As Community, Stakeholders Seek Consistent Policy To Sustain Project
After 34 years of abandonment, redundancy, and perceived reckless abuse of public funds, the Songhai Integrated Farm Project in Kpong Community, Khana Local Council Area of Rivers State, has finally come back to life.
The rejuvenation of the farm, courtesy of the Niger Delta Basin Development Authority (NDBDA), has not only signaled an end to the acute food shortage in the area, but it has also opened a new vista for the teeming unemployed indigenes willing to embrace farming as a source of livelihood.
The multi-million-naira agro initiative was designed as a replica of the Songhai Farm in Port-Novo, Benin Republic, but suffered neglect for decades, which eventually, resulted in its abandonment.
The project, initiated by the Federal Government in 1979 under the regime of the then Head of State, Olusegun Obasanjo was aimed at enhancing agricultural productivity. The Guardian learned that the founding fathers of Kpong community embraced the initiative and offered over 89 hectares of land for the project.
In 1980 precisely, construction and farming activities started on the farm, but was short-lived, as the change of government, when the Ibrahim Babangida administration took over in 1985 de-emphasised agriculture. Farms workers were paid off and after a while, the government decided to privatise the project. Bids were tendered but the community, which was not pleased with the development, approached the court, pleading that if the Federal Government could no longer handle the project, it should vacate their land rather than privatise it.
After the case lingered in court for 10 years, it was, however, withdrawn in 2001, and the community reconciled through dialogue.
Sadly, the lingering crisis stalled the project. The huge money expended in the project ended up as a monumental waste until 2017 when the Muhammadu Buhari administration launched ‘food sufficiency, jobs creation, and food security’ for Nigerians, especially the teeming youths of Niger Delta region.
The NDBDA was mandated to revitalise the project by setting up large integrated farms in all the three Senatorial Districts under its operational areas of Delta, Bayelsa, and Rivers States.
Investigations reveal that for the period the crisis lasted, acute shortage of food supply, unemployment, and apathy to farming was the order of the day in communities around the farm.
During The Guardian visit to the Kpong Irrigation farm project, a journey of about 57 kilometres from Port Harcourt, it was observed that farming activities such as poultry, fishery, snail rearing, piggery, breeding of hybrid citrus, hybrid mango, plantain, pawpaw plantations and coconut among others have begun, but not all the farming activities have taken-off fully. It was observed that some are still in their early stages.
The farming activities, which reportedly started in January this year, have provided a ready market of fresh agro produce for both locals and outsiders. Some youths were also sighted digging trenches to pave way for the construction of an access road to the farm.
Interaction with the host community revealed that though they are pleased with the resuscitated project, what is paramount to them is the consistency and sustainability of the project by the government to avert the fate that befell the farm in the past.
“Consistency in government policies in agriculture is what we want because it will go a long way in sustaining this project. We are delighted seeing the farm project resuscitated, but there is a need for consistency in policies so that whenever there is a change in government, the new administration will not deemphasise agriculture,” the Chairman Liaison Committee for Kpong Community Development Project, King Nwikeh said.
The Guardian checks show that the farm currently has 4,500 birds, producing over 70 crates of egg per day, with additional poultry facilities already constructed to accommodate about 10,000 birds.
Considering the huge amount expended on procuring feeds for the birds and fishes, the NDBDA are delving into production of feeds, to cut cost and to produce high quality feeds to enhance the development of the animals.
During the visit, it was observed that machines for the feeds are currently being installed. The machines have the capacity of producing two tonnes of feeds per hour for the benefit of the farm and to also generate revenue.
The irrigation farm said to be the largest in the region, is a complete farm settlement with solar power stations, staff quarters, and a training center for farm entrepreneurs.
Between January and now, the project is said to have created over 200 direct and indirect jobs and would have the capacity to create 10,000 jobs with a gross income of about N100m yearly if sufficiently funded.
