By Ogunfuyi Ayomikun Peter
Michel Deelen is the head of office of the Netherlands Embassy in Lagos. He came to Nigeria in August, 2014. Before coming to Nigeria, he worked in Libya after spending five years in the Hague in the energy department. Michel is a lawyer by training and generalist diplomat. His strong desire to impact the Nigerian agricultural sector especially through increasing yields and reducing post harvest loses, led him into conceptualizing some programmes and strategy with a formidable team to achieve this vision. AgroBusiness Times met with this visionary and energetic diplomat at his Lagos office where he took some time out of his busy schedule to talk about how the Netherlands is impacting agriculture in Nigeria and sundry issues. Excerpts.
May we meet you Sir?
My name is Mr. Michel Deelen, I am the head of office of the Netherlands Embassy in Lgaos. And the office in Lagos is mostly focused on trade, investment and business. Within that business, we noticed that half of our activities are in the field of agriculture and that is because there is demand from the Nigerian side on knowledge and expertise but there is also a demand from the Dutch side on companies based in Netherlands to understand better how they can do business in Nigeria because that is not always easy. So we as an embassy are playing an intermediary role by linking up Dutch with Nigerian companies to partner, to work together and to do business. One of the ways we achieve this is by organizing trade missions that happen normally once a year whereby Dutch entrepreneurs in the area of agriculture come to Nigeria once in a year to meet with Nigerian farmers .
Also, there is also Nigerian missions who go actually to the Netherlands to see what we are actually doing in the field of agriculture. One of the best things that happened in 2018 was President Mohammedu Buhari’s visit to Netherlands in the month of July , 2018 together with the honourable minister of agriculture, Chief Audu Ogbe and other ministers of the state to see what kind of technologies are available there in the field of agriculture.
So, we have actually the interest on the highest level , president , ministry of agric and legal business people who came there and like you see, they focused in the areas of agriculture where Netherlands has added value which is mostly vegetables, horticulture and those are the areas where we have developed knowledge and expertise and that is also the technology that we want to bring to Nigeria.
Now we have been doing that already for about five years in a programme called “To scale” and “To scale” basically is a programme that we formed whereby we support small holder farmers in expert training and capacity building to create linkages to the market. It can also be a company, like cassava for example, whereby the company or farmer is supported to improve their quantities or quality of their cassava so that they can be taken up by industries in Nigeria.
So what we are doing in Nigeria , is to a large extent not for export because the Nigerian market is so big that there is no need to export many products. So, in 2018, we did support the Nigerian Export Promotion Council to also assist them in looking at what type of agricultural products they will be interested in for export and we ended up with cocoa, cashew nuts and sesame seeds. So, there was a delegation from Nigeria that went to visit some companies in the Netherlands and I think there are indications that business interest have been indicated and contracts have been signed. And that is a little bit of what we do, this is not about money, basically it is about knowledge, it is about transfer of knowledge, it is about transfer of technology. Also, “To scale programme” is about agronomists training farmers, assisting them with business plans and so on to increase production because as a Dutch person who travels to Nigeria, I find it sometimes very sad that I see people working so hard on the land with very little to show during harvest but with a little bit of technology and more knowledge on the soil , type of fertilizer to use and type of seeds, and so on, yields in Nigeria can easily double.
Which technologies are you currently deploying in Nigeria?
It could be very simple and so we are not talking about computerised green houses or automated milking machines and stuff like that. We are talking about good agriculture practices like what is my land ? what is the soil like ? and what do I need to do? What type of irrigation system do I need in my land ? And the next step could be mechanized agriculture if that would makes sense because in some cases it might not make sense, it is not hi-tec but you can use ICT or app on your phone to download something to look at the weather, to also have your soil analogy and you can also check the prices. For example, in Eastern Africa, different technologies have been developed to show to the farmer what the price in the market is and that is what we would be introducing to Nigeria so that the farmer in Kaduna, Katsina or Kano can easily say this is the price they pay in Lagos for my tomatoes.
Sometime is not that difficult to implement but it is also a matter of training and convincing because farmers by nature are quite conservative when it comes to accepting new ways of doing things. It is always not that easy but if they see that something works then they will be happy to embrace it and invest in new technologies. There is also the matter of price like now that there are about five seed companies from the Netherlands that are active in Nigeria, they sell good quality seeds but I think they are a little bit more expensive than the local ones or from China and India.
Yes, a farmer would need some finances to buy these quality seeds but like I said, it is not all about money. The Netherlands thus have investment farmers and we also support microfinance banks in Nigeria who also invest in agriculture. So, both investment and technology are very important, and it is not super technology but it is just the way you follow through.
