Nigeria spends over N125 billion ($625 million) annually on fish importation.
Steve Okeleji, the founder of Aquatic Hub Afrique Network (AHAN), an aquaculture capacity building firm, believes that the Nigerian aquaculture industry has fared well but that there is a lot more the country needs to do in order to benefit maximally from the existing opportunities along its value chains. He says Nigeria’s expansion in domestic production of fish will create massive employment and entrepreneurial opportunities for unemployed youth and women.
In this interview with Abdulkareem Mojeed, he speaks on some of the challenges bedevilling the country’s fisheries sector, while also providing possible measures both the state and federal governments can implement to take advantage of untapped opportunities therein.
Mr Okeleji said in order for Nigeria to bridge the supply gaps in its fisheries industry, and as well meet up with the Food and Agriculture Organisation(FAO) standard of fish production, there is a need to train and inject about 400,000 fish farmers into the sector.
According to a report by AHAN, Nigeria’s aquaculture industry is largely untapped, and is characterised by poor access to soft credit facilities, lack of requisite technical skills and unavailability of good quality and moderately priced fish seeds and feeds, which mitigates the sector’s growth and development.
It said the total annual fish demand in Nigeria is estimated at 3.4 million metric tons. While about 40 per cent of this demand is met domestically, over N125 billion ($625 million) is spent annually on fish importation.
However, according to the Nigerian Bureau of Statistics latest Gross and Domestic Product (GDP) report, Fishing under agriculture sector contracted by -2.07 per cent in Q3 2020 from 5.68 per cent in Q2 2020 and 1.68 per cent in Q3 2019.
PT: With your wide experience and deep knowledge of Nigeria’s aquaculture and fisheries sector, which is one of the four sub activities that makes up the country’s Agriculture sector, how will you say the sector has fared so far? What are your perceptions of it?
Okeleji: The Nigerian aquaculture sector has fared well but there is a lot that still needs to be done. We are still at a point where our production is not enough to satisfy our demand despite the fact that the demand is far below the Food and Agriculture Organization standards. Importation has been the go-to strategy to meet this supply gap and we spend billions of naira importing fish into the country. But we will get there gradually.
PT: What are the significant challenges you have faced and conquered as a Nigerian fish farmer for over two decades now?
Okeleji: My experience in the aquaculture sector is as old as my existence because I was privileged to be born by an old veterinarian father so I grew up virtually on the farm with several animals including fish. The challenges came and appeared to be seemingly insurmountable then but God who gives insight, vision and direction gave solutions to these challenges. There are three major ones I faced personally but I have been able to conquer them. The challenges are the skill gap of workers, high cost of capital and unavailability of amenities such as sufficient water, electricity and these are the basic necessities for you to be successful in Aquaculture. It was difficult accessing soft credit facilities from financial institutions to aid expansion; I believed with money we could at least sort issues of water and electricity and expand our operations. Skill gap was the biggest of challenges, the lack of required technical skill set amongst farm staff was a major challenge. I kept on hiring staff but they lacked the necessary technical skills needed. Once they were able to learn off me, they left to go start up in their own little way. This continued for a long time and along the way, God gave me the vision to start up an aquaculture capacity development centre and between 2017 and now that we established Aquatic Hub Afrique Network, we have trained over 3,500 women, youth, aged, retirees and small holder farmers across Nigeria on various value-chains of aquaculture.
PT: What are the untapped opportunities along the fishery and aquaculture value chain you think Nigerian farmers in this regard can leverage upon?
Okeleji: In my opinion, market development, value addition, packaging and distribution are the untapped opportunities along the aquaculture value-chains Nigerian farmers can leverage upon. I have one saying that the key player within the value chain whose product is closer to the consumer, makes the highest returns. Farmers must be able to develop the skills to understand product development, market development and value addition.On value-addition, as this clearly spells; it is the addition of value to the raw form of harvested fishes. Just like what Switzerland does with cocoa to make chocolate out of it, key players of the Nigerian aquaculture industry can also transform harvested fish into other products. On product development, we need farmers who will position as researchers in order to curate new products derived from harvested fishes. New products can be developed from fresh fish or processed fish. While products are been developed, markets also need to be developed to ensure these products get to their consumers. Market development is a growth strategy that identifies and develops new market segments for products developed. A market development strategy targets non-buying customers in currently targeted segments. The role of research and development of markets will help identify those who are not buying fish and target the value-added products towards them.
PT: Many people are of the view that fish farming is a revenue spinner that could drive huge productivity in the country’s economy if paid attention to, do you agree with that, and why?
