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The Chinua Achebe Foundation Interview Series #33

A Meeting of the Minds
(Professor Bede N. Okigbo in Conversation with Professor Ossie Enekwe, Uduma Kalu and Alvan Ewuzie)

The Chinua Achebe Foundation

About Professor Bede N. Okigbo


Professor Bede N. Okigbo

Chinua Achebe

Prof. Chinua Achebe


Professor Bede Okigbo

Prof. Bede Okigbo

is the renowned agronomist and retired Director of
  the World Agricultural Institute in Japan, former Director of the United Nations Institute for Agricultural Research in Africa, Accra, Ghana, and the former Deputy Director-General of the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) Ibadan, Nigeria. He is widely regarded as Africa’s leading Agricultural scientist.


Professor Okigbo was born on September 26, 1929, in Ojoto, Anambra State, into one of Nigeria’s extraordinarily gifted families. He was educated at Government College Umuahia, Washington State University (B.A.) and Cornell University, where he obtained an M. A. and a PhD in 1956 and 1959, respectively. 


Professor Bede Okigbo is one of “The Okgbo trio” that include the intellectual giants – the late legendary economist, Dr Pius Okigbo, and Africa’s greatest poet, the late Christopher Okigbo.


According to the eminent Kenyan scientist Thomas R. Odhiambo, “Professor Okigbo’s significant intellectual contribution to African Agricultural Science has been to harp on the need to build onto the persisting foundation of indigenous African sustainable farming systems, the new science-led agricultural technologies as a way of assuring a more productive, culture-sensitive, yet sustainable modern African agriculture.”


Professor Ossie Enekwe


Professor Ossie Enekwe is a Nigerian poet, fiction writer, and playwright, and a graduate of the University of Nigeria and Columbia University, where he was a fellow in the Writing Division (1972-4). He is currently a professor of theatre at the University of Nigeria and the former Director of the Institute of African Studies at the same university. For over a decade, he has served as Editor of Okike - An African Journal of New Writing. His published work includes Broken Pots (1977), poems, Come Thunder (1984), a novel, Igbo Masks (1987), non-fiction, The Betrayal (1989), a one-act play, and The Last Battle and Other Stories (1996).


Uduma Kalu


Uduma Kalu holds a BA in English from the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, as well as an MA, also in English, from the University of Ibadan. Winner of the University of Nigeria First Prize for Poetry, amongst others, Kalu's poems and stories have appeared in anthologies like 25 New Nigerian Poets (Ed. Toyin Adewale-Gabriel), Trembling Leaves (Ed. Bunmi Oyinsan), A Volcano of Voices (Ed. Steve Shaba) and ANA Review. He is currently Arts Editor at The Guardian Newspapers, Lagos, Nigeria.


Alvan Ewuzie


Alvan Ewuzie is a media consultant, who began his journalism career nearly 20 years ago as a freelance writer with the Nigerian Statesman. He subsequently became an editor in the Champion Newspapers organization where he made his mark as a literary critic and writer. He edited the weekend title and also rose to become its deputy General manager.






Enekwe: We would like to begin with your childhood and educational upbringing. How did these impact your progress as an administrator and as an academic?


Okigbo: My father was head of the Okigbo Family. And my grandfather was the first warrant Chief in Ojoto. My father was the first son, and did not go to school. He had four wives, and when the first wife died, my mother became the eldest and senior wife. She died when I was five,and my late uncle, Chief Ben O. Okigbo who was going to live in northern Nigeria to work in the Nigerian Railways took me under his wing. Another uncle decided I should stay with him at Amawbia where his children were going to school.  He was Headmaster, and was able to take very good care of them. So he took me to stay with them. They taught me how to speak English and many other things.


Secondary school began at St. Joseph's Catholic School, Asaba, and I repeated Standard six when I couldn't go to Christ the King's College, Onitsha because the college authorities claimed that my cousin who attended CKC broke his bond after graduating from Yaba Higher College.


Interrupting… The early makings of a globetrotter… (general laughter)


A: My travels were not yet done, though. I went to live with my late uncle Chief J. O.

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Okigbo who was transfered to Asaba. By the time I finished primary school, I had been to five schools in Igboland east of the
Niger, and Asaba, the sixth school in Igboland. I spoke no single Igbo dialect, but several.


I also grew things when I was living with my uncle so that I may say that from my early beginning, not living with my mother, made me more useful and hardworking. My mother had eight children, and seven of them were girls. I was the last and only boy. So I was petted. I think if my mother was alive for a much longer time, I would have been quite happy to stay with her and my sisters being petted; but I wouldn't have had the practical experience I eventually had. The last of my sisters died in 1938.


