Voice of farmers in the agriculture crisis in North-East Nigeria: Focus group insights from extension workers

Ferdinand Ndifor Che (School of IT and Computing, American University of Nigeria, Yola, Nigeria)
Kenneth David Strang (College of Management and Technology, Walden University, Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA)
Narasimha Rao Vajjhala (School of IT and Computing, American University of Nigeria, Yola, Nigeria)

International Journal of Development Issues

ISSN: 1446-8956

Article publication date: 31 January 2020

Issue publication date: 31 March 2020

424

Abstract

Purpose

The purpose of this study is to uncover ground truth insights underlying the agriculture crisis from the perspectives of rural farmers in North-East Nigeria. The needs of individual farmers are otherwise not adequately reflected in national or regional economic development strategies.

Design/methodology/approach

A unique sequential mixed-methods research design was adopted for this study. A grounded theory approach was used for the literature review followed by a consensual qualitative research (CQR) technique. Data were collected through a semi-structured sense-making focus group (FG) held at a field site with agricultural extension workers. The CQR technique included brainstorming, the nominal group technique, open discussions, sense-making and consensual agreement on the most important ideas. The FG sense-making was recorded, and discourse analysis was conducted to develop thematic concept maps using NVivo software.

Findings

Agriculture crisis ground truth insight themes were consistent with the extant literature but several different issues were also found. Rural farmers in North-East Nigeria have significant challenges with government support in six core areas, namely, farm input quality and dissemination, fair input subsidization, training, market facilitation, corruption and insecurity.

Research limitations/implications

The target population of this study was rural farmers in Adamawa State, North-East Nigeria. A relatively small sample of 16 agricultural extension workers – very experienced farmers who also act as mentors and are paid incentives by the government for doing so – was used.

Practical implications

In tackling the agriculture crisis in Nigeria, policymakers will do well to recognize the realities that the rural farmers face and their needs, the government must address the areas highlighted in this study where support for farmers lacks and urgently review the current process of farm inputs dissemination.

Originality/value

Agriculture crisis problems were explored from the perspectives of rural North-East Nigerian farmers, who have not been previously sampled due to cultural, language, literacy and schedule constraints. The extension workers were better able to communicate agriculture crisis insights in modern economic planning terminology because they are well-educated farmers, knowledgeable about the problems due to their field experience and because they have more flexible work schedules. A unique sequential mixed-methods constructivist research design was used with an embedded CQR technique, which would be of interest to scholars and research institutions.

Keywords

Citation

Che, F.N., Strang, K.D. and Vajjhala, N.R. (2020), "Voice of farmers in the agriculture crisis in North-East Nigeria: Focus group insights from extension workers", International Journal of Development Issues, Vol. 19 No. 1, pp. 43-61. https://doi.org/10.1108/IJDI-08-2019-0136

Publisher

:

Emerald Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2020, Emerald Publishing Limited


1. Introduction

Nigeria is in an agriculture crisis due to several macro-environmental factors including Boko Haram terrorism, government corruption, climate change, civic disruption, inadequate infrastructure and low-quality production (Obayelu et al., 2019; Olawuyi and Mushunje, 2019; Omotayo et al., 2018; Strang et al., 2019; Tall et al., 2018, August; Uduji et al., 2019; Zhang et al., 2018). The crisis is longitudinal despite a large amount of humanitarian funding and foreign direct investment to fix the national macro-level problems (Adeola et al., 2018; Azih, 2008; Chukwuji et al., 2019; Fasona et al., 2016; Fawole and Ozkan, 2018; Olowogbon et al., 2019). It is important to explore remedies for the agricultural industry problems in Nigeria and to catalog any critical success factors (CSFs) because the results could generalize widely, to other African and developing countries. Disseminating the Nigerian agriculture CSFs could assist rural small farm holders, regional farmers, national food industry, as well as international stakeholders, government policymakers and educators. Nigeria is the largest country in Africa, and with almost 200 million people, it is the seventh most populous nations in the world (USDCCS, 2018). The soil and climate are ideal for agriculture across most regions in Nigeria (Enesi et al., 2018). Agriculture is an important component of the Nigerian domestic production, with the agriculture sector accounting for 25 per cent of its GDP and employing over 50 per cent of the labor force in 2018 (Elijah et al., 2017; NBS, 2018, 2019). Nigeria had a high Internet penetration of 47.1 per cent of the population or 92.3 million users in 2018, projected to double to 187.8 million (84.5 per cent of the projected population) in five years (Statista, 2019). Thus, Nigeria represents a formidable food production machine with a competitive e-commerce infrastructure to facilitate agriculture supply chain operations, including exports. Hence, finding solutions to the Nigerian agriculture crisis could benefit national productivity of high-demand foods such as rice, corn, wheat, sugar and palm oil, as well as help other developing countries through knowledge transfer of best-practices.

