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Agriculture remains Nigeria’s magic wand –Ijewere

Mr. Emmanuel Ijewere, Chairman/CEO, Best Foods, has abandoned accountancy for agribusiness. The former president of ICAN and IOD says oil must give way to agriculture as the mainstay of our economy. Agriculture and agribusiness and its concomitant value chain if properly managed, he says, will steadily increase Nigeria’s GDP and make her a strong economy in the world. This is why he wants the oil market to crash so that Nigeria will return to all round agriculture. Ijewere supports CBN’s ANCHOR Borrowers programme and ban of 41 items, adding that India did it many years ago to become a strong economy today. Ijewere spoke with OBIDIKE JERRY in his Lagos office.

Last time you prayed for oil price to crash further to $5 per barrel to force Nigerians to return to agriculture. One year after, are you impressed with government’s direction/focus on agriculture?

In agriculture, I see a lot of motion but not enough movement. In the first place, the budgetary allocation to agriculture is one of the lowest in Africa, less than two percent; whereas Nigeria signed the Maputo Agreement that under no circumstance must it be less than 10 percent. Secondly, the directive in terms of infrastructural issues that affect agriculture have not been taken seriously. There are a lot of foundations/efforts that have been made by many previous governments including the building of dams and so on. Given the fact that we have this economic downturn, that should have been time for us to go back to those. We have almost a 100 dams that are not in use from where we could improve/increase our agricultural output. We still have an attitude of the price of oil will go up some day so we go back to the same recklessness as we’ve always had. And that’s the reason why I said I wouldn’t want the price of oil to rise any quickly. As it is now, it is already over rising. I would want it to, in fact, go down so that it will bring sanity to us as a people in a sustainable manner. If you still look at various governments both state and federal level, the money they spend on cars we don’t produce is far more than virtually every other country in Africa. The amount that is spent to serve one person, legislative or executive is embarrassing. So, we have not really learnt much and the recession is for some people and not everybody.

In terms of getting it right, getting more serious with agriculture, what direction would you want government to go?

First, the Federal Government has put a policy. The policy is a good one but no agriculture is practiced in Maitama or Asokoro. Agriculture is practiced in the states of the federation. Now, how far have they carried those states along with them? That is where agriculture should start from. It should not be what happened at the federal level. It is now must be, once you come up with the policy, it should now be owned by the various states because they are the ones that deal with agriculture and even if it means, right now as they have been doing, having particular crops allocated to specific states, and must be measured against achievements. What was it last year? What do you want it to be this year? What do you want it to be next year? Those are things that are measurable. And then incentives should be given to achieve those goals and there will be competition among those states as to which one is achieving and which one is not achieving. So in actual fact, there’s good policy on the ground but policy will not put food on your table but action that backs the policy. And then the other part that I quickly want to add is that each state government should recognize the private sector as the real people who are the participants. Every private farmer in the village is a capitalist, every farmer in the village is a private sector person and therefore he should be seen and respected as such. So, before policies are finalised, it is good to relate to them. In other words, local governments need to play more roles in policy formulation and support for agriculture.

Now, it is like you are talking about the economic recovery and growth plan of the Federal Government but in a democracy, apart from persuasion, how else can government at the federal level get states to key into the programme or plan?

It is by competition. Every state that achieves a particular goal, there will be an incentive, give them more because whatever they grow in their state, it is not likely they will be eaten only by their states. There’s no restriction as to where food goes. Foods cross border every day, every minute. Therefore, every state that is successful is successful for the whole of Nigeria and they should be compensated as such.

In other words, you are saying government should use money to drive agriculture because if you go to bank to borrow at 28 percent or more, can you even succeed in Agriculture?

The government is in fact using a lot of intervention funds through the banks to get these across and I think that’s a very good idea. But then there are also specific issues like: those who add value to the produce should be given special concessions at the tax level and some other areas. And the other one is this problem about land and that any state that makes the challenge of doing business in the state the least should get a price. Every state should be made to encourage people to come to their states to do business and ease of doing business should form a basis for such thing and that should include allocation of land. How long does it take by the time you apply for land and the time you get C of O. These are challenges we need to consider.

Last time, you spoke about land preparation as one of the challenges. How far has the government gone in terms of addressing that because you were advocating something like government getting the land ready and getting farmers to move in?

Apart from one or two states, all other states don’t seem to have done anything near that. They have done absolutely nothing. Just two states that I know have done a bit of that.

Recently, you shocked your audience when you mentioned the difference between the farm price of most agriculture produce especially tomatoes and the market price. In fact, the gap was so huge that some audience members resolved to enter into the business of buying these products from the farms and selling to the markets. Why is the price differential so huge? It’s like transportation is the big issue here?

