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WHY CASSAVA FLOUR INCLUSION POLICY HAS FAILED, BY AUDU OGBEH

The immediate past Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development, Chief Audu Ogbeh, in Abuja on May 27, a day before his handover. He shared his up and down moments; explained herder-farmer crises, how insurgencies and kidnappings affect food production, latest issues about Bank of Agriculture, cattle ranch development, the cassava flour policy failure and the need for agro-rangers to protect farmers, among other issues. Excerpts:

• Admits insurgencies, kidnapping may cause food crisis by 2020
• Says Nigeria saved $21 billion from imports in three years
• Hopes agro-rangers, ranches will solve farmer-herder, food crises

You said in the late 2018 that the World Bank had granted Nigeria some funds for cattle ranch development. Is it the same thing with the purported N100 billion for the herders? 
As far as I know, I have no knowledge of N100, not to talk of N100 billion being given to herdsmen. I do not know where the story came from. It definitely did not originate from my ministry. And I really doubt if anybody offers that money to them, and I think that cannot solve the problem.

Have you started the development of ranches in those states you said agreed to give land?
The Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) and the World Bank are supporting us. The FAO has given about $500,000 as a support to start ranch development. The big job of developing ranches in 12 states where the problems were most intense, where we will build cattle settlements, is from the natural resources funds and the agricultural levies. It is about N600 to N700 million per location, and there are about 12 of them in 12 states. The states, among others, are Niger, Kaduna, FCT, Nasarawa, Benue, Adamawa, Taraba, Kwara and Kogi.

The idea is, keep these cattle in one place, build dams to store water, dig boreholes for them, confine them, plant grasses for them, build vet clinics, and then give space to them to set up their huts and stay in one place and breed their cattle. In the process, also incorporate primary schools for their children. In Niger State, they have even requested that we give them secondary schools. We will also bring the private sector operators in to harvest milk and process the milk. Their wives would not have to hawk the milk, which has also created a new problem. Many of these women get assaulted and raped.

And not long ago, some of these boys that we found kidnapping and raping told us that they are products of these rapes, that they do not know their fathers and they would do anything to undermine the country. One of them said so when he was arrested; that his mother was raped, and was born without knowing his father and he could not forgive the society.

Have you started developing the ranches or when are you starting?
We are beginning now. The memo only came through the Federal Executive Council last week. The new government will now do the implementation. It is part of our hand-over notes to the in-coming administration.

Nigerians have expressed worry that kidnapping, insurgencies and general insecurity will cause food shortage by 2020. How are we preventing that?
It is possible to lead to that, but we are also not sleeping. Part of the money that was approved for us for ranching is to provide for the employment, training and deployment of Agro-Rangers. They will begin to protect farmers on their farms. They are going to be armed. They are trained by the Nigerian Security and Civil Defence Corps (NSCDC) and the army.

They will be available to farmers everywhere in the country. We are tired killing of farmers and kidnapping people on their farms as they did to Chief Olu Falae. I feel particularly angry about it. Chief Falae is a highly respectable Nigerian. At the age of 77, they kidnapped him and made him trek 20 kilometres. That is unacceptable anywhere in the country. So, this is what we are planning.

How are we mitigating the predictable hunger by 2020?
I think we are producing quite enough. Let me tell you something. We produce more than we consume, but 30 per cent of what we produce is wasted. What we are doing now is setting up infrastructure to preserve food. We are setting up solar power cold rooms now to store tubers of yam. There is one that is abandoned in Ekiti, which we are completing. And we have done two experiments in Kaduna and Jigawa to preserve tomatoes and onions. They are being tested now. These products can stay a year or two. There is one in Kano. We are testing it now and it is giving us results.

The Goodluck Jonathan-led administration tried to use cassava flour in wheat flour as a national policy to promote import substitution. Is the policy in official gazette and is it implemented?
We had a problem when I came in. The bakers came and said that if they used the flour with 15 per cent of cassava flour, the bread would refuse to rise. And the bread must look full so that they could sell it for the price. They said we should import an enzyme to make it work. We have not got it. A Nigerian abroad said he could do it but we should order for some first. And I said if he could do it, we would help him to produce it here.