The problem is that the rural North-East Nigerian farmers’ voice is not heard as stakeholders strive to understand how to overcome the agriculture crisis. There are few documented solutions to the agriculture crisis (Abu and Soom, 2016; Awotide et al., 2019; Barnes et al., 2018; Fasona et al., 2016; Obayelu et al., 2019; Olawuyi and Mushunje, 2019; Omotayo et al., 2018; Tall et al., 2018, August). However, the rural Nigerian farmers’ needs are not adequately captured in published research as their perspectives have mostly been excluded from scholarly studies. The perspectives of rural Nigerian farmers may have been excluded in contemporary research due to socio-cultural and communication barriers including illiteracy, language and religious beliefs (Agbo and Isa, 2017; Awotide et al., 2019; Barnes et al., 2018; Daluba, 2013; Mafimisebi et al., 2012; Nwagu et al., 2017), as well as a predominant focus by researchers on agriculture crisis macro-environmental factors (Awotide et al., 2019; Barnes et al., 2018; Olowogbon et al., 2019; Uduji et al., 2019; Olawuyi and Mushunje, 2019; Zhang et al., 2018; Omotayo, 2018; Obayelu et al., 2019). Language barriers can prevent participants from understanding research questions or from answering coherently in business terminology. Socio-cultural traditions make it impractical for many rural farmers to meet with academic researchers in the field, and there is very little slack time in the cropping calendar. Terrorism, food insecurity and poverty socialize rural farmers to be risk avoidant, which means they hesitate to interact with researchers or officials. The purpose of this study is to uncover ground truth insights underlying the agriculture crisis at the micro-level of analysis from the perspective of rural farmers in North-East Nigeria. Agricultural extension workers are well-educated subject matter experts who are strategically positioned to articulate the voice of the rural farmers to the industry stakeholders.

2. Literature review: Theoretical lens

2.1 Nigeria agriculture industry crisis overview

A critical problem at the macro environment level is that Nigeria is importing significantly more wheat, rice and sugar at unfavorable currency exchange rates than what farmers can grow (Fawole and Ozkan, 2018). According to the Nigeria Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development, the essential bulk wheat import to export ratio is growing at an unsustainable 11 per cent annual rate (Omeje et al., 2019). The key national agri-business problem is that Nigerian agriculture production is too low to sustain national demand (Omeje et al., 2019; Osa-Afiana and Kelikume, 2016; Owutuamor and Arene, 2018; Tall et al., 2018) and there is a food insecurity crisis (Fawole and Ozkan, 2018; Obayelu et al., 2019; Olawuyi and Mushunje, 2019; Omotayo et al., 2018; Oparinde, 2019; Sule et al., 2019). Secondary agri-business problems include the lack of labor resources due to the Boko Haram insurgency (Lamboll et al., 2018), climate change impacts on farmland (Bosello et al., 2018; Chukwuji et al., 2019; Urama et al., 2019) and widespread corruption (Azih, 2008; CISLAC, 2017). The specific problem is that rural North-East Nigerian food industry stakeholders do not know the ground truths from the perspective of rural farmers about how to improve agri-business productivity in the context of terrorism, corruption and climate change.

2.2 Macro environmental factors in Nigeria agriculture crisis

One way to organize agricultural critical success factors is to categorize the literature by descending levels of analysis, namely, from country down to the individual farmer. In the agri-business body of knowledge, these levels of analysis correspond to strategic planning in the business science literature, starting with the macro environment, then the industry (including cooperatives or supply chain partnerships), and finally, the lowest layer of detail or micro-level, which is the individual farmer.

Downstream market-related macro factors impede Nigerian agriculture success. A critical issue is that most Nigerian farmers and local value chain partners have limited transport options to markets (AfDB, 2013). The cost of transporting products to seaports for export is high due to long distances across treacherous areas and poor road infrastructure (AfDB, 2013). The transportation problems include inadequate roads, which are also too often lacking routine periodic maintenance (AfDB, 2013; Azih, 2008). One of the most promising initiatives has been the Vision 20:2020 infrastructure program, which was supposed to update transportation networks and logistics but many of the projects have failed (AfDB, 2013). As a result, outside of the major cities, the rural road network is usually dilapidated (AfDB, 2013). Furthermore, even if agricultural goods could be moved around cheaply the country, there is inadequate deep seaport capacity, and the moribund railway sub-sector is limited (AfDB, 2013). Getting to and from supply chain points can be problematic in Nigeria due to inefficient urban mass transportation, which also suffers from occasional terrorism intervention (Adelaja and George, 2019) and high pollution emissions (AfDB, 2013). These factors could be described as infrastructure logistics.

Agricultural policies in Nigeria are weak, and there is poor coordination between the levels of government (AfDB, 2013; FAO, 2017). From an administrative standpoint, there is a low quality of agri-business analysis and a lack of National Bureau of Statistics data or estimates about farm activities (AfDB, 2013). This situation explains why there a weak capacity for agricultural policy formulation and the non-strategic choices made for project implementation (AfDB, 2013; Azih, 2008). These factors can be summarized as strategic planning.

Perhaps the more serious issue is corruption at all levels of government, as well as non-governmental organizations, combined with a weak institutional capacity to fight corruption (AfDB, 2013; CISLAC, 2017, June). The root of this problem seems to be poor non-competitive government policies for procurement during the award of contracts (Azih, 2008; CISLAC, 2017, June). Additionally, there is negligible or ineffective parliamentary over-sight, mainly due to underlying corruption (AfDB, 2013). It seems logical that unethical public financial management practices dovetail with the corruption problem (AfDB, 2013; FAO, 2017). Overall, corruption was a suitable label for this factor.

2.3 Industry level factors in Nigeria agriculture crisis

At the industry level of analysis, agri-businesses have insufficient administrative or management staff (AfDB, 2013). The shortage of hands translates into a lack of time to research or process strategic information, market data and best-practice documentation (Azih, 2008; FAO, 2017). The lack of capacity means that there is too little time to understand regulations, rules and funding policies (AfDB, 2013). As such, agri-businesses often miss opportunities to win grants for which they would be eligible. An insightful initiative was the introduction of agricultural extension system, where the government hired and funded experienced well-educated farm practitioners from various regions of the country to mentor farmers (Alabi and Ajayi, 2018; Otene et al., 2018). To some degree, the agricultural extension workers program mitigated the inadequate capacity problem but scholarly studies have not sufficiently investigated it, at least in the North-East of Nigeria. Overall, this factor could be described as a lack of strategic resource planning capacity.

