Travails Of Nigerian Farmers, By Ex-militant-turned Commercial Farmer

September 4, 2020
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Like nearly all areas of human endeavours, lessons are said best learned when put to practice and most likely experienced in the most realistic environment possible. Besides, what better environment is there than being out in the real world exploring the sector you have always dreamed of and have passion for?
For young agripreneurs who ventured into the agricultural sector in the last few years having identified the potential in the industry to carve a niche for themselves and also to contribute largely to the eco-nomic advancement of the country, the interest was no doubt informed by President Muhammadu Buhari’s green revolution campaign – a campaign desiged to advance food security and economic di-versification to increase the country’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) end importation and stimulate foreign exchange. This was also by every sense meant to promote and encourage farmers in the coun-try.
Retson Tedheke, a former Niger Delta militant who travelled far to northern Nigeria to become a new generation farmer falls into this category of Nigerians who have invested a huge chunk of their life sav-ings and time into the agricultural sector.
Of course, with 200 million population, 84 million arable hectares of farmland and a substantial popula-tion of youths as workforce, agriculture is no doubt expected to be a gold mine as the population is readily a big market.
For Tedheke, venturing into agriculture is a national call to put patriotism into work than what comes out of it for him as a commercial farmer. “It has been war all the while in my struggle for my country to become capable of feeding itself but it is all about personal satisfaction but we are not there yet where you can begin to satisfy your personal needs”, he told LEADERSHIP Friday.
Agriculture, no doubt is one of the most lucrative businesses in the world today, unfortunately, be-yond the flashy naratives about farming business, the gains are to some extent limited to other climes where farmers are highly subsidised by their governments and by so creating a huge advantage for them to grow and export in large scale.
This is not the case for most Nigerian farmers who would have to provide virtually everything for themselves even at neck-breaking interest rates from commercial banks, that is if the loans are even available for them.
This has been the impression for those who may not understand the internal battles farmers in Nigeria are confronted with year in, year out, yet they struggle to keep their heads above water hoping that someday things would work in their interest, having invested a lot into farming. It is this die-hard men-tality that has kept some of them going despite the difficult environment they operate in.

The Traps And Hurdles
Besides the battle for a farmer to keep his head above waters, there are other unsuspected traps. Like other farmers who had fell victims to land scams while trying to acquire land for farming, Tedheke nar-rated his ordeal in 2017 when he came to Nasarawa State with his team of inventors. How did he over-come the shock that came with it and still went ahead to establish himself, he said: “Farming in Nigeria is very difficult in so many ways. A lot of people already known that I came from the Niger Delta. As a militant then, trying to set up business in Akure, Ondo State. I was into forex, commodity trading and others and I lost a lot of money in 2007-2008 during the global financial meltdown. So, I was coming from the background of difficult experience in business and so that prepared me to an extent for what became Nigeria Farmers Group and Cooperative Society.
“When we came in, the land we have in Ga’ate was not enough. We wanted more and we wanted close to 10,000 hectares, around Nasarawa State to be able to open up more farmlands and make it easier for our people to have jobs and then take care of themselves. So, we went to Shabo Agwada and people called me that a land was put up for sale. We paid and deployed bulldozers and thereafter they stopped us after spending over N30million.
“They told us the land was under dispute and we did everything we could do but nothing came out of it, said Retson, who described the situation as common across Nigeria but that did not deter him from pushing forward.
“I said there was no way we are going to give up since we already established in Ga’ate and just want-ed to expand in areas where we could have source of water. That was what informed that decision to go to Agwada,” he noted. This is one among many others a farmer lives with.

