The Minister of Agriculture, Chief Audu Ogbeh, was chairman of the Peoples Democratic Party(PDP) from 2001 until January 2005. He is currently the Minister of Agriculture. Ogbeh who is also known for his literary works in this interview with a select group of newsmen spoke about the challenges facing the country as farmers now export grains to neighbouring countries among other issues.
What are we really dealing with in terms of the grain issue?
We are dealing with excessive pressure on our grain supplies. We have had a bumper harvest this year especially of millet and very soon of soghurm. In sorghum production, we are number two in the world now and in millet we are almost number one and then we find ourselves feeding over seven or eight other countries in the North, West, and to the Central part of Africa. Our grains go as far as Southern Libya, Sudan, Chad, Mauritania, Senegal, Mali and they come in trucks from about five markets in West Africa to Nigeria; 500 trucks leave Nigeria daily.
From the Dawanu market in Kano, Maigatari in Jigawa, Laila in Sokoto and before Boko Haram, from Bama market. They just keep loading.
The climate change has created a problem in these areas. There is very little rain and therefore the soils are parched and it has become impossible for them to grow food and produce their own grains, so they depend entirely on Nigeria.
Now, we have a situation where you cannot stop them because they are part of ECOWAS and since you can’t stop them, they come in and buy. Number two, it is an unrecorded trade because it is informal. They come, they change their cephas in the market and then they load. Number three, our currency is so weak now that shopping in Nigeria is the finest thing in the world to do.
It means in one way, we have a market for our produce, but the other point is that we have to feed ourselves first before we think of selling. Now, to strike a balance between the two is our dilemma, so we have to do something.
We have to look for money now to begin to buy also and storing in our green reserves because by January, they will have dried up and if they do, then we go hungry and then people get angry. They are buying rice as well and we don’t have enough rice yet; we have been depending on imports for the last 40 years at the cost of $5 million a day.
Now, we are getting close to self sufficiency in rice but if this pressure goes on, then we have about 900 million people to feed in addition to our nearly 200 million. It throws a challenge, it means fine you have a market, produce more, but the ability to produce that more is not yet with us.
We are short of machinery, tractors, we are short of harvesters, technology and ICT to monitor agriculture and we are short of rice mills. It means therefore that we are coping with two challenges, pressure from the outside and demand from within. So, this is what the Presidency was talking about.
I am already talking to banks and so on to find money for us, about N30 billion to store at least 25 to 30,000 tons of grains in our silos. We have 33 silos and most of them have the capacity of a 100,000 tons each and we have to fill them up quickly. Thank God sorghum is not yet being harvested; it is only millet now and rice.
The second good news is that right now, I have 110 rice mills varying in capacity from a 100 tons a day to 10 tons, which I am about to deploy. Every state will have a minimum of two beginning in Lagos where the biggest demand is. Two units of 40 tons a day plus one existing rice mill will be revived by Christmas.
Installations take a while and the machines didn’t arrive too long ago. So, what it now means is that Nigeria has to feed West, North and Central Africa and at the same time feed 200 million people. Don’t forget that for nearly 40 years, we made the tragic mistake of forgetting agriculture. Brazil, India and Russia made the same mistake and it took them 30 years, some 40 or 50 to catch up to correct their mistakes.
Here we have a problem, 40 years is a long time, we don’t have that time, the populace is hungry, the populace is angry, they don’t want to hear stories about what happened, they want food, you can’t do agriculture overnight but we are moving at the speed of light and we have done quite a few things which are helping us.
We did a soil map of the country which didn’t exist before. In the process, we realised that serious mistakes have been made in the past. The wrong type of fertiliser has been steadily applied to the soil for the wrong type of crops in the wrong environment steadily for 40, 50 years. So, the yields have been low, we have been destroying the soil, the farming have been earning too little and therefore agriculture has not been encouraging in any shape or form.
We now carried out this test state by state, broadly analysing what kind of soils we have in the states. We still have to do more work because on one farm of 200 hectares, you may find soil disparities in different places, but for now we have an average of what kind of fertiliser to apply in what state to what club and in what quantity because the soil has 16 ingredients-the Micro and the macro. The macro, urea, potassium and phosphate, there are the three major ones.
There are smaller ones like boron, zinc and manganese and what have you. Each crop requires a certain amount of that to reach the potential. In the past, we have been fixing just three into the soil, what they call MPK 15,15,15 or just the urea. No soil and no crop accepts an exact amount of this three, 15 percent of each. Some soils have too much phosphate, some already have too much potassium, so if you add more the potassium becomes too much and locks down the other ingredients, so you might have a lot of leaves but no food.
