Bayelsa Beyond Oil

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Emmanuel Addeh writes that with the renewed attention to fish farming by the Bayelsa government, obviously due to falling oil prices, and the state’s comparative advantage in aquaculture, it’s only a matter of time before revenues from the sale of seafood would compare favorably with other revenue sources

With the dwindling federal allocations to states, and growing citizens’ dissatisfaction with their leaders, Nigerian political leaders seem to be learning the hard way how not put all their eggs in one basket.

Before now, being the fourth highest receiver of the monthly windfall, coming just behind Akwa Ibom, Rivers and Delta, ‘business as usual’ was the name of the game. After all, there was always the next Abuja rendezvous to look forward to.

But in the last one year, it has, perhaps dawned on many Nigerian governors, especially those from the Niger Delta that they could no longer rely on income from oil due to its unpredictability.

In this connection, the Bayelsa State government seems to have seized the gauntlet, given the volatility of revenues from oil accruing to the state, which at a point peaked at over N20 billion naira and then fell to an all-time low of N2.5 billion just a few months ago.

The Seriake Dickson administration is probably living up to the saying that ‘good things can emerge from very bad situations’ and appears to be considering its options away from the black gold.

As in Nigeria, unemployment remains a major problem in the state and compounding this has been the effect of the biting economic recession which led to the laying off of able-bodied young men and women who hitherto earned a living working (mostly as casual workers) offshore in oil serving firms around the Delta.

Weighing the looming consequence of a jobless, highly energetic youth population, the government has gone back to the basics, one for which it was popular before oil became the ‘be all and the end all’…fishery.

Bayelsa State has always had relative advantage in fishing and farming, given the God-given topography. Therefore, it only made sense for the government to go back to its roots.

Indeed, experts in the field of agro-business assert that the southern region of Nigeria where Bayelsa State is located, has one of the most productive ecosystems in the world and could actually feed the whole of West Africa if it seriously gets to work.
Also, the state has one of the highest rainfalls in Nigeria, with an annual average of approximately 140 centimetres per year (and up to 400 centimetres in some areas), with just a short dry season between November and March.

So, aside the renewed attention given to rice farming, especially its investments in 4,000 hectares of rice farm at Peremabiri, 5,000 hectares at Isampou and 2,000 hectares at Kolo and the establishment of a cassava starch processing plant with a capacity to produce 600 tons of industrial starch per annum and an out growers scheme of 600 hectares cassava farm, the state has recently turned to aquaculture.

Aquaculture, the rearing or culturing of fish in a largely confined system of water became the next port of call, probably because of over-fishing in the high seas, rivers and lakes, brought about by commercial fishermen, which has drastically reduced fish stocks to an alarming level.

Indeed, there would be a ready market for this, since local fish supply cannot meet the rising demand in Nigeria as a result of population growth, resulting in heavy dependence on imported frozen fish from China, Korea, and Norway into the country.

To bridge this gap, the Bayelsa State government has begun massive investment in that branch of agriculture and would in the next few months, indeed less than three, begin harvesting. But that would be like a drop in the ocean. So, the government says it is expanding the scheme to all the crannies of the state.

In fact, as at 2013, the then Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development, Dr. Akinwumi Adesina, speaking at the 27th Annual general meeting of Fisheries Society of Nigeria in Yenagoa, posited that the federal government was spending about N97 billion on the importation of 700,000 metric tons of fish annually.

According to him, the country needed 2.66 million metric tons of fish annually to meet national fish protein requirement, but according to him, sadly, Nigeria was only producing 680,000 metric tons from local sources including 200,000 metric tons from aquaculture.

The former minister added at the time that at least N117.7 billion was also spent annually on the importation of fish feeds. The current Bayelsa government probably took a few notes from the revelations from the ex-minister.

It has therefore set up a system that runs through the entire chain, including the establishment of fish ponds, construction of hatcheries and a feed mill that would produce the animal feed which would lead to the saving of scarce foreign exchange.

With more than 500 ponds already functioning in the aquaculture village in Igbogene, outskirts of Yenagoa, and the location of at least a cumulative 800 ponds in all the eight local governments of the state, the governor may just be preparing the ground for exiting the current recession and youth unemployment.

Already, thousands of persons have been penciled down for employment in the fish village after a thorough screening process, including those that would man the ponds, the administrative staff and those that would work in the hatchery and the feed mill.
“It’s a huge village, so we would buy the fish from the workers. They have flats that they would rent within the village, but they are paying far less than what obtains outside.

“Almost everybody working there will live in the village. There’s the tourism aspect of it. People can come and have a tour and then there’s the observatory and this is about 50 points because of the size of the farm,” the state Information Commissioner, Mr. Jonathan Obuebite, told THISDAY.

It was learnt that each observatory point would have a security post with radio facilities to link up with others as to the security situation at other points to reduce cases of intrusions.

“Once you cross the line without clearance, security will pick your activities as a trespasser. So it’s a very secure environment,” he added.
With an expected 5000 fish per pond (50 by 100 in size) per season, the Igbogene fish village alone would produce at least 2.5 million edible fishes per season and 7.5 million in a year.

Coupled with the 800 fish ponds in the eight local councils, coming on stream soon, producing four million per season and 12 million per year, the state could just be on its way to economic recovery.

Furthermore, the hatchery would take all fishes that have eggs and incubate them to replace the harvested ones, thereby continuing the circle.

On an inspection of the fish farms at the weekend, the governor said that the feed mill would produce the whole feed that would be required to take care of the entire school of fishes spread all over the ponds in the state.

He said that with the new improved fingerlings, the maturity period of six months would be reduced to four, which would enable the farmers produce for three seasons in a year instead of two.

“We are also looking at the new fish breed that produces in four months, so that we can have three harvest seasons in a year and this will enable many people to be employed.
“Right now, it has already been extended to two local governments in Southern Ijaw and KOLGA, outside Yenagoa, and we are going to replicate it in all eight local councils with each one having about 150 employment per settlement. Special vehicles will also be made just like our keke, to move tourists around whether on family trips or as individuals,” he noted

It was further learnt that there would be a training centre, where the youths of the state will be trained to be able to set up their own private farms and fisheries.
When the feed mill kicks off in a few weeks, farmers in the state who currently travel to Port Harcourt and Lagos to buy feeds, would be getting their feeds from the government-owned mill at a lesser cost, it was learnt.

On the sustainability of the programme, given the short life span of government run businesses in Nigeria, the state government said they would be run by private people who would ensure that the best practices are brought to bear.

“The success of the harvest depends on the profit. Since it will be privately run, the issue of sustainability will not arise and everybody will be carried along,” he said
Dickson further disclosed that efforts to fully diversify the state economy beyond oil and gas were fully on course with the massive investment in both farming and fishing in the state.

He explained that the agricultural policy of the state was targeted at empowering young men and women, towards boosting fish production and wealth creation and urged beneficiaries to take advantage of the opportunity provided by government by linking up with the Ministry of Agriculture and the team that is in charge of the project.

While expressing appreciation to the officials handling the project, particularly the Commissioner for Agriculture, Mr. Doodei Week, Dickson said that the fish farms, are expected to be self-sustaining to boost the revenue of the state.

He expressed optimism that in the next three months the project would be put to use to complement other efforts in the agricultural sector to promote food sufficiency.
It is believed that if the current momentum in the sector is maintained and devoid of unnecessary politicking which the governor has always vowed to shun, then Bayelsa might just become a model state on how to wade through economic recession.