Op-Ed: Three challenges to overcome for more sustainable farming in Nigeria

By Patience Koku, Nigerian farmer, owner of Replenish Farms and member of the Global Farmer Network

When food systems are supplied by rain-fed agriculture, changes in rainfall can throw not only farming, but also food security, into complete disarray.

This is what farmers are experiencing in Nigeria, where the rains come much later now and stop earlier than they once did. Whilst some areas of the country deal with unseasonably wet periods, other areas contend with prolonged and more frequent droughts.

These changes have put unprecedented pressures on Nigerian farmers, with many of them finding it difficult to cope.

Thankfully, Nigerian farmers can learn lessons from food producers elsewhere, who have also coped with changing conditions, and one proven solution is the adoption of “no-till” farming.

No-till farming is the practice of growing crops without disturbing the soil through tillage, which allows the soil to breathe, naturally maintaining its moisture and reducing – or even eliminating – the risk of soil erosion.

What is needed now is nothing short of a no-till revolution, a new period of Nigerian farming that will build resilience for farmers across the country, helping them contend with new climate pressures.

But to scale up the practice of no-till in Nigeria, we must overcome three fundamental barriers.

Firstly, many farmers are reluctant to adopt new practices that could help maintain soil health, even in the face of extreme droughts.

Nigerian farmers, like those anywhere, tend to be very cautious when changing what they do on their farm, which are already beset with risk.

These practices, known as agroecology, are essentially farming practices designed to make the most of nature’s resources whilst limiting the negative effects in return, but have yet to make a stamp in the country.

Yet, we have evidence from New Zealand, Argentina and many other countries of the benefits of these approaches. Our colleagues in New Zealand, for example, have shared stories about the impact no-till farming has had for them, including the ability to plant seeds within days of a harvest or eliminating soil erosion entirely.

These types of stories have the power to convince farmers of the need to work much more closely with natural processes, since farmers more likely to adopt a new practice once they can be sure it will work.

Secondly, even if farmers were willing to take on new practices, many are missing the necessary funding and finance needed to help put these new techniques into practice.

At Replenish Farms in Nigeria, I am working to solve this by encouraging farmers to share resources. Crop farmers are giving their harvest residue to pastoralists, for example, in exchange for manure that can be used to naturally fertilize crops.

This means less pressure to use mineral fertilizers, lower costs and more support towards increasing the organic matter in soil, which provides optimum conditions for plant growth.

Lastly, when it comes to farming with minimal disturbance of the soil, specialised planting machinery in Nigeria is often expensive or not suited to our soils.

My company, 1Hectare1Family, is addressing this by working in collaboration with a number of partners to find cheaper, more efficient tools.

Cross-Slot, a New Zealand-based company, is one of these partners. They make the right equipment for efficient no-till farming in New Zealand and are advising us on how to achieve this in Nigeria.

We are also attempting to forge a collaboration with the Registrar of the National Soil Science Institute, in the hope that we can provide smallholder farmers with both the right training and equipment to be able to convert their practices to no-till.

In the first year of adopting no-till at Replenish Farms, just one per cent of production used it. In the following season, that was quickly scaled up to around 10 per cent.

Next season, we will be expanding it to more than 50 per cent – evidence of just how successful no-till has been.

But my farm is not unique. The potential of Nigerian farming is huge when we embrace the lessons of elsewhere and adapt them to help us meet our needs.

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