JOE ONYIUKE; Nigeria Can Regain Lost Glory in Oil Palm Exports

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Business Interview

The newly-elected President of the Oil Palm Growers Association of Nigeria (OPGAN), Joe Onyiuke, in this interview, says if well harnessed, the oil palm industry can again become a major foreign exchange earner for Nigeria. James Emejo presents the excerpts:

Congratulations on your election as president of OPGAN. What will be the priority of the new leadership?

We are pledging that first and foremost, we need to bring oil palm back to the original status as it used to be a major foreign exchange earner for this country.

Other countries that came here to take our seeds today are doing much better than us and are even earning much more than we earn on crude oil.

The secret is research, continuous farmers’ education, improved seedlings, best agronomic practice in the management of oil palm Plantations, serious and continuous investment in the sector.

We need to better organize and train our members especially the small holders in order to achieve the above.

We must work hard to reverse the estimated N190 billion annual oil palm import bill. With proper planning and well-articulated engagement with our critical stakeholders, Nigeria has the capacity to be self-sufficient and take back our positions as the leading exporter of oil palm.

What do you intend to go about this vision with your association?

It is my desire to organise every smallholder farmer in Nigeria together and begin to do proper training and education. Because we have been picking palm produce that our fathers and forefathers planted but palm oil is a very serious investment. It’s unlike rice, maize and other commodities that you harvest within a year. It’s like when you invest in property or in the capital market – you invest for the future. You invest in oil palm not only for your immediate benefit but for that of the generations yet unborn. The palm oil that we are enjoying today are the ones that our fathers/forefathers planted for us. If you travel around this country, you will discover that we are not even taking very good care of the plantations because it is capital and labour intensive to run and maintain. There is no better time than now for our younger generation to take over, improve and move oil palm ecosystem to the next level. I want to encourage all the Nigerian youths to see agriculture as the only way out of the woods for this great nation.

Given the present level of competition in the sector, how much can Nigeria realise from the commodity?

The oil palm value chain is endless and we need to bring Nigeria back to where it should be in the world palm oil market. The world will know and hear about Nigeria again and we have to first bring ourselves together as one team, just like the soldier-ants. Little ants working together move big logs. Today in Nigeria, some of the world big players are already here. They have structures and are better organised, so the banks go to them and they go to the banks and get all they want.

But what about the smallholder/medium holder farmers, if we don’t take time in this country, a time will come when people from other countries like Indonesia and Malaysia will take over all our plantations both private and government owned, because of our cheer apathy towards agriculture. We must start to re-orientate our people to return to agriculture because that is the basis of industrialization. We cannot continue as a country to outsource everything to other people including our lives and resort only to consumption. We need to go back to the era of investment attitude and not quick returns.

The Eastern and Western Governments of late, Michael Okpara and Obafemi Awolowo laid the solid oil palm, Cocoa and Rubber plantations that we are still enjoying today. Those were the days when our people were ready to work and wait patiently for the fruits of their labour.

With well-organized aggregation of all harvest from every smallholder in Nigeria, we can fill the import gap and even begin to look for international market. Extension Services and farmers’ education are at the very foundation of our new vision/focus, our farmers will ensure that whatever we produce will meet international standard/quality.

How much are the farmers losing to foreign competition in the oil palm sector?

Well, we just came in, we don’t know the exact figures but it is humongous. We never gained nothing. If you go all over the place you will see oil palm trees that are unattended to…nobody is putting fertiliser, they don’t even know what fertiliser to put and even when we harvest, we don’t know how to process. For instance, if you harvest fresh fruit bunches (FFB) and you fail to process immediately, because of local production style, you leave it for two to three days to soften a bit before you boil it and begin the process of oil extraction, the fatty acid content is already too high. The Crude Palm Oil (CPO) cannot be accepted because of high fatty acid content above 5 per cent which has limited the use of that CPO for other industrial uses. However, the high fatty content can be utilized in the production of mayonnaise, margarine and cheese etc. But we lack the technology and the knowledge to harness the multiple value chains in the oil palm sector.

In what areas can the federal government support the transformation of the oil palm industry?

First, it is about education, provision of improved/high yielding sprout nuts, creation of world class nurseries that will produce the seedlings that can be used to repopulate our ageing stock, expand and create new plantations, access to funding to enable our members manage their existing plantations as well as replace our existing old/wasteful processing mills. We need to improve our local capacities tremendously. The multiplier effects are enormous- job creation, industries are created and government revenues are increased.

We ask the federal government to increase funding for the Nigerian Institute for Oil Palm Research (NIFOR) as it’s the bedrock of the sector’s development: without properly cloned seedlings that are well nurtured, we cannot get better/optimum yields. We have the wild groves that fall from the mother trees and are scattered everywhere without proper spacing and care.

Just like new born babies that have to be inoculated or given vaccines as they grow, the first one to two years of an oil sprouted nut is the most important period in the life of that oil palm. The oil palm may grow and look healthy in the farm, but that tree can never produce its full potential because of those necessary nutrients and care that it failed to get within that critical nursery period. Our farmers have no access to improved seedlings, funding for plantation/farm maintenance and as well-improved processing capacity.

We must also help the government to help us by getting organised with solid structures because without the necessary organizational structures, the government/any lender cannot put anything on nothing.

How does your association position itself to access the funding opportunities provided by the government to grow the sector?

The major work we have to do is to first as an Association lay a very solid structure before any lender can take us serious. In the past, there were so much noise without traction and direction.

We will address all the issues of our members under my leadership. Oil palm is a very viable business that can pay back whatever investment that you put into it completely without any problem.

What is the role of government and the central bank in liberating the oil palm sector?

The CBN is there and has helped this country tremendously, especially in agriculture and we know the problems we had as an association. The central bank has been there, but the central bank cannot come and spoon feed us. The government has given the support: I have to thank the government of President Muhammadu Buhari for empowering the CBN through the Anchor Borrower Programme and all the other interventions. The Central bank Governor, Mr. Godwin Emefile has brought the private sector expertise/drive into the Public Sector space and the country is feeling the tremendous impact. One cannot leave out the Federal Ministry of Agriculture for all their direct support to farmers in Nigeria. The federal Ministry of Industry, Trade and Investment is also doing a lot by providing markets for our agricultural produce.

This government has shown that it’s very serious about agriculture. So that’s already given. Then, we cannot say because the money is there, the bank must assist us. Therefore, as an umbrella association with membership across 26 States of the federation including the FCT, we have reengineered and repositioned ourselves to become eligible for all government interventions with a very strong capacity to liquidate/repay the loans. Other associations with shorter gestation periods have been accessing these CBN interventions and they’re doing very well. We just have to be more creative and understand Oil Palm transaction dynamics. If you look at cotton, cotton has transformed this country again: our uniform men are using uniforms made from cotton grown in this country. The ginneries and textile mills are gradually coming to back to life. We need to replicate that in Oil Palm and ensure that we stop further importation of palm oil and begin to export.

Now we will work hard and ensure that we are able to access the single-digit interest rate interventions for both developing/maintaining our plantations and processing mills.

With the present crop of young people in our new EXCO, we will take off from where our fathers stopped and we will take this single commodity to enviable heights.

How do you ensure harmony in your hitherto divided association?

I want to commend our Board of Trustees, who conducted a successful election and took it upon themselves to reposition our association. I also want to thank our members for the trust reposed in the new leadership and I assured that we would not fail in anyway. We will unite our members and run an all-inclusive administration. We will do everything possible to run a very transparent administration. We will do our accounting system the way it is done all over the world. All of us are united by one religion here- oil palm