The Minister of State for Agriculture and Rural Development, Senator Heineken Lokpobiri, in this interview with select journalists, spoke on how the ministry under his watch has boosted fish production from 600,000 metric tons in 2015 to 1.1 million metric tons, and other sundry issues. Juliana Agbo was there for LEADERSHIP.
Can you highlight some of the progress your ministry has recorded so far in those areas where you are in charge?
You will agree with me that if there is one sector of the economy that is experiencing unprecedented growth, it is the agric sector due to the result of deliberate policies that were initiated since we came into office.
When we were appointed ministers, what we were detailed to do was to evolve a policy that will redirect agriculture as investment, not as programme. Before now, agriculture was seen as a programme, but when we came we said no, it should be seen as a business and what we did was to encourage as many investors as we can to come in and invest in the agricultural sector.
I will give you an example with the fisheries sector. Nigeria’s demand for fish is over 3.35 million metric tons and what we produced in this country when we came in 2015 was about 600,000 metric tons.
But today, we have increased our production to about 1.1 million metric tons, which is less than one third of our national demand, but that was almost one hundred percent increment in our national productivity, because of our deliberate policy.
How did we achieve that? We felt that in order to encourage people to invest in aquaculture, we needed to tie the fish import licenses to backward integration. For any company to be able to get more quota to import fish into the country, you need to make corresponding investment in the fisheries sub sector.
So, a lot of expatriates have come into the country and a lot of aquaculture investments are in a few states; in Ogun state, Oyo state and so on. In fact we have also encouraged them to increase what we call cage culture.
What some of the investors are doing in Oyo and Ogun States is to build cages, put them in the dams and feed them and before you know it, the fishes would grow, more or less from a natural environment.
So, it tastes better and they are more nutritious. You know, if we did not do that, there is no way we would have recorded 100 per cent increment in productivity. We are also linking a lot of our small aquaculture practitioners to the market.
We also link them to the big players and what they do is to do an off take arrangement whereby if they produce the small quantities, these big players can also obtain from them and then distribute nationally.
Globally, there is a fundamental problem about nutrition. Malnutrition is a fundamental issue that is affecting the global community. Today, fish is the best protein anybody can get. A lot of us can’t eat meat.
Fish has the best demand and the best nutritional value. And so, investment in the fishery sub-sector and increase in productivity is somehow, a recipe to the teething problem of obesity, high blood pressure, diabetics and some of the other problems associated with malnutrition.
We also see agriculture as a business, and we also decided as a government to build incubation centres in our universities. Last year, we built about five and this year we are going to build a little more than five and they are domiciled across the six geo-political zones of the country.
The difference between the Nigerian agriculture and the West is based on research and knowledge. These incubation centres will be research centres, areas of excellence where young agro entrepreneurs will have to go and study and for training and they will also have small farms.
There, they will train on how to add value to whatever agric business they are doing. We are stocking them, we have completed about four or five for last year and they are ready for commissioning. Because of its importance we have decided to see how we can expand them into other states.
I believe that the most important need or factor to guarantee security in any country is farming, because a hungry man is an angry man and for anybody; whether you are rich, poor, sick or healthy, the most important need of anybody is actually food. And so, we are striving to see how we can guarantee at least food security, particularly in our staples and I want to tell you categorically that we are getting there.
Fish production in the country has declined remarkably due to a number of obnoxious practices and illegal acts, what is your ministry doing about this?
What we are doing now as a government is to see how we can restock some of our lakes, we can’t restock our rivers but we can restock our lakes. We have in our department of fisheries, a programme where from time to time we take a thousand fingerlings and put them below in the lakes and after a few months, fishermen can go there and fish.
But generally, fishing offshore has increased in the country; a lot more people are bringing trawlers into the country, they are being licenced to go fishing offshore. Nigeria’s shrimps are the best in the world and we are exporting them all over the world.
In fact, anywhere you see those jumbo and big shrimps in the world, know that they are from Nigeria. So, what we are doing to curb these problems of our fishermen going to the lakes and without catching any fish and therefore getting discouraged, the problem is being addressed in a sustainable basis. We keep restocking in order to encourage people to keep off some of those areas to ensure that the fish can grow.
Generally, all over the world, this problem exists. Fresh water fish has declined due to pollution. Before now, when we were growing up, there were no speed boats.
Right now, there is unlimited number of speed boats and pollution activities; there is so much pollution of the rivers because of excessive use of petrol. Also, there is a new interest in fishing activities because people know that there is a big fortune in fishing activities.
