President of Haske and Williams, Abdullahi Bashir Haske, explains how Nigeria can entrench sustainable economic growth, taking advantage of the agricultural sector. He spoke to Crusoe Osagie. Excerpts:
Does agribusiness have the capacity to transform the Nigerian economy?
Yes, but it is currently untapped. For instance, people eat rice on a daily basis, when you do the mathematics of food importation such as rice, fish and others, you will see that the money we use to import those items is huge. I think if we get it right and more especially with the present administration’s effort to diversify the economy away from crude oil and also with the present Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development who is a very serious minded person regarding agriculture development. He is very serious and they are really driving the agricultural sector. I am sure that in another two years, agriculture in the country will be something where we will see the positive impacts on the economy. If we rely on only agriculture without oil, we can survive in Nigeria.
Scarcity of forex and impacts on the sector
The only area I will say the scarcity of foreign exchange is affecting me is in two ways. One is in equipment purchase for the rice mill and other aspects of the project and the other area is in the area of paying expatriates to make sure that we are doing the right thing. We are currently using FGM Expert Farmers from France. They are our consultants and we pay them in Euros and we have to source the payment at the black market, this is why we are pleading with the government to look at agriculture critically in terms of foreign exchange. I do not know about now, but I think agriculture has a special Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) rate for whatever currency you need to carry out agricultural operations. I do not know what the policies are now because they are not too clear to us, we are pleading to the CBN Governor to clarify us on what the terms are to access agric funds and what benefits are therein for local agricultural farmers. We need serious support because it is not a one man venture, we need government’s support to drive agriculture. With government support, the sky is our limit. The other area where I will want to plead with the government is the fund raising aspect, because these kind of project nowadays are quite challenging because some people have been using agriculture to fund their various businesses and unfortunately, I do not think that when these people access this agriculture fund, enough due diligence is not being carried upon on these companies to really see those that are serious and ready to do this business. The federal government needs to look at this area critically. A lot of people have accessed agric money but did not use it for agric. They are not doing any agric projects, but collect the money and use it for other things.
Despite Nigeria’s rich natural resources, we still depend on food importation. Where did we get it wrong?
We got it wrong because our people forgot there is dignity in labour. Why I say this is that everybody wants easy and quick money. We in the northern part of Nigeria with our vast arable lands have a very huge role to play in developing the sector. Our State governors also have key roles to play such as providing infrastructure and creating a secure environment for business to thrive, it is not only about our people, but the government’s role cannot be overemphasised. Agric is a business where you must get government support. Nigeria’s population is almost 200 million, the demand for agriculture commodity is increasing and I am afraid, because if we do not do agriculture on a large scale, we will not meet the growing demand. Why I still emphasise on government support is that, today, we have less than 20 large scale rice mills in Nigeria and before we can meet the target of satisfying the Nigerian rice market, we need nothing less than 225 rice mills on a large scale and again, when you look at the long aspect that you need to farm before you mill and process, you need a very huge land and it has to be on a large scale and Nigerians are not ready to follow through because we only think of now and no future plans, but with this current administration, they are trying to see how they can make it happen, but again, they can’t be talking without any serious support to the private sector.
What should Nigerians expect from the signing of Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) between your company and FGM expert?
Currently, my partner just came back from France, where he had series of meeting with our technical partner, FGM expert farmers, he also had a lot of side visits. The knowledge we got from there, we are trying to transfer it to our local farmers, in fact we are talking about starting an agriculture manpower development programme which we are about to discuss with the government and if they buy the idea, we will go ahead and implement. The proposal we have for the government is fantastic and it is going to help them in two areas. Firstly, it is going to give our farmers the expert knowledge about how to boost their farming activities and even people that are not farming will be interested in farming because it will not be like farming as usual. There is no equipment that will not be introduced to the farmers and this makes life easier. We are ready to transfer the knowledge of our young and upcoming generation to make sure that they have the knowledge. It is not only working with oil companies or the government the youths must look for, but with efforts in agriculture they can also earn livelihood.