Paradoxically, the above lack of resource planning problem could be overcome by using technology to facilitate access to market data and agricultural production information but the challenge is that farmers do not yet accept information systems solutions (Asenso-Okyere and Mekonnen, 2018; Fatusin and Oladehinde, 2018). Perhaps this technology adoption problem stems from the limited awareness of special-purpose agricultural information systems (Barnes et al., 2018; FAO, 2017) or the lack of exposure to the latest relevant technologies and awareness of relevant innovation opportunities (Asenso-Okyere and Mekonnen, 2018; Barnes et al., 2018; Fatusin and Oladehinde, 2018; Wongsim et al., 2018). Ironically, when relevant agri-business technologies exist, they are usually imported at prohibitively unattractive international currency exchange rates or sometimes they are prohibited from import and unaffordable (Uduji and Okolo-Obasi, 2018; Wongsim et al., 2018). Presently, there is insufficient research about the potential for farmers to adopt and customize agricultural technologies such as mobile phone apps (Wongsim et al., 2018). An apt term for this factor could be agricultural or agri-business technologies.

There is a lack of training provided to farmers and other stakeholders in the industry although recent government programs have initiated youth training programs (Ayinde et al., 2018; Koledoye and Olagunju, 2017). Nonetheless, farmers are using out-dated farming methods, lack knowledge of modern methods, and use ineffective farming practices (Olomola and Nwafor, 2018, August). The domino effects from such gaps include low-quality outputs and low profits (Azih, 2008). Oddly enough, even if a free agri-business technology were to be used, teaching or training farmers to install, use and maintain it remains an obstacle (Olomola and Nwafor, 2018, August). Some of the medium- to large-sized farming organizations have agricultural information systems, but there is a lack of small farm holder training to effectively use them (Adetimehin et al., 2018; Strang et al., 2019; Wongsim et al., 2018).

There is an overall lack of cooperation between Nigerian agri-businesses and their value chain partners, including the construction and maintenance of road networks (AfDB, 2013). Most large projects require subcontractor partners, but there are often delays responding to government requests for proposals or opportunities due to cultural expectations, terrorism concerns and other risks (AfDB, 2013). Expansion projects are poorly designed due to ineffective communication between stakeholders, and the relationships are often not sustainable across initiatives (AfDB, 2013). The limited professional business capacity and poor cooperation result in inefficient or limited services in some areas (AfDB, 2013). There is infrequent informal communication between large industry companies and small farm holders (AfDB, 2013). There is negligible agricultural information sharing or knowledge diffusion amongst agricultural stakeholders (Azih, 2008; FAO, 2017). Furthermore, there is minimal adoption of information systems to manage agricultural information exchange or the delivery of agricultural services to farmers as the cooperation needed for their establishment is lacking (Azih, 2008). Overall, the lack of industry cooperation could encapsulate these issues as a factor.

Farmers have a major challenge finding adequate warehouses or storage facilities coupled with the delays of distributing harvested supplies to markets (Olomola and Nwafor, 2018, August). Such a situation is separate from the macro-level logistics problem as it relates to issues with the industry supply chain partners. The lack of value chain cooperation reduces export competitiveness (Azih, 2008). Often farmers do not have a sufficient supply of fertilizers or seeds, especially the improved modern mixes (Olomola and Nwafor, 2018, August). These issues are different from the cooperation problem because they are mainly upstream. Therefore, an adequate term to represent this factor could be upstream supply chain.

Farmers who are willing to start or expand their farming business ventures may quickly run up against the metaphoric brick wall if they do not have cash because there are few if any long term borrowing institutions or avenues for agricultural credit (Azih, 2008). In particular, there is a lack of financial support or credit for small farm holders (Olomola and Nwafor, 2018, August). The issue could be expressed as a lack of agricultural credit.

2.4 Micro environmental factors in Nigeria agriculture crisis

The micro-level refers to the individual farmer or farm employee but it could also mean the individual in any part of the agriculture supply chain. Global agriculture researchers have determined that several common demographic factors impact farm productivity. Each of these factors is usually independent of the other in predictive models. The age of the farmer is often a significant factor, as younger farmers are more likely to adopt agricultural information systems, as well as learn better methods (Barnes et al., 2018).

The size of landholding, especially the arable portion, can affect farm productivity, with larger plots likely to generate more revenue along with increased productivity (Awotide et al., 2019; Barnes et al., 2018; Odudu and Omirin, 2012). A related factor is farm ownership structure, which captures issues of property rights and coded at the individual-level, husband-wife, family, company, franchise and multinational level (Barnes et al., 2018).

The next micro-level factors are tacit or cognitive, as in existing in the mind of the farmer. There may be cultural and subcultural influences from nearby farmers or community cooperatives on the farmer, which impact farmers’ attitudes, as well as decision-making (Barnes et al., 2018). The subcultural influences can extend throughout the supplier value chain network (Barnes et al., 2018). Socio-cultural factors include the national culture of the farmer, meaning whether they were born and raised in North-East Nigeria, they are Christian or Muslim, and other interrelated gender and diversity factors (Strang et al., 2019). Socio-cultural dimension seems to be the best term to capture these variations. Finally, terrorism, conflicts and civic turmoil have caused food insecurity and poverty (Strang et al., 2019; Tall et al., 2018, August). Therefore, insecurity is also an important independent factor.

