As the Federal Government continues to intensify its economic diversification agenda with agriculture being the hub of the ongoing drive, the importance of quality seeds to improved yields and incomes for farmers and the country cannot be over-emphasized. In this interview, the Director General of the National Agricultural Seeds Council (NASC), OLUSEGUN OJO, PhD., a renowned seed expert, speaks on efforts being made by the regulatory Council to sanitize the nation’s seeds market and ensure that Nigerian seeds meet global quality standards. TOLA AKINMUTIMI reports his thoughts on sundry issues affecting the industry. Excerpts:
Sir, the NASC made an inroad to the OECD, an organisation with membership in 34 countries. How did you get Nigeria recognized in this group and what are the implications for the nation’s seed industry?
The OECD is a very important group. We call it the group of the wealthy nations. The seed scheme of the OECD is exactly where we are operative and we are the regulatory agency of government that has the responsibility for ensuring an adequate access. Also, we have to ensure that we key into every agency that would help us because Nigeria’s role is to be participatory. Nigeria today is an observer in the OECD and we attended the last OECD meeting in Argentina. The next one is coming up in Italy in January and I will be there to represent the country because we have to ensure that our seed system, particularly the certification, is in line with the OECD’s scheme so that Nigerian farmers can participate in the traditional seed business. This is because the certification scheme must be at par with them to be able to play. As I mentioned, we are today in the OECD as an observer and by the grace of God, the Honourable Minister will be signing the instrument which I will be taking to him because he is interested and everybody is interested that Nigerian farmers participate in the seed business. So, we will take it to him to append his signature so that we can be full-fledged member of the OECD because all the necessary requirements have been met. We have the seed Act, we have the Harmonised Seeds Rules and Regulations. The Storage Rules are already there and our involvement is to encourage the participation in the international seed business.
Also, in Africa Nigeria, through the various initiatives of your Council, is at the vanguard of the sustained drive towards high quality seed industry. How would you describe your experience in this strategic drive such that other countries in the continent could learn from Nigeria’s experiences?
I think when it comes to the issue of making other countries learn from our experiences so far, Nigeria is the big brother, particularly in West Africa, because a lot of things are happening here. There are a lot of innovations and technologies that originated here. Let me also mention that we have the Seed Tracker, a platform where all stakeholders could participate, including in the registration of seed companies and seed producers and actually ensuring that everything concerning the seed value chain is keyed into it. It all started here and we did it actually in conjunction with the BASICS Programme of the IITA and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation programme. Let me also mention here that that Programme won the 2018 Google Impact Award. Also, countries like Tanzania and Democratic Republic of Congo have copied it. So, that will tell you that we are seed leaders in West Africa. It is also important for the public to know that other countries in the sub-region that want to standardize their seed industry have been coming here to understudy what Nigeria is doing. Gambia was here, Ghana came, Sierra Leone came and others are on their way. So, these are some of the things we are doing as a leader in the region’s seed industry. It is also important for me to say here that we initiated what we call the Seed Connect Africa, which is a gathering or convergence of seed stakeholders in West Africa and, as we speak, other countries are joining. So, the forum is now being seen as the largest convergence of seed actors in West Africa. That also is a good pointer to the fact of the leadership position we have assumed and that we are playing very well.
The UPOV, a seed variety organization, has commenced collaboration with Nigeria through the NASC. Could you give an insight into what led your Council to explore the collaborative option and how much Nigeria stands to gain from it?
Thank you very much. The yield of crops that we have in this country is very low compared to what it is outside the country, particularly in the developed countries. For instance, a lot of the genetics that we have out there cannot actually be brought to this country, particularly because we don’t have the Vegetatively Propagated Seed (VPS) Law and also have the responsibility to ensure that even our breeders locally reap the benefits of their inventions. These are some of the reasons that propelled us to venture into joining the UPOV and we have the support of the Honourable Minister, who was to even lead a delegation, to submit our application to UPOV but due to the challenges of time and the rest of it, he delegated the Permanent Secretary that led the delegation to submit our application to UPOV. Let me put it on record today that we have an observer status in the UPOV and the Plant Varieties Protection Draft Bill has gone through the second reading in the National Assembly and when it is finally enacted into law, Nigerian farmers will benefit; the yield of farmers will increase and in doing all these things, we are talking about food security, productivity will increase and a lot of income will come into the pockets of farmers and the country will benefit greatly in view of the multiplier effects of this initiative on the economy. There will be actually a big boost to the economy. So, these are some of the key reasons that informed our becoming a member of the UPOV.