Q: How many of your immediate family members are still alive?


A: I am still the only member of my immediate family still alive, although I have half-brothers and sisters who were not as close to me, of course, as my mother and sisters. This made me even more self-reliant and capable. But also, I gained a lot experience and observed many things around me, some of which are reflected in Christopher Okigbo's writings. There was a madman called Jadum, in particular, who used to give out many interesting proverbs.


Enekwe: Jadum, the mad man! Straight out of the pages of Christopher Okigbo, Achebe…


A: Yes, great art is often stimulated

Professor Bede Okigbo

Professor Bede Okigbo

by one’s surroundings… Jadum the madman used to say for example,
"mpio gba ngo, nkita aghara igba.” Mpio is the hole in the wall through which a dog or a chicken goes out of the compound. According to Jadum, when the hole is twisted, the dog squirms on its back in order to negotiate the twisted channel in order to go out. Then he also says, "igbegulu be di ochi, onye ete nmanya na abu isi mbekene, isi mbekene." Igbegulu is the base of the palm front rachis used to cover the wall. And if one is a wine tapper, one always splits part of the base of the rachis in order to hang the calabash in which the palm wine is collected.

Jadum had many sayings; another was: when a poor man is eating vegetable cowpeas he does so in a hurry lest someone comes in and shares it with him. There are many proverbs like these that Jadun recited and we used to joke with them. Apart from that he used to dance as he recited these sayings.



Ewuzie: What was it like attending one of the most prestigious boarding schools in West Africa -- the legendary Government College, Umuahia?


Okigbo: During the Second World War, there were German prisoners at Government College Umuahia, and the school was closed down. When it was time to reopen, a class was first sent to King's College Lagos in 1942, because the administration did not want to begin with fresh men. The second year, 1943, another group of students was sent to King's College, Lagos and it was advertised in the papers that Government College, Umuahia would be reopened. Many students applied from east and west of the River Niger. 


Enekwe: What happened to the students sent to Kings College, Lagos… Did they return to Umuahia?


A: The second group of students sent to King's College went to Government College Umuahia and formed the class 1A. Those of us who enrolled in July, 1943 became class 1B.  So we had two classes.


Then when I got into Umuahia, the first principal we had was a man named Mr. Simpson. My own set constituted the second set reopening Umuahia Government College. We had classes of 18 students each. Class 1A started in 1944, Mr. W. Simpson was replaced by Mr. E. C. Hicks who arrived from Malaga, and which had been occupied by Japan.  Mr. Hicks introduced scouting. He said he would not have two small classes of 18 students each, that these two classes were just a waste of resources, and that he was going to give one exam to determine those to integrate into one class. He  gave an exam in 1944, and weeded the combined classes of 36 students down to 20. A certain Mr. Chinua Achebe did very well and received a double promotion to class 3, and we then became 21 in a single class.


Q: Can you describe the quality of education, the experiences you were privy to?


A: There was strict discipline and students were punished by making them cut one or two square chairs of grass. Due to the fact that I was interested in gardening, I was made a House prefect in Nile House, and detailed to assign punishment to people.


At Umuahia, a loan was given to students who wanted to farm and grow yams, vegetables or maize. After a harvest, the students paid back the loan with the proceeds. So I grew yams and some maize and I made some profit after the loan was removed. It was three guineas at the time, and two pounds was for school fees. It was then that I started showing an early interest in farming.


Enekwe: It is impressive to speak to the products of GCU from your time – Achebe, Ike, Okigbo (squared), J.O.J Okezie and many others. These men are/were all incredibly intellectually versatile. What was it about your education that made this possible?


A: (Laughter) At Umuahia, the selection process was quite strict… There was what we called the Textbook Act. On Tuesdays we were not to be caught outside the classroom with a textbook. You had to read novels. And sometimes the English Master, Mr. Ogle, may select 5 books per class to be read on Tuesdays.  At the end of the year, he would give an exam on those books, and the results of the exams displayed on the board in the lobby for everyone to see. Everybody used to struggle and work very hard to be at the top.


Kalu: It also appears that the discipline of the Umuahia environment robbed off on these great achievers…


A:  Yes, discipline played a very serious role. There were strict rules and punishment for anyone who fought with another student. If one quarreled with somebody, the practice was to set up a boxing ring and the two students would be given gloves and would enter a boxing ring to fight until they became tired. People used to get knocked out and sometimes were too tired to fight.


