The Commissioner for Information and State Orientation in Ebonyi State, Senator Emmanuel Onwe spoke on his passion to engage in agriculture. Benjamin Nworie presents the excerpts:
Why are you interested in rice production?
The interest of the government of Ebonyi State is my interest. The policy of the government of Ebonyi State is my personal commitment. When this government under the leadership of the Governor David Umahi was inaugurated in 2015, the overriding policy commitment, deriving from the manifesto was something we call, PIE—commitment to the welfare of the People, commitment to Industrialisation and a determination to lay the foundation for an Economy that would thrive, expand and afford a decent standard of living to the population.
In other words, a state like Ebonyi is a microcosm of a larger mono-economy because the entire federation is the macrocosmic mono-economy. In diversification, you have to rely on the traditional launch pad for industrialisation and development, which is what agriculture has represented for mankind since the beginning of time. It’s my sincere belief that in the whole of Africa, if we direct our focus to agriculture as we focus in politics, our continent will be availed the possibility of rising from its prostrate position in every indices of human existence and reach for prosperity and advancement. Ebonyi has devised the means of building industrial clusters in each of the three senatorial zones of the state. Once a policy is made by government, and agriculture being the only enterprise which a public office holder could legitimately embark upon, I decided to put it into practice the policy of the state government, as a practical demonstration of what is achievable.
In 2016, I put about 150 hectares of land into rice production. In 2017, we did about 350 hectares of land. This year, we are targeting about 500 hectares. We also intend as the years come, to diversify into cassava production.
But we want to establish some level of expertise and proper foundation in the area of rice production before we venture into cassava production.
How did you acquire such lands?
In Ikwo, we have land from inheritance. And we buy from other freeholders or communal landholders as well. In Ezillo, the land is government-owned and you’re obligated to make a percentage contribution of your harvest to the state treasury. It’s been parceled to individuals according to their capacity to farm. I was assessed to pay N8.9m naira to government last year. In 2016, I paid N3 million
What role is government playing in supporting these projects?
Government’s involvement ends at the point of provision of inputs such as fertiliser at controlled prices, which is fair enough and honours the age-long dictum that government is almost always a disastrous manager of busines, particularly the business of agriculture. Government workers and bureaucrats are inherently lazy and by their nature prone to corruption. And when you put the two elements together, you have a cocktail of disaster. The headmaster in the agricultural endeavour in Ebonyi is the governor himself. Governor Umahi owns his own multi-pronged farms branching into rice, cassava and animal husbandry. Every farming activity in Ebonyi State is undertaken by private individual efforts not government. What the government does to mobilise funds either through CBN’s CACS or Anchor Borrowers. They help small scale farmers do one hectare of land through the provision of inputs such as fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides, rice seeds and sometimes assistance in land preparation.
Despite the ban on rice importation, the issue of smuggling seems unabated. How do you cope with this ugly trend?
Smuggling is a serious challenge to the sustenance of the current agricultural revolution in the country. Not only rice is being smuggled. Virtually everything is being smuggled. And this is killing the brilliant policy which the government of Nigeria has on agriculture. The porosity of our borders and the lacklustre control of the ingress of smuggled food products and the egress of smuggled petroleum products are strangulating the already sterile economy.
Our neighboring countries will never voluntarily curb or even make the attempt to curb smuggling operations that originate from within their borders and terminate in Nigeria. Anyone relying on Benin Republic, for instance, or any of our neighboring countries to collapse the extremely destructive smuggling infrastructure they have so carefully laid over decades is living in cloud cuckoo land! If smuggling operations die, if goods moving into Nigeria stops today, the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of Benin Republic will fall by a factor of over 60 per cent.
How was the yield of the previous productions compared with the financial investment?
The yield is modest in some areas and very rewarding in other areas, due to the vagaries of rainfall and the total absence of irrigation infrastructure. Right now, we have more than 600 metric tons of rice paddy and 200 tonnes of milled rice that we cannot sell at the current market price because it would entail extensive losses. We cannot even hope to recover our investment, much less making profit. We feel greatly discouraged and but for the encouragement of the governor, we were resolved to pack it in.
The CBN benchmark as at last year was N250, 000; that’s the figure that theoretically you would need to successfully cultivate one hectare of rice farm. In practical terms, it takes more than N300,000. This is because the cost of inputs is too high, cost of labour is too high, in the absence of a combined harvester you really face a very tough situation. And for those who borrow, any interest rate on agricultural capital above 4 or 5 per cent is ridiculous, in my judgement.
Why we are doing what we are doing in Ezillo and Ikwo is because we have a rice variety called Faro 44. It’s specifically bred to perform optimally in all soil types including upland areas.
How did you contend with the menace of pest and the challenges of cattle grazing?
The herdsmen are the biggest pest ever to confront ordinary farmers in the entirety of Nigerian history. We faced a torrid weekly confrontation with them in our farms. Pests wielding Ak47 are a terrifying sight. You find yourself menaced by both bullets and horns. The most dangerous pests threatening the very foundation and survival of this country at the moment are armed herdsmen.
We have to decide to take effective action to stop these pests. Their containment will guarantee that Nigeria continues on this positive trajectory of diversification through agriculture and in five years’ time, we look back and take a satisfactory stock. If we do not do that, and we allowed these AK 47 wielding pests, they will overrun us all.
I will give you example. In 2017, after the anti-grazing law in Benue State became operational, herdsmen from that state began to pour south-wards. Their next point of call was Enugu first and then Ebonyi State. We had a running battle with herdsmen in the farm for more than three months and because of the extensive nature of our farmland, we began harvesting in November and continued harvesting till February due to our unfortunate reliance on the primitive method of manual harvesting in the absence of the very expensive combined harvesters. It was a very unnerving experience. We had hundreds of labourers in the field on daily basis. Protecting them day and night against the marauding horde of pests with double magazine AK-47 was a major operational nightmare. By the grace and guidance of God, we were able to repel them without any loss of life on either side. Who knows what will happen this season? So, it is vitally important that the federal government through its security apparatus comes up with an effective security strategy that combines both policy and pesticide that will eliminate the brand of pests that carry AK-47.