But the master bakers wrote a letter to me last week, and I agreed I would meet with them. But unfortunately, we are finishing tomorrow. I will inform my successor in my hand-over notes. I would advise he meet with them, find out what could be done. Some say they do not need the enzyme. Give them cassava flour and let them do experiments and see the quality. Thereafter, we can increase the inclusion to that level and make it compulsory for everyone to use.

Some bakers are more comfortable with wheat-only flour. We do not hate wheat-based flour, but we can reduce the volume, because the issue is this; when we talk about reducing imports, people think we are their enemies. The truth is that our country is in trouble. We cannot keep importing and importing when too many people have no job to do, and we have alternatives and they are good. How can a country continue to believe that importation is the final word? You cannot afford it. The foreign reserves that we have now, the CBN governor said yesterday, would only last us for nine months if we were to go wild again importing.

Again, what level of cassava flour are flour millers using now?
Very little. Even those who set up cassava flour factories had to stop because the flour millers were not buying them. That is what we want to revive, and insist that everybody must use it, even if it is five per cent.

Is the cassava flour in wheat policy in the official gazette?
It is not in the gazette yet because the flag-off has not really happened formally. When it is, we will put it there and the National Assembly will have to put it in the law of the land. Even then, we have to follow up slowly, because, between you and me, the guys who have their wheat businesses would want to make their money. The commercial or trade wars are more vicious than wars with bombs and tanks, and powerful nations dominate the weak ones. We are weak. But we must resolve to be strong and stronger by using what we have, utilising what we have at home.

What is the state of the Bank of Agriculture (BOA) now? 
It is not viable yet. The Bureau of Public Enterprise (BPE) has completed its work. The lead consultant has now taken up the responsibility of marketing the idea to the public and when that happens, we begin to sell shares. The idea is that farmers will own 40 per cent of the shares of the bank.

And the CBN will hold 10 per cent; the Ministry of Finance 10 per cent; the private sector operators, 30 per cent. That is the structure we want to use. And the idea is that farmers should see as their bank, put their money in it, because we are trying to see raise between N200 and N250 billion for the bank so that farmers can borrow at five per cent. As long as the bank makes enough money to pay their staff, there is no point overcharging farmers. We think in another two months or so, the sale of shares should be done.

What were the greatest challenges you encountered since you came as to the ministry?
First of all, the size of our budget is small, although the President has always welcome our special requests for additional funding. [For instance], we are looking for funds to buy aflasafe, from IITA to give farmers of maize, groundnuts and soya beans to keep aflatoxins away from our grains. We grow maize. We are the largest producer of maize in Africa now. We are the ninth biggest producer in the world, but local processors do not want to buy our maize because of contaminants, especially aflatoxin, which is very dangerous to the liver.We want to make our maize safe by giving aflasafe to farmers to spread on their farms before they plant the maize. It is an emergency, more or less.

We have to give farmers chemicals to terminate armyworms and fortunately, a professor has produced an organic chemical in Kogi State, accepted by FAO and the National Agency for Food, Drug Administration and Control (NAFDAC).The other issue is credit rates. If the CBN had not introduced the Anchor Borrower’s scheme and others at nine per cent interest rate, the story of Nigeria today would have been different. And I am openly telling you how grateful I am to them. I appreciate them. For it has been a combination of the CBN and our own policies in the ministry that has brought about the result we have got so far.

Now, we have saved $21 billion in food imports in the last three years, food export has gone up and more people are coming to agriculture. It is becoming more attractive because there is market for food.

Farmers and industry players also complain that requirements for loans are still cumbersome without the services of lawyer and accountants. Are loan application procedures going to be simplified in the new bank?
We are coming to that. The branch of the Bank of Agriculture will literally be in every local government of the country. It does not have to be an elaborate building. In these days of internet, with a laptop, you are ready. We know farmers go through a lot of stress. By the time he brings accountants and lawyers in and they charge their fees, how much will a farmer asking for a N200,000 loan go home with? There could be an accountant within the bank who helps them organize their accounts and papers and educates them on what to do. There could be a lawyer within the bank who helps them puts their papers together, legally acceptable for a loan. These people growing yam, cassava and beans, in their millions, are the ones feeding us.