Gender of the farmer has also been found to be significant (Nwagu et al., 2017). Generally, males are expected to run the farms leaving women in charge of other duties, and therefore, males are often targeted to receive any available training (Agbo and Isa, 2017; Doss, 2018). Many demographic factors are often interdependent such as age, gender, experience and educational attainment. For example, older males, have more experience, receive more training, but may also be more unwilling to accept change (Adepoju and Osunbor, 2018). Educational attainment, literacy, primary, secondary and above secondary education impact farm productivity (Awotide et al., 2019).

Interestingly, the higher the farmer’s educational attainment, the more they are likely to adopt agriculture information systems, modern methods or try agri-business technologies (Barnes et al., 2018). Several researchers have noted that female farmers lack competencies because there is often little knowledge transfer to them from males, who are often leaders of the household before the males are lost as a consequence of terrorism or other violent conflicts (Olomola and Nwafor, 2018, August; Strang et al., 2019). As these two factors imply a handicap for a certain status, they may be coded as age-handicap to reflect the fact that youths may are more adaptable and gender-disadvantage to reflect the fact that females may have the odds stacked against them. In any case, these factors speak to a gender and diversity factor.

In summary, even though there are few documented solutions related to the agriculture crisis in Nigeria, the perspectives of rural Nigerian farmers have not been adequately explored yet. Even though researchers have predominantly focused on exploring the macro-environmental factors on the agricultural crisis, barriers such as high illiteracy rates, language and religious beliefs may have hampered attempts to harness the perspectives of rural farmers on the issues, particularly in North-East Nigeria. Nevertheless, the perspectives or voice of rural Nigerian farmers could be pertinent in devising strategies and policies for effectively tackling the agriculture crisis.

3. Methods

The researchers held a constructivist ideology for this study, which led to the goal of collecting in-depth information to understand the rural agriculture crisis from the perspective of rural farmers. Given this ideology, qualitative mixed data was collected, including demographic indicators and open-ended discussion narratives. The discussion narratives were synthesized and prioritized by an agri-business subject matter expert team holding a consensus-building focus group situated in the field.

3.1 Research design overview

A unique sequential mixed-methods research design was used for this study. A grounded theory approach was used for the literature review followed by the consensual qualitative research (CQR) technique. According to Strang (2015), there are several appropriate formal methods to use when researchers have a constructivist ideology and intend to collect complex qualitative data including grounded theory, phenomenology, ethnography and single or multiple case studies.

Phenomenology takes place at the individual level of analysis, and the goal is to capture true meaning via lived experiences of participants (Lincoln, 2010), but in this study, extension workers, who are very experienced farmers, were expressing the concerns of the population of farmers. The motive here was to explore critical success factors that influence farmers’ productivity to overcome an industry problem and not catalog social growth.

Case studies are ideal for exploring complex problems or best-practices at the group or organization level of analysis (Lincoln, 2010). For example, a single case would represent only one farm, which would be too limited. Multiple cases can allow researchers to compare and contrast problems or best-practices (Lincoln, 2010). According to Strang (2015), multiple case studies stand apart from other methods commonly used to analyze complex qualitative data because they imply a between-group strategy, meaning the unit of analysis is comparative across the sites. Case studies also allow for documentation to be analyzed with participant observations, interviews, surveys and even experiments, at different sites (Lincoln, 2010; Strang, 2015). However, in this study, a unique group of subject matter experts was used – the agriculture extension workers – who were in an ideal vantage point to discuss both sides of the problem (the problems of the individual rural farmers and the supply chain stakeholders, particularly the government). The focus group sense-making discourse was the critical unit of analysis, and none of the alternative approaches to CQR could easily accommodate that mandate.

CQR is a formal method that is similar in some ways to grounded theory (Hill et al., 2005). Both the grounded theory approach and the CQR methods, in sequence, were adopted for this study. Grounded theory is a formal method used when researchers share a constructive ideology (Strang, 2015), when they wish to uncover deep meaning to complex qualitative data, at the individual level of analysis, and then to relate that data to existing constructs, principles, theories or frameworks already published in the literature (Strauss and Corbin, 1998). The goal of grounded theory is to extend existing theory, usually in a different discipline, using a unique sample context (Strauss and Corbin, 1998). The authors of this study wished to leverage a priori literature where possible and to extend it, which made the grounded theory approach appropriately. However, the goal was to capture the shared meaning from a group-level of analysis. Thus, an additional technique such as the CQR was needed to add group sense-making through a focus group of subject matter experts, to synthesize the recorded discussions into thematic concepts through discourse analysis.

In grounded theory, the micro-analysis word-by-word coding of meaning is painstakingly done by researchers without preconceived notions, whereas in CQR focus groups the participants do the microanalysis, leaving the researchers to review the recorded discourse (Hill et al., 2005). Also, in grounded theory, the data is obtained individually, through interviews (Lincoln, 2010), whereas in CQR focus groups, the participants jointly control the discussion and they determine what the words mean as they synthesize their ideas (Hill et al., 2005). A further constraint with using only grounded theory instead of CQR for the discourse narrative analysis is that there is usually a great deal of emphasis placed on the researchers to transform specific words into themes rather than having the subject matter experts synthesize and prioritize the data as a whole and to generate the important factors (Hill et al., 2005; Lincoln, 2010).

