The Return of Rail Transportation for Livestock

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The gradual return of rail transport services between the north and south of the country could just be a big boost for farm-to-market scheme and a revival of the agriculture value chain, reports Olaseni Durojaiye

One of the challenges of meeting the food needs of any nation and ensuring food security especially in a growing population like Nigeria is the ability to move livestock and perishable farm produce from farm to market in timely and seamless fashion. This is not an area that the country rates highly but a handful of factors are responsible for this.

Two major factors responsible for this are movement of such produce to the markets and preservation of the items. Across the northern part of the country, perishable farm produce waste away annually largely because the farmers are not able to transport the items to the markets in the southern parts of the country, and lack adequate preservation mechanism.

In the case of livestock, many cattle breeders and dealers rely on road transportation for the movement of their cattle to the southern region, while others who cannot afford the cost of transporting same depend on herders who move their cattle around the country on foot.

THISDAY checks revealed that before independence and until the mid-1980s, movement of cattle and farm produce from the north to the south used to be by rail. Special carriage wagons of the then active Nigeria Railways Corporation (NRC) were deployed for ferrying cattle from places as far-flung as Maiduguri and Sokoto among others and conveyed to states in the south of the country by rail. Besides, railways worked with clock like precision, they arrived destinations on time and the cattle and perishable farm produce in good conditions, still retaining their freshness and nutrients.

However, the narratives changed when the NRC began to lose its famed efficient service before it eventually went comatose in the late 1980s. That led to the rise of moving livestock and farm produce in trucks through Nigerian roads.

Recent Movement of Cattle by Rail

However, the good old days may be on its way back with the re-introduction of movement of livestock by rail. The 30-year jinx was broken two Saturdays back when a 15-wagon train carrying cows and rams arrived Lagos penultimate Saturday. The train, which left Gusau, capital of Zamfara state, with stops in Minna, Niger State, Ibadan, Oyo State and Ifo, Ogun state, arrived Lagos by 3:30 pm. The train travelled for approximately 36 hours, compared to about three days with haulage trucks.

The initiative, which is planned as a weekly shuttle was as a result of the partnership between NRC, Connect Rail Service, Zamfara State Association of Miyetti Allah Cattle Breeders Association and funded by NIRSAL.

Managing Director of Connect Rail Services Limited, Edeme Kelekume, expressed delight at the successful maiden operation and thanked all the stakeholders for believing in the initiative, adding that without the confidence reposed in the initiative the success that was recorded would not have been possible.

Though the major driver of the process was Connect Rail Services Limited, the initiative was midwifed by an intervention agency of the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN), the Nigerian Incentive-based Risk Sharing for Agriculture Lending (NIRSAL). Other stakeholders in the initiative include the NRC, partner deposit money banks and microfinance banks, insurance companies and the umbrella body of cattle breeders in the country, Miyetti Allah Cattle Breeders Association and Zamfara State government among others.

Reacting to the development, the Managing Director, Nigerian Incentive-Based Risk Sharing for Agricultural Lending (NIRSAL) described it as a good omen.

“We are indeed happy to hear that the wagons have arrived ahead of schedule. We are very delighted that the historic train has arrived earlier than projected. It is a good omen and a further source of encouragement as we strive towards improving and deepening our farm-to-market Scheme”.

While the NRC deserves commendations for keying into the initiative by making available its carriage wagons that are far suitable for the cows and rams, helping to preserve their body mass and nutritional values in the process, it is hoped that the corporation will extend the gesture by providing equally suitable, refrigerated coaches for the movement of perishable farm produce including tomatoes and onions between the two regions.

The benefits go beyond revenue generation for the corporation. Observers contended that making available such coaches will help to reduce if not outright elimination of wastage of perishable items like tomatoes and onions among others. The end result of that will be wealth creation among the farmers.

It is also believed that frequent rail trips would breathe life back into commercial activities along the rail routes and railway towns along the route between the two regions.

NIRSAL’s Mandate

NIRSAL was conceptualised as an intervention agency for the agriculture sector and created by the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) with a mandate to restore the agricultural value chains with a view to providing a platform for de-risking agricultural lending.

