The Founder of Ope Farms, an Ogun State-based farm, Ms Olusola Sowemimo, is one of Nigeria’s most accomplished female farmers committed to ensuring that consumers have access to chemical-free (organic) farm produce for healthy living. In this chat with Daily Sun, she spoke on restoring the lost glory of agriculture and taking it to its rightful place in the country’s economy as well as other salient issues concerning the sector.
Agriculture overtaking oil in sustaining the economy
Well, I guess those in oil would want oil and agriculture to work hand in hand. But really, there are countries that have done remarkably well with agriculture and we have no reason not to be in that top league. If you look at the demographics, Nigeria has the best of so many things. We come up so high in the production of tomatoes, yams, potatoes, beans, etc. There are so many things we are very good for that you’ll have to turn to say, what happened to us? We have every opportunity to take agriculture very far. I’m not one to criticise the government when it comes to these things; I would only urge the government to do a lot more.
Right now, there are many good initiatives like CBN loans, anchor borrowers scheme and other facilities. Despite these initiatives, I am still worried. I feel that the first thing that will grow agriculture in Nigeria is knowledge of best practices. Other countries are working hard at their seeds, their soil; they are working hard at those fundamentals that would make an average farmer produce more. So if, for instance, we are aware that there is a particular cultivar or species of a crop that is better, why don’t we pursue it. There were some analyses we made during my Lagos Business School (LBS) Programme and you’ll be amazed to know that despite the fact that we have the best of some of these products, our yield, compared to the yield of some other countries, is one-tenth of what those countries are doing on a lesser landmass.
Nigeria has incredible landmass to be able to do whatever it wants to do. As a people, we need a change of mindset, the border closure will greatly help to grow our economy, we need to look inwards. We know some other countries like China, Rwanda and Singapore also closed their borders to get it right.
For me, I have never seen what is in polished rice that makes us depend so much on it that we have to smuggle it in. If we encourage farmers in-house, you will be amazed at what our product will be.
We need policies that will enhance the productivity of people. We need to work very hard on the value chain generally. For instance, the closure has boosted livestock like chicken, it is now obvious that many of us farmers need to increase production to meet demand and that is a good thing.
Advise to Agric minister
It’s important that he has an agenda for the country, an agenda that is not politically based, but based on how to move Nigeria forward, how to regain the glory that we seem to have lost, as far as agriculture is concerned.
The new minister of agriculture needs to break down the boundaries, speak with farmers, know their pains, know what they really want, see what can be done directly for the farmers, not doing it through middlemen because there are grassroots farmers who insist that some benefits due to them never get to them.
He needs to make agriculture very attractive to our youths. There is this notion that most of us in agriculture are old, and honestly, any country that does not work on the younger generation may be working for failure because we need the youths to take charge. To take charge they need to see tools, equipment, etc, that will simplify the processes, probably a drone identifying the status of the farmland. It’s not for nothing we call them millennials – their energy is important, their way of thinking, their IT skills, their go-get-it-done mindset, etc. We need to understand that their style of working is different. I’m glad to know quite a number of our youths who are doing very well in different value chains of agriculture. Such persons should be strategically positioned to mentor and coach the upcoming youths.
Agribusiness is now the word, not just agriculture. How can we add value to what we have already? Rice is achieving this but we need it in other crops like cocoa selling as chocolate. I’m already seeing that on social media. We need agriculture in our school curriculum. Interests are stronger when children are exposed at a much younger age. There should be competition among the best agriculture-focused institutions.
We are in the age of social media, the Minister of Agriculture should use it to advance free exchange of ideas and information. We are talking of post-harvest loss in Nigeria; with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), we should be doing much more. Look at the efforts people are making trying to make tomato sellers use plastic crates to bring products to Mile 12 but how many of our local farmers can afford it? They should have a place to rent it.
He should work on setting up agricultural parks and let them be run like any business. I know we have some but let us all feel the impact all around. In Kenya and Ghana, I observed that private companies are heavily involved and this we should also encourage in Nigeria. It could even translate to tax rebate to make it more attractive.
We need private initiatives championing agriculture in Nigeria. For instance, by the time companies begin to champion the production of particular products, maybe a company would say, ‘I’m going to champion the growth of maize within the area I’m operating, who are the maize farmers here?’ For example, I met a staff of Flour Mills who told me that they aggregate farmers to grow maize for their products. I believe this means better seeds and effective capacity building for the farmers.
There’s need to stop politicising agriculture. It’s as if everything we do is down to politics. We need to get to the stage where the things we do are about the people of Nigeria. The Nigerian should not be hungry. We have the soil, we have the landmass, we have the people. We can improve on the resources so that the average Nigerian should not be hungry.
Importance of data in agriculture
We do not seem to have adequate records, records of farmers, records of their products and there are still many of us who farm without any records. We need a situation where we can say, ‘Farm A, what is your production capability?’ ‘Oh, I can do 100 bags of rice in a month’; ‘Farm B, what’s yours?’ ‘Oh, we can do 1,000 bags a month.’ It means we will have records and we will know who is doing what and where, and we can leverage on much more.
We started operations in Ope Farms in 2016 and we do purely organic farming. It’s a certified organic farm. We do a lot of tree crops so the space we dedicated to vegetables will be roughly 10 acres. We have plantain, we do moringa in large quantities. For vegetables, we have a special drive to ensure that we promote all Nigerian vegetables, so as I’m speaking with you, we just started our uziza and utazi beds, we do igbagba, some call it igbo, soko, tete, ewedu, malaba spinach, some call it amunu tutu, we do iyana ipaja, that is the tree spinach, ugu (fluted pumpkin), etc.
We grow a number of vegetables that people would call exotic because they are not traditionally ours, so we grow cucumber, celery, cauliflower, oregano, mint, peppermint, thyme, etc. We do affirm, both the local and the imported ones; we grow different fruits like, pawpaw, watermelon, golden melon, banana, and plantain. We process our own palm oil too because we met some traditional old palm trees on the farm so we kept them and we take care of them.
Because it’s a certified organic farm, the ecosystem is still very well balanced, we find bees here and there so after about four to five people visited and kept saying, ‘see bees playing around on your farm’, we recruited a consultant who set up hives for us, so we harvest and sell honey. We raise livestock like chicken, turkey, rabbits and we don’t use any synthetic drugs or antibiotics for them. Everything we use is natural so for every drug the conventional poultry farmer applies, we have the natural version. We use things like aloe vera, bitter leaf, garlic, ginger, etc. We produce most of our own natural supplements. Garlic is a very important antibiotic in our process.
We’ve also raised the FUNAAB alpha, a product of the crossbreed of about 27 species of local chicken and the broiler (as developed by FUNAAB Abeokuta). We raise layers and sell their eggs. Our eggs are premium because we raise them naturally without any synthetic drugs and antibiotics. We are starting sheep and goats by early next year.
You may wonder what is organic farming? According to IFOAM, the global body for organic agriculture is a production system that sustains the health of soils, ecosystems, and people. IFOAM also laid down the four principles which an organic farm ought to demonstrate. The principles of organic are the principle of care, the principle of health, principle of ecology and principle of fairness. Apart from these four principles, we also have different Standards that guide our different operations like crops, livestock, aquatic and beekeeping. Our farm is certified yearly by the Association of Organic Practitioners of Nigeria (NOAN) under the Participatory Guarantee Scheme (PGS). These standards are based on East African standards.
The learning curve in farming is enormous. If anybody is going into farming, you need to have a ‘why’, a compelling reason, then seriously learn, join relevant associations or groups, have a mentor and make sure you understand the terrain.