In this report, Bayo Akinloye tells the sad story of farmers who produced cocoa, the mainstay of the economy of South-west Nigeria in the past, but have now abandoned the crop for a more rewarding but illegal one, cannabis
His telephone rang only twice before he picked it. His muffled voice indicated that he was speaking with head tucked between pillows. It was 10:34 pm last May. “It’s not true,” says Yemi Owolabi, Ondo State Commissioner for Information, when he was asked what he thought about cocoa farmers in the state going into cannabis cultivation.
“Cocoa farming is a huge money-spinner. Cocoa is gold,” he explains further, even though medicinal marijuana has been projected to be a billion-dollar industry in the next few years.
Yet, a month-long investigation by THISDAY points in the opposite direction: Cannabis farming is the new money-spinner and farmers, particularly cocoa farmers, are massively embracing its cultivation.
Inside Nigeria’s Forbidden Farms
Many former cocoa farmers who spoke on their newfound golden plant said they wished they had started planting cannabis long ago. Some even merely use their cocoa farms as a cover to cultivate cannabis.
One of them is Niyi Adams. His darting look indicated unease. He had never taken a stranger to his farm before. Even though he has been cultivating cannabis for many years, he has not been able to grapple with the risk of falling into the hands of the National Drug Law Enforcement Agency (NDLEA). Adams is one of the dwindling numbers of Nigerian cocoa farmers now reaping bumper harvests cultivating cannabis.
“I’ve been a cocoa farmer for up to 32 years,” he says in local Yoruba dialect. “I’ve made a fortune from the proceeds of cocoa since I was a youth. I learnt cocoa farming from my father.” But he was not satisfied. With a grin on his face, Adams admitted that the allure of lucre was irresistible.
In Lagos alone, according to one of the farmers’ claim, a cannabis farmer can make at least some millions of naira a day.
“Ah, the profits from cannabis are very huge and the cost of production is low,” he explains matter-of-factly. “Also, cannabis does not suffer any diseases that affect other crops like cocoa.”
His cannabis farm is hundreds of kilometres away from where he lives – far into the bush, away from prying NDLEA officials’ eyes. As a cannabis farmer, he spends months on the farm, especially before the harvesting season. But the cultivation and consumption of Indian hemp are illegal in Nigeria and it must hold enormous risks for any farmer to engage in its production. The Ondo State commissioner did talk about the run-ins cannabis farmers have with the law.
“There’s no money you want to make in cannabis that will make you as wealthy as cocoa farmers,” Owolabi insists. “How much can you make from cannabis? The cannabis farmers have daily battles with the NDLEA.”
But investigations reveal that in the South-west states of Ondo, Osun, Ekiti and Oyo, many cocoa farmers are not hesitating to cultivate cannabis as an alternative in spite of the enforcement agency.
Twenty-five-year-old Deji Iyanda is one of such farmers. The reporter found him at another far-flung farm. With coarse hands, hefty shoulders and a rough face, Iyanda is uncharacteristically convivial. He dropped out of college of education because his parents did not have enough money to send him to school.
“I ventured into cannabis farming as soon I realised that my parents could not cater for my higher education,” explains Iyanda.
Unlike the much older Adams, this young cannabis farmer talked about his activities with ease.
“I’m not boasting. It’s true. I’ve built two houses and have two cars,” he reveals with two fingers from each of his hands raised to the sky, “and I’m taking care of my aged parents.”
Without specifying though, he claimed he has made a lot of money as a cannabis farmer.
“I have markets in the South-west and in the South-east.”
Cocoa farming has never had an appeal for young Iyanda. “I can’t wait for years – ah! I can’t spend years in the sun trying to dry any crop and some wicked middlemen will come and rip me off,” he says. Iyanda, Adams and their ilk cannot wait to have cannabis legalised in Nigeria.