Minister of State, Federal Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development, Senator Heineken Lokpobiri in this interview speaks on some of the measures his ministry has undertaken to reposition the agricultural sector. Olawale Ajimotokan presents the excerpts.
Can you highlight some of the progress your ministry has recorded so far in those areas where you are in charge?
You will agree with me that if there is one sector of the economy that is experiencing unprecedented growth, it is the agric sector as a result of deliberate policies that were initiated since we came into office. When we were appointed ministers, what we were detailed to do was to evolve a policy that will redirect agriculture as investment, not as programme. Before now, agriculture was seen as a programme, but when we came, we said no, it should be seen as a business and what we did was to encourage as many investors as we can to come in and invest in the agricultural sector. I will give you an example with the fisheries sector. Nigeria’s demand for fish is over 3.35 million metric tons and what we produced in this country when we came in 2015 was about 600,000 metric tons. But today, we have increased our production to about 1.1 million metric tons, which is less than one third of our national demand. But that was almost 100 per cent increase in our national productivity because of our deliberate policy. How did we achieve that? We felt that in order to encourage people to invest in aqua-culture, we needed to tie the fish import licences to backward integration. For any company to be able to get more quota to import fish into the country, you need to make corresponding investment in the fisheries sub-sector. So, a lot of expatriates have come into the country and a lot of aqua-culture investments are in a few states – Ogun state, Oyo state and so on. In fact, we have also encouraged them to increase what we call cage culture.
What is your ministry doing to support farmers get bank facilities to fund their business?
One of the most fundamental problems bedevilling the agriculture sector is lack of funding. If you walk into any bank and say you are a farmer, they will not even attend to you because they feel that farming is only for those who have failed in the society. But now the narrative is changing. The Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) has a lot of intervention programmes in agriculture, the Bank of Agriculture is being recapitalised so that young men who want to go into farming will be able to access funding to be able to set up different types of farming activities they want to go into. The CBN has several billions of naira for agriculture intervention programmes. What you need to do is go to your bank and your bank will review your business proposal and make recommendations and then you can access up to N2 million. If you want to go from small to big scale, those funds are available. There is a lot of money we have put into the Bank of Agriculture, so when you go there, you will be able to access some small loans to be able to invest in agriculture. I want to commend the CBN for coming up with another policy to ensure that we access loans at single-digit. I believe that what people need to do is to exercise patience to be able to prepare properly before going to the bank. We don’t want any more portfolio farmers, where somebody will carry a big portfolio, enter a bank, take a loan and then go and marry another wife, that era is gone. What we want to do today is to see how those who are practically in agriculture can be supported and we are doing all that with this intervention by the CBN. We don’t have such intervention funds and loans to give as a ministry, but the Bank of Agriculture being the bank that is under the ministry of agriculture is being strengthened to be able to support farmers.
What about those who are not yet into agriculture but are willing to go into it?
Everybody should be interested in agriculture depending on the scale because everybody eats food. There is nobody who does not eat food, whether you are sick, healthy, poor, everybody needs food. What you need to do is to identify what should be the most thriving value chain of agriculture in your environment. You may be in a place where tomatoes may be in high demand, then plant tomatoes around you, in your farm, you don’t need so much technology for it.
Can this category of persons also assess the loans?
Yes, the loans are available to every Nigeria. What you need to do is to go to the nearest Bank of Agriculture with your business plan and the bank will review that plan, ensure that they do some background checks, they also want to locate the land you want to use to do the farming. We want to avoid a situation where we give people cash. Most of the loans that you see today are given in kind. You want to be a farmer, where is the land, how much do you need to prepare the land? They will give you the seed, they give you only a small component, which constitutes a labour cost. Nobody will give a loan that you will abscond with so that we will get real value for the loans that are made available. But it is not restricted to anybody. Everybody who is interested in farming has access to such funding. We can also start farming in a small scale from our backyards, get a small fish pond. We are also trying to encourage people to do small poultries in their farms, around your area so that your children can eat the eggs. So, you don’t need to get millions of naira before you can start investing in agriculture.
