Executive Director of the Foundation for Partnership Initiatives in the Niger Delta, Dr. Dara Akala, spoke to Eromosele Abiodun on how the federal government can achieve economic diversification through agriculture. He also proffered solution to the lingering crisis in the Niger Delta. Excerpts:
Could you tell us about yourself and some of your achievements in your field of expertise as an agricultural economist in the last few years?
Certainly, in terms of education, I am an Agricultural Economist by training and I also have some post-experience training in Development Planning/Management as well as none governmental organisation (NGO) management. I have accumulated over 30 years of work experience in the development sector across various public and private voluntary organisations. Before joining Partnership Initiatives in the Niger Delta (PIND) in June 2011, I worked with Living Earth Foundation (LEF) in the United Kingdom where I was responsible for the management and technical oversight of Nigeria program as well as support to other African programs.
Prior to moving to the UK, I was the Management Expert for the European Union (EU)/Federal Government of Nigeria (FGN) Micro Projects Programme in three States (MPP3) with headquarters in Port Harcourt; where we built over 800 small infrastructure projects to provide access to health services, education, potable water supply as well as improving access to rural communities and rural transport. I was also the pioneer Programme Coordinator for Living Earth Nigeria Foundation (LENF), which is an affiliate of LEF (UK). Here I led the design and implementation of an innovative environmental education, capacity building and natural resource management programme.
I served as a Programme Manager at TechnoServe/Nigeria where I was responsible for managing a programme to increase the productivity and income of agribusinesses in the Southern part of Nigeria, as well as capacity building for community development associations. Before that role, I honed my skills in agricultural policy analysis, management development and rural institution building at the Agricultural and Rural Management Training Institute in Ilorin.
Finally, I started my career as a Planning Officer with the Benin-Owena River Basin Development Authority where I acquired skills in agricultural project planning, monitoring and evaluation.
Nigeria is in a recession and the federal government is looking to diversifying the economy and return to agriculture. How should the government go about it?
It is indeed very gratifying to see that at long last, the government is beginning to look seriously at developing agriculture that has always been the largest employer of labor in this country. The agricultural sector has a lot of potential for diversifying income and strengthening the productive base of the Nigerian economy.
With regards to your question as to the approach the Government should take, I think the starting point is the right policy framework. And, in this regard I must acknowledge the effort of the government in formulating the Agricultural Promotion Policy (the Green Alternative), which was launched towards the end of last year. The most interesting thing about this policy framework is that it seeks to consolidate and build on the gains of the Agricultural Transformation Agenda of the President Goodluck Jonathan’s administration. So, there is continuity in that regards as opposed to starting from the scratch, which is the usual practice in our country.
Other strategic actions that government needs to take include defining the role of the Federal, State and Local Governments in transforming the Agricultural sector and how each tier of government will complement each other. Sometimes, there seems to be a confusion of roles or competition between the States and the federal government. This needs to be streamlined and it is my candid opinion that some of the roles currently played by the FGN are better devolved to the States.
I would also like to touch on the issue of the Land Use Act, which has been a big obstacle on the path of large-scale agricultural development. The voice of dissatisfaction is steadily growing and it is high time the government listened to the people and either repealed the Act or modified it significantly to provide easy access to land for the purpose of large-scale agriculture.
The country is producing a lot of agricultural produce but is losing significant proportions of same due to lack of adequate storage or processing facilities. Take the case of cassava for example, it has been estimated that between 30 – 40 per cent of fresh cassava roots produced every year are lost, while for tomatoes, the percentage is even higher, at 50 per cent. This is also true for many other agricultural produce – plantain, banana, orange, mango, pineapple etc. So, the Government needs to pay attention to reducing high post-harvest losses. This can be achieved by incentivising agro-processing and value addition as well as market linkages.
There is no doubt that the government cannot bring about agricultural transformation acting all on its own. Therefore, government must incentivise the private sector through an appropriate mix of policy, pricing and regulatory provisions. Since agriculture is a business, the private sector is in the best position to drive the much-desired green revolution in the country while government provides the enabling environment for this to happen.
How can the federal government solve the crisis in the Niger Delta? Tell us some of the challenges you have faced over the years while working there.
The Niger Delta region is home to oil and gas resources of the nation and this is where oil exploration and production activities take place. In view of the activities of the oil companies, both indigenous and multinational –there is a lot of money floating around in the region, and that makes most factors of production to be overpriced. What you then find is for development work to proceed, you have to compete with the oil & gas sector and this result in very high factor costs, which makes development projects to be relatively more expensive than in other regions of the country.
The other challenge that is of great significance is that it takes time to build trust with the people in communities and this is arising from their past experiences. Many times, representatives of development agencies, NGOs workers and even government officials have not honored their promises to community dwellers. So, when you show up in a community to introduce your organisation or development program they view you with a lot of suspicion. I’ll illustrate this with two personal experiences. In the late 90s when I was working with LENF, and we were to support forest communities in Cross River State to establish community conservation areas, it took a while for them to believe and trust us. They found it difficult to believe that we were doing so for altruistic reasons and we were not looking for any direct benefits to our organisation. Some of them felt that our real motive was to know the extent of their forest resources so that we could come and log there. The other example, a more recent one, happened in 2011 when I went to a community in Delta State to introduce our aquaculture value chain development work. They pretended that they had heard me, but in order to assure themselves that they were not being taken for a ride, they sent representatives to carry out background checks on PIND and to even visit the main office in Abuja.