The agency’s objectives include: to mobilise financing for Nigerian agribusinesses by using guarantees to address the risk of loan default, provide technical assistance through capacity building across the value chain, reduce cost of borrowing by producers in the agriculture sector from commercial banks as well as provide technical advice to agribusinesses.

According to entries on the agency’s website, in line with the vision, “NIRSAL seeks to proactively identify, adopt, pilot and promote all promising research from local and international research agencies, the academia, and innovative agricultural entrepreneurs that meets NIRSAL’s technical and commercial criteria and have the capacity to address agricultural challenges for enhanced productivity and food security,” it stated.

Stakeholders’ Reactions

While the partners in the initiative are still basking in the euphoria of successfully executing the maiden shuttle, the first since 1986, stakeholders have harped on sustainability, cost and the need to fine-tune logistics that would make the initiative a lasting success.

Speaking to THISDAY at Oko-Oba, Lagos during the offloading of the cattle for onward movement to the Oko-Oba Agege abattoir, an official of the Lagos State Veterinary Service lauded the initiative and explained that if the initiative could be sustained, it would reduce the need for quarantine services for cow meant for slaughter at the abattoir given that they will arrive in better condition compare with when they arrive in truck.

Similarly, a cow and ram dealer, Raheem Bello, who spoke to THISDAY also lauded the initiative and stated that he preferred rail to road for the movement of his cattle and hinged his preference on convenience, timeliness and added that he would prefer that the cost is further reduced to attract more dealers.

Bello told THISDAY that, “Movement of cattle and Sallah rams by rail is better than by road. One of the advantages is that rail gets to Lagos faster than the trucks that we normally use. By road, we sometimes spend three days on the road; for this trip, we left Gusau around 4:00 AM on Friday and arrived Lagos now. The train is also more convenient for us and the cattle. You can see they are looking very healthy just like when we put them on-board; if we’d come by road some of them would have been sick or looking lean by now,” he stated.

Continuing, he added that, “Though rail is cheaper compare to trucks and can move more number of cows, I think the cost is still high, may be because of the Sallah season. I want a further reduction of the amount we pay,” he stated.

Also speaking with THISDAY, Director of Operations, NRC, Niyi Alli, stated that the initiative was a welcome development and added that the NRC had put in place every necessary logistics to facilitate smooth, reliable and safe transportation of cattle, rams and other agriculture produce from the north to the south in record time. He also stated that the operation met the targeted travel time of 36 hours.

He, however, disagreed that the cost is high, arguing that the haulage truck charge minimum of 20 per cent more than what it cost by rail. He argued that transporting cattle to the south through the rail service was cheaper compared to when the road is used, adding that it also ensures that the cattle arrive the destination in good shape as against when they are transported by road and lose at least 20 per cent of their biomass.

“This is a welcome development and the Nigeria Railways Corporation is pleased to be a part of it. Transporting cattle from the North to the South through the rail service is the ideal. We’ve have put in place every logistics needed to ensure a smooth shuttle operations. Our target travel for this trip was 36 hours, which is what we’ve achieved. The train took off in Zamfara around 4:00 AM on Friday, and arrived in Lagos by 3:30; even with the stops it has to make to carry out routine check, we still met the target.

“We did market survey, the charges by rail costs 25 per cent less compared with road transportation. By rail also helps to preserve at least 20 per cent of biomass of the cows because they were comfortable in the coaches; I enjoin other cattle breeders in other states to key into the initiative,” he stated.

Also speaking, Kelekume expressed delight at the success of the maiden operation and thanked all the stakeholders for believing in the initiative adding that without the confidence reposed in the initiative, the success that was recorded would not have been possible.

“The management of Connect Rail Services is happy with the success of this maiden shuttle. It underscore the expertise that we have been selling to members of Miyetti Allah Cattle Breeders Association and hope other state chapters of the association will key into the initiative. With this maiden shuttle, we’ve re-launched transportation of goods by rail and we’re committed to sustaining it.

“Beyond livestock, Connect Rail Services Limited also have the capacity to move perishables from the North to the Southern parts of the country. We also have capacity to move petroleum products across the country and de-emphasise moving it by road. We have refrigerated coaches meant for transporting perishables and dairy products from farm to market, and to the seaports in the case of agriculture produce that are meant for export. We also have coaches that are suitable for exporting petroleum products across the country which will,” he concluded.