Thursday, 8 October 2015

Farming has always been a passion for me - Chief Ogbeh

You are widely known in Nigeria more as a politician than as a farmer. When did farming suddenly become big business for you?
Farming has always been a passion for me since childhood, when I was 5. Now, it is a big dream realised.

Did you say at such a young age of 5?
Yes. That was when I began following my father to the farm and it gradually became part of me. I didn’t read agriculture in school; I read French at the Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria. I established a poultry farm at Makurdi, Benue State before I became a minister of the federal republic and I moved to Lagos. After the coup of the Second Republic and my detention, I came back home and raised a cashew plantation of 14,000 trees. I also distributed cashew seeds to farmers in my constituency. Today, the association members in Otukpa, my constituency earn, every year, about N30 million from their sale of cashew when they harvest.

What is the membership strength of the association that they can earn such a relatively high income a year?
Just about 100-120 farmers. Some of them have a hectare each, some two, some half. Now, we are taking a step further to start a cashew roasting factory there. Some of the machines for that purpose have come in from Sri Lanka, and we are looking to be producing cashew juice, which is produced only in Brazil. Cashew juice is a very healthy drink which contains a large dose of Vitamin C, higher than what you get in orange or strawberry. We hope to expand it because we are spreading the idea to other places.
Our new project is Castor Oil, which is an extremely useful industrial oil. We have a factory in Idu, Abuja which should be starting operation in November; the factory is the only such factory in Africa. We built it in 2004 and brought in the machines…

So why is it starting so late?
We didn’t have enough seeds for production. We’ve been trying to mobilise farmers. We’ve also been working with the Raw Materials Research and Development Council; they should have assisted us to mobilise farmers to produce seeds. We have even involved universities in improving the local variety of seeds because it is always better to use the local germ plasm than to import it. Foreign seeds have their own problems. That has not been very successful.
Geneticists will confirm to you this is the best. The local seeds are already adapted to the local climate and pests, and we’ve seen some varieties in Bornu, Yobe, Katsina and even in the Abeokuta area that have such prolific yield that you can get about 70 branches from one stand.  You can’t get that in China or Israel.
We are working on that now and we believe that by November this year, our membership, which is currently about 6000 farmers will grow to about 20,000. They will grow the castor seed and we will buy back. That is the whole arrangement.

You are still in politics as a member of the All Progressives Congress. But the way you have been speaking, it seems you are 100 per cent into farming with no time to spare for any other thing…
When I was chairman (of the Peoples Democratic Party), I kept telling politicians that everyone of us should have a second address, because in politics, you can lose an election, you can be sacked or you can fail completely. But if you are worth your salt, the end of a political career should not mean the end of your life.
Unfortunately, it happens too often in Africa. When many politicians here are in political offices, the moment the office comes to an end or they fail, they come crashing down like eggs. I keep advising fellow politicians on the safety route. I have met many politicians, especially former House of Representatives members I didn’t recognise anymore, who came to me saying, “Oga, we took the advice you gave us when you were our chairman and now we are happy for it.”
I have also met some who did not take my advice and are very miserable now.  There are some former members who can’t buy tyres for their cars. Legislators make more enemies, powerful enemies, than friends because in the course of doing their job, they query businesses, confront ministers and take on powerful people. The day they fall, very few remain okay financially.
It is not just here. In the US, the father of former president Lyndon Johnson was a legislator in the state of Texas. He was in the House of Representatives. One year his farm failed and he lost an election. The Christmas before he died, Lyndon, narrated, the family woke up and realised there wasn’t a single potato at home for their mother to cook for them to eat. And there wasn’t until their father’s brother brought a bag of potato and a turkey for them to eat.  The father became a security guard at the dam he brought to his constituency when he was in the House. So politics can be glamorous on TV, but it can also be an extremely perilous enterprise.
The farm idea is not one that gives only you immediate personal comfort and financial stability.  You must also engage the local farmer so that he too becomes part of the income earning process. I call that democratising capitalism. One must allow the gains to spread and everybody involved have fun. The farmer grows the castor seed, for example, and you produce castor oil and the hairdresser benefits from your product. You are also satisfying the military, you are satisfying the electric power producers who use your oil to cool their transformers, you also produce for the paint industry. Castor oil is a powerful oil. The Americans call it the strategic military oil.

