Umuahia — An 85-year-old cocoa farmer in Abia State who was recently declared number one cocoa producer in Nigeria, Chief David Nnochirionye Onyenweaku, was among the 148 people that were awarded national honours by President Goodluck Jonathan this year. Onyenweka who hails from Ahiaeke village was given Officer of the Federal Republic of Nigeria (OFR). In this interview, the cocoa farmer emphasizes the need for Nigeria to embrace agriculture. Excerpts:
Chief, may we know how you feel over the national honour conferred on you by President Jonathan?
I feel highly delighted and full of thanks to God who made this award possible. I never thought in my life time that the neglected cocoa farming I invested in would bring in fame not to think of getting recognition from the state and the federal government--honouring me with the award of Officer of the Federal Republic of Nigeria (OFR). I feel humbled by the government's gesture.
Could you recall when you started farming, what motivated you to go into cocoa farming at that time?
I started farming as far back as 1952 after my primary school education in 1949.The story is so long but I have to mention that immediately I left school, I had a burning desire to become a farmer and I enrolled in Umudike Agricultural Research Institute between 1950-52 where I was trained on the techniques of rearing sheep and poultry farming.
After that course, I was presented a diploma certificate in Agriculture. I refused to pick a job with the National Research Institute, Umudike. Rather, I approached an uncle , the late Paul Onyeweaku who gave me money to practice what I was trained in at Umudike.
I started with the breeding of sheep and chicken but somewhere along the line, I had a misfortune. All my birds died in one season! That forced me to change to palm oil trading.
While I was transacting my palm oil business, I met one cocoa farmer at Umuahia cocoa market named Akwata. The man came to sell bags of cocoa to merchants. I watched the man sold a bag of cocoa to merchants at the mouth watering price of £8. I was astonished!
That experience encouraged me to pick interest in cocoa farming. With the training I received at Umudike Agric Research Institute, I ventured into full cocoa farming. With the little money I had, I started buying farms to plant cocoa seedlings of various species.
In 1962, the renowned Premier of Eastern region, the late Dr Michael Okpara introduced an Amazon cocoa seedling project which I planted. The late Okpara encouraged us with farm inputs and soft loans.
From that point, I was enabled to acquire up to 10 acres of land around Umuahia and environs. From that moment, I started making money.
I can remember vividly, at that particular time, I sold cocoa from my farm making about £40. I used part of the money to acquire land from one Ndubuka from Nkata Ibeku. Till date, the property remains my own.
What challenges did you encounter in the bid to expand your cocoa business considering war at the time?
There were a lot of challenges. I could remember vividly in 1980, we were given loans by government. Unknown to us, some government officials swindled us by issuing us fake receipts while we were repaying the loans. After a while, government came and arrested us and detained us for failing to pay back the loans.
When we presented the receipts which government officials issued us, it was discovered that they were fake. We were taken to court. While in court, I told the magistrate that we were duped and he said we should first of all pay back the loans and then sue the government official who allegedly defrauded us.
At that point, I promised the magistrate that I was going to pay my loan. Having paid my own loan, some farmers who could not pay while still in detention appealed to me to buy up their cocoa plantations to enable them pay the loans. That was how I acquired more cocoa plantations.
Could you recall why you were adjudged the biggest cocoa farmer in the country?
Sometime ago in the 90s the IITA in Ibadan and their officials toured Nigeria to appraise the production of cocoa. I took them round my cocoa plantation which measured more than 50 hectares fully planted with cocoa. They were amazed and confessed that they had never seen such massive cocoa farm in Nigeria.
I can proudly say I supply the highest quality cocoa in Nigeria. Researchers have proved it. Again, the training I had has helped me a lot.
Now that you're over 70 years, would you want your children to follow your footsteps to sustain your cocoa plantation business?
The gentleman sitting with me is my son, Uche Onyenwaku. He will succeed me. I encourage youths in my community to join the cocoa farming business. There is a set of youths I am training in cocoa production. I pay them N800 daily to encourage them to learn the trade.
What would you want government to do to enhance your productivity?
Yes, access roads to my farms have remained the big challenge. We are forced to convey our produce to long distances on our heads to where our vehicles stop before bringing it to town. If government would kindly help us by providing access roads to the farm it will be nice. Government could help in providing us chemicals to fight plant pests.
What is your advice to the state and federal governments regarding cocoa production?
My advice to Nigeria is that we should go back to agriculture and lay less emphasis on oil which one day may dry up. Again youths should embrace agriculture. I seize this opportunity to thank President Goodluck Ebele Jonathan, the minister of agriculture as well as the state governor, Chief Theodore Orji for recognizing my little contribution towards the development of the country.