Advise to federal government on how to change the face of agriculture in Nigeria
First of all, there are three things. Firstly, is the knowledge, educating them by setting up workshops, because the farmers are not up to date about current trend in agriculture practices. We are still in the olden days style of agriculture. The government needs to transfer knowledge to bring Nigeria farmers up to speed. When these farmers are educated, we will employ them. For instance with our project a percentage of the land area to be developed for the project will be allocated to smallholder farmers in the community, we will provide them with the infrastructure, inputs and other support services and at the end of the day, we will do the mathematics and after all said and done, it is a win-win situation for both parties. The government needs to broaden its view on other rice producing locations in the state, support people who are willing to do agribusiness to come and invest. We need more rice mills in the country even with the current ban on rice importation which had increased the price of bag rice. To bring down the price of rice is to make sure we put so much effort in local production. Kebbi is not the only place where we can produce rice, we can also produce rice in Adamawa, Gombe, Taraba and other parts of the country. Another militating factor is those people who have lands that are not put to use, we are appealing to them to release those lands so that we can use it to boost local production of rice. We are ready, are serious, we have the technical know-how and with the current government’s effort to diversify the economy now, we are very serious to change the face of agriculture in this country.
How long will Nigeria wait to attain self-sufficiency in food production?
The government has to be in touch with the private sector, the entrepreneurs and other stakeholders in the industry to monitor and see the progress we are making so that they can support us wherever we need support. We can achieve self-sufficiency in three years. All what is needed is the effective collaboration between the federal government and the private sectors.
How can we change the mindset of subsistent farmers to commercial farming?
Most people embarking on large scale agriculture in Nigeria right now, there is a foreigner’s touch into it, so we cannot overstate that need to try have our own people in terms of building their knowledge to play an active role in commercial agriculture and without a doubt, manpower development, trainings, skill acquisition are critical ingredients for us to move from subsistent agriculture to commercial agriculture. If you take the average Nigerian farmer beyond 50 hectares, he gets confused, we cannot overemphasise the need to have people with the right skills to achieve this feat.
Overview of Haske and Williams
Haske and Williams is a young, community based agribusiness company which is found by me and my partner, Oladipo Williams. We started with strategizing, because we have already had it in mind and especially with what is happening in Nigeria regarding the economy, we saw it coming that diversifying into agriculture will be the only option for Nigeria, but unfortunately, agriculture is not doing very well in Nigeria because people do not take it seriously because they probably think it is hard work. Naturally for me, I always find the most difficult things interesting and this is why I ventured into it. We tried, we put all our efforts and today, we are succeeding. We started with Demsa integrated rice production project where we have completed 90 per cent of the project planning, design and approval activitiess. We are planning to raise funds now, but we have also done all the contributions necessary to start up the project and hopefully, by next year, we intend to start rolling out Haske and Williams par boiled rice and white rice. On the cassava aspect, we have conceptualized an integrated cassava starch production project to be developed in Kwara State. We have visited the project sites and made sure we are on ground. Our aim is not only rice and cassava, but because of our size and limited capacity for now, hopefully, we are looking at doing more projects in no distant time.
Yes, we have actively pushed for an effective engagement with the communities. Community engagement is one of those areas that is key for this business. We must be very active in that area. It is important that the community understand the message we are trying to pass across, because if they do not get that message, then ultimately, the project is dead on arrival, they want to see the impact of the project. We are also trying to bring about some kind of a paradigm shift and a new initiative in interactions between business and community, it is called the shared success model. We believe that it is important that as we grow, the communities grow as well and the only way to achieve this is to fully integrate them into this project not as farm hands or labourers, but as plot owners that they ultimately manage on their own. So that aspect of community engagement, awareness, and integration is very critical for us, because if we are not careful, we might a reoccurrence of the Niger Delta situation in the agriculture space. This is something we are very passionate about which is the community, we are looking at ways to make sure they benefit from whatever we do. This must be done in areas of discussions. They must know what you want to do and when they know, they key into it.