Ayo Alonge, [email protected]
Despite the litany of challenges facing agribusiness in Nigeria, Adebowale Onafowora, who is the Chief Executive Officer of BIC Farms, an outfit specialised in agribusiness and consultancy, reserves the view that Nigeria has not done enough in tapping the numerous potential in agribusiness for Small and Medium-scale Enterprises (SMEs), especially through harnessing the hydroponics technology.
For Onafowora, Nigerians can take the lead in agribusiness if certain measures are put in place, which include technology and the right government policies needed for SMEs in the agriculture sector to thrive.
It has been difficult producing food 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 country in the world with a population of 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 city. Soilless farming is now a way of growing the foods in the urban areas. With it, what you need one hectare of land to do, you can do it on one plot. There is a picture we have painted in the minds of people about agribusiness. See the type of painting we give to 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, you will get to see that the students there didn’t make the course as first choice. They are only pushed to it when there are no other departments available. We have not made agriculture inspiring. Since we started soilless farming, we have seen an upsurge and even universities are bringing their undergraduates, Masters 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. Fodders are what cows eat. If you need to produce from the soil, it takes you 90 days. This is with the aid of the technology. The technology has 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? I am saying that Nigeria can stop importing food, like many exotic vegetables. We must grow them locally. As a company, our technology is local. 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 soilless facilities. All these things are meant to be imported but we are building them here.
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 access. What we are not getting right, as a country, is our policies. Do you know how many corp members Nigeria feeds every year? 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 food be grown and supplied by local farmers? Do you know the market that would create for people? 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 started developing soilless 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 meant to have the largest arable land in the world. In developing Africa’s agribusiness, the number one step is bringing down the cost of production in livestock and we have done that with our technology. Hydroponic tomatoes grow faster and it is more sustainable. Nigeria can solve Africa’s agribusiness problems. We have the technology and the people. We also have the space.
The prospect for agribusiness is huge and massive. Let me paint a picture for you. There is what we call fodder centres. Fodder is the basic needs of cows. We say government should build fodder centres in cities. There, you 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 is a minimum of N150,000. Multiply that by 210,000 and that gives you about N27 billion a month on beef alone in Lagos. Ninety per cent of these come from a market in Adamawa State called Mobi and that is the largest in West Africa. Ninety per cent of the cows in Mobi 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. I have so much worry because we still import some of our consumables, as a country. We don’t have to. There is a lot we can do without importation. Let me pick South Africa. The difference is massive. The government in South Africa supports agribusiness. Government not only stay with your production but are also there with you at the marketing point. In America, there is an agro price exchange that 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 crash and farmers would start making a loss. Is that the type of economy we want to sustain in Nigeria. Let me shock you with something. 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 two trillion naira, and about 80per cent of that money leaves Nigeria. We don’t have a major cattle breeding centres. The cattle farmers in Nigeria are fatteners. They buy the small cows, fatten them and sell and what is the percentage of that? So, the neighbouring countries are feeding fat on us. Countries like Vietnam and India are generating more than two million jobs for the Nigerian rice market to be sustained. 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 is budgeted for agriculture.
Well, 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 who are striving hard in the SME sub-sector.