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Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development Nigeria, Agric. Feature 2017

Exclusively here, some excerpts which didn’t fit in the feature from the interview of the Minister of Agriculture, Chief Audu Ogbeh.  It was an extremely interesting interview and we thank him kindly for the insights. Click here to get the whole special feature. More exclusive in depth interviews with key figures in business and politics coming here soon!

“We really don’t have too many alternatives. Agriculture will satisfy two objectives. Feed us well and quickly.  And cut down on food imports which amount to over 22 billion dollars a year. And then provide for exports. We were a major food exporter 40 years ago. The fact that we fell behind due to the impact of oil and gas is a matter for reflecting. We have a population to feed. It’s also the biggest income generating sector of the economy that this country can possibly think of. Assume that each Nigerian needs 1000 Naira per day for food and that the population reaches 200 million.  There is no sector of the economy that can generate enough wealth to cover these needs.  Number two it generates a lot of jobs. It will help us stabilize the population as urban migration is becoming a major threat to Nigeria’s security. Urban poverty is a greater threat than rural poverty.  And fourthly our population is growing quickly towards 200 million. We fear that by 2050 we will be close to 500 million. We double every 25 years.  If 75% of that population is in cities, leaving only 25% in the rural areas, the questions are the following:

Who will feed the populace in the cities?

If those left behind in the rural areas are mainly the weak and the old and maybe the very, very young, then how do you manage the cities? What kind of housing, transportation and health or educational facilities are you going to put in place?

On the other hand, if the bulk of this population was back in the villages, then of course there will be no need for this anxiety, because most of them will be stable, self employed, and definitely happier. We already have evidence of this from the efforts being made in many states now, in Kebbi for instance where young men are moving back from Lagos to participate in the rice and wheat programmes.  We have seen that in Anambra, young men that were living under the bridge in Lagos, now back in their State and proudly telling us that they are better human beings now. In Kebbi the governor pointed a young man out to me and said “this used to be the most dangerous man in the State, but now he came to me one day and said ‘please come and see my farm, I no longer live with crime’. And the governor followed him to his rice farm and the man said ‘never again will I participate in violence’.  That’s a very good message to the Nigerian population and to the rest of the world. We can actually bring under control some of the social problems we have today.  Αgriculture is the key player in Nigeria’s transformation. Agriculture, agriprocessing, agricultural exports and of course a better diet for the people of this country. All three will definitely help bring Nigeria out of recession.

Chief Audu Ogbeh, Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development

The Naira is under pressure because over the years two things happened. We had plenty of dollars from the oil income and we paid for imports. But that created a new culture of doing very little at home. We were told that the economy was growing. I never believed that. What was growing was poverty, mass poverty covered by a veneer of wealth, a certain feeling that we were a very wealthy country as we had money to pay for everything.  Nigerians were generally quite wasteful.  If you looked at the airport we had the more hand luggage than any other traveller even in violation of traffic rules.  Suddenly the music stopped.  Our capacity to import has definitely dropped but the need for food remains and local production had be brought almost to nothing.  So, the Naira is weak and then production becomes difficult because we have no foreign exchange even to buy machinery, a parts shortage.  So even to replace those foreign parts by locally manufactured ones will take a while.  Naturally we have supply and demand issues as we know from Economics, the dollar is high so the Naira slips.

Two things have to be done. We have to reorganize ourselves and cut down the appetite for importation. There are several things we need to do in the short term otherwise we will end up like Venezuela with such a crisis that there is absolutely nothing left. So for now we have to bear the burden, with restricted supply of dollars, increase production here, cut down inflation which is mostly fuelled by food prices. Luckily food prices have fallen because there is an increase in production.  We haven’t got to the peak yet, but we are getting near there. In another year or so we shouldn’t be importing rice from anywhere. Rice alone, for a while, cost us 5 million dollars a day, money we can’t afford.  The same applies to wheat, sugar and milk, cookies and biscuits. It’s rough now but it’s not a time for despair; we are on our way out of it. It makes Nigerians uncomfortable, we understand. It’s traditional for people to be angry with government, the government of the day. You can’t tell them that it is the fault of something that was done before even though that’s a clear explanation for what happened.    People don’t want to hear that.  They want to tell you “you took over- solve the problem.” They have always done so everywhere in the world, not just here. In 1945 the great war hero in England was voted out after seeing Britain and the World through a World War, and he couldn’t understand! But they said “we want someone else to take over now, the war is over”. We know we are taking the blame and the bashing. But we know what we are doing to get out of it. The only way is to work hard. There is no magic formula. We don’t print dollar notes. The demand is over 2 billion dollars a week for imports.  No country can sustain that kind of adventure for long. In trying to curtail it of course people are upset. School fees can’t be paid and people can’t travel as they did before. They can’t live in the luxury they were living before. But it won’t last forever. That we are sure of.