There is a perception that the Greenhouse farm technology is expensive requiring about N2.5 million as start-up?
No, if you remember, one of the most fundamental problems bedevilling the agriculture sector is lack of funding. If you walk into any bank and say you are a farmer, they will not even attend to you because they feel that farming is only for those who have failed in the society. But now the narrative is changing; CBN has a lot of intervention programmes in agriculture, the Bank of Agriculture is being recapitalised so that young men who want to go into farming will be able to access funding to be able to set up different types of farming activities they want to go into. CBN has several billions of naira for agriculture intervention programmes. What you need to do is go to your bank and your bank will review your business proposal and make recommendations and then you can access up to N2 million. If you want to go from small to big scale, those funds are available. There is a lot of money we have put into the Bank of Agriculture, so when you go there, you will be able to access some small loans to be able to invest in agriculture. I want to commend the CBN for coming up with another policy to ensure that we access loans on a single digit basis. I believe that what people need to do is to exercise patience to be able to prepare properly before going to the bank. We don’t want any more portfolio farmers, where somebody will carry a big portfolio, enter a bank, take a loan and then go and marry another wife, that era is gone. What we want to do today is to see how those who are practically in agriculture can be supported and we are doing all that with this intervention by the CBN. We don’t have such intervention funds and loans to give as a ministry, but the Bank of Agriculture being the bank that is under the ministry of agriculture is being strengthened to be able to support farmers. It may not be true that you need up to N2.5 million and all that in order to set up a greenhouse farm. What I said was that greenhouse farming is simply a technology and that is why you see different qualities of houses. In Edo State, there is a man called Captain Nosa, he was a very big player in the oil industry and even had a private jet. One day, I wanted him to assist me to Port Harcourt and he said, he had sold the jet and used the money to invest in agriculture. Today, Captain Nosa has cultivated several hundreds of hectres of greenhouses, and I think today, he is the biggest greenhouse farmer in the country. These were men who have realised that if you invest in the oil and gas sector, the oil companies will owe you for months and years, but nobody buys food on credit. If you invest in agriculture, you are bound to get good returns and you are also bound to create jobs because for any food we import, we are creating jobs for other people in other parts of the world. So, greenhouse, if you know the technology, you may use different technologies. Recently, somebody has even used thatch for greenhouse and he is doing very well. Everything goes in Nigeria. If you go to Bayelsa, in the Niger Delta, a young man who is an ex militant, cultivated over 100 hecters of rice. What the ministry needed to do, which we did, was to support him with a small rice mill. A few months ago, he brought a sample of that rice to me here. These people have decided to redirect their energies to agriculture. Anybody who is involved in agriculture will have a happy time. Any day I go to my small farm here in Abuja, I feel like staying there till the next day, because it is something that gives you joy. The point I am making is that the quality of greenhouses varies from one person to another depending on the way you want to do it and it also depends on the size. We don’t need to spend such a huge money in order to get a greenhouse
Fish production in the country has declined remarkably due to a number of obnoxious practices and illegal acts, what is your ministry doing about this?