 Q: What particular memories of your extracurricular activities do you treasure?


A:  So many of these experiences helped in our development, especially in sports.  We played cricket, soccer, rounders, and rugby. I used to play rugby. Mr. Mengot or Mr. Charles Low acted as coach. Some students such as my cousin, Christopher Okigbo, and Chukwuemeka Ike were good at cricket. But Mr. Charles Low also introduced Latin, and there were students who had never taken Latin before. We studied mainly the sciences and English. Apart from being in touch with many students from Nigeria and the Cameroun, our lecturers included Nigerians from different ethnic groups, some from the Cameroun, others Igbo or Yoruba. For example, Mrs. Bisiriyu, at the time, was the English teacher. There was sometimes a sports master who was in charge of pupils preparing for school certificate when they would go on picnics.  It was a common practice that the week end before the school certificate exam, there was a picnic. The school authorities did not want anyone to sit in his room all the time. And Mr. Biobokon was rather unfortunate, because he went with some students to the Imo River on a picnic and two students died. It was a tragic coincidence that the two students were from Bonny.


One was Mr. Erima and the other, Mr. Green. It was quite unexpected, and because Biobokun was Yoruba, from another region of Nigeria, and the person in charge, it was a big problem for him. People interpreted the tragedy as carelessness, or simply odd. Apart from that, there is no doubt that life in Government College Umuahia was an exciting, and worthwhile experience.


Enekwe: I would like to explore this theme a little further. In what ways do you think the early education you have exemplified contributed to the production of people like Nnamdi Azikiwe? Most people of your generation?


Okigbo:  Our education was much more rigorous. For example, I remember that I found the early standard six exams, the earlier ones, taken before us, difficult to even attempt, when we were in secondary school. And also you were made to learn so many things. For example, we learned poems which I still quote to children, and they like them. Now, you don't see much employment of that.


There is a poem of  Rudyard Kipling’s - The Camel’s hump, that I particularly enjoyed:


The Camel's hump is an ugly lump

  Which well you may see at the Zoo;

But uglier yet is the hump we get

  From having too little to do.


Kiddies and grown-ups too-oo-oo,

If we haven't enough to do-oo-oo,

    We get the hump--

    Cameelious hump--

The hump that is black and blue!


We climb out of bed with a frouzly head

  And a snarly-yarly voice.

We shiver and scowl and we grunt and we growl

  At our bath and our boots and our toys;


And there ought to be a corner for me

(And I know there is one for you)

    When we get the hump--

    Cameelious hump--

The hump that is black and blue!


The cure for this ill is not to sit still,

  Or frowst with a book by the fire;

But to take a large hoe and a shovel also,

  And dig till you gently perspire;


And then you will find that the sun and the wind.

And the Djinn of the Garden too,

    Have lifted the hump--

    The horrible hump--

The hump that is black and blue!


I get it as well as you-oo-oo--

If I haven't enough to do-oo-oo--

    We all get hump--

    Cameelious hump--

Kiddies and grown-ups too!


(General laughter)


I think we got a more rounded education than students get now. And sometimes you find that people preparing for exams these days only read past questions and answer books. At Umuahia Government College, ‘the textbook act’ ensured that we read both novels and textbooks. Although there were not many books written by Africans, we read those written mainly by white people. We read books by Dickens and Conan Doyle. So you learnt quite a lot, and we studied the history of British Empire. We didn't do much of Nigerian history, except as the British played a role in the changes that took place in our country. Even so, I would say we had an all round, quite rigorous education.


Enekwe: Let us shift gears and tackle the “catatonic state of the agricultural sector.” What role can the Federal, State and local governments play in reviving this crucial sector?


Okigbo: When you study the constitution, although the federal government is

responsible for research, and the states are responsible for development, you find that there is nothing clear cut in the constitution. What should be the role of the states, and local governments? There are environmental and natural resources management problems at every level, unfortunately. In a serious administration, the federal government requests the assistance of the state governments which in turn request the Federal government’s help.
  Any effective programme involves everyone -- from individuals and households to institutions, industry local government, and state governments to the Federal Government. One major problem is that we pay lips service to these issues. We have 18 agricultural research institutes, for example. And in 1980-1981, I was chairman of a committee that reviewed all the 18 agriculture research institutes and found that there was no equity in the location, distribution of research institutes and so on.


