The Chief Executive Officer of Blaid Farms Limited, a mechanised farm that is situated on 48-hectares of land in Abuja, Mrs. Ochuko Momoh, in this interview says the agriculture sector has the ability to transform the fortunes of the Nigerian economy. Momoh believes that the country will generate more revenue by exporting food than crude oil if agriculture is taken seriously, just as she expresses concern that access to credit remains a challenge to the sector. Obinna Chima brings the excerpts:
What do you think is the state of agriculture in Nigeria today?
Agriculture in Nigeria has a lot of potential, but the truth about it is that there are also a lot of restrains. One of the major one is finance. Yes, every day we hear in the news that there is agriculture loan, but the process of accessing such loans frustrates you. When you sell to a banker this dream that I have been called into, they look at you as if you don’t know what you are saying and wonder how many years it would take them to recoup their investments. But I keep telling them (bankers) that the thing about agriculture is that the profit comes gradually even if it is small. But your focus as a farmer should be that you are feeding people and creating employment.
I had this land for almost six years, but getting the finance was very frustrating. Like I said earlier, the process of getting agriculture loan is very frustrating. For instance, to access agriculture loan, one of the requirements is that you must first have an existing farm. Somebody wants a loan to set up a farm, but they are saying a first criteria is that the person must have an existing farm. Of course, we had the land, but we didn’t have anything on the land. So, I had a relationship with Standard Chartered Bank and I told them what I wanted to do. We sat down, did all the estimates and how many years it would take to pay back. They made me to understand that their main concern was that people divert funds.
That is, some would collect loan for something and divert it to something else. So, I told them I was ready for them (the bank) to visit the farm monthly to monitor the progress of work on the farm. They didn’t give me the entire money at once, they gave it to me as required. So, there is a lot of potential for agriculture in Nigeria. Our agriculture technology is still very backward. The world has gone very far. I can categorically say that right now; I am the only farmer that has a hydro-tank fish farming system. Most people do pond fish and cat fish, but there are other things to fish farming.
Of course, when you increase your technology, it helps the population. We actually have a dream of exporting. Our dreams are very big and as far as we are concerned, this is just the beginning. We are happy the bank is now seeing value in what we are doing. The bank actually brings it customers here these days to showcase what we have done. Of course, interest rate is higher than what we would have gotten as agriculture loan, but at least we have started.
Are you not aware of schemes such as the Commercial Agriculture Credit Scheme and several other initiatives by government to support farmers in the country?
The process is too long. To get the loan can take you over eight months. Go and find out. It is a very long process. Go to the banks to find out how many people have gotten this loan. Let the SME operators show you a farm that is existing from funds that were gotten from the agriculture scheme. Sometimes, they tend to support those with one or two hectares. But such kind of farms cannot feed a village. We are talking about supporting farms that can feed very large number of our population. I tell people that Nigeria would generate more revenue by exporting food than crude oil if we take it seriously.
Export is another issue in Nigeria. You would not believe that we got markets for our products in Ghana, but we cannot export these products. Why can’t we export? The airlines alone, because these are perishable things – tomatoes, lettuce – and so they must go by air and not by road. First of all, the airline is charging you $1.30 to carry just one item to Ghana, not the United States and not London. That is not bad enough. Then all the government taxes you have to pay comes to $2.50. So, to export one kilo of cucumber comes to $3.70. Now, you have not talked about the amount the person that is selling in Ghana is going to clear it with. So, to export one kilo of cucumber, we have to pay $3.70. How much is the cucumber? N300! So, luckily, we are still struggling to satisfy the Abuja market. Our customers from Accra have been calling and I have told them about the challenge we are facing.
Earlier you said agriculture is still backward in Nigeria. What kind of reforms do you think should be initiated to transform the sector?
Firstly, there is need to increase power supply. When we started production on this farm, the first bill we got was about N100,000, the following month it went up to about N200,000 and presently, we get monthly bill of N420,000 monthly, and they have increased the tariff. We sought to know why they increased the tariff, and they said the order came from above, that tariff in all farms should be increased. So, we have decided to do solar. I am working with a company to achieve that and I am going to cut off from the power distribution company completely because in a month we spend about N7 million on diesel alone.
That is because all the hi-tech equipment need power to run. When we even manage to get power, the voltage hardly carries all the equipment. Power from the Disco cannot carry the fish, so we must use the generator. These are the things that frustrate business. Another thing is import duties. You hear on the news always that farm equipment attracts zero duty and some 10 per cent duty. But the Customs official will tell you that the farm equipment you brought in is made of steel and that steel is contraband, so you would be required to pay duty. Is a bird cage not made of steel? You cannot believe how much we pay as duty levies to clear containers. So, these are all the things that frustrate any business.
Why do you import the seeds you plant?
We import the seeds because there is no company in Nigeria that produces vegetable seeds. All the seeds in Nigeria are imported.