The CQR method is relatively newer than grounded theory, as it arose in the literature as a formal method just before 2000 for studying social science work in schools at the group-level of analysis (Hill et al., 1997). Interestingly, the CQR integrates techniques from phenomenology and grounded theory, except that it focuses on group experiences and perspectives (Hill et al., 1997). According to Hill et al. (1997), the CQR starts with semi-structured open-ended questions in a group setting; then the team analyses the discussion data to arrive at a consensus but at least one external auditor cross-checks the data to ensure it is a consensus of the whole, and; then the group analyzes the data to identify domains and synthesized them into core themes. The themes are informed by a literature review, which is similar to how the lens works in phenomenology and how the factor linking takes place in grounded theory (Hill et al., 2005).

The generally accepted data collection approach used in CQR starts with semi-structured conceptual questions grounded in the theoretical literature accompanied by probes linked to the practical problem. That is followed by asking the participants to brainstorm idea phrases to be written on a whiteboard. The group then discusses these phrases and synthesizes them into the most important factors through a sense-making activity. In this study, the subject matter experts completed the sense-making activity as a group, with the researchers present only to clarify and record the data, as well as to perform the timekeeping and project management functions.

The sample size of qualitative data collection projects, such as grounded theory, phenomenology, ethnography and multiple case studies are based on the concept of data saturation (Strang, 2015). The participants are selected dynamically until the results do not reveal any new concepts. Nevertheless, the generally accepted sample size of qualitative data collection studies ranges from 1-20, while often 10 becomes the qualitative data collection size benchmark (Strang, 2015). In this study, we estimated that there were 10-20 agricultural extension workers who are experienced and educated farmers located in the targeted population of farmers in the three local government areas (LGAs).

3.2 Participants

The target population frame was agricultural extension workers in North-East of Nigeria, who are individuals with expert knowledge of the experiences and perspectives of rural farmers. The authors identified the sample frame from the Building Resilience through Sustainable Agriculture (BRSA) intervention project managed by the Atiku Centre, a community-focused unit of the American University of Nigeria (AUN) and funded by Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ). The goal of the BRSA project is to improve the livelihood opportunities of communities in North-East Nigeria affected by the Boko Haram insurgency, which started in 2009.

The authors completed the required Nigerian National Code Health Research Ethics and the West African Bioethics Training Program Conflict of Interest modules, in addition to holding Collaborative Institutional Training Initiative certifications. The AUN Institutional Review Board approved the research project. The authors collaborated with the Atiku Centre Director at AUN to invite extension works from three LGAs in the Adamawa State, North-East Nigeria, to voluntarily participate. In total, 16 extension workers across the three LGAs participated in the study. All participants were married, most were above the age of 40, 81 per cent were male and 19 per cent were female. Approximately half (7 of 16) had a university degree but all had at least a high school education. The participants included 12 Christians and 4 Muslims. The members were evenly distributed between the three Adamawa State LGAs of Mubi South, Mubi North and Maiha. Most participants (12) were active members of a farm cooperative or community association. The average number of farmers served in each participant’s professional network was 169 (SD = 230) with a median of 67, which indicated considerable scope. Most participants communicated with their professional partners every week (12), two did so fortnightly (bi-weekly), and two met monthly. All participants had at least 6-10 years of agricultural extension work experience, one had 11-15 years, and 10 had over 15 years of experience.

3.3 Focus group sense-making

A conceptual framework was developed from the literature to identify the critical factors relating to the agricultural food insecurity crisis. This conceptual framework served as a theoretical lens for discourse analysis. In parallel with the grounded theory literature review, the researchers organized a focus group discussion with the agricultural extension workers or subject matter experts. The focus group held on Saturday, May 18, 2019, at the BRSA office in Mubi North LGA. The day was selected at the request of BRSA to accommodate farm work and local religious traditions. The authors obtained written informed consent from each of the volunteer participants before commencing the focus group discussion. Each of the participants sat around a long table in a well-lit room and informally introduced themselves. There were also informal introductions by the BRSA Project Director and the facilitator, followed by prayers given by one Christian and one Muslim participant. The facilitator encouraged participants to think critically, honestly and freely about the experiences and perceptions of the farmers during the discussions.

One author served as facilitator, another served as documenter/timekeeper, and the third conducted independent data-method quality assurance. The nominal group technique was used to capture participants’ insights before the discussion. The focus group was encouraged to brainstorm ideas for explaining and overcoming the agriculture crisis. The facilitator guided the sessions offering procedural clarifications were necessary. Then each participant independently generated a set of ideas to address the agriculture crisis on a plain sheet of paper for about 5 min after which all the individual responses were collected and identical ones grouped by the documenter. The facilitator initiated a sense-making discussion on each idea to explore and generate as many contextual details as possible from the participants. The focus group members were asked to come to a consensus on each idea. The discussions were conducted over four hours, in two phases, with a break for refreshments in between.

At the end of the focus group discussion, a set of demographic questionnaires were administered, followed by a set of questionnaires on the critical success factors for farmers’ productivity. SPSS version 25 was used to analyze the questionnaires to produce descriptive statistics. The deliberations were recorded and later transcribed into a discussion narrative.

