How Nigeria can Improve Agric Sector, Attract Foreign Investment – Femi Oke, AFAN Chair

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Nigeria in Sub-Sahara Africa is a major exporter of crude oil and a heavy consumer of imported finished products, this is in spite of being endowed with a massive potential for farm and aquatic produce. Government’s recent efforts to diversify its economy with emphasis on agriculture through foreign direct investments has not yielded the desired result; in this interview, the Lagos State Chairman of All Farmers Association of Nigeria, reveals why the sector is not booming and investment drive not gaining much traction despite a high RoI potential.

How did AFAN evolve in Nigeria?

The All Farmers Association of Nigeria came into existence in 1999 during the regime of President Olusegun Obasanjo who, himself, had been a farmer before becoming President. Formerly, the northern and southern farmers were doing their own thing separately. But when he came, being a farmer, he called everybody, stressing that we were one Nigeria, and said we should be bearing All Farmers Association of Nigeria.

Is AFAN usually consulted on policies’ formulation for the agric sector?

Since the inception of this present government, we have being called upon to be part of the policy they are going to use to benefit us, and we are very happy about it. Once we were all at Ahmadu Bello University to review the policy of agric, and that was when we all said the minister of agriculture should also be a farmer. Some of the policies are those things you are seeing now.

After the emergence of this government, we actually called for the review of the Agric agenda which was done February last year. That was when we formed some committees, especially taking cognizance of the role of women in the agric sector and youths in particular. It was there also that we laid emphasis that Bank of Agric should be revitalized; should be reformed. So AFAN was part and parcel of the reform that President Buhari introduced.

Has the administration met your expectations in the sector?

Not really, but we still have hope. We believe that this government is trying but not much. We do appreciate their efforts, especially when oil has disappointed Nigeria, and they are diversifying to agriculture now.

But 1.2 per cent allocated to the agricultural sector in 2017 budget and that gives you about N96 billion, is nothing to write home about.

Nigeria is seeking investments in the sector from within and outside the country, how can this objective be realised?

Recently I went to the Dubai farm exhibition and I saw many countries with their ministers there, but to my surprise, Nigeria had no stands there. These are some of the major world exhibitions that we should encourage our farmers to attend and showcase our produce so as to add value to them. When we see some of these investors partnering with us and buying from us, then our GDP will rise. So we want government in this area to take more measures and cognizance in recognizing farmers, especially AFAN, so that we get support in areas that pose challenging to us.

In the area of support, I will be very blunt to tell you that most of these exhibitions that we attended were sponsored directly by the foreign embassy, like the USA which they paid for our attendance fee, and they had encouraged Nigeria farmers. Now we are preparing for a programme in the US in a few months, free training by the US Department of Agric (USDA); this is another programme that is being done abroad just to encourage farmers and tell the world what we are doing. We are not relenting on our efforts at all. This is the kind of encouragement that we want our government too to do for our people, but what preparation are they doing? We have contacted the Nigerian Export Processing Council, which is one of the government agencies to encourage our exporters to be able to sell their goods in an exhibition outside the country. But unfortunately, we didn’t see any of these people, especially Ministry of Agriculture.

Has your few trips and exhibitions paid off in any way?

We are partnering with other investors and in a few months a company called AGILITY which has been sharing a bond with us for 10 years, will get a warehouse for storage of crops like vegetables so as to maintain the world standard of those crops in fresh condition all the time. The company is even ready to provide its own source of power supply, instead of depending on the ever-epileptic Nigeria power system. These are some of the areas that AFAN, as a body, has been involved in bringing investors into the country to partner with us.

Finance is a huge challenge in development of agriculture in the country, what is your group doing on that?

We still want government assistance, especially in the area of finance. There are so many things we could do in the agrarian sector. But let it not be that after the raining season is over; they now call you for funding. That is the area we are laying emphasis on the Bank of Agriculture. It is the closest bank to those of us who are into agriculture. Let it be revived. They should forget about the analogue they are still using; they should bring it back as a commercial bank. We love some of their programmes, like Youth Empowerment Agric Programme which we have in the banks also; they have them too, for the women. Bank of Industry has very laudable programmes, especially for the youths.  Most of our farmers cannot afford the interest charged by the commercial banks.

