Chief Audu Ogbeh, a farmer, is the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development. In this exclusive interview with Daily Trust on Sunday, he explained why agriculture collapsed in Nigeria and the plans by President Muhammadu Buhari's administration to resuscitate it.
What is your assessment of Nigerian agriculture at the moment?
The thing is as you know now in Nigeria; we are back to where we started off in agriculture many years ago. And sadly enough I want to say, those were better times than now. We made some progress in physical development but philosophically we haven't really advanced, otherwise the Malaysians, Chinese, and the Indians, whatever successes they achieved, they never forgot to invest in agriculture in their various countries.
Go to any home today, virtually everything you see is foreign and when you are talking about food - rice, biscuits, milk, sugar, cookies - are imported into Nigeria. Over the years, I never liked what was going on. Since 1986, I have been a severe critic of the Structural Adjustment Programme (SAP). I was in Hong Kong with a friend in 1986 when we phoned home and called the then Head of Service one Abu Obe and he told us that the auctioning of the Naira began that day and it was still N1 to $1. Before then, the Naira use to be a $1.50 and the Naira was almost a pound sterling; and the pressure has been on. They put pressure on Shagari to devalue he refused, they tried General Buhari who succeeded him, he refused. In fact a General from the US army who was his course mate, General Walters, was with Buhari for an hour trying to persuade Buhari to devalue the Naira, but Buhari said no.
Across Africa, they forced our currencies down. And the Chinese, the Indians and the Malaysians rejected SAP. Our economies here most of whom are product of the same institutions were forced to accept that there was no alternative to SAP.
Suddenly, people who were on the farms started leaving. It was better to be a contractor supplying tea, toilet papers, coffee to ministries. They became richer. Some of them owned pick-ups, built houses and suddenly the gap between the elites.
Even cattle rearing, today we haven't done a census -we're going to do one this year - of cattle in this country. The estimate placed them lower than 15million. The rest come from Mali, Senegal, Chad and Cameroon. Some of the violent cattle grazers going round the country are not Nigerian Fulani, which is the mistake they make. The Nigerian Fulani go about grazing peaceful while the violent cross border cattle grazers move around with AK-47. The impact has been multi-dimensional. Our cows give just a litre of milk a day because of the grasses they eat. Brazilian, Argentine and Australian cows have access to grasses with 28% crude protein.
Two years ago I was in Maiduguri, driving to Gamboru-Ngala and you see a cow standing till it drops dead because no water and grasses, coupled with stress of long trek. A cow needs at least 40 litres of water daily. Now most of these cows do not have access to water. Also, because they trek so much, the meat and milk quality is not good. So what do we do? We import milk to the tune of $1.3billion a year.
Now we run out of oil and we are now going to face tough times because we don't have the dollars and our capacity is diminishing because of our own carelessness that we can't even satisfy our needs.
Our population is increasing. In another four years, this country would probably be 200 million in population. We add 5 million a year and with a low density of death rate and by the next 50 years, Nigeria will be the third largest country in the world. So it's time Nigeria prepared for the future and I will do my best in my capacity to prepare Nigeria for the future.
What is the position of Nigeria now in export crops?
The first republic was the glorious era of agriculture. In the East, Michael Okpara left 17, 000 hectares of palm trees between Akwa-Ibom and Cross River. Go to the West, Nigeria was the leader in cocoa, now we are number three behind Ghana. Ivory Coast is heading for 2 million tonnes. This year the price of cocoa is $3,170 per tonne. Ivory Coast is now the leader in cashew, even though we are doing N250 million a year. We want to take the lead. Tanzania, Kenya, Mozambique are ahead of us. Tanzania even makes N300 million from honey because the plantations there have beehives. We import all forms of adulterated stuffs in the name of honey. When you smell them, they are syrups and all kinds of things.
Why is it that today our products attract very low prices?
It is because of packaging. The bags we use currently destroy crops. The cotton grown in Nigeria today attracts 30% lower prices than cotton in the Republic of Benin. Why? It is because of packaging. The polythene bag affects the quality of the products. So we are going back to jute bags. The factories in Jos and Badagry closed down when we discovered petroleum.
Young people today are no longer willing to go the farm and our food demand is rising. In another 35 years, feeding this country would not be a joke. That's not all, we have 60 million people to the north of Nigeria feeding on the country. Go to the markets in Sokoto, Jigawa and Borno states, you see trucks loading food to Chad, Niger, Mauritania, Sudan, Cameroon and Libya and there is nothing you can do about it. Right now we are not producing enough. What we are doing now is like trying to catch up with a departed express train. But we will do our best; because if we don't produce, we'll perish. Luckily or unluckily we have run out of foreign exchange and I am happy about it because this craze of importation must stop. There are people who import pizzas daily and the pizza is delivered by British airways. Nigeria is the biggest consumer of Champaign outside of France. Some bottles cost N250, 000 to N400, 000. We have destroyed the middle class. What is the danger? Boko Haram. I could see the danger; 400 industries collapsed in Kano; cotton production went down and; 8,000 families in Kaduna lost their jobs.
In terms of cocoa, we are looking at 5 million trees a year. There is also demand for Ogbono sweeping across Europe now. Americans are looking for it but we don't have the plantation, just one or two. Cocoa by the way can grow in 23 states including southern Adamawa, Taraba and Borno. Then as we come to the zones where cashew is grown, we are targeting 2 million trees a year for the next four years. We are targeting to overtake Tanzania, Ivory Coast and Mozambique. I am a cashew farmer I have 14,000 trees. We are insisting that every farmer must keep beehives. The more bees you have the higher the yield and the honey are free. All the bees want from you is a small pool of water where they will drink and go do their business.