It is not as if in the last few years people were not fishing because there were no fish in the rivers. But generally, agriculture was abandoned by everybody. Everybody was busy migrating to Abuja to become portfolio contractors and at the end of the day, we have not been able to do anything and then keep increasing our social problems in the society. But I believe that with the stocking we are doing and the increase in offshore fishing, we will continue to increase our production as far as fish production is concerned.
In the area of job creation, how far has your ministry used the fish sector to address this problem?
I believe that most of the persons who have contributed to the increased production from 600,000 metric tons to about 1.1 million metric tons are youths, most of them, apart from a few of the big farms. Most of those that are involved in aquaculture are basically youths.
Sometimes, reality will certainly drive any serious-minded person to go into agriculture. Right now, everybody knows that every year we turn out millions of youths from the universities and other higher institutions into the streets. There is nowhere in the world where government creates jobs, what government does is to see how we can provide the enabling environment for the young men and women to go into agriculture in a modern, fashionable way, and the fishery sector is where we are embarking on extensive training. We are also seeing how we can support some clusters of young fish farmers by the provision of feed mills.
In fact, in the past few years, we have been constructing and installing feed mills so as to subsidize the cost of fishery. Seventy five per cent of the cost of fishery is on feed mills. Locally speaking, we don’t have much of local technology or local feed mills, where people can naturally go and get a lot more affordable fish meals.
There are some that exists, but in terms of protein contents there are challenges. What we are doing is to see how we can train a lot of our youths, see how we can collaborate with some of our partners to see how they can exchange that knowledge and technology so that our local small mills that we are installing will be put into better use, people will have better knowledge of what and what they need to add up to build up to their local feeds so that it could be cost effective.
So, we have created enough jobs under the fishery sector and we believe that we will sustain it. Our journey into agriculture is not even limited to fisheries alone; some young men are also doing some greenhouse farming. Greenhouse farming does not mean that you need to have so much of a modern greenhouse.
Technology is such that as you get the technology, you will be able to use different materials to achieve the same result of farming in greenhouses. A lot of people are doing so much in agriculture. I want to thank Nigerians for their renewed interest in agriculture and I believe that if we sustain this momentum, in the next few years, we will be self-sufficient in food production.
There is a perception that the Greenhouse farm technology is expensive requiring about N2.5 million as start-up. Is that true?
No, if you remember, one of the most fundamental problems bedevilling the agriculture sector is lack of funding. If you walk into any bank and say you are a farmer, they will not even attend to you because they feel that farming is only for those who have failed in the society.
But now the narrative is changing; CBN has a lot of intervention programmes in agriculture, the Bank of Agriculture is being recapitalised so that young men who want to go into farming will be able to access funding to be able to set up different types of farming activities they want to go into.
CBN has several billions of naira for agriculture intervention programmes. What you need to do is go to your bank and your bank will review your business proposal and make recommendations and then you can access up to N2 million.
If you want to go from small to big scale, those funds are available. There is a lot of money we have put into the Bank of Agriculture, so when you go there, you will be able to access some small loans to be able to invest in agriculture. I want to commend the CBN for coming up with another policy to ensure that we access loans on a single digit basis.
I believe that what people need to do is to exercise patience to be able to prepare properly before going to the bank. We don’t want any more portfolio farmers, where somebody will carry a big portfolio, enter a bank, take a loan and then go and marry another wife, that era is gone. What we want to do today is to see how those who are practically in agriculture can be supported and we are doing all that with this intervention by the CBN.
We don’t have such intervention funds and loans to give as a ministry, but the Bank of Agriculture being the bank that is under the ministry of agriculture is being strengthened to be able to support farmers. It may not be true that you need up to N2.5 million and all that in order to set up a greenhouse farm. What I said was that greenhouse farming is simply a technology and that is why you see different qualities of houses.
In Edo State, there is a man called Captain Nosa, he was a very big player in the oil industry and even had a private jet. One day, I begged him to take me to Port Harcourt with it, and he said, he had sold the jet and used the money to invest in agriculture.
Today, Captain Nosa has cultivated several hundreds of hecters of greenhouses, and I think today, he is the biggest greenhouse farmer in the country. These were men who have realised that if you invest in the oil and gas sector, the oil companies will owe you for months and years, but nobody buys food on credit. If you invest in agriculture, you are bound to get good returns and you are also bound to create jobs because for any food we import, we are creating jobs for other people in other parts of the world.
