By Obidike Jerry
NIGERIA, no doubt, is in dire economic and political crossroads. The government of the day, under President Muhammadu Buhari, has come out with policies and programmes it thinks would get us out of the woods. But Nigerians have been complaining about his economic agenda that has failed to give the citizens a new lease of life in nearly one year of the government. Overall, majority of Nigerians wants things to get better. But Mr. Emmanuel Ijewere, a chartered accountant and MD/CEO of Best Foods, is one Nigerian that wants things to get better fast. He, however, insists there must be a radical departure from our old culture of visionless and profligate government to a more prudent, transparent, focused, and people oriented one. For a start, he argues, there must be a shift from over dependence on oil to a more diversified economy where agribusiness would play greater role.
The former President of Institute of Directors (IOD) and one time Chairman of Longman Publishing says the sliding price of oil in international market is blessing in disguise and an answer to his decades of prayer to God. He wishes the price would further drop to as low as $5 per barrel from the present $28-$30 stretch. His words: ‘’First of all, I am the wrong person to talk about oil price fluctuations. You know why? For a long time, as an individual, I have been praying that oil price should come down. I am even praying that it should come further down than what it is now, to as low as $22 or $18 per barrel because that would bring sanity to us in Nigeria.
We would now start taking what is important seriously. Agriculture should be taken seriously. How many jobs has oil provided for Nigerians? Very little job. But how much corruption has it provided? It has provided almost 90 percent of the corruption in the country. May the price come down to $5 per barrel, Amen.’’ Mr. Ijewere spoke on other challenges facing Nigeria in this interview with Daily Sun recently in his Lagos office.
President Mohammadu Buhari economic agenda
Well, I have not had the privilege of hearing directly from the president but I have heard from his minister, Chief Audu Ogbe. And from the pronouncements he has made, what he has said is that all those good policies of the last government, he’s going to continue. He is going to continue from where the former minister left off. So, for me, I believe that that is a good idea. I believe that continuity is very important because agriculture is so vital to Nigeria’s economy. Stop and go is never good and making u-turns is never good for the private sector who are the drivers of agricultural economy. And consistency encourages people to invest in a system. So, I think it’s been a very good policy and economically I think it would be good for Nigeria. I don’t want to go into the nitty-gritty but having a global view of the direction they are going is good and it is going to create jobs for Nigerians.
Small stakeholder farmers vs mechanised farming to achieve food sufficiency
My position is that both of them are complimentary. First, who are these small scale farmers? They have sustained Nigeria over these years. They have done a fantastic job. They produce almost 130 percent of the food we need to feed Nigeria except that the system is such that a lot of the food gets wasted. Not their fault. They have been very good. But nature being nature, these people are now going in their 60s and when a person starts going to 60 he cannot work as hard as when he was 25. So, we cannot continue to rely on them exclusively. We need a double faceted attack on the problem. One, is to go in for large scale farming. Two, encourage younger people to come into it. The large scale farming itself can be large because they have machines to do many of the things that they are doing. For example, we need to know that almost 70 percent of the work in farming is done on land. That means that the land preparation represents almost 70 percent of the hard work. And if this can be done mechanically? Why not? So, when you now have a situation where you have a large scale farmer, he does not come in alone. He has his own land, maybe a 1000 hectares or 500 hectares but around him, he would have a lot of small, small farmers. The same equipment he used to prepare his own land, he will use same to prepare those people’s lands as well at a price. The kind of high-quality seedling those people cannot get, he will be able to get it for them. And all the inputs-fertilizer, etc. So that at the end of the period, he would buy their goods at an agreed price. That would now compensate for the investments he made in their land. In other words, you are creating a partnership. A lot of young people would be interested in that kind of thing. The back breaking work of land preparation is what puts young people away. So mechanization or large scale farming is killing two birds with a stone. It does not come on its own. It comes with bringing its smaller, smaller people together to be able to do that, assuring them that they would have good returns on their investment.
Government commitment to getting young people interested in farming
I think so. But first, it is not just government. What the government had no control over has a say in this. What I mean by that is this. It is becoming very apparent to us that the oil situation (oil price is crashing daily) is God sent. It now begins to make Nigerians realise that our future is not in oil. Our future is in agriculture. And this one is therefore creating the environment that what used to be a preserve of the rural farmer, mentality before that farming and poverty are twin brothers, is changing. That is why I am saying every effort is now being made to make farming or agriculture look attractive to younger people to participate. But let us also understand this.
