By Enyeribe Ejiogu
Dr. Paul Akintelure, who holds the Yoruba traditional title, Otunba, is the medical director of Broad Hospitals and has passionately deployed his expertise in providing healthcare services to indigent families while also sponsoring students in tertiary institutions. An indigene of Ondo State, he, in 2012, ran as the deputy governorship candidate of the Action Congress of Nigeria (ACN) with Rotimi Akeredolu (the incumbent Ondo State governor) against Olusegun Mimiko, the then Labour Party flagbearer, who won the election. Prior to that time, he had contested for the senatorial election against the Peoples Democratic Party candidate, but fell victim of underhand electoral malfeasance, when the PDP was in ascendancy in the state. In continuation of his engagement with rural people in the state, he went into commercial farming as a way of creating employment and aligning with the national aspiration for food sufficiency and economic diversification through development of the agricultural value chain. In this interview, he shares his thoughts about the wrong attitude of youths to agriculture.
I know that you have made a mark in medical practice. What made you decide to set up an agricultural enterprise?
If you look at a country like Nigeria with our huge population, for it to grow and develop economically, we desperately need diversification. We have some variables that can disturb the economy in various ways. You have inflation, depreciation, devaluation and climate condition. Naturally, you want to ensure that the fluidity of cash is attainable. In that case, you would rightly need to diversify. I am a medical doctor by profession but agriculture is my evocation just as politics is also my evocation. If you look at the three, they relate to humanity directly. In Nigeria today, and because of the way we have handled our economy and political space, politics now seems to be the mainstay. However, for the people to really survive, they need food. Human beings, whether they are rich or poor, need food. Health is very important and nutrition is very important for health because they are interwoven. For you to be active, you must be healthy. The corollary is that you need good nutrition to be healthy. Agriculture and health are two dynamic activities we have to fund properly as a nation. As a private sector participant, you must have a means to fund healthcare delivery. For instance, in my hospital, we provide free medical services for indigent individuals and families. Every day, the list of people seeking medical services on charity grounds keeps growing. The reason is that there is poverty in the land, and there are no jobs; nobody is bothering about job creation as part of government policy implementation and governance, nobody is focusing and pursuing it.
Therefore, in the private sector, which is a microcosm of Nigeria, I provide my own electricity and water supply, I am an employer of labour, I maintain roads, among the other things outside the core activity of healthcare delivery, to support my immediate community and make the environment conducive for us to do our primary job, which is healthcare delivery.
In essence, these things put together informed my decision to go into agriculture even though my resources are little (I am not a billionaire), to create employment opportunities, support and contribute to attainment of the national aspiration for food sufficiency. As a person, I have never benefitted from government attention.
Now that you have gone into agriculture, what is the level of your involvement and where is the project located?
Let me put this in perspective. I tried to help some indigent students and I started with 48 of them in polytechnics and universities, whose tuition fees I subsidised. The number has reduced because some of them have graduated. I just felt that if I stuck to my medical practice alone, I would not be able to continue to shoulder the burden of paying their fees. Where I come from, Igbotako, Okitipupa Local Government Area, Ondo State, there is adequate sunshine, rainfall and arable land. I felt I should make the best use of the land. Though I did not study agriculture, I know much about it because I grew up in it. In my secondary school days, I scored A3 in agriculture. Though my father was a teacher and mother engaged in agriculture, farming is just natural to us. From subsistence farming we decided to transit into commercial farming. So I began acquiring plots of farmland, bit by bit, in different parts of the area. This has allowed us go into very formidable commercial livestock farming enterprise called Broad Ranch Limited. We have land for fish-farming, vegetable cultivation and poultry. We have oil-palm plantation in different areas. We have a proposed project that will focus on the processing of palm kernel, to produce palm kernel oil and palm kernel cake, as fallouts of the palm plantation. This ensures that you don’t lose anything – you get palm oil, palm kernel oil, palm kernel cake for poultry and pigs. We have a growing piggery. In other words, we have a value chain which creates employment opportunities for youths in the area.
About how many are currently employed in the venture?
We have about 30 people working in the agricultural project, but sadly enough most of them are not Nigerians. They are from the West Coast nations, mainly from the republics of Benin and Togo. Nigerian youths are not interested in agriculture. Instead they are more interested in politics. Perhaps our educational system has made them to be above agriculture. Farming is not a punishment. Even as a doctor, I go into the farm and get personally involved. So, some Nigerian youths feel that because they are graduates they cannot go to the farm. I have broken the yoke by putting myself out as an example of a highly skilled medical professional, who is also not just an agro-investor but a hands-on practical farmer. If you look at the career hierarchy, doctors are the top of the pyramid. So if I am proudly engaged in agriculture, why should a young person with perhaps OND certificate feel too proud to farm? Our youths really need to have their mindset rewired and reconfigured for true and sustainable value creation.
So far, what impact would you say that the agricultural enterprise has made?
Apart from giving youths in the catchment area job opportunities, they are also being given skill acquisition and vocational training. Those of them studying agriculture in school have a valuable place to get first-hand experience of the beauty and benefits of commercial agriculture as a profitable career. We have acres of cassava farm. The produce from our cassava farm is processed into different end-user products, such as cassava flour known in Yoruba parlance as pupuru and garri, etc. Pupuru is a variant of cassava fufu, which is more digestible and has less toxicity. With very good soup, it promotes appetite. Already, we are now transiting to cultivating a bi-annual hybrid cassava that can be harvested twice a year.
How do you process the cassava to produce the different value-added products?
Our workers use some machines in certain aspects of the processing. However, I have gone to Ibadan to discuss with some fabricators of small scale cassava processing machinery, to enable us upgrade what we are currently doing, to further improve quality standards. The machines we are planning to acquire and install will greatly improve the processing of our cassava in such a way that it will produce other useful products that are currently thrown away.
I have had opportunity to see the machine we want being used outside the country. The cost of importing it is too expensive and prohibitive. So we decided to explore an indigenous alternative by engaging our own technologists to fabricate a similar machine. That of course will cut down the cost of the machine, enhance and advance the technological knowledge of our own people, thereby deepening their capacity to provide engineering solutions to local problems in the Nigerian agricultural value chain. This was the way USA, Britain, Germany, Japan, South Korea and China acquired technological prowess.
With suitable machines we will step up our capacity for processing the agro-produce. I also want the people in the polytechnics and universities to visit the farm complex to see what we are doing, and use the opportunity to learn and gain invaluable practical experience. So, in essence, I want to promote agricultural engineering, agronomy and agriculture in general.
What would you say accounts for the lukewarm attitude of Nigerians to agriculture despite the obvious benefits?
It is really unfortunate that the mindset of the average Nigerian has been directed towards politics alone because it is seen as an engagement that will bring inflow of funds from the public treasury once you can get in. I believe very strongly that agriculture similarly provides great opportunity for job creation, income generation and enhancement of social interaction and national development. I urge the country’s elite to invest in agriculture too.