Nigeria's climate permits the cultivation of a variety of crops in a pattern that emerged in earlier centuries in response to local conditions. As in other West Africa states, rainfall is heaviest in the south, where the forests and savannas benefit from abundant precipitation and relatively short dry seasons. The staples are root crops, including cassava, yams, taro (cocoyams), and sweet potatoes. Tree crops--cacao, oil palm, and rubber--constitute the area's main commercial produce. Cacao, from which cocoa is made, grows mostly in the southwest. Oil palms (whose kernels can be made into palm wine) predominate in the southeast and are numerous in the south-central area. Rubber stands are common in south-central and southeastern Nigeria.
Smallholder farmers, who use simple production techniques and bush-fallow cultivation and cultivate areas of one-half to two hectares each, contribute two-thirds of farm production. In most areas, some noncash crops are grown, such as sorghum, yams, cassava, cowpeas, millet, corn, cocyams, sweet potatoes, and rice.
The northern third of Nigeria, which experiences a dry season of five to seven months, during which less than twenty-five millimeters of rain falls, lies mostly in the Sudan savanna and the arid Sahel zone. There, the staples are millet, cowpeas, and a drought-resistant variety of sorghum known as guinea corn. Corn is also cultivated, as well as rice in suitable lowland areas. The north's principal commercial crops are cotton and groundnuts.
Between the arid north and the moist south lies a Guinea savanna region sometimes referred to as the middle belt. This area produces staples such as yams, sorghum, millet, cassava, cowpeas, and corn, with rice an important crop in some places. The middle belt's southern edge represents the lower limits of the northern grain-dominated economy. The most significant commercial crop of the middle belt is sesame (or benniseed).
Most Nigerians eat grains, but the production and consumption of sorghum (guinea corn) and millet are heavily concentrated in the savanna north. In 1980 the two grains accounted for 80 percent of Nigeria's total grain production. Corn production in the savanna middle belt benefits from heavier rainfall, which frequently permits two crops a year. The demand for rice, much of it imported, increased dramatically during the affluent 1970s, but had to be cut back during the foreign exchange shortages of the 1980s.
Cocoa and groundnuts were Nigeria's two major exports until petroleum surpassed both in 1965. Cocoa, cotton, groundnuts, oil palm products, and rubber were the principal export crops in the 1960s and early 1970s, but with export reorientation, only cocoa remained of any importance after 1975. Although Nigeria was the world's largest exporter of groundnuts in the early 1970s, groundnuts fell from the export list by the end of the 1970s as a result of the severe Sahel drought of 1972-74 and a viral disease in 1975. With assistance from the World Bank, the government restored cocoa production in the late 1970s and 1980s through replanting programs and producer price supports. The resulting increase in cocoa output (to 200,000 tons in 1988) kept Nigeria in third place among world cocoa producers, after Ivory Coast and Ghana.
Although the devaluation of the naira and the abolition of agricultural marketing boards in FY 1986 were intended to increase cash-crop output, the results were disappointing. The failure to significantly increase output was caused partly by the lack of incentives for producers to invest in maintenance.
In the late 1980s, Nigeria reduced the structural bias against agricultural activity by decontrolling farm prices, maintaining subsidies on fertilizer and farm exports, and maintaining import bans on some food items. Despite the granting of increased incentives to the domestic farming industry, agricultural output rose slowly because of inadequate transportation and power networks, a lack of appropriate technology, and the ineffective application of rural credit. Although the domestic production of food did not decline, on a per capita basis food became less available during this period.
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