Moreover, the funding support was inadequate for the institutes, which did not equitably address agricultural development problems of states growing various crops. For example, at Ibadan, there are the cocoa research institute, the forestry research Institute, the university of Ibadan, the institutes of Agricultural, Research and Training of the University of Ife. There is also, I think, a food processing factory at Moor Plantation, Ibadan. There is also the Nigerian Institute for Horticultural Research (NIHORT) also in Ibadan area. Thus, we have in the Ibadan area about five research institutes. The same thing occurs in the north -- around Ahmadu Bello University, Samaru, Zaria. So we didn't think that there is equity in ensuring that agriculture all over the whole of Nigeria is receiving the attention it deserves in all the states that grow the various commodities.


Enekwe: Where do we have the greatest biodiversity in terms of plants and animals in Nigeria?


A: If we consider the indigenous crops of Nigeria, you find that the area of greatest diversity, that is the area of richness in species and varieties of these crops stretches from Edo State to the Cross River State. For example, if one travels westwards from the South-East after Edo state, you don't see much of the African pear (Dacroydes edulis), except where people from the Eastern part of the country have lived or settled and planted some trees. Similarly, apart from the Ijebu area after Edo State, the African breadfruit or ‘ukwa’ is not used, grown or eaten in most of the Western States. Therefore, the centre of diversity of most indigenous crops lies in this area between Edo State and Cross River State. It was recommended that NIHORT should concentrate on research or on the introduction of crops such as oranges and mangoes -- fruits that are already of worldwide importance and distribution, at Ibadan. And since more focus should be on indigenous crops, a sub-station in the East, within the area of their greatest diversity was approved. The Federal Government allocated some land in an area called Mbaitoli, near Okigwe. The substation was started. Since I returned to Nigeria, I have visited there, and have been there at least two times. But the substation has not been given sufficient funds to do much research on the crops it was founded to focus on.


Kalu: Professor, it is clear that Nigeria has been blessed with great natural resources – a diversity of plant and animal species. How should we harness this bounty?


A: I have been on a number of panels and review committees over the years that have addressed this question. When you talk of research institutes (at least at the time we reviewed them), we recommended that there should be a poultry research station at Aba, and maybe also at Agege, Lagos and in the North, especially for Guinea fowl. We made other recommendations, but the concentration or centralization of research stations was affecting crops such as rice, horticultural crops, the animal population, and other things such as mechanization. Now the agricultural universities have worked very well in India as well as in the USA. There should be an agricultural college or university attached or allocated to each state to deal with the ecological and agricultural problems in the states allocated to them. They are not doing so now.


If you also consider the agricultural history in Nigeria, you find that in the 1940s, when the British were here as our colonial masters, they used to have demonstration farms where young and illiterate farmers could visit and see what was being done and the new technologies in use. Now we no longer have these demonstration farms, and it is necessary that the federal government and each of the state governments should have responsibilities in agricultural research. As far as I am concerned, in most of the states agricultural research institutes are not worth their salt in the work that’s being done. One reason is that they are not well funded.


Kalu: The lack of skilled manpower also appears to be a factor hampering the take off a true “agricultural revolution”


A: I agree. You find that the human resources development and management are not particularly successful. The staff is not well motivated and rewarded for success in research. One finds that promotion is not on the basis of achievement, but often on the basis of seniority. When we reviewed these research institutes and the things they claimed to have done, many of these had not yet been commercialized. You find, that for example, that the Project Development Agency (PRODA) which was founded in the former East Central State after the Civil War did a lot more work on processing of food crops as compared to a similar research institute at Oshodi. But PRODA has not been as well funded. PRODA’s success and progress has not continued for that reason. Oshodi has made some progress, but limited success has been made to commercialize them.


If you take, for example, what is happening in rice and cassava production, there is high priority and attention being paid to these products when, personally, I think support for cassava production is well overdue. One of the best reasons for supporting cassava is that Nigeria is the largest cassava producer in Africa. This is not surprising, because the cassava is a win-win crop; apart from its genetic improvement, it is adapted to poor, infertile soils such as our sandy soils or the Benin sands. It is also adapted to aluminium toxicity, and through its ability to absorb usually unavailable soil phosphorus, yield increases have been enhanced through genetic improvement that has made it possible to obtain high yielding varieties that are resistant to Cassava mosaic virus and pests such as Cassava bacterial blight coupled with success in biological control of the green spider mite. A lot of research and development work that facilitated this was done at the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) at Ibadan. Its associated station at Cotonou  also has its roots associated with micorrhiza which facilitates up take of phosphorus fixed in the soil.  For these reasons, Cassava production is increasing faster than many crops such as yams and maize, which require more fertile soils in the humid tropics.