3.4 Sense-making discourse analysis

In this study, the discourse analysis aspect of the CQR took place through focus group sense-making, using subject matter experts as described above. Therefore, the discourse was constructed in a specific situation and context by the participants interacting together as a group without the researchers interfering in any way other than asking clarifications, recording and timekeeping. This discourse analysis approach allowed the ground truth to be constructed through language, jargon and socio-cultural interaction between the focus group participants within a field setting. One of the authors acted as a facilitator to reduce any subjectivity bias that may inherently occur with the subject matter experts. To reduce researcher biases in the thematic or categorical discourse analysis, the results were cross-checked by one of the three researchers who remained independent of the exercise, and then member-checked by the subject matter experts to validate that the results represented their ideas.

The authors analyzed the discussion narrative to develop lists of thematic ideas from the group sense-making. They linked each theme to relevant theories in the conceptual framework with unexplained items documented in a separate area. Participants reviewed the data from the transcripts. The authors used NVivo version 12 to analyze audio and text transcripts. The audio recordings were reviewed several times before importing into NVivo. They were then manually transcribed and coded as well. The researchers started the NVivo coding process by identifying patterns or themes, which are word patterns, content or content segments, and represented as “nodes.” In Nvivo, a node is a collection of references relating a particular theme. Naturally, the coding involves gleaning references during the reading and review of the transcripts and related content, such that references relating to the same theme were categorized into or applied to the corresponding node in NVivo. During the coding process, two types of nodes were created: tree nodes for general themes deductively derived from the literature review and free nodes representing transcript contents or content segments that emerged inductively, based on the grounded theory process, from interactive discourse analysis and comparison. This inductive process involved identifying quotes – sentence segments, whole sentences or paragraphs – and then generating codes as well as memos – notes on the codes from focus group participant sense-making – for all transcripts while searching for conceptual similarities, differences, predominant, and closely related themes. Furthermore, each quote could be applied to several codes, and the codes were synthesized and grouped through sense-making to form emergent hierarchical themes in NVivo.

The discourse analysis process involved the calculation of word, phrase and theme frequencies along with their corresponding percentages. Word frequency queries in NVivo were used to identify themes and relationships between themes to generate emergent themes and ground truth factors on the agriculture crisis from the voice or perspective of rural farmers. The authors also executed NVivo Crosstab queries against demographics data, as well as NVivo matrix queries between themes to identify additional emergent themes. A peer review of the thematic analysis was conducted by one of the authors. Once the qualitative analysis was peer-reviewed, a thematic map of emergent themes was generated using the NVivo Mind Map tool.

Figure 1 is a concept map summarizing the critical themes that emerged from the discourse analysis, generated using the NVivo Mind Map Tool.

The thematic map in Figure 1 was generated based on an analysis of predominant themes from the tree and free nodes generated in NVivo. The tree nodes analyzed included: perceptions and attitudes, pests and diseases, socio-cultural factors, technologies, climate change, markets and what farmers lack. The free nodes analyzed included: corruption, cultural and behavioral norms, farmer-ownership structure, insecurity, technologies-applications, technologies-processing, technologies-production, technologies-storage, agriculture-finance, farm inputs, farmer-knowledge, information diffusion, infrastructure-logistics and stakeholder-support. The nodes with the highest number of cross-references in the discourse analysis were government support, technology training, information diffusion, farm input subsidization, socio-cultural knowledge, downstream export market capability, agriculture-financing and infrastructure-logistics. These represented the most critical success factors as voiced by the rural North-East Nigerian farmers to overcome the agriculture crisis.

4. Results and discussion

4.1 Voice of farmers sense-making consensus

Several insights emerged from the discourse analysis. Farmers have not been using modern fertilizers or seeds because the seeds are too expensive in the marketplace, so they use local stock instead. The quality of seeds from local marketers or the dealers is thought to be adulterated or not good. The issue is that farmers cannot identify good seed varieties. Likewise, farmers experience similar problems with acquiring fertilizers and herbicides. Fake fertilizers and fake herbicide chemicals are a regular complaint from farmers as these inputs get into the market due to corrupt politicians who intercept the farm inputs and then sell them off to earn profits for themselves and at the same time propagate fake products into the marketplace. The system of inputs dissemination is a critical success factor and the government should provide good quality seeds and other inputs such as fertilizers directly to the rural farmers at affordable or subsidized prices.

Rural farmers are mostly uneducated and lack modern knowledge and training. These farmers need to be taught modern methods by the government, universities or other appropriate institutions because such assistance would provide the farmers with the impetus to more readily adopt the modern methods. Some farmers do not know the modern farming methods such as crop spacing to improve yield as well as how to apply fertilizer mixes and alternative weed chemicals. Rural farmers need the training to find and apply the relevant information to cultivate corn, maize, beans, groundnuts and cattle. Farmers need more assistance from the federal government, non-governmental organizations, and private institutions such as AUN. Training programs could be developed and organized near the field sites so farmers can acquire modern knowledge about farming methods and how to institute information sharing processes and systems. The consensus of the focus group participants was that improved knowledge of farming methods would lead to higher agricultural yields for the farmers.

Lack of an adequate road network infrastructure, processing facilities and downstream market information or knowledge limited farmers access to profitable markets. The rural farmers cannot sell their products to markets outside of their local areas because of logistics problems due to poor roads, lack of affordable transportation, and lack of knowledge about markets for their produce. Usually, intermediaries buy on-site or from small local markets, which puts rural farmers at a significant disadvantage because there is minimal buyer competition. Additionally, rural farmers produce crops without knowing whether there is adequate demand and markets for them. The situation is further exacerbated by the lack of local processing facilities and equipment. For example, milling machines, which would allow farmers to add value to what they grow, are neither available nor affordable. The government, social business ventures and private agribusinesses could partner to address the logistic problems, install processing facilities and create the enabling environment for markets to flourish which would draw more buyers to the rural centers.