What we are doing now as a government is to see how we can restock some of our lakes, we can’t restock our rivers, but we can restock our lakes. We have in our department of fisheries, a programme where from time to time we take a thousand fingerlings and put them below in the lakes and after a few months, fishermen can go there and fish. But generally, fishing offshore has increased in the country; a lot more people are bringing trawlers into the country, they are being licensed to go fishing offshore. Nigeria’s shrimps are the best in the world and we are exporting them all over the world. In fact, anywhere you see those jumbo and big shrimps in the world, know that they are from Nigeria. So, on what we are doing to curb these problems of our fishermen going to the lakes and without catching any fish and therefore getting discouraged, the problem is being addressed in a sustainable basis, we keep restocking in order to encourage people to keep off some of those areas to ensure that the fish can grow. Generally, all over the world, this problem exists. Fresh water fish because of pollution has declined. Before now when we were growing up and go to the riverside to fish, there were no speed boats. Right now, there is unlimited number of speed boats and pollution activities, there is so much pollution of the rivers because of excessive use of petrol. Also, there is a new interest in fishing activities because people know that there is a big fortune in fishing activities. It is not as if in the last few years people were not fishing because there were no fish in the rivers, that was not so. But generally, agriculture was abandoned by everybody. Everybody was busy migrating to Abuja to become portfolio contractors and at the end of the day, we have not been able to do anything and then keep increasing our social problems in the society. But I believe that with the stocking we are doing and the increase in offshore fishing, we will continue to increase our production as far as fish production is concerned.
Preservation and storage are also key, you will agree with me that most of the post-harvest losses is the result of this?
You will be surprised that fish is one of the proteins that has ready market no matter the condition. Yes, we have a fundamental problem with storage, but even if the fish cannot be stored, it could be dried and be preserved for months. That is why we are supporting our fishermen with smoking kits. When you bring your fish and you can’t get a buyer dry it. Sometimes if you process it by drying it, you will have more money. Those who go to your fish farms to buy fresh fish and take it to their homes to dry have more money than you who is selling it fresh. Fish is one protein that whatever we can produce is consumed. The point I am trying to make is that post-harvest losses for fish is negligible, but we are trying to support our fish farmers with some smoking klins. This year alone we are supporting them with 800 smoking klins across the country. Last year also, we supported them with the smoking klins and we will continue to do that. What we are doing is to see how, along the coast lines we can install bigger smoking klins with stainless fumes so that those who are fishing can be deliberately encouraged to process the fish that they kill, so that they can have more value from their catches. But the gap between the production and the national demand is not as a result of post-harvest loss because with fish very little is lost.
But the issue of smuggling is affecting local production significantly?
When we give fishing licences to people, what we tell them is that fish import is restricted only through the sea borders; no land border is allowed to bring in fish, chicken, any frozen food is prohibited through the land borders. But what we have discovered is that smugglers smuggle all sorts of proteins that are in demand. Unfortunately, we are not in charge of the borders. But we are constantly in touch with the Customs. I am a member of the Presidential Committee on smuggling headed by the Vice President to see how we can address the issue of smuggling. Somebody who is into smuggling of rice, is also into fish smuggling. We also know that the Republic of Benin has been our most troublesome neighbour, and so, we are constructively engaging the officials of that country. If you remember recently, the President of that country came to Abuja to meet with President Buhari, with a view to resolving that issue. We will stop at nothing to reduce the rate of smuggling. Unfortunately, smuggling is one thing you can never eliminate completely. Despite the sophisticated US security, drugs and other substances are still being smuggled into the US through Mexico. And so, no matter how sophisticated your security architecture may be, smuggling is something that is a global phenomenon. But what we want to do is try to reduce it to the barest minimum. I can assure you that we are working closely with the customs, immigration and we are part of the committee headed by the Vice President and we are doing everything possible to reduce it to the barest minimum, including engaging them in Benin Republic by giving them some logistical support. I remember the customs is trying to equip them with some vehicles, some personnel to see how we can strengthen our collaboration with them with a view to stopping this issue of smuggling. The truth is that our borders are very difficult to police because we don’t even have the number of personnel to police our borders. Unfortunately, some of those smugglers are having state support for what they are doing, and we are trying to see how we can, within the provisions of the rules; within the ECOWAS protocols see how we can handle this issue of smuggling.
How about fish exports since you said earlier that your regime has increased local production?
In fact, if I have my way, we will prohibit fish export because the gap between the national production and the national demand is still very huge. But because we also encourage people who are making investment to see how they can sale or exports, we allow them, because it is a free market economy in Nigeria. If anybody feels that they want to export, of course we can’t stop them. Atlantic