Enekwe: Mastering the use of cassava flour to make bread in my mind is crucial, particularly as cassava is a tropical crop indigenous to West Africa and wheat flour has to be imported. The attempts so far, have not quite achieved the consistency…


A:  If you want to use cassava for bread, you have to use mainly sweet cassava, because it has a low cyanide count. The hydro cyanic acid is mainly concentrated in the back of sweet cassava root. It is not found inside the swollen root flesh. So there is no nutritional problem related to cyanide toxicity or poisoning, if there is the desire to use it for bread. There is no need for fermentation.  NAFDAC must insist that those producing cassava flour are licensed to do so, and these should not be bakers. It should have to approve those who produce and inspect the flour, and this should be done on a regular basis.  If not, nutritional problems will arise, because even small quantities of cyanide in cassava causes ataxic neuropathy…


Ewuzie: Interrupting… Professor L. Ekpechi has written about this…


A: Yes, Research by Professors Ekpechi and Osuntokun indicate that if small chronic quantities of cyanide in cassava are taken frequently, it causes ataxic neuropathy. So you have to make sure that this cyanide is quite at the lowest level or even better, absent. Apart from producing Cassava for export purposes, cassava, which is a poor man's crop when improved and high yielding disease resistant varieties are available, must get to the farmer to combat poverty and hunger.


 But the other thing we have to emphasize is that commercial garri producers are not ensuring enough fermentation of the grated Cassava for garri, because they are rushing to get it to the market, and not allowing the cassava to ferment enough before it is fried. If one consumes cassava with low amounts of cyanide regularly, unless sufficient meat or fish is eaten so that the body can detoxify the cyanide left in the garri, the little amount of cyanide left in the garri will result in malnutrition health problems.


Enekwe: Increasing local rice production has been a National priority for as long as I can remember…


A: When you consider crops such as rice, it is realized that one of the available ways of increasing production is in increasing the area under cultivation. But actually there are two other options, namely increasing cropping intensity and increasing yield per unit. Cropping intensity includes growing two crops a year in sequence, one after the other, on the same piece of land. This is also called multiple cropping. But we have been mainly increasing the areas under cultivation.  For many crops, increased production by cultivating more land means extending cultivation into marginal lands.  For the rice crop there’s a good opportunity of extending cultivation into much of the uncultivated wetlands or valley bottom or fadama as it is known in the north.  This type of land is also called hydromorphic soils and constitutes areas where we still can expand production, and even waterlogged areas well suited for rice can be well utilized. They can also be used for growing other crops, especially in the dry season when there is little rain.


Enekwe: What other ideas do you have for other cash and staple crops?


A: Rice provides a good opportunity for increased utilization of land. But we did not

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make sure that enough farmers were fully trained and equipped to grow rice before we started banning rice importation. Banning the importation of crops before farmers are able to produce better quality rice to compete with other countries in today’s global village is foolhardy. Therefore, one of our major problems is that we do not have the competitive ability for the global structure, both institutionally and in human resource capabilities. If we want to grow cassava and export it, why is it that in oil palm produce which Nigeria was among the greatest producers as well as a great consumer of palm oil, we have fallen behind in our production and are now importing it? You will find that many of the palm trees, in the East are too old to yield anything. There has been too much population pressure on the land in the Eastern States.


Since about 3000 to 4000 BC when Igboland started to grow yams, archeologists tell us we have had high population density. At present, Anambra State, for example, is only second to Lagos State in population density. And it is not an urban area, though it is getting rapidly highly urbanized. We are in the humid tropical zone, which has many old oil palms and other useful and wild forest trees. When you have all these trees, which cover most of the soil with shade, is it not profitable to grow arable or field crop? Because everywhere there are tree crops such as the African pear (Ube), oil palms and the African breadfruit. We are not trying to organize the space in order to produce tree crops compatibly with field crops such as maize, yams and Cassava. In agricultural production systems, we need to take into account the prevailing environment and its conditions, and then orchestrate input in terms of numbers, the quality, sequences, and timing for each commodity in order to sustain production.  But you find that we still farm the way our fore fathers did, and not using the results of research to plan and manage our land space and other environmental resources to achieve high productivity cost effectively.


