Cassava farming is a goldmine for youths

Feeding a population of 150 million is a big challenge because of the high cost of labour and equipment needed in farming. In this interview with BUKOLA FASUYI, the Managing Director, Sam Mike & Vic Nigeria Limited, Segun Adewunmi, looks at ways of addressing the challenge; opportunities available to youths in cassava farming. Excerpts:

You have expressed displeasure on the policies of the Federal and state governments. What do you want them to do?

You are very correct. I think we should have a National Advisory Board or Committee comprising stakeholders in commercial farming who will use their experience as the basis for their advice and proposal, especially to the Central Bank on the right and correct ways to finance agriculture. Right now, the approach is based on the belief that finance through loan is the only problem of farming. This is very incorrect. The real problem is lack of planning and commitment on the part of the government to build the people who will build the nation through agriculture. For example, there is usually three yearly glut and scarcity circle in the cassava market.

In the year of scarcity, farmers rush to the farm and this results in a glut in the following year to the extent that cost of harvesting and transportation of the roots to the market usually surpasses the value of the product. The real fact is that cassava being a world prime product should not suffer any glut. Our glut is caused by the cost of production of cassava, especially in the south which is about N18,000 per tonne compared to other countries that produce a tonne at N2,500. These countries sell to the world market at between N4,000 and N5,000 per tonne and still make profit. But the Nigerian farmer who sells below N22,000 per tonne will run into a loss. Whereas the Nigerian environment has a comparative advantage over the countries that produce cassava cheaply if only the various governments live up to their duties and responsibilities.

What is the way out of this doldrum?

Please permit me to use the situation of the Southwestern states of Nigeria as an example. At the time when the transporters of agricultural products had some issues with the road officers and their products could not come, did you not see the food crisis that ensued? Many social activities were cancelled because people could not get pepper, onions and tomatoes. Chief Obafemi Awolowo built the former Western Region now know as Southwestern zone into a zone that became the envy of other geopolitical zones mainly on agriculture. He scored the first place in education, media, industries and road infrastructure not only in Nigeria but Africa, with the money made from Agriculture. The succeeding governments have run the same geo-political zone into hunger and serious food crisis. Food secures the people more than military weapons. We have a good example in the situation of the Soviet Union. If (God forbid) something happens to the River Niger bridge, how will the south feed?

Another area where the government should show responsibility is in empowering the people. I am aware that Southwest states have the following cassava processing industries.

• 400 metric tonnes per day in Ibafo Lagos Ibadan Expressway;

• 150 metric tonnes per day at Aiyede Ogbese on Owo Akure road;

• 150 metric tonnes per day at Asejire near Ibadan;

• 150 metric tonnes per day in Ososa near Ijebu Ode; and

• 60 tonnes per day at Ikoya in the riverrine area of Ondo states.

The five processing factories with a single shift will consume 910 metric tonnes of cassava roots. If the shifts are doubled, it can use up to 1500 metric tonnes of cassava daily. There could be other factories that I do not know. Within this geopolitical zone alone and upon the existing processing industries that we know we need a minimum of 500,000 metric tonnes of raw cassava roots per annum. Both cultivation of 500,000 tonnes and the industries that will consume the products will give employment to at least 10,000 skilled and unskilled youths. But the government is not doing anything in this direction.

With the prevailing situation, do you think the programme is feasible?

I interacted with one of the top officials of a state government in the Southwest recently. We were impressed by the performance of the government, because within two years of governance the entire infrastructure of the state have received a tremendous uplift. The reservation expressed by the government official is the feasibility of the cassava programme, moreso now that the Federal Government has lifted the ban on importation of agricultural products including industrial starch. My explanation is this, one of the factories listed above produces among the world’s best cassava starch which it sells at N128,000 per tonne but the imported industrial starch goes for only N70,000 per tonne. This particular company goes to Nasarawa State to buy cassava at N6,000 per tonne. Cassava has 70 per cent water and must be processed within 24 hours of harvesting to prevent fermentation. That company’s logistics to transport the cassava quickly cost another N6,000 per tonne. This brings cassava input to between N12,000 and N13,000 per tonne.

The factory requires five tonnes to produce a tonne of starch. It means cassava requirement alone cost the company N65,000. She goes to Nasarawa State to buy because Nasarawa and Kwara states provide a good environment that enables the farmers to produce and sell at good profit of a tonne for N6,000. The Southwest state is more well-suited for cassava production than Nasarawa if the government will clear the land freely for the farmers and provide other enablements that Nasarawa State provides. If this particular factory whose product is superior to the imported industrial starch can find cassava at N5,000 locally, the cassava input for a tonne of starch shall be N25,000 so that the fear of imported industrial starch will not arise. While the government of this particular state is doing wonderfully well to improve the state I would wish that it goes further to empower the people not by doling out cash to them but create environment for them to prosper.

How will you assess Osun State, the only state in the Southwest that has just announced its plan to cultivate 30,000 hectares for cassava production?

This is a welcome development but how will this be done. For example, like some other states, the state may desire to go for farm settlement or village farm system leading to misplaced priority and complete waste of fund (by placing emphasis on housing rather than focusing on the real objective which is agriculture). What we need at this time is serious mindedness on the part of the government and the people towards building individuals as potential farmers. Farm settlement was the idea of Israel to settle the arriving Jews with a measure of cultivable land and cottage homes for each family. Chief Awolowo copied this by establishing farm units in different parts of the Western Region far from the major towns.

He, therefore, built some modest structures that the farmers could use during the week days. Even though the intention was good, it did not succeed with the succeeding governments. Most of those structures even those made by the Federal Government for the same purpose have been abandoned. With the advantage of mobile phone and improved transportation system, this method of farming is outdated. Besides, we are advocating commercial farming. We want the money to go to direct farming. We do not want a situation where N5 billion is allocated to farming and 70 per cent is used to provide accommodation and recreation facilities; N5 billion if properly spent, will clear the land, relocate refuse and demarcate into blocks of five hectares each, 25,000 hectares of cultivable farmland. If we give a block to every participant we shall have 5,000 fully employed youths apart from other service providers.

Our plan is that the successful ones will have additional five hectares, the following year and this will continue until each farmer has 25 hectares. But a situation where N3.5 billion out of N5 billion goes to building and provision of recreation facilities the remaining 1.5 billion will cater for only 1,500 farmers. Besides, one of the objectives of a programme like this is to develop the rural areas. There is no way we can have 2,000 hectares and not have 10 to 20 villages within the area of the land. Let development come naturally as it came to the university towns of Ago Iwoye in Ogun State and Akungba in Ondo State. Money meant for agriculture should go directly to agriculture.

Another problem is that where such housing programmes are provided if any amenities break down the participants will commence agitation and riot. Let us do pure commercial farming, devoid of over pampering that reduces the whole programme into a joke and destroy the continuity beyond the regime that initiates it.

When I was the Chairman of Ondo State Cassava Growers Association, registration fee nationwide was N600 but I insisted on N2,500 for Ondo State. My point is that if I would have to sign a loan form for anyone, that person must demonstrate to me that he can work. Let him go and do labour work to earn N2,500. It is time we stop the short-sighted approach to serious matters such as agriculture. Whatever money the Osun State government raised for agriculture should go to direct farming. The project will attract needed infrastructure into the rural area if such are necessary.

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