The newly built molecular laboratory in NASC was also an initiative completed under your leadership as the Director General of NASC, through support from FERA in the United Kingdom. How was this technological feat achieved in seed development and what should Nigerian seed companies, farmers and others expect from this technological innovation?
The molecular laboratory technology at our Centre of Seed Excellence in Sheda is a result of our efforts to build partnership and collaborate with stakeholders in the seed industry. There is a programme called ‘Building a Sustainable and Integrated Cassava System in Nigeria (BASICS), which is a part of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. So, it is that programme that brought the idea of the molecular laboratory facility and FERA UK is the agency that was given the responsibility because of that collaboration to build the facility. Here, let me say that on that facility six of our officers were trained in FERA UK and, today, are champions in either seed health or leaders in molecular testing facility. So, through that facility we have been able to test breeder seeds of cassava to ensure that they are free of virus loads. Those are some of the things we are doing at that facility and it is not going to be used only for cassava. It is going to be used for testing other crops, particularly Vegetatively Propagated Crops. But what is going to be needed, going forward, is the development of appropriate facilities to test some of these crops. So, it is the way to go. After the training of our staff, FERA came again to actually further capacitate the trainees to ensure that what they were trained on, they are doing it properly. It is actually a good and beneficial partnership and we will continue to ensure that, because capability is very important in the seed industry, by the time it is over, adequate funding is committed to the facility since it is our own project that will assist us in our efforts to improve seed quality in the country.
By estimation, what would you say is the size of Nigeria’s seed industry in monetary value today and its contributory potential for GDP growth in the years ahead?
I want to state modestly that the value of the country’s seed industry cannot be less than N150 billion and we hope that in the next few years, probably by year 2030, the value would be close to N300 billion. But what we intend to do is to, because we want to have actual figures, contract some of these things to a consultant, who will be able to give us credible data for us to be able to say precisely this is the actual value of our seed industry. But, as at today, the value of our seed industry cannot be less than N150 billion.
Sir, could you explain the relationship of NASC with research institutes, universities and other relevant MDAs in your current drives to grow the nation’s seed market through scientific and technological synergies?
We are partnering with all the relevant universities and relevant agencies in the agricultural system. For instance, we are partnering with the National Agricultural Quarantine Service, an agency of government that is responsible for agriculture import permit. We are partnering with the Natonal Biotechnology Development Agency and we are also partnering with the National Biosafety Management Agency. Like I mentioned earlier, we superintend over the seed industry and every agency that has to do one thing or the other with seeds. Also, we are collaborating with the research institutes which have the mandate to develop varieties and breeder seeds of the crops they have the mandate to do researches on, like IAR and SHEDA that have the responsibility for the development of maize, cowpea and others. There are other research institutes. An example is National Cereals Research Institute in Badegi, with the mandate of production of breeder seeds of rice and soyabean. We work with them because they have the mandate to develop seeds for the crops under their mandates and they are the ones producing the materials that are being used in the seed industry. So, there is a kind of symbiotic relationship between us and these agencies and also the universities, particularly the universities that are producing the agriculturists, let me say, that will be released into the seed industry. We are partnering with them and provide opportunity for them to come even to the Seed Council to come and learn from what we are doing. Today, there are Masters and PhD scholars that are doing their researches, using our laboratory systems in Sheda. These are some of the relationships we have with the tertiary and research institutes.
The enactment of the NASC Act 2019 remained one of the key milestones in the Council’s history. Now that the law has been passed, how do you intend to use it as a legislative instrument to sanitise the seed market, improve farmers’ yields and more importantly, food quality on sustainable basis in Nigeria?
The National Agricultural Seed Council Amendment Act No 21 of 2019 is an instrument that has actually strengthened the arm of the Council to prosecute our responsibilities because, hitherto there were some lapses in the old Act, particularly for us in the industry to be at par with what obtains in the global arena. It is actually a good way at ensuring that we are armed to properly to be able to prosecute all the issues that have to do with the seed industry.
You mentioned the issue of funding, which I am sure is not peculiar to the NASC alone in the federal public service. How are you mobilizing stakeholders support to be able to implement the laudable goals you have set for the Council?