Okeleji: Yes, I know many people are of that opinion, but that can only be valid if everything is put in place and all hands are on deck because both the government, private organizations and research institutions have roles to play in order to make that happen. Farmers grapple with several challenges like some I earlier mentioned and they are made to go through all of these themselves. The government has to ensure very soft credit facilities and regulations are made available to assist and guide the farmers. Also, research institutions need to do a lot in the research and development space to ensure that innovation and technology is incorporated into the sector; large indigenous aquaculture firms are also needed in the areas of feed formulation and production, production of medications and other equipment needed to advance aquaculture practices in Nigeria.
PT: You recently earned commendations from Nigeria’s former president, Olusegun Obasanjo, based on a fish farm project you facilitated through your firm (Aquatic Hub Afrique Network) for Obasanjo Farms Nigeria in line with the vision of the Ogun State Government for Agriculture. What significant impact do you think that would spawn in the country’s economy?
Okeleji: You’d agree with me that former President Olusegun Obasanjo has always been at the forefront of our national development especially in agriculture. We have used this project to prove that the model we employed can be replicated across the country as there is no place in Nigeria where there is no access to water. Our justification for doing what we do is: we currently have an average of 11kg per capita consumption of fish in Nigeria and we still resort to importation to supply about 59 per cent of this demand. Based on the FAO standard of an average of 21kg per capita consumption of Fish; if we say every fish farmer in Nigeria is to produce 10,000 pieces of fish per annum, we would need to raise about 400,000 new fish farmers to meet this standard if we do not want to continue turning to importation as a means of filling up the supply gap. With a population growth rate of 2.6 per cent (World Bank), after we must have met this supply gap by injecting 400,000 new fish farmers into the Aquaculture industry, we would need to be injecting a further 5,000 new fish farmers every year to satisfy this growth rate.The model designed and implemented for the OFN aquaculture project is the model any government should use to feed its citizens, create jobs for them and transform their livelihood. It’s sad that in our country, development is not matching economic growth.
PT: How many of such fish farms do we currently have in the country, and who are the “big fishermen” (major commercial fish farmers) in Nigeria? Being that, an FAO report has it that more than 80 per cent of Nigeria’s total domestic production is generated by artisanal small-scale fishers from coastal, inshore, creeks of the Niger Delta, lagoons, inland rivers and lakes.
Okeleji: We have some and the figure has even reduced recently due to some large firms leaving the country as a result of the skill gap among the Nigerian employees who worked with these firms. The big fish farmers are those who are able to deliver an end-to-end operation, i.e being able to establish a complete value chain in aquaculture just like what we delivered for former President Olusegun Obasanjo and at the scale we delivered.
PT:What proactive measures would you suggest that needs to be done currently and subsequently to promote sustainable food security in Nigeria through fish farming, and how has Aquatic Hub Afrique Network under your watch fared in this regard?
Okeleji: We have a conviction as boldly spelt out on our webpage that we cannot break the shackles of poverty and hunger without building the capacity of the key players involved; we also believe that agriculture remains the bailout for Africa’s unemployment, the value chain is insatiable. We are convinced that when we increase the knowledge of our farmers especially the smallholder farmers, women and youth, our outcome or yields from our farms will increase. This will have a multiple effect on tackling poverty, hunger and unemployment.
PT: According to FAOSTAT, Nigeria’s total capture & aquaculture production has grown steadily from 21 700 tonnes in 1999, to 316 700 tonnes in 2015. And catfish, typically grown in ponds and tanks, is the most farmed species in Nigeria, constituting over half of the total aquaculture production by volume. Yet, Nigeria is still a net importer of fishery products. Does it mean we’re not producing enough to complement the growing population?
Okeleji: One of the big problems we also have in the industry is the lack of statistics needed for planning and policy formulation.The statistics that we have are sometimes not accurate enough and this needs to be looked into by the appropriate agencies under the Federal Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development. But then, it’s widely known that we do not produce enough to feed our population; in fact, we do not produce half of what we consume.
PT: With the alarming rate of unemployment in Nigeria, would you advise Nigerian agile youth to subscribe to fish farming? And what are those things to be put in place to become a successful fish farmer in Nigeria?
Okeleji: One of the things that make Aquatic Hub Afrique Network different from a random capacity development centre is that our training programmes always begin with a mindset re-engineering session and this spurs a lot in the minds of our trainees. In tackling the unemployment rate in Nigeria, we need to change our mindset and thinking towards agriculture and employ a multi-faceted approach. Not only do Nigerian youths need to subscribe to aquaculture, the women, aged and retirees need to also. All you need to have is the right mindset and attitude to absorb the skills to be learnt even without a formal education. They can begin by raising fish in tanks at the backyards to feed their family and then the community and gradually, it continues to grow.To be a successful fish farmer in Nigeria, you’ve got to acquire the knowledge and technical skills needed, you need to have a positive attitude to life, you need to have your finances well planned out, you also need a successful mentor in the industry who has survived the scary nights. The Aquaculture industry anywhere in the world is demanding but can be very rewarding too.