Okunbo: Nigeria Has Huge Export Potential

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Wells Hosa Green House Farms Limited in Benin City recently inaugurated its farm. In this interview, its Managing Director, Bright Okunbor, speaks about the plan of the farm to satisfy the Nigerian market. Jonathan Eze brings the excerpts

Wells Hosa officially harvested its first fruits last week. Can you tell us about the turnover?
The quantity that was harvested today was about 2.5 tonnes as verified by the production department, however from the first harvest on August 21 till today, we have harvested over 10 tonnes of tomatoes from only four Greenhouses and this is just the beginning because the production is staggered and also, it’s not the peak of production. So, only the first four greenhouses are producing now and the next four will start producing in about six weeks and the fruits will be ready for harvest.

Are these tomatoes meant for local distribution or are you considering export, or do you intend processing them into finished products?
We want to satisfy the Nigerian market first before thinking of export, because like you know the issue of scarcity of tomatoes is not a thing of surprise and we all know the challenges and most especially down south here in Nigeria, because most of the tomatoes usually comes from the north. We are trying to inject a new trend into the market, our target markets is establishing key accounts with hotels, cafeterias, major retail outlets and also the open market.

This is because we will be producing the best variety of tomatoes with a shelf life of a minimum of 10-14 days without refrigeration in three grades of sizes with the premium grades weighing over 150g per tomato fruit. So, to answer your question, it will be for local consumption but not for processing. Right now, we already have our products in the open market in Benin, Warri, Sapele and Port Harcourt. We have tested the Habanero Pepper with a few lines in our greenhouse and they have proven successful. When full production of Habanero peppers starts it will be mainly for exports. The tomatoes will be sold locally, and the Habanero peppers will mainly be for export with about 10-15 per cent of its production for the local markets.

Are there things you are sourcing locally for the Green House Farms?
It is a mix; some materials were sourced locally and there were some that could not be sourced locally. I will give examples. The greenhouse structures that you see comprises about 70 per cent galvanised steel and 30 per cent plastics, mesh, substrates, circulatory fans and so on, all these components were all imported. All the materials we used for the construction of these green houses were imported from various countries like Isreal, Mexico, Spain and Sri Lanka, just to make sure we are getting the best quality of materials.

In the long-run, to be sustainable and reduce cost as a company, we are already looking ahead on how we can get most of these essential greenhouse material produced in Nigeria and most especially the galvanised steel, where we can get the right gauge and percentage of the galvanised steel. That is one of the major challenges we have in Nigeria because the local steel are not 90 per cent galvanised. So, we need the right type of steel and the right type of material to use. However, everything else used in the land preparation, road and drainage construction, buildings and structures were all done locally with our local companies and the labour we used has been local, so we have involved local content in both human and material resources.

Tell us about some challenges you have passed through and the ones you are anticipating since you commenced this farm?
Land preparation started in October 2015 in the dry season, however in April 2016, when the rain season started, we discovered that the ten hectares greenhouses already erected where flooded as a result of sub-standard greenhouse materials used for the gutters which led to flooding, hence we had to redesign the drainage at a much higher cost to accommodate the existing greenhouses. A report by groups of consultants from both Mexico and Israel after extensive studies on the quality and durability of the greenhouses advised that the greenhouses were of sub standard and was not suitable for the tropics and should be removed.

With this information of sub-standard quality from our initial partners, I had to go in search for new partners to rescue us from this failing greenhouse situation and at the back of my head it kept resounding that I did not leave everything behind in the US to come back to Nigeria to fail and with a tenacious Chairman like Capt. Idahosa Okunbo, I had no other choice but to succeed so with this in mind I had to travel to Israel, Mexico and the United States of America in search of new partners. This was one of the most challenging part of this project because we had to dissolve the Joint Venture (J.V) entered into with our previous partners while searching for new technical partners. In addition to that we had to uninstall all existing 10 hectares green houses already in place. This cost the company a lot of money in labour, tools, machineries, manpower, revenue losses and so on.

To uninstall those 10 hectares of green houses, we had to pay for extra labour. So, that was another challenge we had to deal with and also on top of that, I had to travel abroad looking for better partners and the first conference I went for was the PMA conference on fresh produce and marketing in Orlando in 2016, in search of partners that could rescue us from the problems that we have found ourselves in. After Orlando it was Israel and then Mexico visiting different greenhouse manufacturers and we finally narrowed down our new partners brought them to Nigeria and after extensive study of the weather conditions in Edo State and the southern parts of Nigeria, they designed and patented a new greenhouse model specifically for the tropical region to help combat the challenges the tropical weather poses to greenhouses. So, that is how we had to start afresh with construction again in October 2017 that is two years after we first started land preparations. The first set of containers of the newly designed green houses started arriving in October 2017 and between October 2017 till date, we have 10 greenhouses installed, eight greenhouses in production while construction is ongoing for the the remaining greenhouses.

Can you tell us about the values you have added as per jobs you have created directly and indirectly?

One of our primarily objectives as a company is to serve and empower our community. With this in mind, we have employed over 250 construction workers as both permanent and contract staffs and also over 160 production workers for the eight green houses, we have employed a lot of young male and female currently undergoing training on greenhouse crop production, these include young graduates, current NYSC members and unemployed youths out of the streets. By the time we achieve full operating capability with all 28 Greenhouses in operation, we would actively have created over 500 direct and 4000 indirect employment.