Funding as you mentioned is a challenge and, as you have noted, it is not peculiar to the council. The Federal Government is doing its best, despite budgetary constraints, to support the council with funds. But then, we are being ingenious in fulfilling our mandate because we have a crucial responsibility to ensure that Nigerian farmers have adequate access to quality seeds and since we don’t have all what it takes in terms of funding, we are partnering with various agencies, both international and local, to ensure that we are able to deliver on our mandate. For instance, we are partnering with BMGF, UKAid, USAID and some other agencies, and even some governments of other countries like Hungary and Netherlands. So, but for these partnerships, we would not have been able to do some of the things we have done because of the challenge of funding. Some of the facilities and technologies we are mentioning today were obtained through partnership and collaboration with some of the agencies and governments.
The Council has, in recent times, in furtherance of its mandate, been moving to the grassroots for the purposes of sanitizing the seed market through sporadic raids on sub-standard seed dealers’ shops and companies. For instance, the Gwagwalada market raids took place a few weeks ago. Are you prepared to make this a national exercise in order to achieve the objectives?
It is very good to say that what you saw in Gwagwalada was not restricted to that market and had been carried out in most of the states of the federation. For instance, I was personally involved in that exercise twice in Kano. We have carried out similar raids in some occasions in Jigawa State. Also, we were in Oyo State twice and I was part of the enforcement team also in Asaba, Delta State, as well as in the East. The seeds market raids exercise is very important and we make it national because of its educational and awareness creation in the markets in order to curb adulterated seed peddlers. It is an exercise that is being carried out in the six geo-political zones. But the only issue is that of the challenge of funding because if you want to carry out any of these exercises, you need some funds. Also, we are partnering with some of our sister-agencies like the Civl Defence (NCDSC) because we don’t carry arms when we go to the markets to seize materials or fake seeds being sold by somebody. You have to be accompanied with some elements of minimal force and that is why we always work with some of the security agencies. So, these are some of the things we are doing to ensure that the abuses in the seed industry are curbed to the minimal level, if not totally obliterated.
Sir, given the leverage the newly enacted NASC Act 2019 gives you in the pursuit of your mandate as seed industry regulator and the supports the Council is enjoying from local and international collaborators and the government, which areas would you say the Council still requires additional support in order to consolidate on its modest achievements in the sanitization of the seed industry drive in the years ahead?
I want to mention three areas quickly. The first area is assisting us to complete our ‘Seeds Centre of Excellence’ facility in Sheda (in FCT) because we are leaders in the seed industry in West Africa and we want to be leaders indeed. And, like I mentioned, the Centre is going to be a centre of research, advocacy and knowledge-building or capacity development. With our current budgetary allocations, we cannot do this alone. So, we are calling on our partners and collaborators to help us in completing it as when it is completed, it is not going to be useful only for us in Nigeria but the whole of West Africa and even beyond. The other area I would like assistance for the council is in the area of some of the technologies we are putting together in order to make seed business for all the stakeholders and to make farmers have adequate access to good quality seeds. Thirdly, the SeedCodex is something that we are starting and we want to actually prosecute it such that, by the time the enforcement is actually full blown, nobody will be able to sell adulterated seeds in this country. But, you see all these are tall orders if we don’t have the wherewithal in terms of funding. So, those are the three areas I want all the stakeholders, our partners and governments to assist us to meet our target.
Finally, what assurance are you giving to farmers, particularly the smallholder farmers in the villages, as regards the efforts of the council to support them in getting quality seeds easily for farming?
I want to assure them that the council shall continue to ensure that the seed industry that we are superintending over is full of good quality and affordable seeds because without this, farmers will not reap good benefits from their farming activities and on what they are producing. So, we are also assuring farmers that we shall continue to upscale our activities and intensify our supervisory roles to ensure that all seed agencies and all the certified seed enterprises deliver good quality seeds to farmers in the country.
“Let me also mention here that that Programme won the 2018 Google Impact Award. Also, countries like Tanzania and Democratic Republic of Congo have copied it. So, that will tell you that we are seed leaders in West Africa.”
“The seeds market raids exercise is very important and we make it national because of its educational and awareness creation in the markets in order to curb adulterated seed peddlers. It is an exercise that is being carried out in the six geo-political zones.”
“The SeedCodex is something that we are starting and we want to actually prosecute it such that by the time the enforcement is actually full blown, nobody will be able to sell adulterated seeds in this country.”