In the unique case of Promise Amaha, the President of Young Farmers Network, geology’s loss became agriculture’s gain. In this interview with Stanley Nkwazema, Amaha believes that Nigeria’s agricultural sector can create not only jobs but wealth
Why did you leave geology for agriculture?
It has been very interesting because it clearly shows that sometimes you are not what you study. We know how taking those decisions – especially at Bachelor’s level is influenced by parents. They didn’t really consider what we were passionate about but wanted us to do what they felt was going to strengthen the family both economically and ensure societal relevance. But beyond that you can also not detach the relationship of geology from agriculture because geology simply said is the study of the earth, of soil and one of the critical components of agriculture is the soil itself.
So there is a lot of inter-relatedness and there are a lot of relationships that geology prepares you to understand when you decide to go into agriculture. The transition was not very difficult. It was something I found very interesting, of course, I had to become the black sheep of the family for a while but now I am living my best life ever since then. It has been trying but what I have come to realize for the past decade trying to understand and practice agriculture is that the challenge is in that mindset called agriculture. Agriculture to me is a mindset; what is the attraction is called agribusiness. In my own school of thought, I defined agriculture as a tradition, something that refers to culture, the culture of food.
When you talk about agribusiness, it now takes you down the whole gamut of wealth creation, job creation, opportunities creation, the endless possibilities within the agricultural space. I have gone beyond talking about the value chain because of my understanding. I am now communicating value-added services and that is why in the latter part of this conversation you will find out the core concept of the Young Farmers Network which I envisioned and founded.
How did you get into agriculture proper after school?
After school, it was turbulent because it was a decision between trying to make ends meet and finding a direction. At that point agriculture was not going to put food on the table; it was not going to sustain you. You had to find a job, prepare your CV and wait for Tuesday The Guardian newspapers to see job openings so that you can apply. I had it at the back of my mind that agriculture is something I would like to do later but I needed to hustle first. But agriculture did not want to wait for later because even on my salaried job, agriculture got me into trouble. The first job I got in Lagos, I was suspended and later had to resign because of agriculture. Quick story: Back in time, I went to Goodies Supermarket on Awolowo Road, Ikoyi, Lagos, to pick a few groceries during the weekend and I saw the honey shelf. All I could see there was the foreign honey all going for very expensive prices and I remembered that where I come from in the East, these are things we saw the process of harvesting.
In Nsukka, Enugu State. I grew up in the university environment in Nsukka. I went to university primary school and I went to the University of Nigeria too. The relationship was very strong and when you talk about honey production in Nigeria, it is the eastern part of Nigeria that has dominance in honey production. Curiosity led me to know that. I quickly asked my mum about the availability of our local honey. She said, ‘Yes, it is available if you want it I can waybill 25 litres for you via Ifesinachi (courier service) for you since you want to start drinking it and you can pick it the following day at Jibowu.’ I now met the Lebanese guy who was the manager of Goodies Supermarket and asked him ‘If I give you an option of pure natural African honey to adorn your shelves, will you give me a good display?’ He told me no problem as long as the packaging is clean as you can see the quality of goods displayed in the place and he is particular about what people take in.
I got my first 25 litres from my mom and used my friend’s father’s car park opposite the Ikoyi Club as a bottling place. I went to Ilupeju and bought pet bottles and quickly did a local production facility. I remember my label then was called BG’s. I went to Obalende and got the printing guys to get me a clean label. Used the filters to filter the honey, bottle it, put my BG’s label, had a pack of 24 in a carton. The next time I was in Goodies Supermarket I told the Lebanese guy I am ready to supply. He said he liked my passion and was excited and would let me have a go at this but will only pay me when my product is sold. No upfront payments. He told the storekeeper to give me a decent shelf space and that was it.
Four days later, the Lebanese manager called me and said the honey was sold out and demand had increased and we need to have a go at this. Interestingly the elite that came to shop at Goodies had a different experience from the local honey and foreign ones and the way my labels were colourfully made. They liked the whole idea and they wanted to try it out. In four days, my stock of 24 bottles was gone and there was pressure. The manager now agreed to give me credit upfront to augment my stuff and increase the numbers. That’s how I became a honey merchant. The process of waiting for the waybill, from 50 litres to 100 litres and above to arrive and you know Lagos to coordinate my work; I missed work a few days and came late a few days.
From suspension, I requested to resign. That’s how agriculture pulled me back into the mix. But the story I want to pull out from this particular experience is that it was obvious from my first 24 bottles that I had made more than my salary for the month in four days. That was what gave me the confidence and conviction to even resign beyond passion.
Farming, usually, isn’t attractive to Nigerian youths. It’s seen as an old people’s job. Why?
That has actually been the bane of agricultural productivity in Nigeria. But it is interesting to know that regardless of the youth apathy to agriculture it is still the highest employer of labour. We have almost 90% of smallholders responsible for production in Nigeria. That was the inspiration behind setting up the Young Farmers Network. I will tell you a quick story again. Being a very active child in primary school we had the young farmers club, same for secondary school. One of the exciting things was experiencing the assignments.
They would tell you to go and plant a bean or corn seed and you would eagerly wait for it to shoot. Some nights I will peep to see… ‘God, I want to see when you bring this thing out’. That experience actually strengthened my interest in agriculture and I was excited about going forward. But after secondary school being anything in the young farmers club became unattractive because at that point all you think about is how to succeed in life; how to choose your career and other stuff. If that excitement was sustained from the first time, we were exposed to it, it would have kept most of us in the agricultural space.
