The National Horticultural Research Institute (NIHORT) recently trained youths on practical ways of making a living through horticulture, via its Horticultural Academy for Youths (HAY). PAUL OMOROGBE writes about how this initiative by NIHORT worked out.

It is not news that unemployment in Nigeria is a huge challenge. Thousands of Nigerian youths are churned out as graduates from Nigeria’s higher institutions, both public and private, numbering up to 170.

In 2021, the estimated youth unemployment rate in Nigeria was almost 19.61 percent, according to data estimates from the International Labour Organisation (ILO).

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The recent hike in petrol prices has undoubtedly increased the stress and strain families with unemployed youths are experiencing.

As a way out, politicians have initiated countless ‘empowerment’ programmes that include donation of sewing machines, grinding machines and sometimes cash. It has been observed that these empowerment programmes leave much to be desired in terms of actually making youths self-sufficient.

However, agriculture has been identified by experts to be a viable option for individual and national self-sufficiency.

But agriculture does not seem to be the first choice for youths except they are shown the way – proven scientific and technical methods for guaranteed successful results! ‘Showing the way’ is the route chosen by the leadership of National Horticultural Research Institute (NIHORT) in Ibadan, Oyo State, in its just concluded Horticultural Academy for Youths (HAY). The participants say HAY has left them with no reason to remain hungry, dependent or unemployed.

The inception

HAY is NIHORT’s direct response to the challenge of youth unemployment in Nigeria. The leadership of the institute, which is under the Federal Ministry of Agriculture, observed the huge potential that agriculture has to reverse the tide of unemployment among Nigerian youths.

Before the oil boom, agriculture was the mainstay of the Nigerian economy and it still accounts for a substantial portion of the country’s GDP.

The HAY project by NIHORT, initiated by the Executive Director, Dr Lawal Attanda, started with the sole aim of empowering the youth.

It began in January and ended in August, lasting eight months.

“We saw the unemployment situation among the youth as an opportunity to invest in our youths in terms of skills, knowledge when it comes to horticultural crops production and utilisation,” said Dr Olutola Oyedele, the director of Research at NIHORT and project coordinator for HAY.

“In the value chain, we have different niches that individual can pick up and expand. One can go into production, marketing, or distribution.

According to her, the first instance of this project was focused on production.

“We want to enable these youths to become empowered. In production, there is a broad platform. The four cardinal mandates of the institute are in fruits, vegetables, spices and ornamental plants.

“For this project, we looked at vegetables because these are short duration crops. For someone who does not have a large plot of land, they can cycle the vegetables in a short period of time, depending on the kind of vegetables he or she is interested in,” she said.

Trainees were also exposed to technologies developed by the institute since its inception.

How trainees were selected

Dr Oyedele and her team ensured there was a gender mix when selecting trainees for this pilot phase of the HAY project. The youth trainees were majorly selected from NIHORT’s “catchment area” being the two local government areas it occupies. NIHORT sits between Ido and Ibadan Northwest local government areas. A few others were selected from outside these local government areas. Thirty of them were selected for the training. However, two dropped off along the line due to academic commitments.

Hands-on experience

The youth were taken through two production cycles, namely the lowland or dry season production cycle, and the upland or rainfed production cycle.

The trainees were given plots of land for them to have a hands-on experience with farming in both cycles of production.

The institute also supported the trainees with farm input, and in laying out their plots.

“One major feature of this model is that there is constant day-to-day supervision of their activities.

“We were there like a master artisan works with the apprentice, allowing them make mistakes and learn from those mistakes by correcting them on the spot. In that manner, you can be sure that the apprentice learns better.

“They also gained confidence because we were right there with them,” Oyedele explained.

Financial support

Even before the fuel hike, the institute provided a transportation modest stipend to trainees. The project site was the NIHORT farm lands. This proved to be a vital form of assistance and support to the technical and practical knowledge they were gaining on the field by the time the fuel hike set in.

“They really are not paying anything. It is a free course. The stipend was to support their transportation costs.”

In the production value chain, the trainees were guided through planting phase to harvest.

Plants cultivated and harvested during the dry season cultivation included amaranthus (tete), cucumber and cochorus (jute in English or ewedu in Yoruba).

Rainy season or upland cultivation included pepper, tomatoes, pumpkin (ugwu) leaves.

“We have taught them that in production, you can plant for the leaves, you can plant for pods to regenerate and sell for the next season,” Oyedele said.

“We have let them see different angles to production. For example, we taught them that they can decide not to go all the length and stay with nursery production – to raise seedlings and sell and make money!