If this oil is so vital, why is Africa just having the first Castor Oil production factory, which is this you are just establishing?
Who really here has taken agriculture seriously? We do a lot of talk about it on TV. Today, there are 920 dams in Nigeria, but less than four are used for irrigation. They are just lying fallow, unused. Oyo State alone has 18 dams. The Ikore gorge was to be a hydro-power station; the Shehu Shagari administration put a turbine there but it was left there to rot away.
We have been toying with agriculture, we romanticise agriculture but most of us in politics don’t have any interest in or have knowledge of agriculture. Even some of my colleagues make jest of me, they laugh, “Oh, he is a farmer.”
Now, which country becomes truly strong without agriculture? The power of the United States began from agriculture before they even struck oil. The Soviet bloc collapsed partly because they didn’t take agriculture serious and their climate is harsh, it’s too cold.
If you go to the United States now, there are over 250,000 groundnut farmers alone in Georgia, North and South Carolina and Texas. The US government encourages them by giving them $4 million every year to share to drive their enterprise, to keep them happy. They do the same thing for the maize people, for the poultry people, for the milk producers, etc.
During the Ronald Reagan administration, at a point, they were pouring milk away into the Atlantic Ocean. Reagan once announced there were too many milk cows around and too much milk and whoever needed some should come and take. There were (are) too many cows, there was (is) too much milk, yet the government kept (keeps) sustaining them.
But the same people come here, come to Africa, and tell our governments, “no subsidy for agriculture, don’t do this, remove subsidy…”. Yet we have supposedly brilliant people, graduates of Yale, of Harvard, of Oxford, who were running the show telling us what they read in some books. Those dictating are not practising what they are telling us to do. So we remain weak, hungry, dependent and poor, because our leaders’ attention is misdirected.
Going back to castor oil, I was in India in February and we had a seminar in the state of Gujarat.  The incumbent Indian Prime Minister, Narendra Modi was the Chief Minister (equivalent of a state governor) then. India is the largest castor economy in the world; that country earns $2.8 billion every year (that’s about 20 per cent of what Nigeria makes from hydrocarbon) from the product, because the demand for castor oil is high. The beauty of it is that the castor seed grows wild - from Lagos to Sudan, it will grow in the bush. Yet, in Nigeria, nobody is doing anything about it, nobody has paid attention. There are many things about agriculture that we are not doing here.

