Okakpu: We are Suffering Today Because of Oil


CEO of ABX World Nigeria Limited, Captain John Okakpu told Chinedu Eze that Nigeria will make more than twice the revenue it generates from oil from agriculture and jobs at the grassroots. Excerpts:

What is the expected market value of the volume of agricultural produce that ought to leave Nigeria for the European and other markets?

Sometimes I don’t like talking about value because we have not started but I can discuss about the potential. First of all, in terms of geographical location, Nigeria is best located in terms of dealing with the world in agricultural produce. We have the weather and the sun. Why are we not doing it? That is the question.

The leading nation in Africa in terms of agricultural export is Kenya but looking at it Kenya is far away from Europe than Nigeria. Nigeria is bigger than Kenya and has better weather. We have more educated people than Kenya. Why are we not doing it? This is the question and this is what brought us to what we are doing here today. We need to close this gap. We need to open the environment for our people to thrive. Talking of our potential, this is an industry of over $50 billion a year; we can go as high as $500 billion. I can give you a simple statistics.

You have 10 million Nigerians outside the shores of Nigeria spending 100 dollars a week on Nigerian farm produce. That is one million dollars a week. That is 52 billion dollars a year. Why are we not doing it? Now if you take 100million people including Nigerians, spending 100dollars a week on our food, you are talking about half a trillion dollars a year. If you take 100million people including Nigerians, spending 100dollars a week on food, we are talking about half a trillion dollars a year. That’s what we are joking with. I have looked at this over the years and I have been trying to put Nigeria on this for years but nobody listened to me because the price of crude oil was way up there.

The money was coming and we were sharing without saving. At the end of it we did not use the money to develop ourselves. We shared the money and scattered it all over the world. This is one of the reasons I called the Nigerian government to introduce something in terms of amnesty for those who stole our money and stashed them overseas so that we can find a way to bring funds back to the system, so that agriculture can have access to these funds on a single digit credit facility and be able to develop ourselves. It is a very serious issue we have on our hands, we need to solve Nigerian problem and somebody has to take the lead.

Now that Nigeria is economically down, what should be the right approach? How do we begin to build the economy up through export of farm produce?

There is a quick phase for us to get out of this problem. The nation can put up a bill and we will sign it into law by the executives backed up by the judiciary and introduce amnesty programme for the looters to put their funds back into the system. Believe you me, in three months, we will have over $100 billion dollars in our system and we Nigerians in key sectors of the economy can have access to that money on a single digit. We are losing because the looters have the money and no Nigeria can enjoy themselves one day outside the shores of the country, they always want to be here. That is why some of the looters when they steal the money they run away, their lawyers will sit here, perfect a lot of things with the authority, do all their bargaining, they go to Kirikiri (prison) for two weeks and come out because they cannot enjoy themselves overseas as they would in Nigeria.

They have no life outside Nigeria. This is our own. I have lived outside Nigeria for more than 30 years. The bottom line is that we have to start looking for a quick phase. Twelve months amnesty, anyone that brings the money, the federal government should just keep it in Nigerian banks. Nobody will persecute you or take it away from you or even ask you how much it is. We are going to gain from that money being in our system, then agriculture can have access to it, maybe three or five percent interest rate because where this money is, they do not earn interest rate on the money. The factories and the industries that need raw materials will have access to it. This is a hard- core foreign exchange.

The region around West Africa depends on Nigeria. We are the big brothers and we need to take that position as the big brother. We all know about what happened in Panama. Panama papers, how many American are there? You can hardly count because they have had such kind of a similar programme for many Americans that snatched away trillions of dollars outside United States because they do not want to pay tax. So they had to find a way to work with them. When they released the Panama papers, we were looking for the Nigerians. Yes, we can continue fighting these looters but since we have been fighting them, some of them had died and once they die, you cannot get access to that money. Why don’t they work with them while they are alive to bring the money into our system? Even if they die the money will still be in our system and we will have access to it to develop ourselves. It is a way out.

There ought to be a law to cover that because any President can come tomorrow and change it. It has to be an act, properly scripted through the National Assembly by the presidency, scrutinised by the judiciary, then we will have a complete system. After twelve months, whatever we can do to get anyone with our money, we will go after them. Someone like me will canvass for death penalty because the single act has taken many Nigerians lives and if your act kills people, you don’t deserve to live. That is my stand. Let us first start afresh in Nigeria. It hurts me much. I was born in Obalende and I grew up in Ajegunle but that didn’t stop me. There is no country that I have not been to, due to my profession.

What advice do you give to government on how to go about cargo airports and good cooling system so that agro allied products can be efficiently exported?

