By Aidoghie Paulinus
The Chairman, CSS Group of Companies Ltd, owners of CSS Global Integrated Farms, Prof John Kennedy Opara, has said that agriculture can solve the issues of insecurity bedevilling the country, particularly banditry, kidnapping, armed robbery and farmers-herders crisis.
The former Executive Secretary of the Nigeria Christian Pilgrims Commission (NCPC), who spoke with Saturday Sun in Abuja, following the conferment of the Honorary Professor of the Academic Union on him by the Oxford University, United Kingdom, disclosed that reducing unemployment to zero level through agriculture will end insecurity in the country.
Opara said: “Our idea is that we want to bring unemployment to zero per cent. In Nigeria, with the massive land we have, we have no business with unemployment. And the crisis we have today in the area of insecurity, banditry, clashes of herdsmen and farmers, is as a result of lack of what to do. I am of the opinion that if we can tackle unemployment as a nation, if people are gainfully employed, if people are productive in their areas of expertise, I can tell you, there will be nothing like banditry, kidnapping and armed robbery.”
Opara who spoke on this and other sundry issues, stated why he established CSS Farms in Gora, Nassarawa State, in 2018.
How do you feel about the Honorary Professor of the Academic Union bestowed on you by the Oxford University?
All I can say is, to God be the glory! When God’s favour is with a man, things happen without struggle. All I can see is the favour of God, the grace of God at work here. It has been God’s mercy, it has been God’s favour that has brought me this far. And I want to say that hard work without the favour and mercy of God leads you to nowhere. Hard work without God’s grace, without God’s mercy, you can’t go far.
From your assessment, what do you think contributed to this milestone in your life?
I think they have seen what I have done since I left government in the area of agriculture, CSS Farms. In fact, it is amazing! We run the best agricultural training centre in this part of the world today. And for them, it is a plus because I am part of that system and coming from there and they have seen what their own has been able to achieve. In fact, in 2018 or thereabouts, due to one of the programmes I did on negotiation, Oxford had to use my picture as a cover page for those students that were coming for negotiation.
For the benefit of those who are not well informed, what does the Honorary Professor of the Academic Union mean?
It means that the academic union, which is a collage of great academicians, great men, intellectuals, they come together to see that somebody like my very self, has been able to add value and impact on the lives of people, therefore, it is worth honouring. So, they feel this is one way of saying, well done! It is not the end of the job itself, it means more work ahead.
How far have you gone in the area of youth entrepreneurship training which you embarked on few years ago?
To God be the glory! As at today, we have trained over 4000 youths in the area of agriculture across the country. We did almost 1,600 in Cross River State, about 1,000 with the Government of Imo State, and we are currently doing 2,000 with Bauchi State Government. We have also done with the Anglican Communion, we have done with the Catholic Church and many other people are really coming forward for the training. Aside that, states like Zamfara and Adamawa have also lined up, including Bayelsa State. So, many states are involved in the entrepreneurial programme.
Our idea is that we want to bring unemployment to zero per cent. Nigeria, with the massive land we have, we have no business with unemployment. And the crisis we have today in the area of insecurity, banditry, clashes of herdsmen and farmers, is as a result of lack of what to do. I am of the opinion that if we can tackle unemployment as a nation, if people are gainfully employed, if people are productive in their areas of expertise, I can tell you, there will be nothing like banditry, kidnapping and armed robbery. Who are you going to steal from? Everyone is busy, everyone is doing something and I believe that we have the key. In this nation, God has blessed us with the enormous human resources and we have to give back to God, what He has given to us.
Is it possible to reduce unemployment to zero level in the country?
Yes. For example, look at what the Governor of Bauchi State is doing. We are training, for the first instance, 2,000 unemployed youths in Bauchi State. We have done 1,000 already. So, by the time you finish this 2,000, you would have reduced unemployment in that state to the barest minimum and his target is 10,000. If you can cater for this number of people, there is no way unemployment will not be a thing of the past. There is no way banditry, kidnapping and whatever you call it can exist there. These people that are trained are people that will become employers of labour. These are millionaires in the making because agriculture is so vast and open that people can go into any area.
I gave them an example of fishery, for instance. Nigeria as a nation consumes more than four million metric tonnes of fish and we are producing less than 1.5 million metric tonnes. So, if every one of them trained can begin to contribute his quota, you can imagine what they stand to gain. How does it start? A small container by the side of your house, that is all. And before you know it, you have started a business already. A kilogramme (KG) of fish sells for over N1,000 and in some areas, N2,000. So, you can imagine. If you have 5,000 pieces of juvenile, a juvenile is N22, that is over N100,000 and when you are able to grow the fish to about 1.5kg to 2kg, what would that be? So, that means that we have the key. If these young men and women are empowered and they have the capacity to be able to do this, I am telling you, we don’t have business with unemployment here.