That is why we are laying emphasis also on the Bank of Agriculture, that it is still our bank. They should strengthen it and make sure that it is functional.  If you are at Taraba State now for example, the time there is eight or nine months for planting. If the BOAis lending you money, they will know that it is after a year when you are able to harvest the crop, that they are expecting you to refund the money. So, these are the areas that have been our problems in terms of funding. Also, in the area of mechanized or digital farming, we face challenges there too.

What are the challenges you face in mechanizing your farm operations?

Most of our parcels of land in the Southern region are thick forests, which require bulldozers to uproot the stumps and roots of trees before cultivation of the ground, unlike the land in the Northern region that needs just tractors to till the ground before applying fertilizer. So, we have to rent bulldozers, and an average person will tell you that a bulldozer for a day, which is eight hours, is N80, 000. And they cannot even finish that one hectare in a day; it has to be two days that is N160, 000.

Besides that, they will ask you to buy 100 litres of fuel a day, and that one goes for N40, 000. The conductor and the driver of the tractor will still ask for their own cuts like N10, 000. So we are now putting the estimate at about N260, 000 to cultivate just a hectare of land, which is on the high side.

So what we are now saying is that governments at all levels, especially, those in the South West, should have something like leasing machine partnership where we can lease, where they can be subsidized or government buys them in various areas. For instance, in Lagos, we have many of our farms in Badagry, Epe and Ikorodu. If each of these areas have two leasing equipment, they encourage those of us in crop farming to quickly go there with small money to lease them because it is being subsidized.

This will encourage us to do more farming. Those in the livestock farming too are having their own problems, especially maize procurement. These days you will hardly see driers. On our last trip to Chicago, we saw some little driers. If you plant maize this year, you can’t sell it within the year until after a year because you have to dry them before selling. That is why you will see a crate of eggs cost as much as N1, 000 because there is no maize for those birds to feed on. And the breweries are now using the same maize for their production, meaning that they are now competing with us for use of maize. So, we want government to designate some areas where they can site driers for those into livestock farming to take their maize there, otherwise the cost of maize will still be escalating.

What other challenges impact your productivity as an agri-business practitioner?

We have talked about tractors. The government is trying in this area, but you can’t just take the tractors to the farm if the land is not bulldozed to remove the stumps and roots of trees. Happily, in the South we don’t usually use fertilizer because our land is already good. But we can still turn the land round. If we use some land to plant some crops this year, in another three years you can use the same land to plant other crops. For example, if you plant maize for three years, after the third year you can change to planting beans. This method brings more nutrients to the soil instead of using fertilizer. This method of planting is better in the southern part of the country than the north.

Lastly, I want to talk about seedlings. Seedlings are now giving us more problems. Most of these seedlings we are planting are not available in Nigeria. They are imported – either from Kenya, Turkey or other countries. So, we want government to come to our aid in this area. If an organization like AFAN is given the permission to bring in some of these things, so that those interested in it can access them without paying import duties, then there will improvement in this area. We have a technology called drip line which serves as an irrigation equipment. We are now thinking of planting throughout the year now, not like the other time where they will tell you this season is for maize and after that you won’t see maize again until, maybe, June next year. So if there is drip line you can plant throughout the year.

How can the rising costs of agric produce in the country be brought under control?

Agriculture played a peripheral role in the nation’s economy despite the vast array of land at our disposal and the sector has been neglected for so long. But now that oil has disappointed us, we now decided to wake up. Let us take the case of rice. If you asked Nigerians previously about the possibility of planting rice in the country, they would tell you that rice could not grow in the country, forgetting that we had gotten Ofada and Abakaliki rice. How many of the farmers were being encouraged to plant that specie of rice that time? People are now more conscious to diversify into agriculture as we do not retire there. The high cost of farm produce in the country will be a thing of the past when we record high availability of produce.

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