It is not as if in the last few years people were not fishing because there were no fish in the rivers. But generally, agriculture was abandoned…
Okwe Obi, Abuja
The Minister of State for Agriculture and Rural Development, Senator Heineken Lokpobiri, has lamented that everybody was busy migrating to Abuja to become portfolio contractors instead of taking to agriculture.
This trend he said has kept increasing social problems in the society.
But he believes that with the stocking they are making and the increase in offshore fishing, they would increase fish production and make more people to be engaged in agriculture.
In this interview he also highlighted some of the reasons the country should ban fish exportation.
What is the Federal Government doing to have sufficient fish production because as it stands, Nigerians are not getting enough of it?
What we are doing now as a government is to see how we can restock some of our lakes, we can’t restock our rivers, but we can restock our lakes. We have in our department of fisheries, a programme where from time to time we take a thousand fingerlings and put them below in the lakes and after a few months, fishermen can go there and fish. But generally, fishing offshore has increased in the country; a lot more people are bringing trawlers into the country, they are being licensed to go fishing offshore. Nigeria’s shrimps are the best in the world and we are exporting them all over the world. In fact, anywhere you see those jumbo and big shrimps in the world, know that they are from Nigeria. So, what we are doing to curb these problems of our fishermen going to the lakes and without catching any fish and therefore getting discouraged, the problem is being addressed in a sustainable basis, we keep restocking in order to encourage people to keep off some of those areas to ensure that the fish can grow. Generally, all over the world, this problem exists. Freshwater fish because of pollution has declined. Before now when we were growing up and go to the riverside to fish, there were no speedboats. Right now, there is unlimited number of speedboats and pollution activities, there is so much pollution of the rivers because of excessive use of petrol. Also, there is a new interest in fishing activities because people know that there is a big fortune in fishing activities. It is not as if in the last few years people were not fishing because there were no fish in the rivers, that was not so. But generally, agriculture was abandoned by everybody. Everybody was busy migrating to Abuja to become portfolio contractors and at the end of the day, we have not been able to do anything and then keep increasing our social problems in the society. But I believe that with the stocking we are doing and the increase in offshore fishing, we will continue to increase our production as far as fish production is concerned.
The unemployment gap is growing. How has your ministry used the fishery sub-sector to address this problem?
I believe that most of the persons who have contributed to the increased production from 600,000 metric tons to about 1.1 million metric tons are youths, apart from a few of the big farms. Most of those that are involved in aquaculture are basically youths. Sometimes, reality will certainly drive any serious minded person to go into agriculture. Right now, everybody knows that every year we turn out millions of youths from the universities and other higher institutions into the streets. There is nowhere in the world where government creates jobs, what government does is to see how it can provide the enabling environment for young men and women to go into agriculture in a modern, fashionable way, and the fishery sector is where we are embarking on extensive training. We are also seeing how we can support some clusters of young fish farmers by the provision of feed mills. In fact, in the past few years, we have been constructing and installing feed mills so as to subsidize the cost of fishery. Seventy-five per cent of the cost of fishery is on feed mills. Locally speaking, we don’t have much of local technology or local feed mills, where people can naturally go and get a lot more affordable fish meals. There are some that exists, but in terms of protein contents there are challenges. What we are doing is to see how we can train a lot of our youths, see how we can collaborate with some of our partners to see how they can exchange that knowledge and technology so that our local small mills that we are installing will be put into better use, people will have better knowledge of what and what they need to add up to build up to their local feeds so that it could be cost effective. So, we have created enough of jobs under the fishery sector and we believe that we will sustain it.
Why is the Greenhouse farm technology expensive, by requiring about N2.5 million as start-up?
If you remember, one of the most fundamental problems bedeviling the agriculture sector is lack of funding. If you walk into any bank and say you are a farmer, they will not even attend to you because they feel that farming is only for those who have failed in the society. But now the narrative is changing; CBN has a lot of intervention programmes in agriculture, the Bank of Agriculture is being recapitalised so that young men who want to go into farming will be able to access funding to be able to set up different types of farming activities they want to go into. CBN has several billions of naira for agriculture intervention programmes. What you need to do is go to your bank and your bank will review your business proposal and make recommendations and then you can access up to N2 million. If you want to go from small to big scale, those funds are available. There is a lot of money we have put into the Bank of Agriculture, so when you go there, you will be able to access some small loans to be able to
invest in agriculture. I want to commend the CBN for coming up with another policy to ensure that we access loans on a single digit basis. I believe that what people need to do is to exercise patience to be able to prepare properly before going to the bank. We don’t want any more portfolio farmers, where somebody will carry a big portfolio, enter a bank, take a loan and then go and marry another wife, that era is gone. What we want to do today is to see how those who are practically in agriculture can be supported and we are doing all that with this intervention by the CBN. We don’t have such intervention funds and loans to give as a ministry, but the Bank of Agriculture being the bank that is under the Ministry of Agriculture is being strengthened to be able to support farmers. It may not be true that you need up to N2.5 million and all that in order to set up a greenhouse farm. What I said was that greenhouse farming is simply a technology and that is why you see different quality of houses. If you invest in agriculture, you are bound to get good returns and you are also bound to create jobs because for any food we import, we are creating jobs for other people in other parts of the world. So, greenhouse, if you know the technology, you may use different technologies.
