Synergos Nigeria leads launch of first agriculture plan for Benue State

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It’s a common irony around the world: staggering levels of poverty and malnutrition persist in communities where agriculture—food production—is the leading industry and employer. A familiar network of mutually reinforcing factors across the agricultural system and society keeps rural communities trapped in a cycle of extreme poverty.

Raising productivity is essential to breaking that cycle, but it’s a significant shift that can’t happen without strong coordination among all the key players, especially farmers, government, and the private sector. That’s why for the past three years, Synergos has led a community-wide collaboration in Nigeria’s Benue state to build its most comprehensive agriculture investment plan to-date. The plan considers more obvious agriculture-specific factors, like mechanization and market access, but also society-wide issues like gender inequality and climate change, which stymie growth across sectors.

No farmer is an island

A single farmer can’t succeed without help from across the entire agricultural system. Take the example of a farmer in Benue who wants to invest in a tractor. Such an investment would quadruple production, but because this farmer currently farms by hand, she barely earns enough to feed her family. Even if she could manage to save enough or acquire a loan to buy the tractor, she’s likely to be hampered by other common setbacks, such as insufficient facilities to store and process all those additional crops, poor delivery services, unreliable infrastructure like electricity, roads, or irrigation, and a lack of connections to large buyers who would be willing to work with her.

This example reveals the many players involved in helping a single farmer grow their income and escape poverty. To make a big investment like a tractor or a new storage facility, a farmer needs credit from the government or a financial institution. The infrastructure required to consistently grow and ship crops, like irrigation systems, electricity, and roads, can only be built by government (local, state, and federal) or the private sector. And of course, lobbying for such changes and building relationships with big buyers requires collective action through civil society groups like farmers cooperatives, unions, and community organizations.

Benue State is widely known as the food basket of Nigeria. It leads the nation on diversity in agricultural production and grows more soybeans, citrus fruits, mangoes, roots, and tubers than any other state. Still, it’s not even close to producing at full capacity. Benue’s farmers have the potential to feed all of Nigeria, but lack the infrastructure, financing, training, technology, legal structure, and other key inputs to produce at that level.

Women are the majority of farmers in Benue state. Including their voices in decision-making is one element of the policy.Government officials, farmers, private sector representatives, and community organization members meet during the Principles of Transformation workshop in 2016.Left photo: Women are the majority of farmers in Benue state. Including their voices in decision-making was a key priority of the new policy. Right photo: A breakout group of government officials, farmers, private sector representatives, and community organization members connect interpersonally to build trust and learn from one another's perspectives at the Principles of Transformation workshop in 2016.

A systems view leads to coordinated action

Since 2016, the Synergos Nigeria team has led an inclusive effort in Benue to 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. By taking the time to carefully understand these factors, pinpoint critical “levers” in the system, and engage those who control them, Synergos was able to convene the many diverse actors to listen to one another’s needs—many for the first time—and build a plan together to address them in coordination.

In a series of workshops organized by the Synergos-led State Partnership for Agriculture (SPA), government and business leaders heard directly from farmers. For many attendees, these gatherings revealed the siloed ways in which they had been working and opened their minds to see how they had been part of the problem. By learning the principles of bridging leadership, representatives from various groups witnessed the value of listening across divides and doing the hard work of building consensus—sometimes compromise—toward hard-won, but more durable solutions.

In one crucial gathering, called the Principles of Transformation, Synergos guided attendees through a set of reflective practices to help them move beyond personal ego, toward a shared vision of the community’s greater good. Several attendees, from government officials to farmers, described this workshop as a turning point. It was after it that they agreed to work toward shared ownership of a unified official agriculture policy and create platforms to continue the multisectoral collaboration.

A vision and plan emerge

The Benue State Policy on Agriculture, launched in July of 2019 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. It 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 more specialized criteria including soil quality, land tenure, mechanization, irrigation, extension services, and monitoring and evaluation.

Just as important as goals, the plan outlines a strategy for achieving them, delegates responsibilities and financing, and sets up accountability systems to track progress. It also institutes continued regular meetings across the state where representatives of all key groups can provide updates, ask questions, and generate ideas to improve implementation. While a plan alone is no guarantee of success, the Synergos Nigeria team feels strongly that the systemic, inclusive approach used to devise this first-of-its kind policy has rallied a depth of shared, cross-sector ownership necessary to sustain progress and reinforce accountability as the state moves forward to transform its agricultural systems.

For more information on Benue state's agricultural policy plan, contact Deputy Country Director for Synergos Nigeria and project lead, Victor Adejoh at vadejoh@synergos.org.