In this ministry we know where we are heading. I assure you we will be back in the league of exporters. We will be back in the league of well nourished nations like Brazil and even India, China or Europe. Because we are working hard on this issue.

To develop the agricultural sector is a very costly exercise. To begin with, we still rely on the rains only to feed us. So this coming year in our budget we are preparing for dams and lakes, about 400 of them, to add to the 900 in existence which are not being properly used. Irrigation has to come in.  Secondly mechanisation.  We have far too few tractors in this country. Less than 30,000. We need over a million tractors. If we don’t make them, we have to buy them. To buy them we need foreign exchange. We are trying also to create smaller machines. There are tricycle plows which some younger Nigerians are trying to build now, we are trying to support them to build more. We have to educate people. The average age of the Nigerian farmer is about 64. We have to get younger people into agriculture. To bring them in we have to entice them. Give them machinery, give them credit. The agricultural credit scheme in this country is very weak. The commercial banks are not terribly interested in funding agriculture, they say the risk is too high.  I just came back from Brazil two days ago. There are 70 Universities of agriculture in Brazil.  70! We have three here which take refuge under the ministry of Education which are doing very little agricultural training, too little. We are bringing them back now. The famous Brazilian Institute of Agricultural training  has 2400 PhD holders doing research. Agriculture in Brazil, which was terrible forty years ago, is now top of the range because they invested in it. I met with the minister of Agriculture and he has been Governor twice and Senator twice but he is also the largest single soya bean farmer on planet earth.  30 thousand hectares of soya beans per annum. The present minister of Agriculture in the UK is a farmer in Yorkshire. I met with him in July. It is the same in Argentina, that’s the vogue now.  They put a farmer because he or she is likely to be a little familiar with the problems.

Here we have these challenges. Seed quality, fertilizer quality, education. In that regard we have done something quite outstanding. We came out with a soil map of Nigeria early this year and therefore decided to formulate fertilizer according to soils and seed types. The yield has been amazing. From 2 tons of rice per hectare we now have 7.5! These are the types of solutions we are bringing but we still have to work hard on improved seeds. We are doing the same for maize, although we had a problem with maize this year because of the army war, which we have to deal with. With these improvements and education and agronomic practices, we are moving forward with 30.000 young men and women who are going to be trained now as extension officers. They will go into the villages, speak the local language and teach the farmers how to farm using modern techniques.

All that will take a while. Of course society will not be patient. They just can’t be. When the people are hungry you can’t ask them to be patient. But since you can’t do agriculture by decree we have got to take the steps. We are working as fast and as hard as we can and we are certain to get out of this.  Because the only way out is to follow these plans. To find the funds, be more frugal with the funds we have, especially funds and loans of donor partners and I assure you in a short while we will get there. One of the shortages we have is milk. The kids don’t have milk. This is affecting their nutrition and if 37% of our children are malnourished that is a very dangerous trend for another generation coming along who will be intellectually weak and physically unfit for hard work or even for sports. Those are concerns we have.

We are moving into a new formula now of cattle breed improvement through artificial insemination. We advertise as it will be private sector driven to ask farmers who are interested in this. We expected 200 applicants.  6000 applied! Just last night I was talking to some diplomats from the EU, I spoke to people in Brazil, I talked to them in India, the program starts in early 2017 and there will be anything close to 3000 centers. Run by the private sector, cross breeding cattle to improve the local breed while preserving the genetic quality of the cow here, the zebu, but increase the yield of milk and the quality of beef. Gradually we must stop this roaming and grazing which is causing conflicts between farmers and herdsmen.