So, greenhouse, if you know the technology, you may use different technologies. Recently, somebody has even used thatch for greenhouse and he is doing very well. Everything goes in Nigeria. If you go to Bayelsa, in the Niger Delta, a young man who is an ex militant, cultivated over 100 hecters of rice. What the ministry needed to do, which we did, was to support him with a small rice mill.
A few months ago, he brought a sample of that rice to me. These people have decided to redirect their energies to agriculture. Anybody who is involved in agriculture will have a happy time. Any day I go to my small farm here in Abuja, I feel like staying there till the next day, because it is something that gives you joy. The point I am making is that the quality of greenhouses varies from one person to another depending on the way you want to do it and it also depends on the size. We don’t need to spend such huge money in order to get a greenhouse.
What about those who are not yet into agriculture but are willing to go into it?
Everybody should be interested in agriculture depending on the scale because everybody eats food. There is nobody who does not eat food, whether you are sick, healthy, poor, everybody needs food. What you need to do is to identify what should be the most thriving value chain of agriculture in your environment. You may be in a place where tomatoes may be in high demand, then plant tomatoes around you, in your farm, you don’t need so much technology for it.
Can this category of people also assess the loans?
Yes, the loans are available to every Nigeria. What you need to do is to go to the nearest Bank of Agriculture with your business plan and the bank will review that plan, ensure that they do some background checks; they also want to locate the land you want to use to do the farming. We want to avoid a situation where we give people cash.
Most of the loans that you see today are given in kind. You want to be a farmer, where is the land, how much do you need to prepare the land? They will give you the seed; they give you only a small component, which constitutes a labour cost.
Nobody will give a loan that you will abscond with so that we will get real value for the loans that are made available. But it is not restricted to anybody. Everybody who is interested in farming has access to such funding. We can also start farming in a small scale from our backyards, get a small fish pond. We are also trying to encourage people to do small poultries in their farms, around your area so that your children can eat the eggs. So, you don’t need to get millions of naira before you can start investing in agriculture.
How can we reverse the situation where despite numerous other species of fish that abound in the country, catfish alone accounts for about 80 per cent of our fish production?
Yes, I agree with you. But you find out that most of the fish farms in the dams where there is cage culture it is predominantly tilapia, if you go to some of the big farms it is tilapia they do basically.
Incidentally, what people don’t know is that the production of tilapia is even cheaper and the rate of growth is even faster. What we try to do is continue to encourage people to do other fish types.
A lot of people are doing catfish because they felt that it is all they know how to do. But we are now telling the people, diversify your species; don’t dwell only on catfish alone. Recently we played host to Olams, which is now going into fisheries and aquaculture and they came with an agricultural Professor from Australia. I have already given approval to them to bring in some species of Seabass.
If you travel to any country of the world and you need fish stick, what they will give to you is Seabass, and Seabass was developed here in the 80s, somewhere around Abonema in Rivers State. But since then there has not been any sustainable investment, so, they want to see how to grow Seabass and export to Europe. I have given approval and they are going to bring some of the approved stock from Europe and then see how they can start doing another specie of fish apart from catfish and tilapia.
As a ministry, we are open to partnership with anybody who has any ideas to invest in the agric sector. The best area to invest and to sale to the European market is in Nigeria. That is why we encourage people to go into all forms of agriculture.
If you remember, there is this news that the world eats over 14 million bananas a day and how much of this bananas is produced in Nigeria? You will be shocked to know that before now, we were importing bananas from Cameroon. But you will be surprise to know that the Cameroon banana looking very nice is tasteless.
The Nigerian banana is sweeter. It is just for more people to identify the potentials that exist in that sector, get one hecter of land and plant banana. When we were young, we used to have some small farms in our backyards where our mothers could go and get some plantains, get some bananas, get some Ugu, and we were doing it. I believe that Nigerians should know that the most profitable investment anybody can do now is in farming
What is the policy of this government in terms of seeing fish as a fundamental food resource that should be guarded jealously?
Fish is perhaps one of the most important projects we can think of now. But we may not in the midst of the gap between our national production and our national needs say that we are going to regulate artisanal fish farming. Right now, what we are trying to do is to try to encourage as many people as possible to come for their licenses so that we can give them. A lot of the people who are located along the Niger Delta are also being encouraged. Do they need licenses?
What they need is that we support them from time to time with some fishing materials. For instance in Bayelsa, we have some bundles of fishing nets, which has been there for the past one year.
We give it to those who are going to fish in an area within the Atlantic Ocean that is meant for the artisanal fisher men, just to encourage them to go that way instead of fishing along these fresh water bodies where we are experiencing limited or shortfall of fish in the stock.