What about those who are not yet into agriculture, but are willing to go into it?
Everybody should be interested in agriculture depending on the scale because everybody eats food. There is nobody who does not eat food, whether you are sick, healthy, poor, everybody needs food. What you need to do is to identify what should be the most thriving value chain of agriculture in your environment. You may be in a place where tomatoes may be in high demand, then plant tomatoes around you, in your farm, you don’t need so much technology for it.
Can this category of people also assess the loans?
Yes, the loans are available to every Nigerian. What you need to do is to go to the nearest Bank of Agriculture with your business plan and the bank will review that plan, ensure that they do some background checks, they also want to locate the land you want to use to do the farming. We want to avoid a situation where we give people cash. Most of the loans that you see today are given in kind. You want to be a farmer, where is the land, how much do you need to prepare the land? They will give you the seed, they give you only a small component, which constitutes labour cost. Nobody will give a loan that you will abscond with so that we will get real value for the loans that are made available. But it is not restricted to anybody. Everybody who is interested in farming has access to such funding.
How do we start growing other species of fish because as it is now catfish alone accounts for about 80 percent of our fish production?
Yes, I agree with you. But you find out that most of the fish farms in the dams where there is cage culture, it is predominantly tilapia, if you go to some of the big farms it is tilapia they do basically. Incidentally, what people don’t know is that the production of tilapia is even cheaper and the rate of growth is even faster. What we try to do is continue to encourage people to do other fish types. A lot of people are doing catfish because they feel that it is all they know how to do. But we are now telling the people, diversify your species; don’t dwell only on catfish alone. Recently we played host to Olams, which is now going into fisheries and aquaculture and they came with an agricultural Professor from Australia. I have already given approval to them to bring in some species of Seabass. If you travel to any country of the world and you need fish stick, what they will give to you is Seabass, and Seabass was developed here in the 80s, somewhere around Abonema in Rivers State. But since then there has not been any sustainable investment, so, they want to see how to grow Seabass and export to Europe. I have given approval and they are going to bring some of the approved stock from Europe and then see how they can start doing another specie of fish apart from catfish and tilapia.
What is the policy of the government in terms of seeing fish as a fundamental food resource that should be guarded jealously?
What we are trying to do is to try to encourage as many people as possible to come for their licenses so that we can give them. A lot of the people who are located along the Niger Delta are also being encouraged. What they need is support from time to time with some fishing materials.
What is the government doing to curtail post-harvest losses due to the lack of preservation and storage facilities?
Yes, we have a fundamental problem with storage, but even if the fish cannot be stored, it could be dried and be preserved for months. That is why we are supporting our fishermen with smoking kits. When you bring your fish and you can’t get a buyer, dry it. Sometimes if you process it by drying it, you will have more money. Those who go to your fish farms to buy fresh fish and take it to their homes to dry have more money than you who is selling it fresh. Fish is one protein that whatever we are able to produce is consumed. The point I am trying to make is that post-harvest losses for fish is negligible. But we are trying to support our fish farmers with some smoking klins. This year alone we are supporting them with 800 smoking klins across the country. Last year also, we supported them with the smoking klins and we will continue to do that.
What measures is the government putting in place to halt smuggling because it affects local production?
When we give fishing licenses to people what we tell them is that fish import is restricted only through the sea borders; no land border is allowed to bring in fish, chicken, any frozen food is prohibited through the land borders. But what we have discovered is that smugglers smuggle all sorts of proteins that are in demand. Unfortunately, we are not in charge of the borders, but we are constantly in touch with the customs. I am a member of the Presidential Committee on Smuggling headed by the Vice President to see how we can address the issue of smuggling. Somebody who is smuggling in rice is also smuggling in fish. We also know that the Republic of Benin has been our most troublesome neighbour, and so, we are constructively engaging the officials of that country. If you remember recently, the president of that country came to Abuja to meet with President Buhari, with a view to resolving that issue. We will stop at nothing to reduce the rate of smuggling.