What is the production capacity of your castor plant?
It’s 15,000 tonnes, that is 500 trailer loads per year, for now. It’s too small, even to meet local demand. We plan to multiply it as time goes on. We are hoping that by the end of this year, we will start crushing. As I said, the factory has been ready for nine years. The idea was to build the factory and let farmers keep producing seeds for us. The farmers have been disappointed many times when told to produce something and there were no buyers. So on this, the farmers When shown the factory, that motivated them.
We have farmers producing for us from everywhere, through Lagos, Ogun, Ebonyi and the North. We have been organising them well. We are also funding a small research at the Cereal Research Institute in Badeggi, Niger State to produce new varieties for us so we can get a higher green yield on the farm and a higher oil yield.  The team is currently in Enugu, going to Ebonyi and from there to Oyo State before they go to the North. We have outgrowers in each zone and we intend to continue with them.
We have a groundnut project, too. The groundnut oil factory is bigger; it is about 50 tonnes per hour crushing capacity. We are looking at 500 tonnes per day if we run for just 10 hours. The machines are here and the building is about to be completed at Kuje. The project has been quite slow, too.
The other obstacle is the issue of bank credit. The prevailing rate on bank credit is not just healthy for any productive business, except for trading or oil & gas deals.
For some very tragic reasons since 1986 when the West forced the Structural Adjustment Programme (SAP) on Africa, our economies have all crashed. The current crisis that we have in increased poverty, in crimes, in violence and in anger in this society is directly or indirectly as a result of that imposition.
Two economists, Jeffrey Sachs, who was an Adviser to former United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan and Paul Krugman, a Nobel prize winner in Economics, both denounced SAP as the worst assault on Africa since the slave trade. But the West pushed our leaders, both military and civilian, into accepting it to keep us down as providers of raw materials.
Since then, our standard of living can’t rise. Before then, government regulated interest rate in the budget speech; the president or Head of State would tell Nigerians the interest rate was 6 per cent, for example. But Western leaders told our leaders to deregulate interest rate, an economic policy they would never formulate, let alone implement in their countries. Since then, interest rate in this country has been going up, up to current rates of 25, 26 per cent. Now, which farmer here can take a loan at such rates and make any sense of it?
Another problem here is the farm yield. I was in Abraska, USA in 1987 where I spent three months on a fellowship.  I spent three months doing nothing but studying farms. I was also in Abraska with the governor of Borno State in March this year. They plant maize in Abraska, Iowa, Minnesota or Arkansas 7 inches apart. On one hectare, there are 108,000 stands. Farmers here do it one metre apart on the average to get 10,000 stands. So while the American farmer gets 14 tonnes of maize per hectare because his seed is also high quality, the farmer here gets 2 tonnes.
So if the Nigerian farmer takes a bank loan to compete with his American counterpart, there is no way he can make profit. Apart from the high yield advantage, the lending rate there is 3, 4 per cent; here it can go up to 27 per cent. The American farmer will easily repay his loan and still make handsome profit.
Then there is electricity. If you will do castor or groundnut oil production, the machines will run on generators most of the time. You have to buy, at least, two giant generators and, of course, buy diesel regularly. The issue of buying diesel is another matter. In Abuja here, many times, 90 per cent of the diesel they deliver to you is adulterated. As suppliers leave the depot in Suleija, they stop over in the bush and adulterate the diesel with kerosene, turpentine or what have you.
I am sending a petition to the NNPC; I nearly lost a 500KVA Caterpillar generator to adulterated diesel. I spent N2 million to repair it. I couldn’t arrest the young man who supplied it because he was crying his wife and children would suffer so I had to let him go. I lost N6 million of the tanker, N2 million to repair the generator and another three weeks of operation time. Of course, the bank is not interested in listening to your stories of misfortune; all it is interested in is you repaying your loan as and when due.
All these problems in running a farm in Nigeria set one back. But for me, it has become a passion and a commitment. I can’t be going round ministries, agencies and departments looking for contracts and LPOs (local purchase order). You get to a certain age and stage in life and you don’t do certain things. You’ll go and meet governors, you cringe before them seeking favours and they make jest of you. They are younger than you and you shouldn’t ridicule yourself before them. They, too, have their own problems; they are under pressure. They are highly pressurised people, in fairness to them. So the last thing they want to see is this old man coming to worry them; they don’t like it.
Agriculture can be a wonderful enterprise. Nigeria’s population in another 10 years will be about 200 million at the 3 percentage growth we are going. By then we may not have as much revenue from oil as we have now to waste it on importing rice, sugar, wheat, milk, fruit juice concentrate, tomato paste, Irish potatoes, lettuce and cabbage. Nigeria is famous as a consumer nation, and the political leaders have never taken the matter seriously. Because there is oil money, we open up our land and everybody brings in any junk into this country.
Meanwhile, there are no jobs. Our youths, our children, retired workers, retired military personnel are grovelling in the mud. We can’t even produce ordinary milk; even bananas have to come from Cameroun. It’s such a sad story.

So how fulfilling have you found agriculture?
I will say I have found agriculture very interesting.  I was the first Nigerian to produce rice free of stones in 1986 when I  established the first stone-free rice mill in Markurdi.  My friend, Chief Olusegun Obasanjo and I went to South Korea where he bought the machines for me. The capacity was small, but it served a good purpose for many people who brought their rice for milling and were delighted to have food free of stones.
We are currently doing a larger mill in Makurdi on a commercial scale; it has a capacity for 2 tonnes an hour. The machines are already in place, including a colour separator that will take away black spots from rice. We are waiting for the boilers.    

It is believed you have one of the biggest poultries in Nigeria. How true is that?
Yes, we have a hatchery in Kuje. The capacity is a quarter of a million (250,000) day-old chicks a month. We got some parent stocks from one farm in Ogun State in those days, but they were diseased, so we had to shut down the hatchery. We are starting afresh now in partnership with Tuns Farms in Oshogbo. We are just coming back and this month, we are setting out the first set of 10,000 eggs, and we expand from there.
Again, there is the power problem. There must be electricity there 24 hours. So we had to buy three giant 300 KVA generators. One will run for three days, we switch it off to service it and put on another one. We spend about N6 million every month on diesel to keep the hatchery running.