We have corrected that and the result is fantastic. Farmers are now harvesting instead of two tons per hectare, seven and a half and some even 10 tons. As we improve on it, they are going to have yields of 10, 15 tons.
The other major challenge we have this year is maize The early planters had a good harvest. Those who planted a bit late to harvest in the dry season ran into a problem of an insect called the army worm.
They destroyed the maize farms and we are going to have a shortfall of maize. That is a challenge we face which is affecting the poultry industry and human feeding. We are correcting that.
When we got chemicals, the farmers didn’t know how to apply the chemicals. For spraying against the army worm, you apply the chemical vertically not horizontally, because the army worm settles in the stem of the maize. It is when you apply vertically, it goes down and kills them. And they can stay there even into the dry season and re-emerge in the soil latter in the year for the new crop. These are the challenges we face.
You spoke about the loan you are sourcing from banks, any head way and which banks are involved?
We are making some headway, we are talking primarily with the Central Bank because whatever we buy, we are going to sell in February, March and then pay them back. They are the biggest possibility. A few other banks we are also talking to are ready to have a conversation.
The President spoke on strategies for a climate friendly farming at COP 22, what are the specifics?
We are building a minimum of 10 dams and lakes in every state in the next two years in addition to the existing 200 dams, we are building more dams. We have resolved that we must not wait for the rains to plant food and that agriculture has to be all year round. Three crops of maize, millet and rice each year, then we can meet the demands of North, West and Central Africa and meet our own demands, outside of that, you cannot do anything.
What is your target for next year?
The construction of dams will begin as soon as the new budget is passed, we are already working on some, we are cleaning up the whole dams in cooperation with the ministry of water resources; we are already cleaning up the whole dam. Some of them are silted full of sand over the years because we never used them. We have to clean them up and it costs money. We are going to start using them. The big dams Goronio, Bakalori, Dadinkowa and so on. And then in the South West, Oyo State has 22 dams and not one has been used for anything; Ogun has eight dams, Ekiti has one large dam stretching up to 22 kilometres, Kogi has one about 28 kilometres stretching from Kogi into Ondo. These dams have been idle and we are reviving them and once we do, the areas around them, we will install pumps, solar pumps and other pumps drive water and go.
By now, the second crop of maize should be approaching flowering. But all these years, we have been waiting for the rainy season and only the peasants, poor small holders have been working and we the elite unfortunately have treated them with nothing but scorn and so production has been very poor. Their yields have been low, they have no credit, the banks are scared of giving them money because they say they can’t repay. There are too few tractors to work with, so the young people can’t be interested in agriculture because it is too tedious so we have been feeding off imports.
What is being done to curb wastage of what we produce when farmers cannot preserve what they harvest?
Most harvest losses have been about 30 per cent or sometimes 40 per cent and we are dealing with that. We have 33 silos, big, some 80,000 or 100,000 tons. We were going to concession them, we now realised that the national demand is so huge that concessioning may not be immediately useful. We may put ourselves in a situation where the private concessioners have control and the government has none and the government has the duty to feed its people; it is in the constitution. We are expected to guarantee the good feeding of our people.
So, storage is not an issue anymore with grains, the real question is value addition. We have a programme in the ministry called Livelihood Improvement Family Enterprise (LIFE). We are moving small scale processing machineries into rural areas. Palm oil mills, palm kernel mills, rice mills, groundnut oil mills, Shea butter mills spreading as far into the rural areas as possible because there have been one strategic mistake in our development strategy.
A tree is not irrigated from the leaves but from the roots and unless and until we recognise that our attempt to develop will be a complete failure as long as we continue to think only of the cities and the big factories, we will never make it. We want to take life to the villages. You go into the village, a family is going to bed and not one member has a hundred naira. You have been hearing of people stealing pots of soup and amala.
Frankly I am not a propagandist, the change we are talking about is taking place slowly, it is not loud. We have been visiting farm and talking to farmers. One man sold his rice in Jigawa last week for N120,000 for one ton and he said “is this my rice and I alone this made this money? He gave out half the money to people in his excitement and said they should go and pray for the government that he never thought that in his life he will see N120,000.
That is one ton and that fellow if he plants one hectare will make N1.1million and I saw farmers with rice farms stretching 100 kilometres along the Hadejia river bank, three giant rice mills processing Nigerian rice, fresh rice, 10 trailers leaving Jigawa daily heading South. We are encouraging them to put one in Maigatari which is at the borders with Niger Republic, because the people of Niger don’t eat parboiled rice, they eat white rice. I told the governor let us put one these for exports, but this time people change their money in the bank so that they can take the naira and we know how much is coming in.