My encounter with real farmers, Ken Ugbechie
One indelible memory of this year’s All Nigeria Editors’ Conference (ANEC) hosted by Governor Nyesom Wike’s government in Port Harcourt was my direct encounter with three real Nigerian farmers. By the way, ANEC is the flagship annual conference organised by the Nigerian Guild of Editors (NGE). As a young lad growing up in my rural commune in Delta State, farming was our forte and craft. The farm was our school, office, holiday resort and playground. Walking long distances through narrow paths innervating surreal forests with all the attendant hazards was our vocation. Clearing thick forests, felling huge trees, burning the cleared forest, tilling the ground, planting, weeding the farms regularly and harvesting acres of cassava and yam punctuated in-between with harvest of corn, vegetables and the like, became our yearly ritual.
My peasant and energetic father, full of zeal and passion, would herd us to and from the farm on a daily basis. He did not know about fertilizer, tractors, university, loans for farmers, farming for export, processing of farm produce and all the other landmarks of the value chain, and perhaps didn’t care a hoot. He was consumed in his own subsistence world, assured that his ever obedient and supremely submissive ten male children were more than enough assets and tools to keep his farming enterprise going. So, he farmed for every mouth around him in the community, losing almost half of his harvest to ignorance about storage and processing. That was the farming I knew: farming for the family, nuclear and extended, farming for the community and for every hungry mouth within reach. It was real subsistence farming, the type that caters just for the stomach. It could not pay your way through the university, it could not sponsor you on a holiday outside the farm itself; it could not pay bills.
That informed my aversion for farming. The drudgery, the pain associated with the long trek, the pumping adrenaline, an evidence of fear in you when you remember that you are the only one in the farm sited in the middle of mysterious forests, several kilometres away from home. Growing up, farming became my albatross, my torment and I have lived with that agonising pang.
But my encounter with three practising Nigerian farmers recently in Port Harcourt has spiked my psyche into believing that farming can be elegant, sexy, lucrative, rewarding and shorn of the traditional romance with dirt and filth. Step forth for recognition: Ms Mosun Cynthia Umoru (alias Prettymissfarmer), the founder of HoneySuckles Ventures. Her large farm in Osun State has become a reference point for youth empowerment and critical positive engagement of the energies of the younger generation. She is pretty, elegant, alluring and intelligent and guess what? Just being a farmer has taken her round the world as guest of governments, speaker at elite forums. Farming has become her password to fame and she is not done yet. Ruthlessly ambitious, she is currently undertaking a doctoral degree programme at Stanford. Her ambition is for her product to grace every dining table in Nigeria and beyond every day, meaning she wants to have a slice of your pocket every minute of the day. She makes farming sexy and she flaunts it with girlish confidence.
Bring on Lukas Adeniji of Niji Integrated Farms in Ogun State. Young, feisty and focused, Lukas spares no time for needless niceties. He is a farmer, pure and simple. He owns the largest cassava farm in Nigeria and demand for his products from yam to cassava flour among others is huge. “Currently, we are not able to meet demand for our products”, he tells me. And he plays in the export market. While Nigerians are crying over high cost of living and scarcity of forex, Mr. Adeniji is counting his cash and minding his dollars. Farming can be lucrative and he demonstrated this when he keynoted the conference. He proved to the crowd that agriculture provides the most viable option for a prosperous Nigeria. His personal testimony testifies to this. Lukas does more than production of farm produce, he is also a fabricator of his own tractors, taking charge of the value chain from the farm to the table and to the industry as raw materials. A raw capitalist, he shocked the audience when he said: “I don’t dash young people money. If you need money, come to my farm, I will employ you and pay you”. He got special guests in the hall made up of former Governor of Delta State, Dr. Emmanuel Uduaghan, host Governor Nyesom Wike, Minister of Information, Lai Mohammed taking notes. And just like Mosun, Lukas has travelled the world as guest of governments for just being a farmer.
Now, let me introduce the big one: Mohammed Abubakar, founder of L&Z Farms in Kano. His products are everywhere and he is Nigeria’s major supplier of fresh milk and other dairy products. His monthly wage bill is in excess of N40 million. Yes, a Nigerian farmer signs a fat cheque of over N40million every month just to pay salaries of his workers and he is not on loan. Farmers these days look good and MD Abubakar as he is fondly called epitomizes that. Handsome, debonair and dapper, he quit his banking job to become a farmer and it has turned out a very smart decision. Mallam Abubakar’s networth is not just in naira but in the impact he has made on humanity. His fame has already been noised abroad. Unlike officials of Nigerian governments especially Presidents and Governors who travel abroad in vainglorious search of foreign investors, the same foreign investors are trooping to Nigeria seeking to partner with L&Z Farms. Reason: Abubakar is doing the right thing, he has put his house in order and he operates in a huge market of over 170 million people capable of becoming the chief commercial hub in Africa. The painful part of his story is that to keep his dairy products fresh, he runs on generator every day round the year. Yet, he is getting by and has attracted the likes of PricewaterhouseCoopers to vet his operations and books. He observes global standard of corporate governance. The Economist, the UK authoritative magazine has found him worthy of space in one of its editions as one of the bright spots shining on a blighted African continent.
Lesson: It is possible to reflate the economy through agriculture. Nigerian government has no business crying over dipping price of crude oil when it can rule the world through agribusiness. A nation that in the 1960s accounted for 60% of global exports in palm oil, 30% (groundnut) and 15% (cocoa) but today doing below 5% of these produce has no reason to bleat over dwindling fortunes of crude oil. A country richly endowed with 84 million hectares of cultivable land out which only 32 million have been cultivated leaving a fallow ground of 52 million hectares need not join the inglorious queue of beggarly nations. And what’s more? Nigeria has surface water measuring 279 billion cubic metres and underground water of 57.9 cubic metres enough to feed humanity with fishes and oysters and all manner of sea food. Yet, the same Nigeria spends about $4.6 billion per annum on importation of food stuff. It is a cruel paradox that indexes the unseriousness of successive Nigerian governments at all levels.
Such unseriousness is even more profound these days to the extent that Nigeria’s Minister of Agriculture, Audu Ogbe, chose to shun the Guild’s conference where agriculture was the theme even when he was duly invited and he did not as much as send a word to explain his absence or lack of interest in the event.
But I must commend Governor Wike for accepting to host a conference that practically set a fresh agenda for government and the Nigerian youth to take a deeper look at agriculture. Farming is elegant and lucrative and we have the proof: Adeniji, Umoru and Abubakar!
…First published in Sunday Sun, August 28, 2016