Some of the other challenges often experienced in the region have to do with exposure of the development worker to personal risks and insecurity arising from inter-ethnic crises, militancy and/or youth restiveness. When the crisis between two ethnic groups broke out around 1995 in one of the States, I was leading the implementation of a project in the area at that time. The only reason that we were not trapped in the community was because someone gave us a warning not to travel to the area. It was only when the crisis broke out that we understood why we had been asked to stay away.
Having worked in the region for over 30 years, I can go on and on enumerating challenges. But the last one that I’ll leave you with is the deep sense of entitlement and my perspective is slightly different from that which is often well written about. In my work, I have been involved in establishing micro-credit schemes to provide access to finance for community dwellers to support their livelihood activities. A few were very successful and I believe one of such schemes is still operating till today. However, most of them did not achieve their objectives because people borrow from such schemes, which were community-based and community-operated, without any intention of paying back. For many of them it wasn’t as a result of business failure or inability to pay back, they just didn’t see any reason why they should! Many even relocated to other places to avoid paying back. The feeling is that they had received their share of public resources where the ownership of the funds had been transferred to their communities.
You helped to shape the direction of PIND’s various programs and projects over the past five years, why is your organisation not looking at taking advantage of the huge costal line in the Niger Delta to create jobs rather than agriculture.
While I do appreciate the fact that the long coastline of the Delta region has enormous potentials, we do not base our decisions on anecdotal evidence or some gut feeling.
The economic development program was developed based on very robust research and analysis. The program aims at reducing poverty in the region, which implies that we needed to look at how best we can increase the productivity and incomes of the people. Therefore we started out by carrying out an assessment of the economic opportunities available to people in the region, and this study documented at least 24 sectors in which people were economically active in the Niger Delta. Using a number of criteria including the growth potential of the sector and population of the poor engaged in those activities, we arrived at a shortlist of five sectors. These were subjected to further value chain analyses and we ended up selecting three agricultural value chains in which we are currently working. So, the decision to work in the agricultural sector was based on empirical evidence.
You have worked with PIND since 2011 when you came on board as the Economic Development Center (EDC) Manager in PIND’s EDC in Warri, Delta State, before becoming Program Director in 2013, tell us about your experience.
I have always enjoyed building new organizations and/or programs. That was what I did with Living Earth Nigeria Foundation and also the EU/FGN Micro Projects Program in 3 States. And, as I mentioned earlier, I originally trained as an agricultural economist, so I love watching things grow.
In view of this, it was really exciting to find myself in that space again in 2011 when we were building the Economic Development Centre (EDC) in Warri. With regards to building the physical structure, it was fun working with the contractor and the artisans as there were different shades of characters represented amongst them. Many of them were really highly skilled and I struck a bond of friendship with some that has lasted till this day.
If building the structure was fun, the development of the programs and hiring and inducting long-term consultants to work with us was even more enjoyable. Working in partnership with a consultant from DAI (one of our technical partners) we put together a business plan for the EDC, which articulated our vision for the Centre in terms of the services to be provided, staffing, funding and operations of the Centre. Also, I designed and instituted a management system and procedure for the Centre as an integral part of the development phase.
So, from the initial 2-person team in February 2012 when the Centre took off from temporary offices on-site, by the time we commissioned the Centre in May 2012, the number of long-term consultants had grown to about 15 persons, including the Market Development team, Appropriate Technology Enabled Development team, and Finance and Operations teams.
Our EDCs are centers of excellence for testing and sharing proven models for stimulating growth in agricultural sector. We now have two EDCs, one in Warri as we have been talking about and a second we set up in Port Harcourt, Rivers State, in 2013. We are all very proud of what we have been able to achieve with them, because they have helped to catalyze inflow of donor-funded development projects into the Niger Delta by facilitating hitch-free project start-up and implementation through provision of infrastructure, logistics, security and local procurement support.
It is immensely gratifying to have had such an active role in setting up the first EDC in Warri, but I have to say that it was quite stressful, too, as I had to combine the management of the Centre with the technical oversight of the programs. This was further compounded by the fact that as the Centre Manager for the Warri EDC, I was also responsible for community engagement. In interfacing with the neighboring community, I had some very interesting and memorable encounters that I’ll save for another day. Of course, by the time we set up the EDC in Port Harcourt, Rivers State, I had already transitioned to Programs Director at PIND and the organisation had grown so it was much easier to manage.
You worked with Living Earth Foundation (LEF) in the United Kingdom where you provided support to African programs and established the Nigerian affiliate of LEF, a European Commission and Federal Government of Nigeria-funded micro-projects program in three Niger Delta States. Can you tell us how the several micro-projects in the Niger delta is improve the lives of the people of the Niger Delta?
