Nigeria’s agricultural potential has never been in doubt. With its large amounts of uncultivated arable land, the country was a hub of Cocoa; palm Oil and groundnut production in the 1960s. However, the discovery of oil in 1956 and the oil boom of the 1970s reversed the gains of the country’s Agricultural sector, as the successive government became disinterested with this very important. The Buhari-led administration are committed to reversing this trend, and placing the country back as an Agricultural hub. In this exclusive interview with African leadership Magazine, the Minister for Agriculture, Chief Audu Ogbeh, takes us through some of the government’s efforts towards food security. Excerpts:
Nigeria spends about $30b annually on the importation of food into the country and you had assured Nigerians that upon assumption of office, you and your team would look at reducing the numbers. How have you fared in this regard?
We have made some progress, albeit slow. As you know its slow because crops take time to grow. Its also slow because some crops are seasonal and we are working to change this with the introduction of irrigation farming. With irrigation, you can have all year round production of crops. The biggest items on the import list are rice; sugar; tomatoes paste; cookies, salt amongst others. But the huge imports are scary, rice at a point was $5M day that was spent on importation. You just made the point in your opening, here we are described as poor and diseased, but we have been making significant contribution to the global market in these areas. A young man in UK did a cartoon of the world map and left Africa out, and when he was asked, he said, “what would the world miss, if Africa was to vanish into the ocean?” He added that “all Africa can offer is to produce coup d’état, violence, disease and other, they produce nothing and innovate nothing.” On the other hand, no one would admit that some European countries have been feeding off Africa. Someone one once made a comment that for West Africa, France would be finished. So, we must all realize that the world is at war, it may not be very visible, in that it is not fought with bombs and guns, but this is more ruthless. Economic wars are more ruthless, it is more deadly than anything else, very quietly. Our case in Nigeria is quite an interesting one because, we were making money from oil, but everything was going abroad to sustain other economies. Our children were pursuing those same jobs, which in some parts our monies created in the first place and most of them have ended up in prison. I have been in Ghwanzou, China in recent times and we have close to 5000 Nigerians in jails in different parts. I just came back from Brazil, about 300-400 Nigerians in prison. In that desperate search for wellbeing they get into troubles and nobody remembers that some of what we have been spending on importation from those countries, have actually kept those economies going. First, we have cut down imports by producing the food ourselves. The beautiful thing is that i have not seen any country respond as fast as Nigerian to the call to get back to the farms. I honestly want to congratulate Nigerians and i am speaking on behalf of the president. The response is out of this world. The results are coming; it would not happen in one night. It took Brazil 40 years to get there. It took Indian nearly half a century. In China, the great leap forward, were very disastrous, and claimed about 4 million lives. This quiet revolution, this change taken place, is so impressive and you would not believe it. Only recently, i was in Jigawa. I was also in Anambra recently with the Central bank Governor. I was also in Kebbi and we are seeing what Nigerians are doing, which is very amazing. The response is huge, though some states have come on board. We are shifting southwards and we are about to revive Cocoa. We have no business being called poor and hungry. We were been careless for over a long period of time. When they mentioned free trade, no one bothered to talk about fair trade. We opened our boarders and all sorts of things were flowing into the country. You cannot even imagine the number of delegation that have visited my ministry to protest that Nigeria is no longer buying fish from their countries. We have enormous power as a country and we didn’t not recognize it. This power is worthless, if we cannot feed ourselves. If a household have to spend 60% of its earnings on food, than that economy is no good. Right now, we have a shortfall of about 3million tons of Rice, but i promise you that by this time next year, we will would have achieved and surpassed our target. We have brought in about 110 rice milling machines, to cover every state of the federation. there is not State in Nigeria that cannot grow rice. My slogan is take life to the villages. We are committed to taking life to the rural communities – the grassroots. We can turn things around and chase poverty out of this country, we can do this. The market is huge and above all, we are feeding North, west and central Africa. I met an Algerian in Brazil, who pleaded that we should grow maize and sell to them, adding that if we can grow enough maize, they do not mind laying a railway line from their country to Nigeria to create linkages.