What other challenges, especially on herder-farmer crises?
That has been one of the most tormenting things I have experienced, because we are in a country where sentiments are very strong. You take one step, and you are seen as supporting one religion against another. I have been accused of being a sell-out to the Fulanis. I am not a Fulani. You know that I am an Idoma man. Then some of the Fulanis would think you are not really serious about what you are saying and doing. Now, in a country where there is so much sentiment, suspicion, and emotion, it is very difficult for policies to work.

I argued that over the years, the political elite have not been able to do much for the livestock industry, except, perhaps poultry. Goats, pigs, cattle, horses have not really been given much support. Even among the Fulani elite, there are those who say walking around and grazing are their ways of life, which I disagree with. It is nobody’s way of life to live in the bush, move around with children, walking into people’s farms and eating up their crops. That cannot be a way of life.

In Tanzania, cattle breeders no longer roam. In Pakistan, they no longer roam. This same thing going on now went on in the USA. It created crises, and that is why they still have cowboys, and the people have ranches. In South Africa and Botswana, cattle no longer roam. It is only here that cattle roam. An I am asking, why those in government in the past could not recognize this would pose dangers 40 to 50 years ago?

With the climate change, with the grazing reserves of those days gone, and water for the cattle to drink, having the lowest production of milk in the world, our cattle are very lean, too small for their age, they have diseases, even tuberculosis, and they chew plastics in refuse dumps. They ingest all this, and pass it to humans who eat them.

In the abattoirs, of every 10 cattle slaughtered, you could have as many as two or three pregnant. And you should not kill a pregnant animal, otherwise you depopulate them. Then the fighting, and the killings. And people talk as if I had not been a victim. The first massive killings happened in Agatu, in Benue. They were my people. Three hundred people got killed. And, people talk today as if I am supporting one tribe against the other. I am not supporting anybody. I am supporting policies that would solve the problem. We do not want to hear the news that farmers are killed or one tribe kills another again. It is criminal to kill anybody. We want to solve the problem and we can. This was why we brought up this idea of ranching development.

What would you describe as the most pleasant experience since you became the minister of agriculture?
First of all, I am glad that we have started solving the problems. We have cut down rice import; saving $5 million a day is not small amount. Two, nearly 13 million Nigerians now grow rice. Those were jobs done elsewhere before now. The third one is the Nigerians, rich and poor, old and young, are responding to agriculture. That is where the great secret of Nigeria lies.

When I travelled around for conference, I heard ministers saying they had problems with their youths going to agriculture. It is not the same here again. Amazingly, the Nigerian youth are very excited about farming. Their limitation is money, which we are solving. The CBN has developed a policy to clear 500 hectares per state of the federation. And we will keep clearing until every young person who wants to farm has access to at least one hectare. If each has one hectare, a young man can do amazing things which his grandfather could not do with five hectares.So production is happening, people are returning to agriculture; the rural people are becoming happier, which was why they gave us more votes than the city dwellers. They know that this thing is real.

Nigeria imports at least 300 million litres of ethanol but we have cassava to produce it. How can we resolve this?
It is not only ethanol. Recently, former President Olusegun Obasanjo wrote a letter to President Muhammadu Buhari, and President Buhari called and gave me the letter, that of all the cassava we produce, we are still spending $615 million importing cassava products. What is the problem here? To set up any of these refineries producing ethanol, industrial starch and food-grade starch is very expensive. They have to use food-grade stainless steel.

It is not cheap. Under the current condition, nobody in Nigeria, except a Dangote, who could borrow abroad of at three or four per cent interest rate in dollars, can afford to build a factory of two to three million dollars at the interest rate of 25-30 per cent. So, these are the constraints, which are the reasons we are pushing for this reform and we are grateful to the CBN for what they have done. We are going to move to the next stage, I hope, with the new government, by opening plantations of oil palm, date palm, cashew, cocoa, coffee and kola nuts.

We have to find cheap credit to import processing machines. If the power is off and on now, we can use gas. It is cheaper. So, that is the next stage. That is where the big players have to come in. No small-scale operator can do that. These things are not cheap. The fact is that we forgot agriculture for too long and we are like somebody who had a stroke or an injury and is learning how to walk again. We are walking with a bit of stability now. Very soon, we will be able to run.So, power is an issue, but to even import the machineries and install them, and make them run, is still not cheap.

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