Edobong Akpabio is an agroprenur. She has an enterprise that deals with processing poultry and fish products. She is the Chief Operating Officer of Visionage Integrated Farms. In this interview with Correspondent speaks on challenges farmers face among other issues.
What spurred you into farming?
I have always known that I will have my own business someday and at the time I had my business I was determined and I started attending lot of training programmes, conferences in different areas of my interest.
I was interested in many things but one of the things that interested me about agriculture was at the time former President Olusegun Obasanjo was putting together the cassava revolution there were lot of training programmes everywhere, I attended some of them and my interest was increased and I was impacted very seriously.
There were lots of support groups, lot of organizations that were willing to impact and willing to ensure that people like us are interested and willing to invest in agriculture. Initially it was on cassava but by the time I sat down to look at it, I saw that I could do so many other things I was already a trainer.
Most of the information that I got also improved my capacity. I now provide training and capacity building for agropreneurs because I realize that we have serious knowledge and information deficit. Many people going into business to invest without necessarily having knowledge of what it requires or the mentoring and counseling support they need. So I am doing more of that now alongside my business.
What are some of the challenges you encountered in the course of doing this?
The first is the poor infrastructure, and I believe that nearly all business people are suffering it. Our costs are very high because of poor infrastructure, a situation where you will be your local government; you buy land and you get your own water, your own generator, you provide your own security and many other infrastructure. For instance, if you are buying any farmland and there is no drainage system, you have to do your drainage apart from building your own premises; the cost is very high when you compare it with what you are going to produce. You will really have longer turnaround time to recover your cost, so for some businesses they can begin to hit their revenue in a year or two but agriculture is not like that, ten years down the line you are still not there.
Agriculture is not a business that you will have quick returns, so it is a sector you have to persevere in. You work with your passion and you spend your money and more time trying to reach more customers and trying to improve the quality of your product. That means you don’t have to borrow, we have not borrowed a dime since we began ten years ago, it is tough, but we are looking at a situation where you are not under any pressure.
Have you been able to source for funds from government or banks?
We know where to source for fund, we know where the fund is, but we don’t want to source for the funds now. We want to source for that fund when we need to; very soon we will need that fund when we need to improve on our current infrastructure; current machinery and that will require a lot of money. Fortunately, there are funding initiatives that are designated for that type of business. They are not looking forward to give you money to go and buy land; they are looking at giving you money to buy machinery.
Do you think Nigerian fish farmers can meet local consumption without the need to import fish?
I believe that Nigeria has more water bodies to produce fish for local consumption we have enough but don’t forget that all those frozen fish comes from our waters, there are licensed fishing companies, they have different vessels going to our own waters and bringing some of the fish.
It is not all the frozen fish that are imported, we have some of them that are from our own waters, it is only that you find them frozen because that is the only way to preserve them.
We have come a long way in the production of catfish; we are producing so much catfish now that we even have more than enough to feed a good number of our population.
Recently the Tilapia Association of Nigeria celebrated the first table size Tilapia that you can domesticate.
What that means to us is huge in Nigeria, our local Tilapia are very small, they are not more than the size of your palm, they use them to feed bigger fishes but science and technology have developed in such that we have one kilogramme, the size of Crocker you see around. And they can pond them. It was a huge celebration for us. What that means is that we can domesticate other fish species and they come from our own water bodies so now people that want fresh Crocker can actually get it, especially those that like scaly fish.
So it is a very interesting activity for us, so lot of people will have fingerlings and they will be able to produce them. So if we continue with this current attention to fish production we should be able to feed our population in three years time.
What does it take to start a fish farm?
Anyone going to fish farming business must have space and it is the space that will determine the quantity of fish you will get, investment you are going to take and determine the feed and other things in terms of water and other inputs. I will suggest that what any prospective fish farmer should do is to go for training, many people just go to business they know nothing about and they get their fingers burnt all the time.
I will advise anybody that wants to go for any business to first go for training and training is available in many places. So you go there and they will teach you, you will learn the practical of taking care of your farm.
Many of them will even take you through how to write a business plan, business plan is now simple; you don’t need a consultant to write it for you.
For instance, what we provide for our client if they need input we know where they can go, if they are looking for funding we know where they can go, if they are looking for customers we know where they can go, we can look at their business and advice them, but the farmer must be the one to prepare for the business.