The cost of running the poultry looks staggering. How do you recoup your investment?
On hatchery, you can, but all the spending reduces your profit margin to nothing. To keep the cost low, we are planning on using liquefied gas generating sets. We have made inquiries about this in China, because the gas is 30 per cent cheaper and you can’t adulterate it. It will cost nearly $140,000 to acquire the three generators. To get the fund, you can’t dare go near the banks. These are the problems that slow us down.
Still, having said all these, there remains no alternative here to agriculture  At 200 million population in 10 years’ time, assuming that every Nigerian eats N100 worth of food every day - and that’s very small - we’ll be eating N20 billion food per day. A fairly decent eating account should be N1,000 per day. That will be N2 trillion worth of food a day for all Nigerians. Some people have to produce the food and we can’t continue to believe there will continue to be oil money to satisfy that demand.
The decisive day is coming. After all, 14 African countries are now producing oil. Angola may even overtake us before long. So we need to be pro-active. The current average age of the Nigerian farmer is my age - 60, 65,70. The young ones are not ready to start using hoes and cutlasses digging the ground in the village. In Nigeria, we don’t have enough tractors; there are less than 50,000 tractors in this country. I was in the state of Punjab, India in October last year and I knew the state alone has 1 million tractors. It’s quite a crazy thing here the way we do our things.

Crazy, yes. But why doesn’t the craziness discourage you from continuing with agriculture?
It’s because I know I will get to where I am going in the enterprise. I may be having a tough time now doing it but I am focused. We also have a small fish production programme; we are targeting 1 million catfish production a year in five large ponds, also in Kuje. We have big fish hatcheries, too. People tell me I am over-diversifying. Yes, but in agriculture, if you really want to succeed, you must diversify. The waste from one area, for example, supports the other sectors. The manure from the chickens, for example, is very good for growing vegetable, and even for growing the fish. And from the fish, you get your feed mill for the chicken, or the cattle or the pigs. And when you do your groundnut oil, the cake is also an ingredient for concentrate for feeding cattle or chicken, and so on and so forth.
Everything works together. Even when we cut branches from trees and cut grass, we have a machine that cuts them and converts them into manure. So from here, we produce purely organic vegetables with no chemical fertiliser, which is not healthy for human and also destroys the soil after a while. It can be complex to diversify, but if you integrate, you will really enjoy it. That’s what you see farmers enjoy in large-scale farming in China.
We also grow some maize in Katari, on the Kaduna road. We have 100 hectares there. We will also do some small soya and groundnut farming there. We have some tractors there, and we have machines to plant.