For now we have a state-of-art cooling facility built by Afolabi Taiwo at Skyway Aviation Handling Company Limited (SAHCOL). If you go to SAHCOL now, the facility they have is only being used by my company. This will tell you how bad the situation is in Nigeria. In Abuja, Nigerian Aviation Handling Company Plc (NAHCO) has some too. The reason why other people are not using it is because they do not have the structure to make use of it. There is no market or certification. The only viable cargo airport in Nigeria is Lagos airport and the only two airports in Nigeria that will be more interesting is Lagos and Abuja because if you look at the trend of aircraft manufacturing, it is changing from the conventional cargo aircraft to more of passenger aircraft. If you look at what Boeing is doing for example, B777 aircraft. B777-300 ER (Extended Range) will take about 425 passengers, their luggage and still take about 30 tonnes of cargo. My airplane takes about 35 or 40 tonnes. So one Boeing B777 gets rid of the cargo aircraft. So what the industry is doing now is to move towards passenger aeroplane.

If you start looking at building cargo airport, then am sorry for you. You need to start looking at what will happen in the next 20 years because you will not have aircraft going there. It is going to be focused more on the passenger terminal. When Emirate ordered for 150 B777ER, people were asking questions. Emirates did their work very well. They stayed ahead of a lot of airlines. If you have 100 Boeing 777 and each of them takes about 30 tonnes of cargo, you know what they are? You do not need cargo aircraft no more. That is where the technology is going to. So, people have to start thinking ahead of time and no one is thinking about that in this nation.

I heard about people building cargo airport in Nasarawa, and I just keep wondering. We need to get on with what is going on. Who will go to the cargo airport in Nasarawa? I heard the governor saying they want to tap into Abuja. Now look at the cargo statistics in Nigeria, 76 per cent of in-bound cargo that is coming into Nigeria, comes to Lagos, 21 per cent goes to Port Harcourt because of the oil related industry and three per cent goes to Abuja. Is that the three per cent you want to tap into by building a cargo airport? The so-called three per cent is more of government related contracts. If the military import arms, so you tell them to go and land in Nasarawa, then back to Abuja? It doesn’t make sense.

Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) printed money outside the country and they bring it in, so you tell them to go and land in Nasarawa? If you want to talk about cargo airport, you can talk about Enugu airport because you have cargo people there, people that will import things. If you want to focus on agricultural output, you need to think well. It can cost you about $30, 000 to drop cargo and airlift another. What are the cargos they are coming to take from the Nasarawa airport? The cargo plane cannot just come and drop cargo and take nothing to go back with. So, that is where our expertise is coming from. To be able to create that out-bound cargo business by filling it up with agricultural products. That will now reduce the high cost of freight in-bound Nigerians are paying over the years because if you import anything from China, Europe, US, you pay for aircraft coming in and pay for the aircraft going back because they have no cargo to go back with. That was what encouraged me to go into agro-allied.

I want to encourage farmers. I will go out there and bring buyers to buy the product from farmers, so that I can fill my aeroplane. People that are involved need to understand this and we do not need to mention government here. I know what I have invested in terms of time and money to get to where I am today. Kenya processes 350 tonnes of perishable to Europe, Nigeria does not do up to 10 tonnes a day and it is sad.

How do you move perishable produce from agricultural concentrate areas to Lagos?

I grew up in Califonia and most of the farms in certain areas there they produce and they take to cities. There are so many areas. So, when you talk about agriculture, it is not only about farming, you talk about packaging, transportation amongst others. You can farm vegetable in Adamawa and bring it to Lagos, as long as you have the facility to bring it to Lagos, such as the cooling van, temperature control, good roads and obstruction by the police should be minimal. You have to look at all those areas and then start planning. Benue is the basket food of the nation but we are not getting anything out of Benue because we have not taken our time to think about how we can go about it. If you are a transporter and into logistics, then come on board, we sit and talk. Come to ABX world, we sit and talk. We have a lot of areas for people. We do it as a group.

Why can’t you apply the same strategy you used in partnering Anambra state government with Lagos state in developing agriculture?

The bottom line is the leadership. It is the person not the state government. We had a discussion with the governor of Anambra state , I gave them proposal and they approved it. You can go to the state government of Anambra today and you can ask them how much they have paid to ABX world, nothing. It is just that we agreed to work together. The agreement was that they needed to train and empower their people. We are not a contractor. For other people to be attracted to come and do business we asked the Governor create some kind of subsidy. And the governor agreed to this proposal. We first had to train to enable people meet up to some certain standards to enable them to export their products.

The government needs to empower its people and look at their social needs based on the standards of the international community. If every state in Nigeria spends N100 million in each state to empower their people, it will turn this country around. I had a discussion with Enugu state government about exporting yellow pepper. I have invested so much in this area, taken a lot of engineers there, they did a lot of survey but the overseas customers said the problem is with sustaining the supply, or else they will not be interested. So, we had to look for a way to make it sustainable. These expatriate buyers are here now and we have brought them to Nigeria to train the farmers. We have gone to the farming communities, spent days and nights. I slept with them in their houses to see how we can make this work and we found one. Their problem is water, when there is no rain, what happens next? We called engineers all the way from Benin because that is where they are located. They came in Nsukka and spent four days. They went to all the areas and they came up with a solution.

