Benue State, widely known as the food basket of Nigeria, leads the country on scale and diversity in agricultural production, growing more soybeans, citrus fruits, mangoes, roots, and tubers than any other state. Yet it has been producing at far less than full capacity. While Benue’s farmers have the potential to feed all of Nigeria, they have lacked infrastructure, financing, training, technology, legal systems, and other crucial mechanisms to produce to their full potential. Synergos has helped the state create its first-ever coordinated plan to change that.
Staggering levels of poverty and malnutrition persist in communities where agriculture is the leading industry and employer. Mutually reinforcing factors across food systems and society have historically prevented rural communities from transcending extreme poverty. Raising productivity, which requires a new frame of reference and high levels of coordination among many players, is key to breaking the cycle.
Since 2016, Synergos has led a community-wide collaboration in Benue State to build its most comprehensive agriculture investment plan to-date. The program aptly considers deeply entrenched systemic challenges such as gender inequality and climate change that stymie growth alongside agriculture-specific factors.
No farmer is an island
It’s impossible for a single farmer to succeed without assistance that stretches across the entire agricultural system. A farmer in Benue who invests in a tractor, for example, can quadruple production. Yet because this farmer farms by hand, she barely earns enough to feed her family. Even if she manages to save enough or acquire a loan to buy a tractor, she’s likely to be hampered by insufficient storage and processing facilities, poor delivery services, unreliable infrastructure like electricity, roads, or irrigation, and a lack of access to large food buyers.
To invest in a tractor or a new storage facility, this farmer requires credit from the government or a financial institution. Irrigation systems, electricity, and roads needed to grow and ship crops can only be built by government or the private sector. And lobbying for change and cultivating relationships with big buyers requires collective action through civil society groups like farmers cooperatives, unions, and community organizations.
Building trust and a common vision
Leading an inclusive effort among government, business leaders, and farmers in Benue, the Synergos Nigeria team has helped systemically analyze the state’s flagging agriculture sector and diagnose the many interconnected factors that keep farmers under-producing, disconnected from markets, and stuck in poverty.
In a series of workshops organized by the Synergos-led State Partnership for Agriculture (SPA), government and business leaders heard directly from farmers. The gatherings revealed the siloed ways in which attendees were working and opened their minds to understanding how they were part of the problem. Through learning the principles of bridging leadership, representatives from the various groups witnessed firsthand the value that listening across divides and the hard work of building consensus – which sometimes means accepting compromise – brings.
For many, one session in particular, the Principles of Transformation, was a turning point. Having been guided through a set of reflective practices designed to move them beyond personal ego toward a common vision of the community’s greater good, attendees agreed to work toward shared ownership of a unified official agriculture policy and create platforms to continue the multisectoral collaboration.
A plan emerges
Launched July 2019, the Benue State Policy on Agriculture represents the culmination of a rigorous, multi-year effort on the part of the state government, farmers groups, the private sector, technical experts like TechnoServe, and universities, and conveners like Synergos.
The plan established clear, measurable goals on top-level indicators for transforming Benue’s agricultural economy, among them to reduce post-harvest losses by 50 percent and increase farmer income by 80 percent by 2021, as well as to create a locally-sourced investment fund. It also set targets on specialized criteria including soil quality, land tenure, mechanization, irrigation, extension services, and monitoring and evaluation.
Importantly, the plan detailed a strategy for achieving the goals, delegated responsibilities and financing, and set up accountability systems to track progress. It also instituted regular meetings across the state where representatives of all key groups provide updates, ask questions, and generate ideas to improve implementation.
While a plan alone is no guarantee of success, the systemic, inclusive approach used to devise this first-of-its kind policy rallied the deep shared, cross-sector ownership necessary to sustain progress and reinforce accountability as the state continues to progress toward higher productivity and better livelihoods for farming families.