Kalu: There is really no space, because of our population density…


Okigbo: Yes there’s very little space, and you see huge big houses, compounds and high walls with large gates. But the little spots of open land are covered by trees. We are in the rainforest. So what are we doing to effectively utilize the rainforest ecosystem? Time is ticking by fast. It takes about eight years for a new crop variety to go from research station to the farmer. So what are we going to do in this short time we have? Most governors are in power for four years.  How do we ensure continuity in rural development by getting results of research quickly to the farm level? These are the types of things that worry me.


I think government does things that may help a few people market fertilizer and make money. But we are not doing as much participatory on-farm research and development in agriculture, and we are also not emphasizing the greater use of our domestic less costly inputs over imported high cost inputs that farmers can ill afford.  It has been shown at Umudike, for example, that our soils are sandy and acid. They belong to the Benin acid sands group.  You need to recycle nutrients to enrich the soil. Livestock and crops need to be integrated into the system. When I was at the IITA, one of Prof. H. Ruttenburg’s students studied farming systems in relation to population density.  Prof. Ruttenburg was a specialist in farming system of the tropics.  His student, Dr. Lagermann was able to show that with increasing human population intensity in the whole Umudike area, the number of animals increased as the human population density also increased. And this was because they used animals to recycle nutrients to enrich the soil.


Enekwe: Which makes me wonder…what role should fertilizers play?


A: Government helps to buy and sell fertilizers, but this is wrong. One common mistake is that the fertilizers are often made available after the planting season. One should make fertilizers available at the time farmers are planting.  For a crop such as maize, the first dose of fertilizers is applied at the time of planting. Secondly, in the North, for example, they make fertilizers available that are mixed for the crops to be planted. Here, however, the fertilizers are not specially mixed for the crops. We sell 15-15-15 of all crops while a mixture such as 20-20-40 NPK for root crops may be needed.

Thirdly, you may get fertilizers at N1000 per bag in the North. In the East, you pay N1,600 to N2,500.


Ewuzie: What then should be the role of government?


A: I think the role of government is to create an enabling environment for the farmer. And also to support the socio-economic development that ensures that adequate rural infrastructure is available for increased agricultural production. In addition, there should be the development of human resources to back-stop rural development. We have more universities now, however, we are not producing high quality researchers nor are we giving them the wherewithal to conduct innovative research. The role of government should be one of formulating policies, strategies and priorities for creating a favourable environment for human resources development and institutional capacity building as well as providing a suitable infrastructure with enough financial support to work on such crops.  It would appear that we are mainly successful in putting down on paper what should be done, and are not doing much at the level commensurate with the importance and urgency needed for the problem.


Ewuzie: A significant part of your professional life was spent at the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) in Ibadan. Some observers are concerned that Nigeria seems to be dependent on International Agencies like the IITA to perform research and provide solutions for agriculture when our universities should be playing that role...


A: Clearly, Nigeria relies greatly on IITA support in the commercialization of Cassava production.  However, it must be appreciated that IITA is doing the work of the Regional International research Institute for the African tropics. We are lucky that IITA is located here in Nigeria, which is not even doing as much as it should do to take advantage of the organization. Resources for international centres are reducing significantly, and IITA has so many countries to cater for. While there is a push to broaden the utilization of cassava in bread making and Cassava products for export, we have not had the technology widely adopted for the associated technologies in the country. Prof. Felix Nweke, formerly of UNN and IITA, has tried to record progress in the Cassava crop, and has also written a book on it. There is no doubt that progress has been made, but Nigeria is not doing much to encourage this, and continues to rely unduly on outside assistance.


Ewuzie: What lessons are to be learned from the work of the IITA?


A: Nigeria is not doing enough as a country to move the technologies and production systems developed for various ecologies to the farmers. One thing we must know about the IITA is that there are not more than 50 scientists. But each year, 70 or more graduate students do their masters and doctorate degree research, and work on the real agricultural problems of humid tropics on which they will be employed for most of their lifetime. Why is it that we have so many agricultural universities and faculties of agriculture?  How do we support them so that they collaboratively tackle the agricultural problems of the Nigerian farmer?