Why can't the companies of this country fabricate, because sometimes it's almost laughable when you go to agric shows and you see them with this labour intensive thing of removing maize. Are we still in the 19th century?
We export a lot of sesame seed. Last month, the Americans returned two containers because it contains a lot of sand because it was winnowed by hands.
What about pricing, because I was recently in the village and I heard people grumbling about the price of sesame seeds, soya beans. There was a lot of ceremonies over the issue of marketing boards or price guarantee but nothing much has been done.
How are you going to avoid issues concerning debts owed for fertilizer, seeds and all that?
We owe huge sums of money and the president is struggling to find money to pay. We are also looking at the issue of managing the fertilizer subsidy, the state governments have no funds anywhere to pay their 25 percent and we are not strong enough to absolve the 50 percent. We are discussing how to go round this issue, but one of the best news is that the geo-ecological map of Nigeria has just come out and done by our own experts. Fertilizer is no longer something you just take say NPK to Borno or NPK to Oyo or Benue, no. Where there is already too much Nitrogen you diminish Urea, where there is already too much Phosphate, you diminish it. Where there is too much Potassium, like Borno, when you're blending there, instead of 15-15-15 the blend should be 17-0-0. The blenders met with us two weeks ago and we are meeting with them again January, 2016. The fertilizer is no longer something you just take anywhere because some soil lacks certain ingredients than the other. We are also going to touch the issue of organic fertilizer because the soil needs sixteen ingredients, some macro, some micro. On the seed issue, the quality of seed is a major problem.
Agricultural extension services seem to have collapsed. How are you going to handle that?
Our ambition is to create extension services office in every local government area in Nigeria. We are in touch with some governors. Some said they have some structures on ground already, others do not. We are trying to solve the problem because a farmer has to be educated. We were in Nebraska and in Georgia in July. In the US, they plant maize 6 to 7 inches apart on a row, in a hectare you have between 93,000 to 95,000 stand of maize. In Nigeria, the farmer plants one here, one there, there is no measurement and in-between is grasses battling with the growing maize. There, they get 15 tonnes per hectare. We have one extension officer to 3000 farmers in Nigeria now, that is if they are operating at all. In some states, there is still a few of them, but everything went off and you wonder what happened to us as a people. So even if we bring extension officers we have to train and equip them.
Our research institutes are redundant because of funding. How are you going to reposition them?
For some reasons here in Nigeria we have many policy summersaults. Something is going well somebody turns up and says he doesn't like it. We have three universities of agriculture located in Abeokuta, Umudike and Makurdi. I am about to bring them back to base, they wandered off and took refugee under the ministry of education. The law doesn't even keep them under National Universities Commission (NUC). There is a committee in my ministry that was supposed to oversee and fund them. They are supposed to be working for us as directed. But they are now teaching management, law, and accounting. In fact, one recently attempted to do human medicine and we are talking about young people going into agriculture. We expect young people to come out of these institutions and ask 'where is money, I want to start up my poultry' or to do one thing or the other. But no! Why did you go to the University of Agriculture then? We need younger people trained, and these universities have vast areas of land. Makurdi is sitting on about 9,000 hectares of land by the riverbank. Abeokuta if you go there they have cashew plantation, they are doing research on goats. There are schools like that in Australia. I should have brought you a document on agriculture and mechanical universities. Every year, when they do their Annual General Meeting (AGM), they have $14 billion turnover- a university. But here, everybody is used to going to the treasury to collect oil money. Why can't a university supply fresh milk to schools in the South? Why can't they have a poultry section producing eggs or broilers? Why can't they have a slaughter section? The Ahmadu Bello University (ABU) lab then gave us fantastic milk when we were in the university. What happened to it now? We have to invest in these institutions; there are many brilliant men there.
You stated that our cattle produce an average of one litre of milk per day and also said the government is going to feed 30 million school children. Where will the milk be coming from?
We have a huge programme called the 'Cattle Breeding Improvement Programme.' We will be having at least 200 people engaging in it this year. The ministry has 14 centres for improving the breeding of cattle. Of course the ministry is a hopeless manager of anything. It is either the budgets are down and they can't feed the cows, and the cows are dying. So it is private sector driven. We are bringing people to train the technicians, we are bringing semen. There is a semen bank in Jos and Ibadan. So if you want to breed for milk or for beef, it will be taken care of. Currently we have breeds of cattle that produce good yield of milk of about 25 litres a day at a farm in Kano and other places. I hope soon, there will be a thousand farms breeding cattle. We just can't wait, because every child in nursery or primary school needs a pint of milk a day.
Sir, when Akinwumi Adesina was the minister of agric, he said he would distribute mobile phones to farmers to ease access to fertilizers. Are the telephones still there?
He was trying to find a way where the farmers can access the agro dealers, but what we are looking at is that if we do develop the extension system, each extension office will be a meeting point between the extension officer and the private sector. In your local government you know where to go and get your fertilizer. The extension officer should be able to guarantee the quality of what you get and eventually if we are able to re-organize the fertilizer blending as we want to, by April 2016, we will not need to import one grain of Urea. Between Notore and Indorama we have so much in excesses that we can export. So if we continue to expand, there will be no need for that. The only problem we'll face is that as usual, people get in-between, some don't deliver but comeback to submit invoices, it's very difficult to track them. You know some of the states also import because it is a form of business for them. When you go to a warehouse, you will see the place is filled with Kaolin or sharp sands in bags instead of real fertilizers. There was a state where the governor went and saw the warehouse full of Kaolin and Kaolin is a filler, there is no active ingredients in it. Take a fertilizer sample, instead of 15-15-15, you find 5-5-5 because these ingredients have been diminished, but we are trimming that down. But the former minister's idea was okay. It worked in many areas, but in some areas there were challenges.