NIGERIA: Farming alternative to unemployment

Economic and financial meltdown has opened up opportunities for graduates to practise organised farming as a solution to unemployment. The University of Agriculture in western Nigeria has embarked on a five-year Graduate Farming Employment Scheme, GRAFES, aimed at attracting graduates into commercial agriculture.

Graduates participating in the experiment work and live on university land as farmers. The scheme is part of Nigeria's food security project and other universities are looking at becoming involved.

Professor Oluwafemi Balogun, Vice-chancellor of the University of Agriculture in Abeokuta, obtained support for the initiative from the university council.

"The pilot scheme is designed to encourage young graduates to unleash their entrepreneurial and practical skills in order to improve the food supply," Balogun said. "And to contribute to President Umaru Yar'Adua's seven-point agenda in the area of food production."

Under the scheme, each participant is given an interest-free loan of US$1,300 as well as access to free land to cultivate. To secure the loan, the graduate farmers have to deposit their certificates as collateral and will commence repayment after the second harvest.

The university has completed a housing unit called Plantation Village that accommodates 40 of the graduates. It is well equipped with electricity, water and cable television. The farmers have free and unlimited access to farming equipment and storage facilities.

As an additional motivation, the university also offers the graduates about $100 a month each to be farm demonstrators and instructors for final-year students.

Balogun said the new farmers would be encouraged to go into maize and cassava production because of the high demand for these food products in and outside Nigeria. The university decided to focus attention on these crops after undertaking a feasibility study.

Maize is in high demand from the poultry industry and in other West African countries, and current production is not sufficient. One of the biggest production units of maize in Nigeria is run by white farmers formerly from Zimbabwe, who have settled in central Nigeria over the past three years.

The university found that despite being hard-working and focused, the Zimbabwean farmers could not satisfy the demand for maize.

Meantime, cassava is in very high demand because it is a raw material for producing a starchy food called garri (or lafun) and a source of bio-fuel. The Chinese government has also told Nigerian authorities it needs cassava pellets to feed cattle.

To further encourage the graduates, GRAFES chairman Professor Tunde Adetunji said the university would purchase farm products from the graduates. Farm land at the permanent site for the scheme will be given freely to others who are interested.

Only one woman is among the pioneering graduates: Abiola Osileye, a mother of two and a graduate in crop science, abandoned teaching to opt for farming - a decision she has not regretted. "Farming is a viable solution to unemployment. Rather than slaving it out for an employer, I will advise unemployed graduates to embrace farming," Osileye declared.

Group coordinator Kayode Erinoso obtained a forestry degree from the university 10 years ago. Erinoso said he had been interested in farming when he was a student but had found it difficult to secure a loan from a bank.

"When I heard about GRAFES, I came for screening and was picked as one of the pilot farmers," he said.

Since joining the scheme, Erinoso has made some money from selling vegetables and other perishable farming products. He is optimistic he will make more when the university allots him more land to plant maize.

"As a farmer, I am my own boss so I enjoy my freedom, work any time I want and don't have to get permission from anybody. A civil servant does not have that kind of liberty."

Kehinde Olawuyi, another graduate, is convinced that farming is one of the most efficient ways to gradually eliminate graduate unemployment and hunger. "I can only advise my colleagues roaming the streets to go back to farming," he said.

Several universities in Nigeria are sending students and teachers to the University of Agriculture to study the scheme with a view to integrating it into their curricula.