Managing Director and founding partner of NPK Ltd, Captain William Byrd, first visited Nigeria as in-country manager for the U.S State Department to manage a project to build a computer simulation centre for the Nigerian military. Following the successful completion of the project Byrd built a joint venture company called EVR Ltd with Hanfeng Evergreen of Toronto Canada as the main joint venture partner. Together they import fertilizer into Nigeria. He was at the Nigerians in Diaspora conference on attracting foreign direct investments to Nigeria recently in Washington DC. SHAKA MOMODU who was at the conference, had a brief interview with him
Tell us about your company NPK Fertilizers?
We are a company that has been involved in the agric sector for a number of years in Nigeria. I’ve lived here for nearly 10 years and I am a resident citizen of Nigeria now, which is rare for an American. We started importing fertilizer with our partner Hanfeng Evergreen out of Toronto Canada and they have over 10 plants in China and Indonesia which they’ve built and they operate. So we decided it’s time to build plants in Nigeria to cut cost of importation and participate in the growing agric economy throughout West Africa. So we’ve not built a plant in Nigeria yet; we are still in the process of planning and our financial partners are looking at the opportunity, the individual states that want to partner with us are also looking at the opportunity and we’ll get started with that as soon as those details are worked out. We have an existing MoU with Kogi State which has been in place for a little over a year now. We hope to work through that opportunity with them and also the existing agreements we have with states to also look at their environment and their gas and power and water allocations. We have some engineering constraints because of inputs into the plant
So in the last 10 years you have been importing?
Yes, we have been importing fertilizer through our sister company EVR out of Kaduna and that has been a direct path from our factory production in the Far East
Now that you plan to build your plant, what capacity are you looking at given Nigeria’s vast agricultural potential?
We would like to do a 600,000 MT plant which would be split between UREA and NPK so we can participate in the broader market for the farmers
When are you going to start this plant?
We hope for the plants to be under construction in the first quarter of 2013 so that’s about six months from now we’d like to have the project funded and off the ground. Again selection process is still ongoing as to the location and which state that has the best advantage to fast track this into production. We have been operating from Kaduna, and Abuja and we have warehouses in Lagos because the importation comes through the ports there.
How challenging is it doing business in Nigeria and has your personal experience been like?
I think it is challenging doing business anywhere on the planet. I don’t think Nigeria is exclusive in how hard or how easy it is to do business. But I will say this, Nigeria has a larger opportunity than almost anywhere else on the planet right now to engage in business expansion and access a larger market through a fast growing business enabling environment. Is it challenged by the congestion at ports? Yes, but they are fixing that. Are the roads bad for the movement of products across the country? Yes, but they are addressing that as well. If you look down the road in ten years as we do, Nigeria is going to be a house hold name around the world. Everybody is going to look to Nigeria as the product of success in West Africa of how the new economies of the world are going to be structured. You couldn’t put a petrochemical plant in the U.S; it will take you 10 years to get approval to do that, and the market is just too saturated even if you did. But in Africa, you can fast track these projects even with some of the challenges that people look at and say it’s just too hard to go there. I’ve lived there and worked there for years and we know that the government is building an enabling environment for us to come and investors are excited. We are with a number of investors out of the UAE and the US and they are more than ready to come and do business. What we are doing now is just making sure that our engineering structure and site location plan is the best that it can be to get this thing going and we’ll like to see several plants in Nigeria and we’ve already started talking with Ghana and some of the other West African countries and soon we’ll be putting plants in those countries also.
When you were coming into Nigeria to do business for the first time what were your fears?
I came in under a US embassy programme to work with the Nigerian military. I’ve worked at the Jaji base in Kaduna and I helped build and trained at the Jaji computer simulation centre. After that I was comfortable with Nigeria, I was comfortable with the people, I was comfortable with the business landscape and I partnered with Hanfeng to import fertilizer never looked back.
Why did you choose fertilizer?
I had started doing some farm work and had a farm in Kaduna. It was a community corporate farm program through my foundation to help the local indigenous farmers and improve how they do crop rotations and how they co-opt together to increase the availability of fertilizers. So I had an involvement in the agric environment already and I knew that the number one problem I had on my own farm was that I didn’t have the inputs, I didn’t have fertilizer and it was expensive and difficult to get. From that I realized the potential for commercial agriculture in Nigeria alone is absolutely enormous. We don’t export 9 percent of what we exported thirty years ago in Nigeria and that’s just backwards and we’ve lost that whole economic base. That industry is just there to be brought back to life and re-invigorate the northern farming community so Nigerians can have an involvement. You know 60% of the employment in Africa and certainly in Nigeria is through the agricultural farming community. These subsistence farmers need the inputs but they need them cheaper. So we have to build them there to reduce the costs to the farmer directly and increase the viability of commercial farming in Nigeria.
So looking back 10 years, would you say that you made the right choice?
I did make the right choice and there is no doubt about that. You can say it’s my calling and I can say God has certainly helped me to walk that path. Has it been difficult? Sure it has but my daughter lives in Nigeria so I have that. The insecurity in the country was something that I was familiar with in some of my work with the military. I am also a retired naval officer so I am used to looking at the challenges for securing property and people. I also have close familiarity with the problems that have faced the indigenous populations there in Nigeria. So it’s not going to stop me or slow me down. I actually think that if you build a framework from which the population can find employment and they can see the advantages of being able to feed and care for their families you will quickly reduce all of the disgruntled irritation at the level which you find a lot of the problems with security in the country.
Who are your Nigerian partners?
We have a number of them which include Hajiya Azumi Ibrahim who was the first lady of Kogi in 2003 and her company is a partner. So we have a good team on the ground in Nigeria and also our international partners are very strong
What brought you to the NIDO conference?
They invited us to come. Hajiya’s is obviously involved because she has an office here in Washington and really had a good conference. We had a great time and I enjoyed the people tremendously. It’s a good place to talk to the people in the Diaspora to get their ideas on what they see from an outside perspective. The live here they do business here but they are very much embedded and involved in the economic and political development of their homeland in Nigeria.