By Ayo Alonge, [email protected]
Adebowale Onafowora is the Chief Executive Officer of BIC Farms, an agribusiness into aquiculture, farming and consultancy.
In this encounter with Sunday Sun, Onafowora discussed hydroponics technology which entails growing food without soil. The agribusiness expert also reveals how Nigeria loses trillions of naira annually in agribusiness and explains how hydroponics can solve Africa’s problems.
What exactly is hydroponics technology all about?
If you notice, it has been difficult producing foods in Nigeria. Hydroponics is a word coined from ‘hydro’ meaning water and ‘ponics’ meaning work. That means working water. We are simply using water to grow crops, without soil. On earth, 80 per cent of arable lands have been used, yet we need to keep producing to feed the people. In the next 30 years, the population of Nigeria would be the third largest in the world with almost 400 million people. That would make us the third most populous country in the world. Where is the land to grow the food to feed people? Farmlands are also becoming residential.
Also, people are leaving the rural areas and moving to the cities. Soil-less farming is now a way of growing food in urban areas. What you need is one hectare of land or you can do it on one plot.
Are Nigerians aware of this technology?
There is a picture we have painted in the minds of people about agribusiness. See the usual image of a farmer. You see someone in a tattered attire and holding a hoe. So, children would hardly tell you they want to be farmers. Go to universities of agriculture in this country and you will see that students there didn’t make the course their first choice. They were only pushed to it when other alternatives have been filled. We have not made agriculture inspiring.
Since we started soil-less farming, we have seen an upsurge and even universities are bringing their undergraduates, graduate and PhD students to us to understudy us and they are now enjoying it. You can grow your food in the city through hydroponics and it is vast all around the world. Herdsmen don’t need to move their cattle about. We can get rid of grazing. It is one major gospel that the BIC Farms has been preaching. We produce fodders within one week. Cows eat fodders. If you need to produce from the soil, it takes you 90 days. This is with the aid of the technology.
What are the demerits of hydroponics?
There are no demerits, maybe challenges. Using technology, scientists have found more oil offshore. Is that a demerit? Look at ATM and see what you can get with technology. Is that a demerit?
Are you saying that it is possible to produce everything we consume without soil?
No, I am not saying that. I am saying that Nigeria can stop importing some foods, like many exotic vegetables. We must grow them locally.
Do you deal with expatriates?
No, our technology is local.
So, what are the potential benefits?
From hydroponics, we fabricate our own green houses and that creates a lot of jobs for young ones. All our tanks are locally built and they are all soil-less facilities. All these things are meant to be imported but we are building them here.
How do we begin to address the challenges in the agribusiness sector of the country?
Support is all we need. Government talks support but they are not doing it. In Kenya, green houses are brought into the country at no import duty. Here, government is not making it easy for us. Government should also bring in some equipment for farmers to use.
What are we not getting right as a country in this regard?
What we are not getting right is our policies. Do you know how many corps members Nigeria feeds annually? The minimum is 200,000. Government feeds them for three weeks in camp. We also have the prisons commission, armed forces and the rest that government takes care of their feeding. Why is there no policy that foods be grown and supplied by local farmers? Do you know the market that it would create for people?
How can that be squarely addressed?
By talking it out the way I am saying it now. No one is looking into this. If you have a contract to supply NYSC Lagos with rice, it must be locally produced rice. That’s simple. When we embraced soil-less technology, we needed some input from some university professors and they said it was not possible. We went ahead and developed it and now that they see ranches being built, they have started coming to us. Our young ones grow without having an understanding of farming and this country is deemed to have the largest arable land in the world.
What issues have you identified in developing Africa’s agribusiness?
Number one is bringing down the cost of production in livestock and we have done that with our technology. Hydroponic tomatoes grow faster and are more sustainable.
Can Nigeria solve Africa’s agribusiness problems?
Yes, we can. We have the technology and the people. We also have the space.
What is the future of agribusiness in Nigeria?
Huge! Massive! Let me paint a picture for you. There is what we call fodder centres. Fodder is the basic need of cows. We say government should build fodder centres in cities. There, we can convert grains to fodders. Lagos State consumes about 7,000 cows daily. Multiply that by 30 and you have 210,000 cows in a month. A single cow costs a minimum of N150,000. Multiply that by 210,000 and that gives you about N27 billion on beef alone in Lagos, in a month. 90% of these come from a market in Adamawa State called Mubi and that is the largest in West Africa. 90 per cent of the cows in Mubi come from Gabon, Mali and Cameroon. I am saying that 90 per cent of the money leaves Nigeria. Nigeria consumes about 1.5 million litres of milk daily. 98 per cent of that milk comes from importation. There is a ready market in Nigeria but we are not tapping it. Agribusiness can create millions of jobs.
How worried are you that most of our consumables are imported?
A lot, yet it doesn’t have to be. There is a lot we can do without importation.
How would you compare Nigeria’s agribusiness to what is obtainable in some parts of the world?
Let me pick South Africa. The difference is massive. The government in South Africa supports agribusiness. There, government not only stays with your production but is also there with you at the marketing point. In America, there is an agro price exchange and whatever you produce, you have the market for it. All poultry farmers have sold their layers and here in January, there would be eggs scarcity. Prices of eggs would rise and farmers would start making a loss. Is that the type of economy we want to sustain?
So, do you have an estimate of the losses we record on an annual basis by not getting things right in agribusiness?
Let me shock you with one. In beef alone, Nigeria as a country, consumes about two million cows every year. Just one cow is N150,000. Multiply that and you have more than N2trillion and about 80 per cent of that money leaves Nigeria. We don’t have a major cattle breeding centre. The cattle farmers in Nigeria are fatteners. They buy the small cows, fatten them and sell and what is the percentage of that? So, neighbouring countries are feeding fat on us.
Countries like Vietnam and India are generating more than two million jobs from the Nigerian rice market. It is not that they eat rice, they do that to feed Nigeria with rice. Do you know what comes in from frozen foods from Benin Republic? And all these can be retained here if government supports farmers.
See what was budgeted for agriculture. I guess it is only N92 billion or so. Thank God for Lake Rice. That is what government should be doing and thanks to the governments of Lagos and Kebbi. So, government is losing a whole lot when they don’t support farmers.