In the summer a friesian bull, a friesian heifer consumers 100 liters of water per day. Here the cow wanders around for 2-3 weeks and has access to less than 10 liters of water. So the milk yield is low. Less than a liter per day and less than four months of lactation in a year instead of 10 months.  These are shortfalls which ordinary people don’t understand and they can’t fathom why we have such severe shortages. Brazil has 205 million cows now for a population of about 190 million. We look to Brazil or India because they have done pretty well. We talk to them because they understand our problems. Just a few years ago they were in the same situation.  When you talk to them they remember.  Europe has gone too far ahead of us and the United States; we still learn a bit from them. But these countries that are closer to us in experience are the ones we mainly talk to because we have to move quickly.

We have a shortfall in our staples. Rice the big one. Maize, millet, sorghum, soya beans and beans. These are the main ones that people consume almost on a daily basis in their households. Then of course you have cassava and yams and potatoes, both sweet and Irish.  And of course animal proteins, fish, chicken, beef, pork, goat meat and so on. Each of these has a time table in our new road map. The staples we are working very hard on.  We have almost overcome the problem with supply of sorghum, millet which is in very high demand in many homes, especially in the southwest for making what they call ugie. Maize is a bit of a problem. We are not producing enough. The poultry industry demand maize. And we have to export a lot of maize across the borders to the North. In Brazil I met a businessman from Algeria and he said to me “Algeria doesn’t have water so we can’t grow much maize. We are going to have to look to Nigeria to supply maize.” Now Mali, Burkina Faso, Senegal, Chad, South Sudan, sometimes Southern Libya, Central Africa all buy maize from here. And millet. If you go to our markets you will see a minimum of 500 trucks a day leaving from Nigeria to go to these places. Our problem is compounded by this demand. It is double demand. For the Nigerian market and for the export market.  

The answer is not to complain. It is to produce! But we have challenges with climate change. We have to deal with that. We are planting 5 million trees to support the Green Wall as specified by the Ministry of Environment. The program is on. We can’t go everywhere yet because we need to clear certain parts of Boko Haram. It is going to be a 1 km thick wall and each year we intend to plant 5 million trees, maybe 10 in one year. It is doable.  A few days ago, 10 million trees were planted in one day in India. So, we have to. We will block the desert and protect this side of Nigeria because otherwise the desert is coming down and nearly 2km per annum.  It is moving the population down. That’s what’s causing the cattle movement as well.  So these are the issues we are dealing with. Provide the staples very quickly, then move to the export crops. It is an embarrassment that Nigeria is now No7 on the list of exporters of cocoa. We are No5 in cashew nuts. In both of these crops we intend to go to No1 in five years.   We are doing 2 million cashew trees a year. I am a cashew farmer myself. We are going on to 5 million cocoa trees per annum. We are going to deal with cassava exports to China and to the rest of the world, cassava starch, cassava chips and ethanol. We are looking seriously at exporting sesame seed and pulses to India. The market is 100 billion dollars, we intend to take a good part of it. We need to teach farmers and show them how to grow these crops to the standards demanded by these countries. That’s the plan we have.

One of the big plans is first of all protecting the security of the investment. We know that because of the poverty situation there is a propensity among many people to go into crime. Poverty pushes people to crime, the kidnappings and the robberies. We recognize that. About six months ago we went into an agreement with the Ministry of the Interior. Every major investor in agriculture, be he Nigerian or foreign will receive the protection of the Ministry of Interior using the Civil Defence Core. Armed, heavily trained people to protect them because as in Europe and in many other countries, farmers like to live on their farms. They are more at home there. They can drive to the city, do what they have to do, but they are happy when they live on their farms. If I had my way, I would live on my farm too. So that we guarantee. Secondly, their investment to be secure. We are not inviting people here to lose their money. Third we shall remove all obstacles by way of land acquisition and access to water or community issues. We will blend them with the local communities. The farmer is not working alone, he is working with the community. Once they see their profit tied to the investors’ welfare and well being, they will also help protect the investment.  

One of the shortfalls we have today is credit. Interest rates are very high. We are now reforming the bank of Agriculture to bring the interest rate to nothing higher – I hope – than 5%. I’m going to face challenges with that with traditional bankers but I hope to convince government and the people of Nigeria that if we want agriculture to grow we can’t expect to be asking for 18% or even 10% and still think we will catch up with the rest of the world. Our soil is not particularly great.  It doesn’t have to be.  There are ways of improving soil.  Every soil has about sixteen ingredients. You have to know what the soil lacks by doing soil tests. Give the soil the proper food and the soil gives you the results you want. Those are the prospects we are working on now. The soil maps are moving along state by state, crop by crop until we know what crop to apply where so the farmer can get the maximum yield.