“None of them can say that after these months of training they can’t do anything. In fact, some of them have already started personal farms; and they are getting good results. And that’s the focus – learn here, stand on your own feet!”

Oyedele added that the trainees have a window of two years after completing the project to return to the institute for professional consultation on whatever issues they may face while farming on their own.

Multidisciplinary approach

The creators of the programme ensured that every aspect of horticulture from nursery to harvesting and marketing, with all the intricate details were taught. A couple of the facilitators spoke with Nigerian Tribune.

Dr Abdul-Rafiu Monsur, seed scientist and crop physiologist at NIHORT, said: “We had three facilitators and three other supervisors – those were our technical staff – supervising the trainees. We trained them (the trainees), then we watched them, to see how well they are doing it and helped them to amend where necessary.

“We also let them know the consequences of not doing it according to instruction. Because in agriculture, if you follow the proper way of doing things, then you will get the results.”

Bolorunduro Akinyemi, NIHORT’s Chief Agricultural Technologist and a HAY facilitator, said: “This programme is not a theoretical one. We took them from the very first steps to the end of harvesting. The sowed the seeds in the nursery, took care of it till when it was ready for transplanting, transplanted it to the field and nurtured it till it began producing pods. We are trying to show the youths that they can make something out of this economy. Food is something we can’t do without.”

His part in the project was to provide technical knowledge transfer and to provide intricate details about each stage cultivation and the plant’s life.

“For instance, we taught them the types of pumpkin pods to harvest if you want to produce, what type of material to use in the nursery, and so on.

“We walked through the steps with them, the different problems they encountered, such as pest problems, and how to deal with such problems on their own. If you sample their opinions, they will tell you they have gotten a rich experience indeed.”

‘I won’t be jobless after school’

Aishat Zakariyah is studying Accounting at the Federal Polytechnic, Offa. The young female trainee at HAY had just finished her one-year internship as an internal auditor. “I didn’t want to sit at home doing nothing. My mother brought me news about this opportunity at NIHORT. I was interested in what was going on here. I have never done farming. The best I could do was uproot weeds. My mother asked if I was sure that I wanted to do it and I said, yes.”

She said that it was challenging at the start, but with the help of fellow trainees she caught on as the project progressed.

“During dry season, we had challenges with water and had to go to the stream and fetch. But thanks to God, it has been good!”

Now that the she has reached the end of the training, she said that she is very optimistic about her future.

“I will be going back to school, but I have this a ‘side hustle.’

“And after school, I know that I won’t be jobless. I don’t regret coming to NIHORT!” she said.

Something out of little!

Nurudeen Akanbi from Ibadan North-West Local Government Area, another HAY trainee, was a livestock farmer. “When I heard about HAY, I saw it as a great opportunity to learn about horticulture.

“It has been an awesome experience. The team that taught us has done a great job. It is like they took us from ‘primary’ to ‘higher institution.’ Every aspect of horticulture farming was explained to us. From nursery, land preparation, how to transplant, to the level of harvesting and how to market your product – all were explained to us.”

He added that “I never knew you could go into horticulture farming and in a matter of weeks make something out of it. But with this experience, they made us understand that with little you can get something out of it.”

‘Investors should look into this’

Opeoluwa Samuel is a trainee and missionary pastor who does farming. This youth from Ido Local Government Area was so passionate about the opportunity that his nursing wife got involved. Even though she could not continue due to the demands of their infant, Samuel was excited to say that his wife was able to implement what she picked up at the training.

According to him, she was able to harvest mega-sized cucumbers from their home garden cultivated using the knowledge and expertise gained from the HAY project.

He said, “We are very grateful. We cannot thank our facilitators and the executive director enough.

“If only we can have solid investors that can look into agriculture the way our forefathers did, we will no longer depend on oil. If they can invest in programmes like this that engage the youth, there will be no more miscreants on our streets. Nigerian youths are not lazy. You can’t judge by looking at just a few of us!”

Looking forward

Following the success of HAY and its impact, there have been calls by the trainees for its continuation. However, the issue of funding has to be taken care of. The institute said it looks to scale up the project in future and increase the number of trainees it can accept. “As I said, this is a free training. They are not paying, rather we are the ones giving them money. We can only do this again if there is funding,” Oyedele said.

Sharing his view about the initiative, the Executive Director of NIHORT, Dr Attanda, described HAY as “a good palliative package.”

According to him, “This is because when you go into horticulture planting, within two to three months you begin making money. You don’t need a long-term investment or very large piece of land to do it.

“The team gave it their best. We had senior directors on the field as early as 6:30 am! I am truly impressed with the success of this project.”