Managing Director of Jovana Integrated Farms, Mr Arinze Onebunne, has carved a niche in animal husbandry. His passion for hunting grass cutters as a boy growing up in his village in Anambra State has been translated to breeding the animal for profit.
He told Inspire how government can use grass cutter farming to reduce unemployment in the country.
How did you start grass cutter farming business?
When I was growing up within the Aguleri area of Anambra State, the most common meat was grass cutter. Then, hunters were always returning home with the stuff.
During dry season, my peers and I would go into the bush, hunting. Armed with clubs, we would set the bush on fire. Any animal that tried to escape, we clubbed it to death.
If we killed about 20 animals, grass cutters would be about 17.
That was how I started having interest in grass cutter, and surprisingly, one day, a big grass cutter partly burnt was escaping from the fire and was running towards us, and we used a jute bag and took it alive.
When we got home and shared the ones we killed, we put the live one in the goat pen, and the next day, it delivered babies and died.
Even my mother didn’t know that there was a live grass cutter in the house. I went to the pen and saw what looked like rats and I wanted to kill them, but I drew my mother’s attention to them. She told me that they were grass cutter babies. Out of the nine babies, six survived without breast milk. It taught me that five or six days after birth they could start eating grasses.
That was the first contact; I saw it as meat, and I saw that it could produce.
These days there are no jobs after school, and you are on your own. If you want to build your empire, if you don’t want to work for anybody, you have to think of what to do.
When I finished school, and I was looking for what to do, I travelled to Gabon, and there, Germany has an Institute, where they study wild animals, like, grass cutter, antelope, crocodile, etc. One of the Germans told me that in the next 20 years, people would be talking about grass cutters in Africa; that it is going to be the future business in the continent.
It is almost 17 years that I started grass cutter business. I started it in a humble way with wooden cages. That is how the enthusiasm started.
What have been the challenges since you started?
In the beginning, people didn’t want to accept grass cutter farming as a business. If you told somebody that you were into grass cutter business, he wouldn’t understand you, they just believed that you were into a hobby, and wondered if a person can become a millionaire from that.
People didn’t want to accept the fact that you make money from that. It was a wrong understanding.
Another major challenge was that we started through cut and paste approach – trial by error. Anytime we were giving them food, we were mixing it with salt. We were giving them this table salt we buy in the market, not knowing that it affects their system, because it is sodium.
When we were having this issue, I called one of my friends, Igbokwe, who was in Animal Husbandry department at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, he advised that I should stop giving them that chemical salt. What I give them now is sea salt, that is pure organic; it doesn’t have chemical content.
We normally give them corn, and we didn’t know that some of these corns were preserved with chemicals. One day I bought three bags of corn and we didn’t know they were preserved with chemicals and we gave to the grass cutters and many of them died.
In the beginning people didn’t accept it; we were begging them to buy a family of grass cutter for N3, 000, but today it is N65, 000. A family is one male and four females. That is what you use to start reproduction.
I don’t want to blow my trumpet; my company has brought this grass cutter business this far. A lot of big farmers – are turning their facilities to grass cutter business. As people get more educated they prefer meats that have no chemical, like grass cutter that is even white meat.
What does it take for a new entrant?
Grass cutter farming is the cheapest animal farming that is profitable. At least with N100, 000, somebody can start grass cutter farming comfortably. Buy the breeding family with N60, 000, and with N10, 000 you can construct the cage. In this business, passion is very important, and if the person doesn’t have passion for it he can’t go far.
What makes grass cutter farming attractive is that it is very cheap to start and it multiplies.
So, it doesn’t involve training?
You need to be trained, where you would learn the nitty-gritty of the business. A lot of people who started it without knowing their left from right failed because with little challenges, they abandoned it, but if you had attended training programmes, you would be taught what to do and how to do it – their food, medication, their handling and even their marketing.
These are part of what Jovana Farms offers. We organise workshop programmes to get more Nigerians involved in the business.
Outside the training programmes, N100, 000 can comfortably start grass cutter business.
How has government bought your idea of using grass cutter farming to fight unemployment?
We have been trying to create awareness on this business through advertisement both in the print and electronic media, seminars, workshops etc.
You know the way Nigeria operates. There isn’t so much interest shown by government in this aspect of animal farming.
Government may be interested in poultry farming, cattle ranching, but I have not seen committed efforts by government in this direction. However, individuals who understand this are coming in to invest.
Recently, I was invited by the Nigerian Armed Forces Resettlement Centre, Oshodi to train their retirees on grass cutter farming.
So far, I have trained so many people. More than 80 per cent of grass cutter farmers in Nigeria got their briefs from us. There is no direct government involvement for now.
What is the gestation period of the business?
A female grass cutter of better breeds can produce babies twice in a year. It can have nine babies at once. Let us do a little calculation: If a female gives you at least seven babies at once and twice in a year, it will be 14. They are paired in reproduction, one male and four females. That will give you 56 grass cutters in a year.
If you don’t want to sell them you continue to pair them and they continue to multiply. They breed like rats.
There are other bigger farms that started before us, they were telling people who wanted to go into the business to buy land, fence it and put good structure before you go into grass cutter business, but Jovan Farms told those who wanted to go into it to just buy cage of N10, 000, use the corner of your kitchen, use under your staircase or passage. It can be started anywhere, even someone who lives in a room and parlour can start there. They don’t have odour. Even students, widows, the poor can start it.
How long does it take to mature for consumption?
Just one year. New comers into the business don’t need to worry. Consumers will not even allow it to be one year before they will buy it. Many people are coming into the business and they will start by buying the breeding stock. As we talk now, we have an order of 200 families.
Depending on the market; if you are targeting the Jewish community, the Muslims, they prefer live ones. A table size is about N12, 000. A full grown is N10, 000. It is white meat and low in cholesterol. You can’t compare it with goat meat, pork or beef.