The transportation itself is huge but there are other things that are embedded in transportation. For example, cross borders. Nigeria is one country, if you are crossing from one state to the other, more often than not, there are checkpoints. Those checkpoints are illegal because there should be free trade in Nigeria. Those illegal checkpoints are tollgates and worst still, they delay goods further. So, it’s not just the bad roads that are giving problem to drivers but also the delay that is caused.  Between Kano and Lagos, I think as at four months ago, we succeeded in counting I think 38 checkpoints. If you can calculate how many minutes per checkpoint that now could end up adding another 12 to 15 hours on the road. And 12 to 15 hours also will further guarantee the spoilage of the produce. That’s also is a loss to the nation. So, it is not just the infrastructure on the road, the human costs and those things are issues that also must be considered.

Is it then right for government to ban those foodstuff such as rice, poultry, before we reach self- sufficiency in their production?

Poultry products have been banned long ago but they have been coming in because of the connivance of the customs and other security agencies. That is bad and shameful. Worst still, the kind of poultry that is coming in, the chicken that is coming in, has been frozen, a lot of them have been preserved with formalin. Formalin is the chemical used for human preservation of dead bodies.

So they are dangerous to our health?

Absolutely. So when you talk about the ban, if you don’t place that kind of ban we can never move forward. The countries that as at today we are envious of like India, I think for about 15 to 20 years they closed their borders. They only eat what the food they are able to grow. Even the Indian prime minister will ride only vehicle that is made in India. Today, they have the Tata. This is one of the largest car making industries in the world and they compete with everybody else. So, you cannot have an omelette without breaking an egg. You cannot grow Nigeria, you cannot move to the next century by opening the border and telling everybody, don’t worry, our oil will be used in importing things. We export our wealth and import poverty. So, there should be no regret and no need for any explanation if we ban anything. Whatever decision we take must always be in our national interest not in the interest of just a few. It is so easy for us to think about the few and forget about the majority. Why is it so? Less than one percent of the populace owns and controls 80 percent of the wealth. So, many of these things that you are talking about this ban, don’t affect 99 percent of our people. So, all this talk that this will happen, nothing will happen. It is just the greed of a few that is dictating that. National interest must come first. If Indians were able to do that in the 50s and 60s, Nigerians should be able to do that in the 21st century.

These poultry products, the statistics we have now are that Nigeria cannot meet the demands of Nigerians. In the interim, what should we do?

Grow more chicken. How long does it take to grow chicken? Eight weeks. Tell me how many Nigerians would die if they didn’t eat chicken in eight weeks?

In terms of farmers growing more chicken, what about the inputs? Where will the money come from?

The farmer in the villages, it is not everything that is money. The land, God did not charge us any money for it. The rains, God did not charge any money for that. So how much is the input? As at today, we are doing the wrong farming practice like using the old seeds that we used last year. Let them continue to use that where they cannot get better ones. Ideally, we should have high breed seeds but if you cannot use the ones you have and continue and by year or two, you will be strong enough to buy high breed seed to improve. But if you don’t start, you will never get there. If you want to get to Sokoto, you must start moving towards Sokoto. You don’t sit down in one place and get to Sokoto. In the same manner, we cannot say to ourselves we cannot ban goods because it would create scarcity. Let it create scarcity to force people to go and look for it themselves.

From accounting, you are now a farmer. What has been your experience in farming?

Very exciting. I enjoyed my years in accounting but nothing compares to the pleasure I am deriving now. I have the opportunity to deal with the youths. I have the opportunity to deal with women groups. I have the opportunity to deal with farmers at grassroots level. I have the opportunity of moving from one village to the other and I actually sit with them and talk with them. I have the opportunity of knowing places I would never ever have known because accounting is practiced mainly in the cities. I have the opportunity of in fact going to the core of human relationship. The way I am now, I don’t think money would ever have bought it and give glory to God for giving me the opportunity.

Our farming in the past relied on women mainly to get us to where we are and then in terms of youth participation, are you encouraged by their level of participation in farming in Nigeria?

The past two years have been a world of difference. Three years ago, the youths were not interested. But virtually every Saturday now, I have one lecture date or another. And everywhere I discover that over 80 percent of the audience is below 30 years of age and that is an encouragement. And their questions are becoming very encouraging and so forth and many of them do a lot of follow up because they send me mails and so on and request for mentorship and distribute them to a number of people who can mentor them.

What can our government do to encourage more youths to be interested and women who have been in it for a long time to get more involved in farming?

