The pandemic has established agriculture as one the most viable sectors for immediate engagement of village people

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The pandemic has established agriculture as one the most viable sectors for immediate engagement of village people

How do you see the prospects for the modernisation and commercialisation of agriculture in Nepal post-Covid?
The Covid-19 pandemic has brought agriculture into a vibrant discourse at the political, policy and operational levels, government and non-governmental sectors. As a result of the pandemic-induced economic crisis, many people who have returned to their villages and hometowns from cities as well as abroad have taken up agriculture in various forms.

Due to restricted imported supplies, agriculture is being consequently viewed as an alternative not just for livelihoods but also as a profession. Covid-19 thus has established agriculture as one of the most viable sectors for immediate engagement of people in the villages, including returnee migrants, for the adoption of urban farming and for finding innovative ways of agriculture inputs and food supply systems.

The government at all levels, mainly local governments, have thus considered agriculture as a prospective sector for local food supplies, marketing beyond their local territories and contributing to national food security.

What opportunities do you think are there in modernising agriculture, which has remained mostly as a subsistence activity till date? What challenges are needed to be overcome in this respect?
The most prominent areas that have potential to transform it from subsistence to commercial agriculture are i) utilization of unused land for cooperative, collaborative and or commercial farming ii) mobilisation of youths in agriculture value chain iii) promotion of post-harvest management, processing, packaging, branding and selling mainly with the engagement of private sector actors iv) promotion of locally available nutritious food crops, and v) support for agri-based small and medium enterprises and use of machineries wherever possible. Further, opportunities arise in re-orienting the policies, regulatory provisions and institutional arrangements in the agriculture sector to meet the challenges mainly of food security brought by the Covid-19 pandemic.

The challenges to overcome are related to a) federalisation of agriculture, b) policy and legal reforms conducive to the changing context c) realisation and operationalisation following issues by all three tiers of the governments, especially by the local governments:

i)    Proper assessment of local potential;
ii)    Mapping of skills, interests and financing capacities of youths specially of returnee migrants;
iii)    Exploring opportunities to engage and promote cooperatives, small and medium enterprises specially of those led by women;
iv)    Planning with immediate, short and long term vision in agriculture sector with categorized services to food crops, cash crops and other valuable crops for export market development for employment, income and food security;
v)    Linking on-farm activities with off-farm activities for better employment opportunities in the value chain;
vi)    Ensuring access to finance and creating market linkages with inter-governmental cooperation and collaboration.

How hopeful do you think can we be from the government’s agriculture related announcements in the Federal Budget for FY2020/21? What major hurdles lie in the implementation side?
The current fiscal year’s budget could not bring much hope in tackling the existing challenges and upcoming hurdles and identifying opportunities brought by the pandemic. The emphasis on agriculture in the budget and in the speech of the President had brought hopes of reviving the agriculture sector. The Ministry of Agriculture and Livestock Development (MoALD) had put forward five areas of focus, i) subsidy in production inputs, ii) easy loans with low interest, iii) technician support to farmers, iv) all crops insurance, and v) minimum savings guarantee. Further, MoALD also coordinated with the local governments and requested for three specific actions during the pandemic:
i)    Facilitate purchase of local products;
ii)    Land consolidation; and
iii)    Use of fallow lands.

However, the plan and budget came in a quite isolated and uncoordinated manner. For example, there is a unilateral plan for establishing 300 land banks by the Ministry of Land Management, Cooperatives and Poverty Alleviation even without proper discussion with other key actors, particularly with MoALD and local governments on its concept, institutional arrangements and facilitation of access to land for agriculture. Likewise, there is a plan to establish 200 local food stores/banks at the local levels. Local food bank is usually meant for promoting use of local landraces, locally acceptable food crops, and culturally and climatically suitable varieties in different locations. However, there is hardly any mechanism to explore the opportunities and link them with agriculture research and the education system. Without investment in research and education for innovation, it is less likely that local food crops will remain competitive and promoted. These are only a few of many cases.

A large number of people who have worked in the agriculture sector in foreign lands are coming back home due to the Covid-19 pandemic. What will it take to utilise their experiences in modernising Nepal’s agriculture? What does the government need to do?
The evidence shows that among the total migrants, a substantial number of migrants are from an agricultural background. Even when abroad, some of the migrants have worked in agriculture and livestock farms, food markets, retail shops, delivery services, restaurants etc. and returned home with exposure, knowledge, skills and a desire to uplift agriculture in innovative ways back home. Therefore, returnee migrants always come with three prospects:
1.    Skills, knowledge and some financial savings to invest in some kind of business in Nepal;
2.    Face hurdles and would like to remain in the country and engage in agriculture again; and or
3.    Return to overseas migration possibly in the near future but sending some remittance to invest in agriculture back home.

The government can encourage and support those who would like to remain in the country as well as support families left behind to mobilise the remittance they receive. For this, the government has to urgently carry out the following tasks in both structural and operational levels:

Structural:
a)    Change in policy, laws and improve institutional responses;
b)    Develop capacity at all levels including that of private sector actors;
c)    Link with the private sector initiatives for both local market and export promotion;
d)    Guarantee the purchase of agriculture products and facilitate export markets; and
e)    Emphasise on local produce for self-sufficiency, import substitution and export promotion.  

Operational:
i)    Skills and interest mapping of those unskilled, skilled migrants and plan to re-skill, up skill and support for certifying their qualifications for better employability and increased productivity;
ii)    Linking youths with the cooperatives and other financial institutions to facilitate access to finance;
iii)    Supporting training as well as academic institutions for internship opportunities to train on business skills;
iv)    Supporting startup businesses through funds, training, exposure, linking with markets; and
v)    Facilitating and exploring market for exportable commodities e.g. mobilise diplomatic missions, establishing online certification process.

Private sector participation in commercialising agriculture happens less in Nepal compared to other South Asian nations. What do you think are the reasons behind it?
Private sector participation is relatively less in the agriculture sector, as it is more vulnerable compared to other businesses. The private sector apex bodies claim that they believe agriculture to be one of the most important sectors for them. However, their plans and investment in agriculture are not compatible with their words. Moreover, there are some conflicting interests and positions in understanding and accepting the role of the private sector mainly among the peasants’ coalition. For example, the agribusiness promotion policy of MoALD is yet to be agreed upon as the private sector actors somehow consider access to land as a precondition. Moreover, the provisions for access to finance specially for women-led enterprises are not properly facilitated and benefitted especially due to the mindset of officials who do not encourage women farmers as well as entrepreneurs.

Lately, startup companies are bringing innovative solutions to the agriculture sector. What is needed to be done to enhance their scope of work and expand their markets?
The most important thing is to do a proper mapping of innovative solutions and the entrepreneurs engaged in agribusiness ventures and establish a proper data system. Based on the data, identifying the areas of engagement, exploring areas that need support for further investment in research, innovation and development, incentivising and mobilising finance, machineries and technologies including information, communication, technology are a must, as is an international presence to facilitate space and promote trade diplomacy for export markets of niche products.

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