You spoke about the current average age of farmers. What are your efforts at involving the younger generation in agriculture?
We have a programme in place in that direction. In Kuje, we are building a lecture hall to start training young people as farm managers. Such an initiative is new in this country; it doesn’t exist. We are partnering with the Songhai Institute in the Republic of Benin.
Most of the older generation doing agric now may realise they have lost too much money and withdraw, for three reasons  -  management, capital and the quality of seeds, which is very low in Nigeria. The worst of the reasons is the quality of management. Most of the big-time farmers go to Israel or India to bring experts, but the arrangement never lasts. These people can’t understand this society. But I don’t see why we can’t train young Nigerians to be our own farm experts. A farm manager can come as expensive as a bank manager, and under him, a farm venture can never fail if he knows his onions.
A farm can fail for as a seemingly minor reason as what is called bio-security, that is, keeping the farm clean. And we are very lazy and nonchalant here.  If you have dead chickens here, you have flies everywhere there, everywhere is smelling, your farm can’t last. In keeping your farm clean, you must strictly observe certain rules.
There are so many things you must do at specific times. In the hatchery, for example, you don’t exit by the same route you enter; you exit through another route. The temperature of the egg room, when you bring in the eggs and they are awaiting sale, must be between 15 and 18 degrees Celsius to keep the embryo activity very low. Then you move it after fumigation to a higher temperature before you set them in the incubator. These things are scientific, and there is no room for fooling around, otherwise you don’t get the desired results. Again, if you have a farm manager who is lazy, sloppy, shoddy or dishonest, you can’t succeed.
So we want a school to teach all these, to teach them how to start a farm and sustain it. We will tell them not to go to livestock immediately, unless you want to do broilers for only two months and they are ready for sale. The advice is that a young farmer starts with a small plantation in his village because that doesn’t require much care. From there, he will begin to earn some money.
The agric business is not as cheap as government and others make it look on television.  We over-romanticise agriculture as a cheap business. No. Real agric business costs money, demands patience and demands massive support by government. In any country where it has succeeded, government has had to back it heavily.  We are not seeing that here.
The inclement environment should not discourage one from appreciating what an exciting enterprise agriculture is. We saw a man in Thailand with a million crocodiles on his farm. He sells the meat to restaurants in China and the skin to manufacturers of bags, shoes, belts, etc. That crocodile farmer lives bigger than the president of Nigeria.
There is also another farmer who produces 2.5 million broilers day and 80 million broilers a month. His house is bigger and the premises larger than the Aso Villa here. He sells chicken intestines and legs to the crocodile farmer as croc food, while the latter sells his own crocodile meat to restaurants in China. That’s how the agriculture business goes round.
You can’t but be attracted to farming when you see how big the business is run in some other countries, even by Nigerians. For example, a Nigerian, Ayo Rosiji, a Minister in the First Republic, now late, owned, as far back as 1967, 3,000 hectares, 30 kilometres by 10, of cashew farm in north-east Brazil. His children are still there; there is a primary school on the farm and all that.
Farming is wonderful, and this is why I have been patient because I know we will get there. With farming, we can create a lot of jobs. We want to render a service by training a number of tough youths who will live well on farming. In one season alone, each could make a million or two naira.
We have just brought in machines that will plant groundnuts and harvest them when they are ripe. There is another machine that will separate them from their leaves and then we dry them. The Groundnut Growers Association is working on a campaign called #BringBackThePyramids#.  So we intend to bring in more machines and employ more young people and more graduates to engage in farming.

You have harped on the problem of credit and interest rates. Are special vehicles like the Agricultural Credit Scheme not established to address this problem?
The truth remains that it is very difficult to access capital for agric. For strange, unknown reasons, the Agricultural Credit Scheme has been denying most of us in the North credit. I don’t know why. For example, they refused to give Jerry Gana, who wanted to grow 4,000 hectares of maize. He needed money to buy 30 tractors and 10 combined harvesters. But they didn’t give him.
They didn’t give Abdullahi Adamu who is producing milk. They didn’t give former Niger State governor Abdulkadir Kure who has half a million chicks. They denied me, they denied Maisari. Their excuse was that we are politically exposed, whatever that meant.

Do you have some outstanding debts to any bank?
No, we are not owing anybody. At least, as far as I know, two of us are debt-free. Yet, on the other hand, I have seen them give a N3.5 billion credit to somebody who hasn’t planted a blade of grass. He said he was going into poultry; he just landed and they gave him.
That was a low-interest loan; 9 per cent is good. If I had that, I would have achieved most of what I am talking about today. But they didn’t make it happen.

What’s the way forward?
Doing agriculture is inevitable. We must make provision for more people to practise agriculture. In our manifesto (the All    Progressives Congress), we provide for the establishment of five new Development banks in Nigeria. The current commercial bank regime will destroy this country. I have no apologies to offer to any economist or philosopher from Harvard or Yale. I repeat, they will destroy this country.
While we are making a lot of noise about the country’s GDP (gross domestic product) being the highest, 80 person of the population is cut off from any economic activity, especially the younger people. They can’t take a loan to do business, they can’t even take a loan for mortgage. When will they own a house? For how long will they be tenants? And we stick to this mess, as political leaders, we can’t see the danger. The anger around the country, the insanity, the danger of Boko Haram are the results of the exclusion of many Nigerians, the young and the middle-aged, from real, productive economic activities.
When young people are that helpless, when they arrive from the village into the city and there is no job, nowhere to sleep, they sleep in uncompleted buildings, they can hardly eat, they will walk into the hands of those who easily recruit them for terrorist activities.
It is the same thing for the almajiri stuff. You have children and you send them into the wilderness, you forget them, they forget you, they can hardly eat. At the end of 15 years or so, these kids have no future. They hate themselves, they hate the society, they have got nothing to lose taking to crime and terrorism.
Nothing should be wrong. But it is the hypocrisy and the cruelty of the elites who think comfort is their exclusive right and flaunting mansions and private jets that is responsible. And they think it will last?

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