We set up 10 boreholes and out of the 10 of the boreholes, we now had to find ways the water get to the farmers. The next was manure. Americans and Europeans like organic products. Natural manures can go a long way and they use poultry feeds but the best form of manure is fish waste. So, we thought we could get the borehole, set up a fishery where we can raise fish; we sell the fish and drain the water. This way we water the pepper and manure it at the same time. A lot of people are ready to set up fish farms; we have manures from the fish farms. I approached Enugu State government and asked them to give me N50 million-loan facility to pay to the contractors that dig borehole for the people and set up the whole system. The whole community and I will sign a contract to pay that money to the state government in three years so that the people would be able to come and do business with us.

Our customers want sustainability because we are dealing with Europeans and Americans. I am a US citizen by paper but a Nigerian by heart. When you do business with Americans and the business they have with you is good and the contract they have with you is also good, tomorrow they will go and buy a house, get it mortgaged for 20 or 25 years. They will buy a car, some people that like style and profiling will buy a boat. Every month they pay out of it. So their business with you will sustain that commitment. So, if you fail, they lose everything. It is a chain reaction thing. So, that is the reason why I said I am here to evangelise. Some people say they need foreign exchange and they don’t know how to get it. You need to sit down and understand the nitty-gritty of it all. The more you get to know, the more you go deeper. These are part of the issues I looked at and I said I was ready for Nigeria.

How do we reduce post-harvest loss in agricultural produce in Nigeria?

This year, I have never seen the amount of mangoes in my life like I saw this year in the Eastern part of Nigeria. No processing, no packaging, no storage. There is a lady I met and I bought mangoes from her. This lady was going to the market. I packed my car and I told her I want to buy mangoes. So I took N100 worth of mangoes and the mangoes she gave me was so much. And I looked at her I thanked her. I put my hand inside my pocket and gave her N2, 000. The woman was surprised and I just told her to keep the money. I am from that area and I did not want my name to go everywhere. So she kept thanking me. I went into the car and drove away. While driving I was looking at the mirror and discovered that while I drove off, the woman turned around and threw away the tray of mangoes. She turned around to start going and I reversed and I went right back and asked her why she did that. She said what was the need of going to the market when all the mangoes she had was less than N500 and I gave her N2, 000. So, I asked her to put the mangoes right back into the tray and that I was going to drive her to the market. I told her I wanted her to get back to the market and interact with people. Even if she didn’t sell them, she could just give them out to people. So, we got back to the market.

Nigerian yams are trucked to Ghana for export. How difficult is it to export yams?

I love yams more than any other food and I wanted to find out how the Ghana yams looked like. I found out that 60 percent to 70 percent of the so-called Ghana yams out there are from Nigeria because we didn’t prepare ourselves to enter the market. So they came in here, process our yams and sent them into the market. No, they are Nigerian yams. So that is what I am here to change.

How do we help to process food here, sell it and export it, improve the value chain and we have more money for Nigerians to live quality lives?

The kind of yam they sell outside Nigeria is not the kind of yam we have here. There are some specific kinds of yam. They have to weigh between 3 to 4.5 kg; they have to be packaged in a specific way. There are so many other areas. We have identified all these. Some of the farmers that grow the yams are here with me. Some of the yams have their early harvest by end of June or July. When they come out, we have to fly them by air because at that stage, there are certain pressures they can take in terms of the durability, getting there and that is the peak period.

People make a lot of money at that time. You can buy like a 20kg worth of yam in London for 40 or 45 pounds. That is wholesale, and the retailers buy and go and resell. As the yam gets stronger, they start moving it by sea, but they use the air to support it. These are part of the areas we need to start teaching the Nigerian people. Yams business is a big business. When you go to America and Europe, you hear about French fries. We have come up with Nigeria fries, which are yams.

We are processing it right now. You go to any ShopRite in Europe and buy it as French fries. We must sell something to the world market. We are going a long way and I do not see any reason why we should be suffering in Nigeria. We have no reason. The only reason we are suffering today is because of the so-called crude oil. This thing has killed us. All we have is upstream investment, there is no downstream.

Exporters are complaining that they are charged N5 to N7 per kilogram to export. They need to reduce this rate so that they can encourage people to export. Anambah state government subsidized airfreight. We are working with the Nigerian government to reduce the handling charges at the airport so that we can encourage people because every N2 they subsidies may end up 2dollars for Nigeria. We are working towards all that.