In the near future, the company’s vision is to partner both government and private sectors to replicate this model across Nigeria, however we are not just going to build greenhouses and abandon them with the investors but run both the production and marketing with our team of experts to guarantee success. So yes, we have created a lot of jobs directly and we already have association of market men and women from Edo, Sapele, Warri and Port Harcourt coming to us for distribution of our products, so indirectly, people are already getting the benefits from the proceeds from Wells Hosa Green House farms and this is just in a span of two weeks of production.

What level of support have you gotten from the government so far?

Well, I will say we have gotten a lot of support from the government. Firstly, was the import duty waivers. So, we were able to secure import duty waivers on all our containers that came in so that also reduced our overhead cost for clearing of the containers, because these green houses that you see today took a total of 42 forty foot containers imported to Nigeria and the government was able to give us that import duty waiver which was very key and also the Edo State Government has been very supportive as well as making approvals for developing a non painful task. We have had some challenges with some agencies, because it is a little bit difficult to get approvals for things that you need to enhance this type of agriculture.

The first challenge we had was with the Office of the National Security Adviser (ONSA), after securing a NAFDAC permit to import the required fertilisers, we tried to secure the End User Certificate (EUC) from ONSA to import inorganic fertilisers to be used and that permit process took about five months to get as a result of various technically issues which delayed our start of production and almost ruined all efforts that has been put in up until that point but I am glad we were approved for the EUC because without these inputs, we would have not been able to have a successful production. So, what I will like to ask of the federal government and it’s respective agencies is to give consideration and proper timing to have approval treated on time because agriculture is time sensitive if you miss a planting season or period because of inability to get approval for various permits, that season or period is lost.

So, my plea is for the process to be a little bit faster especially for sensitive materials and inputs that are needed for production. As I speak to you now, we are in the process to get bumble bees into Nigeria for pollination and the same delays are been experienced as well at these ministries and parastatals, please don’t get me wrong I am not against going through the due process, but it can be done more timely and efficiently but the delays and mistakes that happens along the process cost us time and money, it will improve agriculture a great deal if these processes are improved upon.

Do you think Nigeria as a country can achieve self-sufficiency in tomato production?
Good question, Nigeria produces about 1.6 to 1.8 million metric tonnes of tomatoes annually and a majority of this is done in the open field, Italy has about 20,000 acres of green house under tomato production, Spain is another huge tomato producer with over 25,000 Acres of greenhouse, in Mexico as at 2000, Mexico had only about 700 hectares of green houses and as of today, they have over 25,000 hectares of green houses for vegetables. They started just the way we are starting now, they failed, they learnt and improved and made process as they learnt and as you know, Wells Hosa is not the only company that has tried green house production in Nigeria, a lot of people have tried but it has not been as successful as what you see here today in terms of yield, quality, management and technology that is as a result of dedication, having the right partners to run the project, because it is one thing to sell green houses and another to run these green houses effectively.

If you have a green house that is not being run properly with the right growers and technology it will fail, so you have to synchronise and have a good fit both on the quality and construction of the green house and on the other hand, the best growers and best agronomists that can make it a success, so to answer your question, Nigeria has a long way to go we are just getting started, Wells Hosa Greenhouse Farms has proved that this is possible and what we want to do as a company is to replicate this tested and proven model all around Nigeria where we do not have to depend on seasonal weather conditions to produce most of our staple crops and daily food, we are just starting and with support from the government I know it will be possible to achieve.

The federal government is now focusing on the non-oil sector to diversify the economy, do you think Nigeria would have done better if they had done that earlier than now?
That is a no brainer, Nigeria should not have focused only on oil all these years and I am sure when the price of oil dropped to $30 per barrel, we felt the impact and this is something we should have prepared for by diversifying our economy for other sources of revenues. Nigeria has to and must diversify our sources for revenue generation and agriculture is one of the greatest means to do that because in 2017, countries like Netherlands generated US$2 billion while Mexico generated US$ 1.9 billon from export of tomatoes alone. Nigeria needs to key into this huge export opportunity because there are lots of commodities that we can grow in the country, so we can reduce our dependence on crude oil.

The government needs to continuously support agricultural development as it’s already doing with various programs and incentives for farmers, support for new and improved ways to crop production in the case of greenhouses which is tailored specifically to help increase yields and produce the best quality products suitable for exports hence boosting and increasing the foreign exchange earned by Nigeria from non oil sector, with all this in place and properly implemented, its never too late for us as a country to join other countries that have realised that moving towards a non- oil dependent economy is the best strategy for a country that wants to succeed and stay relevant in the nearest future.

Please tell us about your background?
I graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in Crop Science (Second Class Upper) from the University of Benin, and after my NYSC, I went to California where I got my M.B.A ( Masters in Business Administration) with a major in Business Development and Marketing from the Rady School of Management, University of California San Diego. After business school, I worked in various capacity in management with companies like Conscientia Research, Finistere Venture Capital, DC Shoes Inc., Dexcom Inc., Mor Furniture for Less, all in the United States of America. All these experiences gained over a ten year period prepared me for this position.