From some markets in Nigeria; the laila market in Sokoto; Maigata in Jigawa; Dawano in Kano; and about four other markets in the north, over 500 trucks leave this country every day carrying food to as far as southern Libya; Sudan; Chad, Niger, central Africa; Mali; Mauritania; Senegal. Even as we speak with you, if you go to these places they are loading millets. So, we have the power and the response has been encouraging. Now, it not cheap developing Agriculture. There is another quite revolution taking place in this country and the space of 5 to 10 years, the face of politics in this country will change. You cannot walk into a village and think you can bribe them to get their votes.
The Governor of Kebbi told me that, he sent a message to the Chairman of his party in the Local government that he would like to meet with them. The chairman told him that, things are no longer like that, because, they are all busy in their farms, that he would have to give them ample notice so that they can prepare. They are very busy harvesting Rice, millet, soya beans and that is there priority now. The chairman of the Rice farmers in Jigawa told me that, he is now getting rich. Look at it, A million naira worth of Rice paddy on a hectare and the man has 5 hectares. I saw a young man in Kebbi with a t-shirt that reads, Tinubu for senate and i asked him where did you meet Tinubu and he said, he was in Lagos for one year living under the bridge, and during one of the campaigns Mrs. Tinubu was passing and her team were throwing T-Shirts and i got this one. He said, but i am back home, i came back home when i heard that Agriculture was the main thing now and since returning i have made six hundred thousand Naira. In Delta, the CBN Governor’s wife was telling me that she runs some business in Lagos, but most of her workers have gone back home to farm. So, we are decongesting the city and creating a process of reversed migration and we hope very soon, migration to Europe will become unnecessary. I thank you again for electing to change the narrative on the continent with your reportage, we would join you in this project using our strength as farmers. The Indian Vice President came here, his country wants to buy palsies. The market is a $100 Billion, and i said to him, give me 4 years and we would take 25% of this market.
Tell us about the anchor borrower program. What is the success rate?
When I came on board, my predecessor, had already made some progress with this project. We however realized that the banks are reluctant to lend to farmers. I understand the concern of the bankers, because the output have been so low art the peasant level. Most of them, if they take a loan, they really are not able to pay back. The qaulity of seeds have been poor, fertilizer application have been very bad. This is so because, for a very long while, people thought that, all you needed to do was to throw what they call NPK 15-15-15, but there is no soil and definitely no crop that can accept this brand of fertilizer automatically and make a good yield. The soil has 16 nutrients the nutrients. The macro nutrients are the three- nitrogen, potassium and phosphate. There are other nutrients in the soil that can be lacking in the soil. So you must do a soil map to know what kind of fertilizer that is suitable for what kind of crop and ecology. The soil map came out earlier this year in my ministry. And so we printed documents and gave the state government. We told them not to apply MPK 15:15:15 just because it’s a fertilizer. Some nutrients may be lacking or in excess depending on the ecology. In place like Borno state the soil has so much potassium in the soil. In Abia, Imo and southern Akwa Ibom state, the soil is very acidic. It can grow too many things, so you have to do what they call liming. The lime absorbs the acids. That is what the Brazilians did along the Cerados in Brasilia. Scientist found out that they had to lime the soil, before anything can grow in the soil. Todsay, they are the biggest producers of Soya Bean in the world. That soil map has made such a dramatic improvement that rice farmers in some of the state have moved from 2 tons per hectare to 7-and-half. Some produce 10 tons. If a farmer produce 10 tons per hectare, there is no way he will fail to repay his loan of N300, 000 because he is likely to make 1million naira per hectare if he harvests that rice.
But the Banks are not yet convinced. So without the Anchors Borrowers programs which the CBN Governor and I planned, it would have been impossible to give credit to the present farmers because whatever you say for now nearly 30 million of them are the once feeding this country. In the past, they did so, because they had no choice. Unless you actually proof to them that there is money in the business, youths will not involve in it. So with the Anchor borrowers program, we encourage them.
Some analysts have criticized the program as slow and imperfect, due to the repayment structure and all.