What is your model of agriculture financing?
let me go back to the model in Netherlands my own country, because we had exactly the same situation in the Netherlands whereby banks will invest in land to businesses, to factories, to whatsoever but not into agriculture. So, the farmers came together and set up their own bank, they created their own bank which is a cooperative bank, which has become one of the biggest banks in the country, and that bank has basically grown consistently through the years as a cooperation. So, the farmers who have the money lend it to the bank and the bank lends it out to farmers. And this is how farmers in Germany and other countries in Europe came together to create such banks and these banks have grown to become general banks but the largest chunk of their customers are farmers. So, the government and private banks didn’t but the farmers came together to help themselves. So, what you see in Nigeria is not different from what was experienced in the Netherlands. For about four years of my stay in Nigeria, I have visited banks to ask if they are lending to farmers and they will always say yes we have this developed as a programme for farmers, yes we have large networks, we talk to farmers , we lend to farmers but on the other side when I talk to the farmers they say they don’t see the money or they were short of access to finance. So, we are supporting agriculture financing through micro finance banks and industries. The money goes to farmers but also it is in the country side or rural areas and it is very very small scale but it works. I mean you have a small group of people that we reach with the small amount of money so I don’t expect huge changes from them.
I think the Federal Government also realises that something needs to be done and that is why they have also introduced NIRSAL to guarantee agricultural lending. So it is all possible but I think until you start increasing the yields and making the farmers more professionals to see farming as a business and not just an exercise. So, it is not about subsistence farming, it’s about professional farmers who have the capacity to increase yields. Even at that, I think that government has the obligation to make sure that the infrastructure is there and with the infrastructure I obviously mean roads and also partly irrigation including storage facilities so that the markets can work and transport on the road can go unhindered without being stopped by corruption or whatever that brings down the revenue so that the farmers can get good revenue for their produce.
So the way the Nigerian agricultural system works left to me is always a surprise because it works fine but it seems to create a lot of wastage. So, I will say the system works to an extent but there is still more work if you can do something about the losses.
You had the Food Connection Challenge recently, was that a dileberate move to cut down the rate at which Nigerian farmers suffer post harvest loses?
Yes, it was. The idea actually came to us because in 2017, we had a challenge betweeen students from the Netherlands and students from Nigeria on business development and finding solutions to problems in Nigeria like gabbage collection and how do you generate biogass from waste, but lets see if we can do something strictly focused on food because the bottom line is, more and more people in Nigeria are moving to the cities exponentially and we don’t produce food in Lagos except on the fringes, that means you have to do something about logistics, you have to do something on the increase of production and so on. So, we needed to do something and we started by asking for proposals from those in agriculture from farming to processing and the response was overwhelming.
We asked questions like what is the challenge ? what are you facing ? Can you come up with something that might help you to come out of the challenge and so that is why we did that and to focus on the young enterprenures and I think we will do it again in 2019. And we have plans to expand it to reach more people.
In addition to that, we are starting with vegetables. We are considering a development project which will look at the horticulture value chain from North to Lagos and see how we can assist in improving them. So, we would start to look from production , warehousing, transportation and storage and ranging from packaging, marketing, and soil to fertilizer. The programme will start running in 2019 and will run up to 2020. And that fits nicely into the food connection challenge.
Beyond your current plan for Nigeria agriculture which other ways can Nigeria benefit from innovations from the Netherlands in the area of agriculture?
Dairy and horticulture are the two most important. I talked about horticulture already. Dairy is the challenge because of the climate , people often say dairy happens and develops well in Kenya but Kenya has a different climate that supports dairy and the Nigerian climate makes it a little bit more difficult to practice dairy and get good yields. But we do manage to double productions like we have development a programme which we do together and that is quite having good reesults in Oyo state at the moment but if you really want to move into the business of dairy farming, you have to consider Plateau state or Mambila plateau where it is colder.
We also have the agriculture university in Netherlands and although it is based in the Netherlands, it focuses a lot more on tropical agriculture and has a lot of knowledge on the Nigerian climate and how to improve farming here. They visit Nigeria quite often but they also work with IITA and other universities in Nigeria to share and increase knowledge.
There is one other thing I forget to mention that is actually the sporsorship programme because there are lots of Nigerian students going to the Netherland to study agriculture, it is called the “Orange Knowledge Programme” and basically it depends on how many people that apply and the selection is not done by us so much but more by the university in Netherlands but we always advice and have over hundred ( 100) Nigerian students go to the Netherlands, some on short courses and some on long courses and when they come back , they start up their own business or they go and work for ministries. It also works for the same purpose, to help transfer knowledge.
But like the “Orange Knowledge Programme” , like the “Food Connection Challenge” I told you about, we are actually looking at how vegetables can be preserved and how they can be processed and how some of these things can reduce post harvest loses which is one of the basic things that the average farmer is suffering now in Nigeria , I think with these , there is so much to talk about.
Do you use GMOs ?
No, GMOs are not allowed in the Netherlands. The popular opinion in Europe does not support the use of GMOs so, our seed companies don’t even deal on GMOs.