Corruption or lack of effective government regulators and lack of market information puts rural farmers at a significantly inferior bargaining position. Presently, the intermediaries or middlemen have a monopoly on the farmers’ produce because they are the only buyers and they have total control of the prices. The middlemen buy the farmers’ produce at very low prices but they then sell in distant markets at substantially higher prices. Furthermore, the buyer-power enjoyed by the middlemen enables them to manipulate the weights or bag sizes to cheat the farmers. The middlemen often mix good quality products with bad quality products, thereby ruining the reputation of good rural farmers and snuffing out any bargaining opportunities the farmers could enjoy. There is a need for effective market regulation by the government or farmers’ produce associations, which have been successful in the past in protecting the genuine the interests of the farmers. The focus group consensus was that farmers’ produce associations could control commodity prices, regulate the farmer-buyer middlemen exchange market to reduce corruption.

Besides the transportation and logistics challenges, the rural farmers’ growth opportunities are further limited by mobility and security problems. In the past, rural farmers relied on access to motorbikes to meet their transportation and logistics needs. The farmers depended on a network of commercial motorbikes, called locally as okada, to carry their farm inputs and farm produces around at a time when there was sufficient local demand. Similarly, in the past extension workers also relied on motorbikes as a cheap transportation mode to get around. In recent years, safety has become an issue due to Boko Haram insurgency and increased risk of kidnapping, and it is no longer feasible to carry the farm produce to distant markets. Due to the Boko Haram insurgency motorbikes have been banned by the government in some LGAs such as Mubi North and Mubi South. Thus, rural farmers cannot travel to market their products, and agricultural extension workers cannot easily travel to advice local farmers. The insecurity and the high prevalence of kidnappings have also affected farmers’ attitudes and behavior. Farmers often avoid going to faraway farms because they are afraid of being kidnapped or killed. Sometimes, there are also violent conflicts between farmers and nomadic Fulani herdsmen. The Fulani herdsmen sometimes graze their cattle on the farms, and often, the cattle eat entire crops, which creates conflicts with farmers. The government should take action to improve security and thereafter, remove the ban on the use of cheap motorbikes.

The lack or limited access to agricultural ancillary services puts an additional burden on rural farmers and limits their productivity. The farmers lack knowledge about how to handle agrochemicals and they lack good, safe storage facilities for agrochemicals and related chemical inputs. Some agrochemicals contain toxic ingredients such as Dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (DDT), but the farmers and marketers rely on them to preserve some produce such as beans. The farmers do not know the safe methods of handling and storing hazardous chemicals and this often results in dangerous burns, fires and other damage. The farmers tend to store the harmful chemicals in the same room where they live and sleep, thereby exposing their families to these harmful chemicals and other dangers. The government should create the environment for social business ventures to emerge to cater for ancillary agricultural services and provide training in modern, safe ways of handling and storing agrochemicals and inputs.

Generating income is a problem for rural farmers. Therefore, affordability is an important consideration when introducing any relevant innovation to promote and expedite its adoption. The farmers sometimes earn only the equivalent of $1 per day in local currency. However, the prices of agricultural inputs are often higher than the total output value that a farmer achieves in a season. For example, the price of fertilizer is often higher than the price of a bag of corn. The low prices for agricultural produce are such that rural farmers cannot retain enough profit to maintain a good standard of living or invest in improving farm operations. A lack of accessible agribusiness credit facilities, particularly in the rural areas, also means that there are very few loan facilities available to the farmers. The farmers cannot afford to acquire new technologies to improve their productivity. The domino effect of the low prices for produce and lack of credit facilities is that the rural farmers cannot readily afford modern technologies such as smartphone, automated irrigation systems or agricultural crop planning software. Nevertheless, the focus group consensus was that if farmers could sell their products more profitably, then incomes would also rise. Despite being limited by their low incomes, some farmers have been able to pool resources to acquire smartphones and laptops. However, there is little awareness and knowledge amongst rural farmers about how to access the wealth of freely accessible agribusiness information available via the internet, radio and TV.

Climate change has also impacted rural farmers. Recent climatic changes have been unpredictable, and rainfall has been unreliable. As a result, rural farmers face planning challenges. A shortage of rainfall coupled with droughts has limited the quantity and quality of crops that farmers produce. Furthermore, the incidence and prevalence of pests and crop diseases have increased, which has reduced farm yields.

Rural farmers also experience land-hunger, a situation that arises because the land is owned, controlled or distributed by privileged individuals, resulting in property rights issues. Farmers often need to do crop rotation but often may not have access to alternative land on which to cultivate particular crops. Similarly, it is difficult to enter the farming industry without access to access to suitable land. Unfortunately, the situation is that individuals often either cannot afford to purchase land or there is no suitable land in the area to rent.

Although many of the challenges faced by rural farmers are interrelated the discourse analysis also indicated that there are opportunities to attract educated young graduates and youth volunteers into the farming to promote a more business-oriented approach. Presently, the rural farmers do not treat farming as a business but they also lack business knowledge and the necessary strategic planning capacity. The farmers primarily farm basically to survive. Perhaps, the farmers do not need business degrees but they could benefit from strategic planning mentoring and guidance from experienced and trusted sources. Unfortunately, there are not enough qualified extension workers to properly support the farmers. In the past, the government-supported extension workers by providing salaries and allowances, which enabled the extension workers to provide training to farms via demonstration plots. Without these incentives, the extension workers cannot maintain themselves and cannot continue with the demonstration plots. The demonstration plots are particularly valuable for facilitating experiential learning. Through such experientially learning sessions, the farmers can see and readily assimilate the modern applied methods and the associated production outcomes. Incidentally, the extension workers currently have limited allowances because the government has stopped providing them. The government should provide incentives to extension workers to ensure they can provide adequate support to rural farmers and efforts should be made to attract young unemployed graduates who can inject an entrepreneurial-oriented approach to the farming business.