I want to illustrate with an example. We have a potentially successful economic crop called ukpa, and was previously known scientifically as Tetacarpedium conophorum or walnut. It has been renamed plunkentia conophora. During the Second World War, when Japan threatened India, the world supplier of linseed oil used in the paint industry, ukpa was shown to contain a quick drying oil useful in paints. Therefore it could be a good substitute for linseed oil. The British started work on it, but we did not continue with it. As soon as the war ended, work on it was stopped in Nigeria and we lost sight of it. Not only is ukpa eaten, it is also a plant very much like grapes from which berries can be harvested and made into wine. This woody plant does well on sandy soil, because it has deep roots, and doesn’t require cultivation every year. But we should find out how best to manage it and manure or fertilize the soil to make grow well where its roots will take up nutrients from manure or fertilizers applied to the soil. But  I do not think we are doing anything about it, and it remains a neglected crop in Nigeria. You also know the African pear, called safou in our neighbouring country, the Cameroon. I think they have carried out research on the African pear and they are even getting cosmetics from it. They have published more on it than we have done in Nigeria.


Enekwe: How can extension workers, demonstration schools and the like play a role in developing the agricultural sector?


A: Nowadays, in most places of the world, researchers use participatory agricultural development approaches, including farm schools in Asia to assist farmers learn how to use new crop varieties and technologies for increasing productivity. We do not use such approaches in Nigeria, and we do not mount good demonstrations to assist our illiterate farmers to observe new farm practice. This they can't learn from simply listening to the radio. Even though Nigerians listen to the radio in great numbers, more than 40 per cent of the programming is spent on continuous government propaganda with very little time devoted to agriculture and rural development.  These constitute my experience and observations since I returned to Nigeria.


Kalu: During the First Republic the regions gave higher priority to agriculture and rural development under the leadership of premiers like Dr. Michael Okpara, Chief Obafemi Awolowo and Alhaji Ahmadu Bello. But, perhaps, due to the oil boom, government interest in these areas has declined; how do we return to an emphasis on agriculture?


Okigbo: What I may say is that these leaders made a lot of progress, however, the Civil War and the Oil boom put an end to the Dr. Okpara, Awolowo and Sir Ahamadu Bello era. I must say that the Ohaneze asked a similar question of harkening back to the Okpara period. Farm Settlements were begun, and several projects launched, including the agricultural Development Corporations and Oil Palm and Tree Crop Plantations with Pioneer Oil Mills. However, these are now gone. And we should be doing more though we are not. For example, you cannot be dealing with illiterate farmers who are supposed to constitute 50 – 60% of the population and ensure that Nigeria realizes the roles of agriculture in economic development without well thought assistance and organization.


The role of agriculture in economics includes being a source of employment and a way of life for 50 – 60% of the population, and producing raw materials for industries at home and abroad. It’s been a source of exports earning capital for economic development, a source of income for the farmer to buy farm equipment and manufactured goods needed to pay for services and miscellaneous items. It also ensures food security, good health and wellbeing. A productive agriculture should only engage the attention of a small segment of the population, making it possible for the majority to find employment in non-farm sectors. In America, for example, less than 2 million people are farming to produce enough food and other products for export for the remaining 250 million people. Each farmer in America produces enough to create jobs for 11 people in agribusiness, which includes input delivering systems and post-harvest activities such as drying of produce, processing, packaging, storage, distribution, transportation and marketing.


Ewuzie: What strategies must we have in place to make Nigeria self sufficient in food production?


A: In Nigeria, a farmer or farming family hardly produces enough food and other products to support even one person who is not farming.  This is the reason why we have to import food.  If we want to stop importing food or any farm product, we must make sure that our farmers are producing enough to satisfy Nigeria’s needs, before any bans on importation. If our farmers cannot produce enough, we must take steps to reshape our farming structures and remove all obstacles to increased production.


I don't know how far the government has gone in doing what Nigeria is supposed to do in order to move into and through the transition to sustainable development from 1992 to 2000AD. I don't think we have done something significant. I’m not sure what has been done in Agenda 21 that is planned to take us through the transition to sustainable development. For example, we have done very little in the conservation of bio-diversity, the convention on forest principles for all kinds of forestry and their management or on the convention on climate change.

One of our biggest problems is that of environmental degradation. Everywhere you see fires burning vegetation uncontrolled, especially in the dry season. There are laws against burning of vegetation; but we are not enforcing them. What I think we should do is to have a major emergency programme to start planning how to move through the transition.


Enekwe: The buzz word these days is “sustainability,” whether it is in economics, medicine or agriculture. How can Nigeria develop sustainable Agriculture?


A: Well, almost everybody uses the term, sustainable agriculture, without knowing exactly what it means. The problem is that sustainable development in every sectoral activity including agriculture must involve technologies, production systems and activities, which do not have adverse effects on the environment, and where possible, involve measures that enhance the environment.