The whole concept of farming is misunderstood. Agriculture is not just farming. Agriculture is agribusiness. Farming is only one of the aspects. So young people or anybody that wants to go into the business does not have to go and start tilling the land. You can be somebody who buys and sells from the farmer or guarantees his market. You can be a transporter or a supplier of seeds. He can be somebody who helps them to prepare the land, who have equipment for preparing the land-he hires the tractor. Or you can be a semi processor.
So many things to do along the value chain of agriculture. So it’s no longer what it used to be. What the government is actually driving is not the old concept but a new concept. You got to come in believing that this is agribusiness. Business means profit. Profit is the ultimate of business and young people will be attracted to that kind of thing not the kind of mentality we used to have before which is staple farming. You just grow enough to feed yourself and your family and all the inefficiencies that come into it. But in modern day, the world is now a global village, they say. So you have access to international experience all over the world.
Value chain agrobusiness without solid infrastructure
I do not agree with you that we need to fix our infrastructure before we have food. We would die. Infrastructure is necessary but it should not be a deterrent. Let us not overemphasise that. Let’s go to your own village. If your village is about 4 or 5km from my village. No road in those days. Every market day your own mother used to come and sell in my own market. The next 5 days, my own mother goes to sell in your own market. Is it not road they passed through? That road is infrastructure. It is not necessarily an express road. But it is an economic road. So, this mentality that government must do this and that, doesn’t follow. See it as a business, and not as a challenge. Somebody can now even go and take that road and repair it and be collecting money, whatever the case may be. That’s why I like this saying ‘stomach infrastructure’. It means that whatever is happening, stomach comes first. Therefore, the business you are doing if it has to do with food, nothing can stop it. So, we should stop using the word ‘infrastructure’ as a deterrent to other people. Those that have fed us all these years have no infrastructure. Many of them don’t have electricity. They have to go and fetch water from far places. Why is it now that we start talking without infrastructure we cannot improve agriculture. We can improve agriculture. We want infrastructure to be improved. Yes, I agree absolutely. However, we must stop using it as a discouragement.
Minimising waste in agric production
Who creates the infrastructure? What is the infrastructure? The infrastructure is that the roads are bad. If some people decide to go and put refrigerators as a business near markets, the food that would have been left there to rot, is kept in that refrigerator. That’s infrastructure. Government does not need to do that. That’s a business. What I am saying is that we keep on saying government, government, government. What it does is to dull, to reduce the ability of our brains to think. Yes, government have a lot to do. But we have a lot to do too. We are government. Government is not one strange person that is coming from the moon. They are your brother and my brother. But the issue is, if you are a business man every challenge you have creates an opportunity. If there is a challenge about infrastructural problem, you must see it as businessman that I can make money providing that. Those are the important things.
No. I don’t think enough money has been provided for education. But what I think need to be fixed first is educational policy. Over the past twenty years, government, in tertiary institution, have become a minority provider of education. There are now almost more tertiary institutions owned by the private sector than public sector both federal and state governments. There was a time you cannot have school except you were a missionary or whatever. But nowadays, you can as long as you can get the licence. That is a good policy that should be encouraged. But that is not to say the government should abdicate its responsibility. Part of government responsibility is to provide education but the policy is by far more important and more urgent. And the world too is changing for our education. Many countries are putting more money on electronic education where you can sit in your own home and be educated electronically. The concept of education in the past is no longer what it is today. Even reading from books is becoming less and less important. The government has a lot to do on education. But, again, education should be liberation.
Education is one of the things that liberate you from poverty. The truth is that there’s lopsided level in our country today. Nigeria is one nation. And Nigeria is only as strong as its weakest link, like a chain. In northern part of Nigeria, the level of education is abysmally low. So, I think deliberate policies should be put in that place. So, you cannot use the same policy you are using in states like south eastern Nigeria where they have very high level of literacy, policy there would not be the same as it is in the north east where education has been a real challenge. In fact, this has translated or impacted in the level of poverty in that place. So the policies that we have must not be universal. It must be targeted. Look at what the problems are and formulate policies to address those problems. Yes, when you say universal primary education across board, that, I agree. But when you now go into secondary school, I think in parts of Nigeria, it is not as endemic as it is in other parts of the country. So policies must be targeted at the problems. In some parts of the country, north east in particular because of the unfortunate situation our brothers and sisters there have to go through it has further weakened what was already a weak situation in terms of education and this is now impacting on poverty.