The previously successful agricultural extension system has broken down putting the farmers and extension workers at a significant disadvantage in the fight to attain food security. Presently, the extension workers and farmers do not get enough training or agricultural information disseminated from the existing agricultural research centers or stations. The research centers, which were sponsored by the government to train extension workers and farmers, no longer offer such services. As a result, the challenges faced by the rural farmers’ are not being adequately captured, not being addressed, and often it takes far too long to get a problem resolved. The perception is that the farmers’ voices are no longer being heard. The training facilities and infrastructure have been neglected. For example, one training center building lost its roof because of the rains, but it never got replaced, and there is no longer furniture to hold any training for the extension workers. An important insight that emerged was that the Agricultural Development Program (ADP) has been mostly side-lined in the current government process for disseminating agricultural inputs (fertilizers and improved inputs), and the process has become too complex. For example, inputs are dispatched from the central government to the LGA then to the local government wards or ward chairmen. From there, the inputs are inexplicably diverted to the markets or political favorites but often none reaches to the farmers directly as intended. The perception is that corruption by opportunistic politicians in the federal and local government apparatus has led to a hijacking of the inputs dissemination process to the disadvantage of rural farmers. In the past, the previous Growth Enhancement Scheme (GES) program effectively delivered inputs to farmers across Nigeria through the ADP extension system, often free of charge or significantly subsidized. A new process has replaced the GES, requiring farmers to acquire raw agriculture inputs from unregulated dealers whose interests are limited to generating profits for themselves without genuine concern for farmers or quality. The perception of farmers and extension workers is that the current system of inputs dissemination is severely broken, and the farmers and extension workers are powerless over the cost, quantity and quality of the agricultural inputs they obtain. Determined government action is needed to address the situation so that adequate help can once again reach rural farmers. Finally, the rural farmers would welcome support from NGOs, social business venture or relevant private businesses who may also be able advocate for them. Potentially, the government could assist in launching and funding farmers’ cooperatives located in the LGAs. The farmers’ cooperatives could take on a coordination function to handle both agriculture input regulation and output export market promotion, possibly, at nominal self-sustaining fees.

5. Conclusions

In this study, the goal was to uncover the ground truth of the agriculture crisis through the voice of rural farmers. The experienced rural farmers, agricultural extension workers, who participated in this study, reached a consensus of the most important themes or factors through a consensual sense-making methodology as part of a focus group discussion. Local researchers and field experts designed the study. High quality authentic and creative insights were captured and normalized through sense-making by a panel of subject matter experts.

The focus group sense-making results were, to a large extent, in agreement with extant literature. Most of the themes could be linked to existing research. Nevertheless, a few insights emerged from the thematic discourse analysis. Most importantly, North-East Nigerian rural farmers have significant problems with government support in several core areas: farming input quality and dissemination, fair input subsidization, training, market facilitation, corruption and insecurity. If issues involved in these six core critical areas were addressed, the other problems might indirectly be mitigated or eliminated, through natural market growth. For example, if the government made good quality inputs available, fairly and efficiently, along with some modern methods training, this would likely increase agricultural productivity enough to boost farmer incomes and thereby alleviate many of the identified operational issues. In parallel, the government must strengthen security and eliminate corruption. Potentially, technological innovations could be leveraged to support or drive targeted improvements in the agricultural extension system program. Critically, efforts to attract young educated unemployed graduates to farming could infuse a welcomed business approach to farming. The government is the metaphoric keystone or the key stakeholder underscoring all the core agriculture crisis solutions. By improving its role, the government could create an enabling environment that translates into an exponentially larger benefit to all other North-East Nigeria agriculture industry stakeholders.

The major limitation of this study is the relatively small sample of 16 agriculture extension workers representing the farmers’ voice from the three LGAs in North-East Nigeria. Although a focus group of 16 people is generally adequate for a qualitative study, a further quantitative study targeting a much larger sample of farmers would improve the likely generalizability of the findings that have emerged from this study. Furthermore, the CQR mixed-method adopted in this study focused on analyzing complex qualitative data. Other follow-up studies could target rural farmers in other Nigerian regions and deploying different methods and techniques, particularly quantitative analysis, such that findings can benefit from triangulation. Finally, similar studies could be replicated in other African or developing countries.

Figures

Thematic map of emergent themes or voice of rural farmers on agriculture crisis

Figure 1.

Thematic map of emergent themes or voice of rural farmers on agriculture crisis

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Acknowledgements

This study would not have been possible without the support of the Atiku Centre of American University of Nigeria, the Building Resilience through Sustainable Agriculture (BRSA) Project, which is funded by GIZ, and all the agricultural extension workers. The authors are grateful for their help during the fieldwork. The authors also acknowledge the peer reviewers for their constructive criticisms and insights.

Conflicts of Interest: The authors did not receive any funding and declare that there is no conflict of interest.

Corresponding author

Ferdinand Ndifor Che can be contacted at: ferdinand.che@gmail.com

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