I would suggest that government does not intervene with youths directly, they go through companies. For example, you say to a company you are doing well. The more youths you employ, the more support we give to you. Fine! But the moment you get to a position where government is actually doling out money to the youths, like many things in the country, corruption takes over. We lose sight of why we are doing what we are doing. Nepotism comes on board. Every legislator would want to put his brother there to be able to get a piece of it not because it will be of use to the country.

What is the role of electricity because earlier you spoke about preservation and so on?

I agree, electricity has always been a problem but we should not use electricity or any infrastructural deficiency to justify not doing anything. Solar is important now and I think by using our brain, we can get people to come and install solar and allow payment over a certain period. So, it’s a question of using the brain. When the going gets tough, the tough gets going. Power is a problem but I have it in my own heart of hearts that with the government programme I have seen within the next 24 months, it is going to improve considerably. Of course, we would not exit power failure and so on but we would have improved considerably. It is beginning to yield results. I would rather say the future is more hopeful than the past.

This government has been in power for about two years now and along the line, recession came in. Looking at the recent plan-Economic Recovery and Growth Plan (ERGP) and other government activities, do you think we are going to exit recession sooner than later?

We are beginning to move in that direction to exit the recession. First, sanity has returned and agriculture would continue to be the backbone of that exit. The major food items are beginning to react positively to the new efforts. I do believe that within the next 48 months, if not much less, Nigeria should be able to export rice. Already, we produce 40 percent of the world cassava but then the only problem we have is value adding. A lot of people are getting more involved in the value adding .You have things like palm oil and more and more palm plantations are coming. In cocoa, there’s now a programme to find a way of  challenging Coat D’ Voire who are the leaders right now, who came to learn about our cocoa farming, though. All in all and more importantly, the nature of people now showing more interest in agriculture are younger generation unlike before when the average farmer was somewhere around 55 and 60 years old. When you put all this in place, we can only see a positive direction and thanks to the glut or fall in oil price.

Some people say we cannot get to the point of self sufficiency in food production without mechanized farming. In this instance, would you want government to get into it or encourage the private sector to move into it, that is, mechanized farming?

Those are many questions. One, government should only give the support; private sector are capable of mechanizing farming. Even where we are not fully mechanized as at today, the farmers with all the sacrifices they make are producing over 130 percent of the food we need to eat. It’s now a question of how do you now improve on that? A lot of our cultural practice has been based on what you call supply, more emphases are placed on suppliers than demand. That is beginning to change now. All those can only be positive for the advancement of agribusiness in Nigeria.

You were once chairman of a publishing firm, Longman. What role can education play in all of this? Do we need to change our curriculum or whatever?

Well, I don’t know if that will have any significant impact. It is the mindset of the people that we need to change to the extent that there’s dignity in hard work and there’s dignity in agriculture. Rather than a situation where all schools must go and start having farms and be producing and so on, no. The effort will be therefore diverting attention away from the core reason why educational institutions are set up. While I think it is a good idea but let it be something spontaneous, give them the environment and they will do it.

Let’s talk about the role of state governments in all of this because it’s like we are not getting a lot of their involvement in agriculture?

We were not but now the past six months have seen a rebirth in the interest of state governors. I know I have interacted with at least eight or nine of them and each one has shown a lot of interest. The states that are not showing enough interest are very few; all other states are at the crescendo level, bit by bit. I think all the states of the federation are beginning to show interest. The contract between Lagos State government and Kebbi State government was a shot in the arm that woke up a lot of governors and they seem determined to do something positive with local produce specialized for their states.

Central Bank of Nigeria, CBN, has been intervening in terms of loan to agriculture at low interest. Do you want them to keep doing that or to allow commercial banks to play that role?

The banks would never play that role because their agenda is different from Nigeria’s agenda. So, I want the Central Bank to continue their Anchor Borrowers Scheme which is helping a lot. And that one too like I said before is based on demand. It is demand driven and that’s a good philosophy. That means if you recognize the fact that he who is going to buy your goods is the champion, therefore you don’t produce things just for your sake. You produce things first because it is on demand; that is where it becomes a lot more efficient, that is, a more efficient economic package than the present one where it is supply based.

The issue of getting more direct foreign investment into the economy, so far what are the challenges now?

The challenges are lack of confidence, not enough confidence that government would not have a somersault in its policies. Otherwise, a lot of people want to invest in Nigeria’s agriculture especially when they realize that with the population of almost 200 million, it is a sure-sure and win-win market.

 What is your final word on government increasing level of participation in agriculture?

My final word is that I think with the minister we have, he seems to know his onions and he is very determined. I would want the president to please work or call the minister of agriculture as well as state governors to take agriculture a lot more seriously. And at the federal level, all those ministries that have associated relationship with agriculture-finance, trade and investment and so on should be seriously called upon to cooperate with the ministry of agriculture.

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