Let me congratulate Nigerians quite frankly. Despite the hardships they are facing, the response to the call for a return to agriculture has been simply extraordinary. The people are in pain, virtually everyone you meet now. Luckily schedule 5 of the Nigerian constitution allows you, whether you are in the Army, or the Civil Service or a professor in the University, to own a farm and run it. It is the only exemption. People are moving in large numbers into agriculture. They have challenges. Access to credit, land caring is very costly as you move further South the tree density in some states is very high. To push down the trees and remove the roots is not cheap. We are talking to people, taking full page adverts in newspapers, talking to groups of youths and women, bringing machinery to help ease the burden of the farm, little harvesters, freesias to take the stress away of having to manually cut the rice and beat it on the floor; these are the sort of issues we are trying to solve very quickly. Some of these machines are being made here now. Some we have to import and try to eventually produce here.

The key is sensitization. And I’m telling Nigerians that even if tomorrow we discover diamonds on a large scale, or nickel as we found or iron in large quantities and so on, we must never again rely on one commodity and feel so very secure. We shouldn’t call ourselves a rich nation. We have never been a rich nation. We developed what they call a Dutch disease, a lottery mentality. We gave up on what we knew how to do before. Nigeria was a powerhouse in agriculture. We fought an entire civil war, we financed it though it cost a million dollars a day for three years.   We didn’t borrow but simply cut down on imports and sustained ourselves. A country that imports toothpicks, tomato paste, honey, even water at a point, sugar, milk, cookies and  biscuits; all because it was so easy to ship in these goods.

Surely something was wrong. People were not prepared to listen then when we told them we were overdoing it. These circumstances have now forced us to rethink. I believe that perhaps some degree of legislation has to come in, to say that whatever happens in the future, we can’t afford to go down the avenue we followed before because it has led us to disaster. It may not be easy to follow and it depends on the government in office. Some governments will say “no, let’s relax it” others may say “let’s save”. Even Saudi Arabia with just 24 million people and a foreign reserve of 800 billion dollars, is cutting down on the civil service, reducing salaries and asking civil servants to pay tax for the first time.  Nigerians will grumble but they should take a look at that. Saudi Arabia of all places! 24 million, that’s the population of Lagos. We have to learn from that.

Five years from now there will be no question of Nigeria’s inability to feed herself. Secondly Nigeria will be a major food exporter. In another two years we shall be exporting rice at least to our neighbors. They don’t eat parboiled rice, we shall be exporting white rice. And I may tell you right now we have just received 110 rice milling machines of different sizes and capacity to be deployed in the next two months. We shall be a major exporter of Cassava products, of cashew nuts, processed, not raw. We will be an exporter, on a large scale of sesame seed, of gum arabic and we shall be back at No1 in the league of cocoa producing nations. This time we will be making our own chocolates and cocoa drinks at home. For the children we will be a major force in milk, so our kids can have a pint of milk a day to strengthen their brain and brawn power, otherwise we will face a very bleak future. This country can’t afford to be in the league of unintelligent people because this is a world driven by knowledge and skills. It is a combination of all factors.  We hope for a tremendous impact.

The governor of Kebbi State told me a story two weeks ago. He called a meeting as the chairman of the party in his local government. The chairman said to him “your Excellency, it’s not as easy as that now. You can’t just call a meeting anymore. You have to talk to them, to arrange a time; they are too busy on their farms.” The time is coming. When politicians find it impossible to hold a rally in a village because there will be nobody ready to attend except maybe on a Sunday or maybe on a Friday after mosque. That time is coming, and it is coming faster than people know. The time is near when the people in the rural areas will send money to their cousins and their sisters in the city. I have met a farmer who said to me “I have expelled poverty from my household. For years I couldn’t pay school fees for my children. This year I sold rice worth a million Naira. I paid school fees, I have repaid my house, next year I am targetting two million.”

It’s beginning to happen. The real change we are talking about is not that dramatic change the city dwellers expect. Serious structural economic change is happening quietly. And very soon we will get farmers to talk to the media.

We need to tell the world the other side of the story. We are on our way. Whoever wants to invest in Nigerian agriculture, local or foreign, we will actually walk them through what they need to do, right to the farm.”