Similarly in the poultry, subsector we still not have enough poultry for the country, in a population of 170million people if everybody are to eat an egg a day we don’t have 170million eggs, that is the truth we cannot kill 170million chicken for everybody to eat every day, we don’t have that now.
What we can do is to ensure that we continuously open up the space for more poultry farmers to come in and to expand the existing ones and the reasons why they are not expanding, the reason why many people are not going into it is that we are almost not there.
Just like every other value chain, the value chain must be properly designed just like every subsector has a value chain in fact every activity has a value chain so that people can know the role they play. There should be a role for the producers the only thing they want to do is to rear birds and also harvest eggs, there should be another chain that picks up those things from there. There should be another chain that provides the machineries and other things.
For instance, if somebody wants to start a poultry farm, they would simply go to someone who is building it, look at the space that I have and tell me the number of birds that I can put there. We also need to standardize all we do instead of asking me how many birds I want. I think my space should determine the number of birds that I should have not the other way round. There should be a standard we are lacking in that area we find out that everybody wants to do everything.
The vet doctors are very good at public abattoirs, many of the vet doctors that have worked with the agroprenuers are from the public sector where government pays them, you now call them to your farms, and private sector vet doctors only know how to handle pets, majorly dogs and cats. That is another area of value chain that is missing because if a private vet doctor has 20 farmers who are his clients, the guy is in business we are not having that kind of attention. It is not making the chain to grow up and also not encouraging people.
Looking at agriculture as a whole what will you say are some of the core challenges facing this sector?
Specifically access to land is a major challenge. When you don’t have access to land it becomes a serious drawback to those that want to produce. The marketer does not have anything to market if the producer do not produce, we have asked government to come in, we have asked government to warehouse certain land and government has the right to give them for farming purposes; they are doing it but it is not enough.
A majority of the investors are having challenge of the ‘omo onile’ and for a farmer that is not a good experience because the little money you have that you want to invest they are coming to extort it from you they are disrupting your operation, they are threatening your life, even if you have C of O it does not give you access to your land.
The land available is very expensive, if a farmer is going to buy an acre of land for half a million, what is he going to plant, if you are going to spend all of your income only on land, after you have acquired the land, where is the money you are going to use to start.
That is a challenge for real estate owners, can’t they go and liaise for land, remove ‘omo onile’ from it and those people will be paying mortgage for like three years or so and when you finish paying, the land now become yours; that will reduce the financial pressure on investors in agriculture.
Second is the infrastructure which everybody is suffering when there is no power, producers cannot do much when there is no water the producer will have to dig its own borehole, when there is no security you will now have to pay for guards that still not help because someone can still come in and steal.
What we should be talking about is criteria most of these funds are there un-accessed because criteria are issues until we begin to take agriculture seriously like we take oil and gas, we will not be able to appreciate what people are doing there. DPR is a regulatory body for oil and gas, where is the regulatory body for agriculture. Because if you go to DPR and say you want to build a filling station they have a standard, they will tell you this is the minimum size of filling station you can do, these are all the documents you will need, I want to let you know that if you have all the documentation for DPR, a bank will give you loan, we don’t have such in agriculture as a result of that, funding criteria become a problem. The DPR makes you to have criteria that will enable you access the fund and we don’t have that in agriculture. They don’t take it seriously, the funding is there but we cannot access it.
They say that there is no funding, that is not true; I don’t believe it. The funding is there maybe we should have a regulatory body that will put all those documentations together to meet the criteria for setting up your business.
Like I said, if you want to set up a filling station, DPR will come and see where you want to set up your filling station, for agriculture no one will come and check where I want to start my poultry farm or my fish farm; that is an issue.
So we need to have a regulatory body, it is a big challenge right now.
Another issue we face is pricing, people believe that food should be cheap but people don’t know that it costs a lot to produce food. So we go and eat in a buka it looks cheap and you go and eat in a five star hotel and is expensive; food is not cheap. It is so costly to produce food. People do not ever think that there will be a day they will wake up and have their money but they will not see food to buy we don’t need to go there because it would have serious security implication.
I don’t believe that government can do all things, I believe the government should gather the stakeholders together from time to time to ensure that some of these challenge are taken care of so that everybody can go back to their business. What is paramount is that, that sector has to grow, the moment we can feed ourselves and not importing any food into these country the better for us.