What is next on your card in the quest to build the Nigeria of everyone’s dream?
I am desirous of us also coming up with the best agriculture university in this part of the world because many people started universities, but unfortunately today, everybody is competing even when you don’t have anything to show in medicine, law and other disciplines. For me, that is not how it should be. I want to do agriculture and purely agriculture so that when you graduate from that system, you are going into the field not to look for job. You are going to be an employer of labour. Everyone in this part of the world, at least, 90 percent of all of us, we inherited small piece of land from our parents or something to start off with. So, we can start with that. I am trying to build a system where we become off takers because we are International Standard Organization (ISO) certified. We can do quite a lot and we process in the farm. We help people to be able to produce and process. You don’t just harvest and sell like a poor person. We are trying to change the orientation, the mindset of people and give them hope. Look at what the Cross River Governor is doing. He has the best chicken-producing factory in this part of the world, 25,000 birds a day. You can imagine! And we are partnering with him, giving broilers. These are things that can help give jobs to so many people and he has done quite a lot in training people and empowering them. I think that the sky won’t even limit us. The opportunity ahead of us is vast. It is only the work we do today that will make tomorrow possible.
How can the Nigerian government end the perennial issue of strike in the educational sector?
When the committee of vice chancellors came to me, I said look, Nigerian universities have no business depending on government for money. Every university should work out the possibility of self sustenance. That means the university wants to take interest in things that can help them to develop the people that they are producing and empowering them, helping them to become employers of labour, producing things that will go out of this country for export and things that can help us here.
I have a vision; I have focus with the CSS Integrated Farms. My vision is to make sure that we are able to crash the price of food so that food becomes affordable. So, assuming that the university system decides to be independent in terms of the things that they are giving back to the society, that they are producing, there will be less dependence on the government, strike or no strike. The time we spend going on strike should have been used gainfully for productive business. Productivity is not activity. When you go and put all your energy going on strike, several months, you are delaying the future of so many people, you are affecting the destiny of nations, you are affecting the children, you are affecting yourself and nobody makes progress. But if we are able to say look, enough of this, let’s get to see what we can do as a university, this is what we are known for, if you want cassava, go to this university; if you want rice paddy, go to this university. They are productive and lecturers are taken care of for what they are producing. I think this will change the entire system.
We must not rely on government. You can see that I have been in government and I can tell you that it is not easy to be there. Many people may think it is easy, but it is not easy. The truth of the matter is that unfortunately for us, we have leaders who were not prepared for leadership. Leadership is about influence, it is about influencing people positively. Every one of us, we have people we influence in one way or the other. So, what influence are we imparting on those people? If the influence is not positive, it affects the nation negatively. We need to change our style of leadership; we need to see what we can do. Let us depend on what we can do for our nation and not what the nation can do for us.
What are your challenges as Chairman of CSS Global Integrated Farms?
The number one challenge is funding. But I thank God for the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) and the Bank of Agriculture that help us to access early loans. However, the interest rate is too high. At times, you pay so much money as interest. Even though they are trying to make it single digit, but when you look at it from the point of challenges you have in the farm during this COVID-19 period and the Fulani herdsmen challenge with farmers, it is a big problem. And you are expected to still pay.
Are you also having any challenge with herdsmen?
No. But the thing is that we have growers, those that grow for us. They have challenges with herdsmen and it affects us directly. And even those that you want to help; it is not easy for them because they are having challenges. So, it has been a very big challenge for us.
What can government do to encourage more people to engage in farming?
I think government must take more than partial or passive interest in farming. I want a situation where the Government of Nigeria will ensure that food reserve centres are established in every state. Be helping farmers. When they harvest, you buy from them, each state. When you are harvesting, it is cheap and after some months, nothing again. But if we are storing these foods, when the crisis comes, people will release the food back to the society at a very cheap rate. Government must not only show passive interest, but they have to be committed to that.
Can we conclude that your premature removal from the NCPC was a blessing in disguise?
Yes. I always say to people that everyone you meet in life is either a blessing or a lesson. Every position you occupy is either a blessing or a lesson. For me, I have served my nation, for ten years. I established NCPC, I set it up. And every single structure that they have there is what I built; everything they have there is what I left. And I am proud to say that people can point to it five, six years down the lane and it is me. But that is phase one of my life. When you don’t close one chapter of your life, you cannot go to the next chapter. I have closed that chapter and I am now in chapter two. That is how life is. So, I am very happy, I bear no grudges, I am very, very happy and satisfied that God released me the time He did. There is nothing about my life that does not have the finger of God. Whenever God wants to achieve something, He will do it the way it pleases Him.