Initial Setbacks
Aside the delay and failed promises by governments’ intervention agencies to reach out to farmers, commercial bank credit facilities despite being very instrumental in agricultural investment, particularly for large scale farmers, are hard to come by.
Take for instance, in 2018, the agriculture sector which employs around half of working Nigerians and contributes around a third of the country’s GDP, received only three per cent of total bank credit.
Experts are worried about the startling figures for a sector so vital and one which is viewed as the country’s hope for the future.
“We came in with the hope that NIRSAL will come in and support the farm but that did not work out for almost three years, though they are coming to the table as we speak, Retson said.
He said that one of the realities before most farmers in the country is that they are made to be a gov-ernment of their own, building their own roads, health centres, provide power and other things to keep the farm running.
“If you want to become successful you become all of these in one and then you try to make sure you grow these challenges and the time you overcome them. Yes, it was tough, hard and difficult but there was nothing we could really do. Because you said you have suffered a lot in 2007 and 2008 and you will give up and if you give up what would you do to the investors’ money? What will happen to people who trusted you? What would happen to the commitment you have made with the people too? asked Retson, who said “it is better that the commitment and the promises are delayed than the fact that you wake up one day and tell investors that it is not going to be possible.
“We took time and accepted the challenge and also accepted the defeat, losses, the pains we suffered and then we moved on and today you can see that we are doing what we have to do,”he added.

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Keeping Hope Alive For Recalibration And Sustainability
It is a general opinion that most successful entrepreneurs benefit from previous setbacks, which end up as catalysts for further improvement and success stories. The mistake most people venturing into commercial agriculture make is that they do not realise the fact that it is a long-term venture. With the current economy reality occasioned by the recent outbreak of coronavirus, there is need for the gov-ernment to increasingly prioritise the sector.
“The challenge of farming in Nigeria is the fact that we do not build value first and because we do not build value first, our projects do not last.
You know this COVID-19 era the farmers have a series of challenges and I can tell you that this is the worst period we have experienced, Retson explained.
He lamented that “when there is no money and structural support from the government, it has been difficult and I can tell you now that it is not about profitability but it is about sustainability and survival. You have to survive and then sustain the project before you can think of profit.
“I am not afraid to say that so many of us in the industry are actually on the part of failure because we make one huge mistake we want to attract investors to farm and to the project sometime we make promises that we cannot keep.
“It is very clear that any project that is offering you 50 percent per annum now it is not sustainable in the long-run. That was why we decided to go to the government, the CBN, commercial banks, interna-tional investors for help because it becomes very clear to us that we cannot do it alone”.
Despite these challenges, Retson is optimistic that things are gradually putting themselves in place. He said that with well over 300 manpower in the farm and others indirectly employed labour and invest-ments running into billions of naira, a community is already being built. He said that is the value every commercial farm must invest in first.
According to him, “In 2017, the banks were not interested in doing business with us, 2018 also they were not but in 2019 they started coming around and in 2020 we already have N734million approval and we approaching approval for about N2billion and then there is N4 billion work in the project and so many others, he disclosed.
“We are now at the point where building value and once you build value interest will set in, and once the interest takes hold, then you are going to have the resources required. For now, we are not there yet,” he stated.
The concern however is how soon would the banks give out these credits given the fact that farming is often time bound.
Like Retson, it takes the pains and persistence to survive the storm of the farming environment in Ni-geria. Most of his contemporaries have folded up in less than two years into farming business with their investment already put up for sale without hope of any new investor to acquire them. This is harsh reality but some are not giving up the fight to make the sector more viable.
“The next two to three years, we are to be the biggest community farm project in Nigeria. We are go-ing to be bigger than this and also we would be processing about 10 trailers of rice in this farm daily, Retson asserted.
He said that he is confident that as long as the right support is coming from the government and com-mercial banks to enable farmers boost the value chains in the agricultural sector, they are going to commence processing of palm oil, as they have already started processing gari, rice and cassava flour.
He noted that partnership with investors to have standard international abattoir with at least three to five cold room delivery vehicles that will take beef delivery across the country has been activated.
“In the next three years, we are going to have communities where more than 70 percent agricultural-ists are going to be those you call illiterates and more than 80 percent of them are going to be educat-ed and every single one of them is going to be living in Nigeria. So in the next three years we are going to change the world,”FEATUREShe projected.

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