You will agree with me that it is very difficult for us to control or regulate artisanal fishing. All over the world because of the technology they have, everybody who has a license has a given quantity that you are expected to fish.
So, if you exceed your quantity, your ship will be berth. We have not even developed up to that. What we do is to first of all, encourage people to come into the industry and fish, partner with the navy who will provide the security. People are saying that they will not go inside the deep ocean to fish because of piracy and insecurity. Because of this, the President has approved the procurement of two ships that the fishery department will use collaboratively with the Nigerian navy to provide some security within our marine boundaries so that people can go and fish.
As part of our policy to guaranty security, every year, each of those fishing vessels need to renew their licenses. One of the conditions we are insisting on now is that you must have the technology that will enable the navy see you from their bases so that in case there is a distress situation you will press a button and the navy will immediately come to your rescue.
So, we are evolving a number of measures to guaranty security in the fishery subsector. In order to protect the fishes we have along the river Niger and our fresh water bodies, we are encouraging people to embrace aquaculture.
The bulk of what is imported into the country could also be through aquaculture, not all are from the Atlantic Ocean, not all are from the ocean. But we are encouraging people not to be only fishermen, not when you wake up by 4.00am all you do is go the river to fish, do something behind your house and see how you can start breeding fish that you can get more from than go only to fish along the waters.
Preservation and storage is also key, will you agree with me that most of the post-harvest losses is the result of this?
You will be surprised that fish is one of the proteins that has ready market no matter the condition. Yes, we have a fundamental problem with storage, but even if the fish cannot be stored, it could be dried and be preserved for months.
That is why we are supporting our fishermen with smoking kits. When you bring your fish and you can’t get a buyer dry it. Sometimes if you process it by drying it, you will have more money.
Those who go to your fish farms to buy fresh fish and take it to their homes to dry have more money than you who is selling it fresh. Fish is one protein that whatever we are able to produce is consumed. The point I am trying to make is that post-harvest losses for fish is negligible.
But we are trying to support our fish farmers with some smoking klins. This year alone we are supporting them with 800 smoking klins across the country. Last year also, we supported them with the smoking klins and we will continue to do that.
What we are doing is to see how, along the coast lines we can install bigger smoking klins with stainless fumesso that those who are fishing can be deliberately encouraged to process the fish that they kill, so that they can have more value from their catches. But the gap between the production and the national demand is not as a result of post-harvest loss because with fish very little is lost.
The issue of smuggling affects significant local production. What’s your take on that?
When we give fishing licenses to people what we tell them is that fish import is restricted only through the sea borders; no land border is allowed to bring in fish, chicken, any frozen food is prohibited through the land borders. But what we have discovered is that smugglers smuggle all sorts of proteins that are in demand. Unfortunately, we are not in charge of the borders, but we are constantly in touch with the customs.
I am a member of the Presidential Committee on smuggling headed by the vice president to see how we can address the issue of smuggling. Somebody who is smuggling in rice is also smuggling in fish. We also know that the Republic of Benin has been our most troublesome neighbour, and so, we are constructively engaging the officials of that country.
If you remember recently, the President of that country came to Abuja to meet with President Buhari, with a view to resolving that issue. We will stop at nothing to reduce the rate of smuggling. Unfortunately, smuggling is one thing you can never eliminate completely. Despite the sophisticated US security, drugs and other substances are still being smuggled into the US through Mexico.
And so, no matter how sophisticated your security architecture may be, smuggling is something that is a global phenomenon. But what we want to do is try to reduce it to the barest minimum. I can assure you that we are working closely with the customs, immigration and we are part of the committee headed by the Vice President and we are doing everything possible to reduce it to the barest minimum, including engaging them in Benin Republic by giving them some logistical support.
I remember the customs is trying to equip them with some vehicles, some personnel to see how we can strengthen our collaboration with them with a view to stopping this issue of smuggling. The truth is that our borders are very difficult to police because we don’t even have the number of personnel to police our borders. Unfortunately, some of those smugglers are having state support for what they are doing and we are trying to see how we can, within the provisions of the rules; within the ECOWAS protocols see how we can handle this issue of smuggling.
How about exporting our own fish since you mentioned earlier that your regime increased local production?
In fact, if I have my way, we will prohibit fish export because the gap between the national production and the national demand is still very huge. But because we also encourage people who are making investment to see how they can sale or export we allow them, because it is a free market economy in Nigeria. If anybody feels that they want to export, of course we can’t stop them. Atlantic shrimpers for instance is exporting their shrimps to the whole world but we can’t stop them despite the fact that we still have a huge gap between national demand and our production.
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