 So in order to help the small farmer, one emphasis in sustainable agriculture is the use of internal inputs that do not come close to the cost of the desired production of the farm. So one can invest in poultry, and use chicken waste or livestock manure to enrich the soil for cash crops. If the chicken manure is not used up in growing crops, in any case, it becomes pollution.


Secondly, good soil requires a covering of vegetation so that its fertility is not lost. It does not become compacted on the surface and, in this way, production is increased, and the soil is managed well. These are some of the measures to take to enhance the environment and also generate employment.


In agriculture we have not started taking steps to embark on the track to sustainable agriculture.  We are still practicing the outmoded slash and burn agriculture. What is new is that, in some cases, the farmer is able to purchase fertilizer; but they not only often apply the wrong mixture, they do so too late, to the crop that has been planted.  Also, much more than 50 percent of the area to be farmed is cleared after less than four years of fallow.


The burning of cleared area and the annual bush fires generate greenhouse gases which contribute to Ozone layer depletion. But in sustainable agriculture we should be able to minimize bush burning and the use of wrong and costly fertilizers, and rely more on biological nitrogen fixation, nutrient cycling, crop rotation and mycorrhizal phosphate nutrition. Unfortunately, very little funds are being made available for research and development focusing on sustainable agriculture and for launching public enlightenment on sustainable agriculture and demonstrating this to farmers.  It involves technologies and inputs which are mainly internally generated, and are known to have minimum or no adverse environmental impacts.


Ewuzie: Putting an end to slash and burn agriculture would likely mean setting up another bureaucracy. Is that feasible?


 A:  Whoever inspects laws about burning or soil conservation has a job. But he needs to do his job well. What we gain from that may be 10 times what such a person may be earning, so we need to plan a dialogue. In my ministry, I was invited to something in relation to conserving the environment. But there should be a think tank that goes through the indicators, say every 10 years to present what our problems are in agriculture. These things, at present, are being published by the UNDP. But I ask you -- who will implement them? And the implementation will be biased in some cases, exaggerated or underplayed.


Kalu: Women play a salient role in agricultural production in this country; however, they are an unappreciated part of the sector. How can we truly rejuvenate the agricultural sector without honestly addressing the inequities that exist between the genders?


A: Absolutely! We have major gender issues in the country, which translates into

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the agricultural sector. Women do a lot of the important work, in value added aspects in processing and gardening. Women went to meet the AU to complain that since the Beijing conference the removal of inequities that derail women, in most cultures, all regions, that many countries have not been implemented. However, the number of women in politics has increased. But what about Sharia laws that introduce gender inequality, which affects, not only women but also men? Nothing has been done.


Also in Igboland, the issue of widows arises. A man may marry three or four wives; one of them may have two children, a mistress may have another. Yet according to the law, when the man’s wealth is divided by the women, the mistress will take half, while the wife with more is entitled to only half.

But interestingly, the AU gave the countries women complained had not started anything, a red card. Those that had started putting something on paper about what they were planning to do were given a yellow card. Those who had started doing something were congratulated. And Nigeria is one of those that they say is doing something. The government was congratulated.


In farming where women are concerned, new technology that will make it easy for women to farm needs to be introduced. We are not doing everything we could be doing to help. Secondly, if women, for example, who are farming become pregnant, their ration will be different from those of men, unless the women are educated and know what they require and ask for it…


Enekwe:  Professor Okigbo, thank you for an engaging conversation. Do you have any parting thoughts?


There is great need for programmes that provide innovative strategies for improving the efficiency of traditional farming methods. From 1972 up to 1977, I was the leader of a team that studied traditional framing methods, measured outcomes, and performed detailed cost benefit analysis. This work will need constant reworking, revision, updating, expansion. Nigerian can develop sustainable agriculture if it has the will, if an adequate amount of resources – financial, manpower- are allocated to the sector, if the best and brightest scientists are recruited to develop policies, schemes and if these elaborate plans are appropriately implemented. The role of the government apart from the aforementioned, should also be to create an enabling environment for the farmer and to support the socio-economic development that ensures that adequate rural infrastructure is available for increased agricultural production.


Thank you, Professor Okigbo.



You are welcome.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the interview are not necessarily those of the Chinua Achebe Foundation. The Chinua Achebe Foundation, an intellectual and cultural organization, believes in the right of every Nigerian to express their opinion.

Chinua Achebe Foundation Interview Series: Professor Bede N. Okigbo in Conversation with Professor Ossie Enekwe, Uduma Kalu and Alvan Ewuzie