So, what do you think should be done to start producing seeds in this country?
I think someone in the private sector has to establish a plant to produce and develop varieties of seeds. It is all about science and technology and it is a very big investment. It takes many years before you develop a variety of consistent local weather condition, soil condition and other things. So, I believe it is not something the government should be involved in, that is why I would support that a private entity should invest in it and develop this kind of plant that can produce varieties of seeds of vegetables.
What kind of support do you think Blaid Farms requires to enhance its output?
It is basically financial support. That is because if you see our chicken house, we are doing it in stages because of finance. Just yesterday we were able to pay for the second birds coming to the chicken house because of the house has 13,200 birds, which is costing us over N18 million, just for the birds. So, it is basically finance that has made it such that even though we have the land, we have not been able to expand. If we have the money, we can prepare to put another two hectares of the greenhouses. We can’t meet the demand for eggs also. So, it is because we don’t have the finance that we are not able to expand. We just raised another money from Standard Chartered Bank and so we are doing the second chicken house. We are not even thinking about the third chicken house because of finance.
The Blaid Group has always been known for construction and real estate, at what point did you conceive the idea of setting up a farm?
I would always say that right from when I was small, farming was compulsory in our home. Then, my mother would plant tomatoes and make sure I harvest them. For me, then, I thought I was being punished because I didn’t like the whole idea. So, when I got this property, which is on 48 hectares of land, from the local government. Initially I wanted to do an estate, because for me I like property, but one day the idea of making the place a farm home came before one of the engineers at Blaid Group advised me that we should use the land for farming. So, I decided to send Engineer Tosin Oyewole, who is now the General Manager of Blaid Farm on a six-month training. For me, anything I want to do, I want to have knowledge of that business. So, in the process, he met somebody that knows Mr. Reuven Cohen, an Isreali expert in farming. So, I met him and we kicked off. He took me and some of my staff to Isreal where went to understudy some farms, we saw the equipment and how things are done. The thing I do with my staff is that I make sure that are involved and I give them responsibility to feel they are part of the business. That was why when I was going to Isreal, I went with some of them, Tosin and Mr. Manuel, so that they would see things themselves.
What is your projection in the next five years?
In five years, I want to be able to own 300 hectares of farmland. We are working on having orchards, 30 hectares of banana plantation and 30 hectares of farm plantation and in that way, you are able to feed every one. I am getting demand for eggs and other farm produce from Lagos, Port Harcourt, Ibadan, but I can’t meet the demand. So, we would keep developing the farm. There is a lot of potential, not only for the local market, but for import as well. But there is need for appropriate government policies.
How are you able to sustain all-year round farming unlike the tradition farming system where farmers have to wait for dry or rainy season to plant certain crops?
One thing I found out in Israel is that even though it is a desert, they have the best food in the world. But they do a lot of irrigation. So, all-year round – whether dry or rainy season, we are cultivating. Everything is automatic. That is one technology I discovered in Israel that is very useful here, especially in the north where we do not have enough rain as the southern part of the country. Shoprite has come to us and given us a lot of things they want us to plant for them. So, we are going to do another three hectares of irrigation and we have imported the equipment, specifically to meet the request of Shoprite. That is because they have seen that we can make it work. So, because we know that we have off-takers, we are going to do another hectares of irrigation. What makes farmers not to be able to plant all-year round is lack of water. All the crops we are cultivating are all-year production, the eggs, the vegetable, lettuce, as well as our fish, are all-year round production. We don’t stop production due to seasonal effects and we harvest almost every day. So, all the crop we are doing, we have the green house and so the weather condition doesn’t affect it. We harvest our lettuce every 21 days and we have eight cycles in a year for the production of lettuce. This is an integrated farm and if one crop doesn’t do well, others will cover your cost of production. But we try to make sure all of them generate the expected income.
What are the advantages of the Recycling Aquatic fish farming system you have set up in your farm compared to the traditional farming system?
This system can give us 15 tonnes more than the local fish farming system. That is because oxygen is supplied all the time to the fish. Tilapia mainly is very sensitive to oxygen. It is not like the catfish. Catfish doesn’t care about oxygen. Tilapia requires enough oxygen, clean water and feed to grow. Here, everything is measured. We test the water and if the PH is higher, we change it. The system requires power 24 hours and there is an emergency bottle for oxygen in case there is no automatic oxygen to sustain the fishes a bit longer. So, it’s a hi-tech system. The system requires only two people to operate it, unlike the traditional method that requires a lot of people. It delivers 20 tonnes per year.
In terms of corporate social responsibility, what is your relationship with the host community?
Apart from our key staff that have degree in what they are doing, all other staff are from the community. We feel that we must give back to the community. So, we do give back to them. We have constructed a bore hole for the community and I can gladly say the community chief is very happy with us.