Chief Walter Chigbo is chairman of Nkeonyemetalu Farms, an agricultural company located in Anambra State that is involved in all sectors of farming. In this interview with David-Chyddy Eleke, the business man who sits atop several other business concerns ranging from oil and gas, haulage and freight forwarding, among others, but recently added farming to his portfolio, stressed that the wealth of Nigeria can be achieved through farming
What do you do exactly?
I am a Lagos based business man who hails from Awgbu in Orumba North Local Government Area of Anambra State. I am also the chairman of Nkeonyemetalu Farms, which is into several agricultural sector, including animal husbandry and food processing, fishery, and many others.
When did you start your farm?
This farm started in July 2017, about two years today. This farm for me is dream come true. I have always had the dream of owning a farm, as I was raised in a farm settlement in Igbariam. Again, I came into farming. M because Anambra State government is always harping on the need for our people to come home and invest.
When I thought of coming home to invest, I started thinking of what to invest in. I saw that people were coming home to build hotels, and I didn’t think that was the kind of investment I needed. I jokingly told one friend once that at the rate our people were building hotels, soon, each family will be sleeping in their own hotel. After that thought, I ruled out hotel, and I started thinking about farming.
Agriculture is the real deal now, in America, some of the richest people are farmers. I became spurred to start a farm during a trip to South Africa where I saw a sugarcane farm. I drove for about two hours and was still in the same sugarcane farm, and I had to stop and look in. I found out that the farm had virtually everything to do with cultivation, processing and production of goods related to sugarcane. The farm had everything including sugar factory, and the chaffs of the sugarcane was still used for other purposes, so you see nothing was a waste to them.
That was why I decided I will come home and start farming, and after doing my feasibility study, in 2017 I came back home and started this farm. Then, we started with three fish pond, but after two years now, we have 56 fish ponds in this farm. This farm has about 154,000 catfish. We also have a poultry that has about 35,000 birds here. We have a ranch and piggery, as well as a grasscutter, snail, yam farm, cocoyam, maize, and rice farm and any crop you can think of, we have a full plantation of it.
Are you fulfilled about the height your farm has attained today?
We may not have gotten to where we seek, but we are on our way there. We hope to start processing our own milk here when we are fully established. We have a plantain plantation.
Our major problem here is that we do not have access roads to this place, and that has made it very difficult for us to move the food stuff we have out of here, into the market. Though we have people who take the trouble to come here to patronise us, but we believe that if the road is accessible, people will come here to patronise us. You may not know that here we sell fresh eggs at very cheap prices, and we are sure that if the road was good, people will prefer to drive down here and buy eggs at N700 per crate instead of buying at N1,200 in town.
Another problem we have here is that this area has no water. We have spent several millions of naira looking for water. Even though the place is swampy and waterlogged, you can still not find water here. The last attempt we made cost us N12million but after a few days, the water stopped running.
I believe that if we can get some of these things right; the roads, the water scarcity, we will go places. You cannot really call yourself a farmer if all you do is cultivate food to feed yourself and your family. Every good farmer should be able to feed the society with their produce.
We also have another challenge of electricity here. As you can see now, we are using generator and spending money on diesel. We have spent much to see how we can bring electricity to this place, even to the point of procuring our own transformer, which would be installed soon.
How has it been managing the farm, especially with its large size?
We have about three other farms outside this place for both the tomato and rice, and all these require people to tend them, so you can now see that we are not only trying to produce food for the nation, but also providing employment for the people, and as part of our corporate social responsibility, most of our staff are from this community. When our transformer is eventually installed, we will also be providing electricity to people of the community, and that is part of our social responsibility too.
We see you also have a large herd of cattle here. We would like to know how cost effective or intensive it is to keep them in a ranch, as opposed to the nomadic method by herdsmen who have defied all order to move around to feed their cattle?
Let me tell you, the best option in cattle rearing is to rear them in a secluded place, like in a ranch. I have never seen any cow being taken around by herdsmen that is large and sizeable. In the United Arab Emirates, I saw a cow that is so large that it cannot enter this house. Such cows, you can get two drums of milk from them every day. You cannot compare these nomadic way of rearing cattle with the ranching method, because the nomadic method put the cattle under severe stress. But if you keep them in a place where they get rest, and you feed them properly, before long, you see them growing very fat.
For the Fulani nomads, I think they have grown used to being nomads that they do not care to try other methods, maybe because of their system and topography over there in the north, as they neither have enough green land or water.
Considering the size of this investment, what would you say it cost to set up this farm?
In order not to over bloat the cost of this farm, I will frankly tell you that even up to this moment, we are still investing. But so far, we have invested about N500million in this place in the last two years.
As you can see for yourself, this is a modern farm, and we are building everything to taste. The work here is such that it never ends, and so as you are building some parts, there is need to return to it and make amendments.
How much patronage do you get?
What we make here is not much, but people are gradually becoming aware of our products. As at today, we have a couple of hotels and businesses we supply eggs to, we have also acquired cold food equipment, and we will be supplying frozen chicken and other forms of frozen food to our customers. The recent ban on frozen food by government is also a plus for us, and more people are now resorting to local produce. It is for this reason that we have to spend more money to acquire more equipment, like we have to acquire equipment that plucks feather off the birds. You don’t expect that anyone will use the hands to pluck feather off 10,000 birds and still be able to deliver on time.
Can you say you are enjoying the business so far?
The truth is for you to come into farming, you have to have passion for it. If you do not have passion for it and you come into it, it won’t take time before you run away from the business. When you spend a huge amount of money and cannot recoup within a short period, the truth is that you my run away from the business because it does not yield immediately. You have to invest before it starts yielding. For me, because I have passion for it, it gives me innermost joy to see that the business is taking shape.
Do you think government encouragement to farmers is enough?
No. Government hasn’t done much to encourage the agricultural sector. They keep asking people to go into agriculture as a major means of diversification, but truth is that they are only saying it and have not backed it with action. Does government have any farm? They do not. They have to own a farm and run it professionally and show that it can be profitable, and that is the only way others can heed their call. The last time I was in UK, I found that the government owned a farm, and it paid its employees the Pounds equivalence of N20,000 per hour. It was one of the biggest farms in the country.
The Nigeria government should toe this line. Government has the resources to run a standard farm that can set standards for private farmers, and that is what it should do. If I become the governor of this state tomorrow, I will establish a farm for the state. A farm which can comfortably absorb lots of the young people who leave the university ever year.
Are you comfortable that Federal Government has stopped Forex for importation of food items?
That is part of the problem. How can a government that is not sufficient in food production be restricting foreign exchange for the importation of food items? Agreed that it is very helpful to us the local producers, but government must go beyond this and encourage people to come into the production of food. Government is discouraging the importation of food and even restricting foreign exchange for the importation of food, they have to encourage more people to come into production, because when people can’t import and there is shortage of production at home, what then should the people do?