It was gathered that many of the indigenes who returned from the city following the woes of the coronavirus pandemic have found solace in the farm and have refused to return despite the lift of the lockdown.
One of them, who the reporter met on the road to the farm, Dinee Felix said: “When we were in Port Harcourt during the lockdown, things were very difficult for my family and I returned home and started working on this farm. From there, we were able to feed and save money. Today, we are happy; all we need is the sustenance of the project to create more jobs for the youths.”
Goodluck Numda said: “I came back to the village during the COVID-19 lockdown and I have been coping, The stable farm activities have made me remain in the community and I am not ready to go back, but all we need is for government to sustain this project so that young people like us can work, raise money to establish ourselves in other sectors like music and thereby employ others.”
Speaking with The Guardian, Chairman Liaison Committee for Community Development Project, Nwikeh, who affirmed that the challenges of the initiative stem from the change of government and unstable policies, appealed that after the exit of this administration, successive administration should ensure the project is sustained because of its enormous impact.”
He said: “The management of NDBDA has been able to hook us to the national grid. The road leading to the farm is currently under construction. The presence of the project has made positive impacts on Kpong community, our people have been trained on mechanised farming and we are making progress.”
He, however, solicited for more direct and indirect employment for the community and handling of contract jobs, as well as more training on best agronomic practices.
Also, the Secretary, Community Development Liaison Committee, Daniel Akpee, said since the project was revamped, the youths have become engaged; a development he said was tackling crime in the community. He further stressed the need for direct employment for residents of the community and special consideration in the sale of their farm produce.
A woman who was returning from the farm during the visit, Mrs. Lewa Azia, said the project has helped women in the area to cushion the harsh effects of COVID-19. She, however, requested that more days be devoted to the community during sales of the farm produce.
The Project Manager of the Irrigation farm, Mr. Kobo Marklin, said they are currently unable to meet the market demand, stressing that agriculture is very lucrative but many tend to neglect it.
“The demand is high, we are not meeting the market demand with what is going on. The productions of Saturday, Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday go to Port Harcourt to meet up with the market there, while Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, are devoted to local sales here.
“Some days, demands may rise to about 700 crates and we cannot meet up. We are motivated by this demand to increase our capacity. That is why there are lots of constructions going on. We have made requests for the stocks because we have built a capacity to carry 10,000 birds.”
He said the COVID 19 pandemic made a significant impact at the farm, as the living standards of people were improved, especially due to the fact that farmers were among the essential workers, which made them devote more time to farming activities.
“We cover three states, Rivers, Bayelsa and Delta and we are working in the senatorial districts of these states to ensure massive agricultural development. We are working in line with the vision of the Federal Government and the Minister of Water Resources, Engr. Adamu Suleiman. This project is his pet project, as part of the Economic Growth Plan.
“To sustain this, consistency and sustenance in government policy is paramount, also the constant release of funds would further boost food security and ensure peace. The community has a role to play to protect the project, while NDBDA management remains focused and resolute in carrying out its mandate.”
Managing Director of NDBDA, Tonye David-West said the Federal Government has been generous in terms of disbursement of funds, though he noted that the funds are never enough following expansion and modernisation of projects, stressing that the authority gives value to whatever money it receives. He added that the project is in its first phase, saying the second phase will begin soon.
He disclosed that a similar project is going on in Bayelsa State and would soon be extended to other senatorial districts under the jurisdiction of the authority. “COVID-19 appears to be the best thing that has happened to good management because it enables us to work, especially when you have a committed staff, we made good progress during the pandemic.”
David-West said the main driver for the project is sustainability. “The Minister’s guideline is how this project would be sustained, right now, the poultry is not being funded again, it is sustaining itself, other projects will sustain themselves as we progress, any government that comes will face food security so it is expedient we have a sustainable policy on agriculture to maintain projects of such.”
He said the impact of agriculture is very visible in the lives of the people and in the state’s economy, hence the need to continue to give the sector top priority.