Part of the things we are doing differently in the young farmers’ network is to revive and reactivate the young farmers’ clubs from nursery to primary and secondary schools and even into tertiary institutions and until they get to the labour market. We are trying to run a system like what you have with the Rotary Club where you have the ‘interactor’. The ‘interactor’ becomes a ‘rotaractor’. The ‘rotaractor’ becomes a Rotarian. That way you can keep the enthusiasm going.
I did a baseline survey two years ago before setting up the Young Farmers Network and I went to Shendam in Plateau State, to work with the young farmers in Shendam. That is how I started my farm there in the rice farm season to see how they work. I thought I was a superman so they cut all the harvested rice and were threshing manually because they did not have mechanical harvesters. They couldn’t even afford mechanical harvesters. I took the stick to help them beat it. By the third strike, I almost gave up the ghost it was such a hectic experience. My palms were full of blisters already. That is not the experience any young person wants to be identified with.
Simply stated it is that culture which is still the tradition that has not evolved which has kept young people from doing that. Imagine the fun of harvesting with harvesters, imagine mechanization in agriculture. Imagine incorporating value-added services beyond the value chain in agriculture. That is where the attraction is. Interestingly, we are beginning to have positive responses since we inferred we have not even rolled out officially our membership but over 60,000 people have found their way into the network. We have not even declared formally that we are hiring. What we are saying is that anybody can be a member of the network because, in my experience, agriculture connects every other person.
So, I asked a simple question: For the livestock farmer that raises poultry, are you the one that built your poultry pen? No? Okay the guy that farms rice that has to hire a tractor, are you the guy that manufactures your tractor or also services them if they go bad even if you own them? No. So there is a serious connection between agriculture/agribusiness. It is multi-disciplinary stuff. What we did was to create an ecosystem that will allow every value-added service that is connected to the value chain. Now we have a value chain from primary production to post-harvest management. Each of those value chains has what we call value-added services.
The way to make it exciting for young people is to create a merger between the people providing value-added services and the people creating a value chain and it becomes a family where everyone plays a role. It becomes exciting and everybody is making a top dollar because everybody is making money across the chain. If you are a medical doctor, you don’t need to unlearn your discipline and you don’t also need to relearn a particular agribusiness. Some of them come to me saying “I want to be a young farmer” I usually ask what their drive is; the passion or the money. The question will help me position them. We had a conference call with Hello Tractor yesterday. Hello Tractor is a young Nigerian that has become so successful and famous. What did he do differently? He created a technology that is an app for tractor hiring that manages both tractor owners and the people they lease tractors. It has been such a successful business model.
Where is he based?
Yesterday, when I spoke with him he was in Kenya. But he has a strong Nigeria base. A Nigerian but because of the model and the audience created all over the world they are seeking his services because he makes the engagement in agriculture accessible. The three things you watch out for in an agricultural business to make it successful are the three A’s: affordability, availability, and accessibility. Those three are critical things you need to make sure are involved in agricultural business before it becomes more attractive. He did not stop there. He also embeds GPS technologies in all the tractors. When young people know that this kind of technology is in the mix, it excites them. We are in the 21st century and also approaching the fourth industrial revolution.
How do you handle your local product demand with the borders closed?
I am writing an article titled, ‘The Nigerian Border Closure: The End of an Era of Deception’. What has happened in this sector is that a lot of deception has been bandied around by people who have no business in agriculture; who are actually government players and politicians. Unfortunately, some years back some politicians came up to say that Nigeria has met self-sufficiency in rice production. It’s on record. I am not blackmailing anybody. Because I am actively engaged in this thing, I know that this is a very poor political statement to make. The reason why he could pass such a statement was that such leaks like the border were still very porous. So you could augment the inflow and bag it in local bags and then push into the market.
So it did not make any sense. But now a strong president with a strong political will has decided interestingly to shut down the borders and we’re all applauding it. The News Agency of Nigeria interviewed me and I told them it is a good move to shut down the borders but the most critical thing is now to start creating an enabling environment to be able to shore up the consequence of shutting the borders.
What do you have to say in defence of badly-processed local rice?
The consumers are all complaining like the Israelites when they left Egypt. They said it is better we go back to eat good food not like how you brought us out here to die. Just an illustration but that is consumer right. They have the right to demand the quality and unfortunately, it is sad because it is not an exactly correct position. But it also exposes one of the gaps and inefficiencies in the system which is quality control and quality assurance. Every rice processing company has a dedicated staff for quality control. In fact, they have what they call a quality control department. If your quality control department is not properly set up then you are not even in business. Besides that, there needs to be critical enforcement on regulatory compliance to quality control. What is happening now that is causing these complaints; for example, local millers in Benue State are calling me that they have de-stoned rice but it is not parboiled and all whatnot. The demand has increased the opportunity for poor quality products to flood the market which has now created a reaction from the consumers.
Tell us about your background.
I’m from Umunneochi LGA in Isuochi in Abia State. I attended the University Primary School Nsukka and also the University of Nigeria. My dad was a university consultant and also an international trade businessman, My mum was a paramedic. She was a very successful nurse and she had several private hospitals. So she was the more popular of my parents. It was her identity that was our original identity. So, we were called the nurse’s kids. Beyond that now Nigeria is my canvass, my favourite outfit even before this government came on board has been the Kaftan. I eat all the Nigerian foods.