Rural poverty in Nigeria

All for one, One for all

The Federal Republic of Nigeria has a population of more than 160 million – the largest in Africa – and a fast-growing economy. Agriculture is the mainstay of the economy, contributing about 40 per cent of GDP. The agriculture sector employs approximately two-thirds of the country’s total labour force and provides a livelihood for about 90 per cent of the rural population. Nigeria is the world’s largest producer of cassava, yam and cowpea – all staple foods in sub-Saharan Africa. It is also a major producer of fish. Yet it is a food-deficit nation and imports large amounts of grain, livestock products and fish.

Nigeria’s huge agricultural resource base offers great potential for growth. Recent government policies have started to show results: The agricultural sector reportedly grew by 7 per cent a year between 2003 and 2007, and at a slightly lower rate in recent years.

Still, the area of land under cultivation could be doubled. Of an estimated 71 million hectares of arable land, only about half is presently under production. And there is substantial scope for an increase in irrigation, which now covers only 7 per cent of irrigable land. Irrigation and other inputs would substantially increase average yields for major staple crops, which are below those in other developing countries.

Despite Nigeria’s plentiful agricultural resources and oil wealth, poverty is widespread in the country and has increased since the late 1990s. Some 70 per cent of Nigerians live on less than US$1.25 a day.

Poverty is especially severe in rural areas, where up to 80 per cent of the population lives below the poverty line, and social services and infrastructure are limited. The country’s poor rural women and men depend on agriculture for food and income. About 90 per cent of Nigeria’s food is produced by small-scale farmers who cultivate small plots of land and depend on rainfall rather than irrigation systems.

The poorest groups eke out a subsistence living but often go short of food, particularly during the pre-harvest period. The productivity of the rural population is also hindered by ill health, particularly HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria.

Women play a major role in the production, processing and marketing of food crops. Yet women and households headed solely by women are often the most chronically poor members of rural communities. Men have higher social status and, as a result, more access to schooling and training. In recent decades, the number of men migrating from rural areas in search of employment has increased, and the number of households headed solely by women has grown substantially.


Rural infrastructure in Nigeria has long been neglected. Investments in health, education and water supply have been focused largely on the cities. As a result, the rural population has extremely limited access to services such as schools and health centres, and about half of the population lacks access to safe drinking water.

Neglect of rural infrastructure affects the profitability of agricultural production. The lack of rural roads impedes the marketing of agricultural commodities, prevents farmers from selling their produce at reasonable prices, and leads to spoilage. Limited accessibility cuts small-scale farmers off from sources of inputs, equipment and new technology, and this keeps yields low.

As the population swells and puts pressure on diminishing resources, escalating environmental problems further threaten food production. Land degradation as a result of extensive agriculture, deforestation and overgrazing are already severe in many parts of the country. Drought has become common in the north, and erosion caused by heavy rains, floods and oil pollution is a major problem in the south and south-east.

Civil unrest also aggravates poverty. Religious and ethnic tensions continue to brew in different parts of Nigeria, erupting into outbreaks of violence and leading, in turn, to escalating poverty and malnutrition.

Credit: IFAD   Source:

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