture extension, has established a farmers’ help line and NAERLS is housing the farmers’ help line while the federal department of agricultural extension is funding the six zonal farmers’ help line. You know, the farmers’ help line is one of the solutions to deficiency in agricultural extension staff. The only solution is to use this telephone based devices so that farmers can access information through their mobile phones and in Nigeria now, five out of six adults,
An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. who are engaging farmers, have a mobile phone. So, what they need to know is that, information can be sent to them through SMS, they can access it, they can also have the privilege of calling an agent and asking him questions about any problem that has to do with their production, processing or marketing. That means there are two layers, the first one is that information will be given to you free. Secondly, you can also have the opportunity to ask questions on anything to do with your agricultural activities and answers will be given to you. The farmers’ help line at the same time can also be used to train farmers online.
Are there more plans to increase the workforce of extension workers?
I think you may recall that the N-power programme in the part of agriculture is going to approve 70,000 and that number is going to contribute a great deal. All of them are deployed into ADPs and the ADPs are effectively training them because these are youths and a lot of them are graduates and are also up to date in terms of ICT knowledge so they are very useful towards ADPs and by the time these 70,000 come into line, definitely it will help the system and it will increase the number of extension personnel in the whole country and that will be very good.
Is it possible for Nigeria to be the leading nation globally?
Yes, it is very possible because Nigeria is graced with abundant resources as far as agriculture is concerned. Take for instance the climate in Nigeria. The climate availability is very good; you have rainfall of about 400 millimeters to about 700 millimeters. This availability of rainfall allows the production of more than 100 agricultural commodities in the country. So, with this, you find out that we can produce more than what we need. Secondly, the soil is very good and thirdly, we have land. As I am talking to you, Nigerian land is about 91 million hectares and of these 91 million hectares, we are not even cultivating up to 30 million hectares, may be around 20 million hectares is what we are cultivating. That means we are having about 50-70 per cent of land that need to be cultivated but most of these lands are not accessible because of infrastructure, most of them do not have good roads. So, going to those places to produce is quite difficult. What we need to be done is to open up all areas in terms of building roads so that people can access and farm them. More so, Nigerian people are very energetic, if you see Nigerians working in other countries, it will surprise you so if they are working outside, why is it that we are not working here. The only thing that needs to be done is to put things together, mobilise and sensitise them. So, the potential for Nigeria to be a leading nation, not only in Africa but the whole world, in terms of agriculture, is there.