The micro projects that we implemented in the days of MPP3 were to a large extent infrastructure projects. They were to improve access to potable water supply, access to health services, education and physical access to communities through rural roads and transport.
These projects – though very small as the name implies – had significant impact on the lives of the people in the three core Niger Delta States of Bayelsa, Delta and Rivers. For example, several boreholes were constructed, which provided potable water to several communities for drinking and cooking with ultimate benefits for the health of the people. On its own part, the rural Health Centers that were constructed or refurbished helped saved several lives that otherwise would have been lost by travelling long distances to urban Health Centers.
As regards education, you needed to have seen the environment in which some of the pupils in primary schools and students of some secondary schools were learning. Under such circumstances, the probability that anyone could be successful and progress along the education path to become somebody in life was very low. But we changed the narrative by reconstructing many of these schools and also ensuring that the State Governments provided teachers. I believe that these micro-projects increased significantly the chances of the pupils/student to become successful in their academics, which is a fundamental step to progress in life.
In some distant riverine communities, we supported the purchase and operations of market boats. Some of these were communities where it was only possible to travel to big towns and the State capital once a week. With the implementation of the micro projects, the frequency of travel increased, which improved the interaction with the outside world. More importantly, the people were able to carry out trade better and thereby improving their livelihoods.
On December 1, 2016, you took over from Sam Daibo as Executive Director of the Foundation for Partnership Initiatives in the Niger Delta, what are you bringing to the table?
We have seen many organisations where this type of leadership change would either lead to a loss of momentum or a lot of uncertainties about the future, which is not helpful for the morale of the staff. However, our own leadership change was well thought through and the trustees have chosen the path of stability and continuity as opposed risk-taking. Even so, I come into this office with a lot of fresh perspectives and new impetus. So it is a case of change and continuity proceeding in tandem for the growth of the Foundation.
Like I explained earlier, I have been working at PIND since 2011, first as the Economic Development Center Manager setting up our EDC office in Warri, Delta State, while establishing the field projects, before becoming Programs Director in 2013.
As Programs Director, I was in charge of managing the strategic direction of our various programs and projects and ensuring that the programs facilitate the creation of multi-stakeholder partnerships that support an enabling environment for equitable economic growth in the Niger Delta. Because of my time at PIND, I know where the organisation is coming from; have clarity of the mission& vision for the future and a good understanding of what it takes to press towards the accomplishment of that mission. PIND has witnessed enormous growth over the past few years; not only are the various interventions we piloted in economic development, capacity building, advocacy and peace building generating the desired results, we are also gaining recognition as an important presence in the Niger Delta by both government and international development organisations. Right now, we are also working with State governments throughout the Niger Delta to improve development programming and implementation in their states. I plan to continue this good record and continue to foster needed collaborations for PIND to continue to be a boon to development in the Niger Delta region.
I am also bringing to the table a wealth of development experience garnered over the years, a good understanding of the context and people of the Niger Delta, and an extensive network of associates and contacts within the public and private sector that can be leveraged to facilitate our work. The fact that I am also well known within the development sector in the region can be an enabler for new partnerships or strengthening some of the existing ones.
What are your plans for PIND and where do you see the organisation in the next 10 years?
Though a relatively young organisation, PIND is already punching above its weight. It has developed a reputation for being an organisation that bases its decisions and actions on sound analysis and research. Also, being a partnership initiative, PIND has developed a strong capacity for convening and coordinating stakeholder actions from both the private and public sectors on Niger Delta development.
So, I count myself lucky for coming to lead an organisation that is already on an upward curve, which means the task is relatively easier.
For me, and the entire team, our commitment is to build a local NGO with global best practice. This is with regards to our commitment to our mission and core values, professionalism and human engagement both internal and external facing.
Over the coming years, we will step up the rate of our project implementation to expand our outreach, scale up our impact in terms of breadth and depth. In demonstrating capacity for high impact, we will be positioning ourselves to be the institution of choice to sustain the results of fixed-term donor-assisted projects when they are closing. This essentially means that we will be integral to the sustainability strategies of these projects.
We will also strengthen our convening and coordination role so as to attract greater private sector investments and donor funding into the region. Already, PIND is catalysing a lot of resources into the region especially through bilateral agencies such as the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and the Department for International Development (DFID). Leveraging key resources for innovative projects/programs will be a key priority of my tenure.
Since our team is the most valuable assets of the foundation, special attention will be given to keeping them highly engaged and motivated. We plan to give more recognition for outstanding achievements and greater autonomy will be given to the project teams in decision-making.
The provision of economic development services (EDS) to generate income was identified from the outset as a key step towards sustainability of PIND. These EDS include – special studies, feasibility studies and business planning, project design & implementation, monitoring & evaluation, training and capacity development etc. It is my plan that over the next five years or so, a good proportion of PIND’s income will be from these sources.
Finally, we will be delivering greater value to our primary funder, Chevron. PIND will deploy its expertise to provide support and assistance to the corporate social responsibility (CSR) projects and programs of CNL to strengthen their impact.