How much does Europe give to famers per day, they won’t call it subsidy, and they call it support. They give farmers a billion euros per day to all farmers. How much does the United State put into agriculture? You will be shocked. They tell us there is no subsidy. They do it. So when our critics get too loud about it, we know what is going on the world. Why must Africa stay behind and be the beggar of the world? And what are we doing with the treasury fund? People have stolen large sums of money and if it gets to the farmer in my village and his life improves I am a pound person. In the next 20 years, some of this farmer will tell you I have 4 million in account I don’t need a loan. They only need about one hectare to make a difference, they do not need 10 hectares. We are giving the Bank of Agriculture a micro-finance finance bank license, because what they have now is development bank license. They can’t take a deposit but when we create a new one with 25- 30 million farmers as depositors and shareholders, it will become the largest bank in this country-the same as the Bank of Agriculture in china- 800 million clients and shareholders. That is what we want to do.
You were in Ebonyi State where you inaugurated a demonstration “one-man-one-hectare’. We will like to see it replicated in other parts of the country.
We are heading in that direction everywhere One-man-one hectare. We are telling everybody in another year don’t tell me you are unemployed. The governor is doing this and we going to work with him. We are trying to pass this philosophy to every state. The states have to help clear the land. The tractor companies must help train tractor operators. No tractor last more than two years in this country. Tractor management is a tricky business. This scheme is very interesting and we are encouraging the states to key into this initiative to reduce the number of unemployed youths in the state.
Let us look at the Herdsmen crisis, which is threatening the peace of the country, in almost all parts. You were criticized when you have advocated for Grazing Reserves and Ranching. What is your ministry doing to address the concern of those who do not believe in the sincerity of the government to address the issues using the model, you had suggested?
Well let me start by saying we Africans are driven my emotions and sentiment. Does anybody have alternative solutions? How do you rear cattle without ranches? You see cows in Abuja near the airport. That is not allowed. People are arguing in the South because they see it as a Hausas/Fulani thing. But we all need cows. We need beef. The solution is not for herdsmen to be moving around, eating people’s crops. So how did this thing degenerate to this level? Over the years, we had grazing reserves. Even then the North was always dry; so they started moving south. And during those years, the Fulani herdsmen were the only ones who followed their cows and the only weapons they had were the sticks they used in beating their cows. As time moved on with climate change, cattle now come into Nigeria from Chad, Niger, Mauritania, Liberia and even Senegal; they go all the way down to the Congo. In January last year met the Minister of Agriculture there who told me they are facing exactly the same thing. Then there was a crisis in Libya; AK 47s are available for N67, 000; and because famers resent what herdsmen are doing on the farms, they put up a fight. These herdsmen have bought an AK 47 and they carry it everywhere. These herdsmen have become daring. A few of them arrested didn’t speak a single Nigerian language.
We say okay we must have ranches and confine these cows; they say no. We said let’s import grasses for these cows; they said it’s a private sector thing why should the government be involved in this; very naïve argument. Why have we spent so much on cassava farmers and cocoa farmers? People forget these are farmers too. In the last one year before I got there, they must have spent close to 4billion naira clearing land for cassava farmers. Are they working for government? I don’t support herdsmen wandering into people’s farmlands, eating their crops. I am a farmer too and I don’t like it. And so I say these herdsmen must be confine. So that milk can increase and cows can be better sources of meat, you must establish ranches. I can’t establish ranches for all the cows in the country. I can’t. I don’t support seizing anybody’s land to convert to a ranch. I can’t. But that does say I am wrong in suggesting that ranches are the solution; except you don’t want cows in the country.
I just came back from Brazil. Brazil has 30% of the world’s cattle, 205 million cows in Brazil. They are on ranches. They took grass from Africa twenty-five years ago. They developed the grass that the grass now has 25% protein. If you see a two-year-old cow in Brazil, it weighs 200 kg. The current minister of agriculture there was twice governor and twice senator. He is now the minister of agric. He keeps cows too. He asked me what my people want if they don’t want ranches because he saw some of the comments here.
We are now developing grassing seed here. It is 8, 500 square kilometers north of Abuja. You have to grow the grass or the cows won’t grow. Every country has done it. There is no way out. An individual have to develop the ranches but we must have the grass seeds to give them to say grow your grass, this is the source of water and if you wander off, we will seize your cows. We have done nothing over the last 100 years. And people are saying we want a solution now and they don’t have one.