It appears these are not the best of times for the Nigerian farmer even when government has made conscious efforts to earmark funds for the sector, through the banks. But the financial institutions who ought to be the catalyst of growth have over the years emerged as cogs in the wheel of progress. In this interview, Vice President Rice Farmers Association of Nigeria, Mr. Segun Atho explains the frustrations farmers are going through in the quest to access funds from the banks.
Not long ago, the Federal Government hinted of plans to ban importation of rice as an incentive to encourage local rice production in Nigeria, you must be very pleased with this arrangement?
It is a very good policy; the present Minister for Agriculture initiated that policy. He believes that by the year 2015 we should be producing rice. The ministry hopes to monitor our level of production in 2014 and by 2015; they will stop importation of rice in other to sustain what we are producing here in Nigeria. But it sounds funny that some people don’t want that policy to succeed. We call them portfolio farmers. Even though the minister is saying that he is not in office for port folio famers, I still believe that some portfolio farmers are working around the clock to ensure that that project does not succeed.
What is the present production capacity of rice in Nigeria?
Aside from the conservative figure or political figure, I can tell you categorically that we are yet to produce up to 3 million tonnes, which means we cannot feed the nation with the current trend of production.
What can we do to ensure that the policy works?
If we want it to work, government must be proactive. They need to provide some equipment for farmers, starting from tractors and milling machines. We have about 99 irrigations, they need to refurbish them and reconstruct others, and they must revamp all the river basins authority. Then all our ADP, too, they need to do something about them. All the extension officers should be available to monitor them and government must also provide viable feed for farmers because we are still getting 1.5 tons per hectares and we can still get up to 10 tons per hectares if rice viable seed is made available to farmers.
You are in Lagos; there has been a lot of noise about rice production in the state, what is the capacity of rice production in the state?
Let me tell you rice production in Lagos has not picked up very well. They leave the project under political office holders. I know how much Lagos State Government has invested in rice production in Badagry. I know that they have not received a peanut from the investment. Actually the Lagos state government is trying, they have put in place a machine with the capacity to mill 20, 000 metric tonnes of rice at Imota but I don’t believe that the machine can see up to 5,000 tonnes to mill per year because the rice is not available except they are going to other states to import rice for milling. But it is a very good vision put in place by government. I love the way Fashola is helping agriculture but there are some people who are still playing politics with agriculture because of their ulterior motives. Then there are some people who want to make Lagos a consuming state instead of a producing state. I still believe that we have over 114,000 hectares of land in Lagos State. We can earmark may be 50 percent of that land for rice production, we cannot make everywhere industrial layout, but we can earmark some for production of certain food for the state. It is when we have shortfall in Lagos state that we can be thinking of Osun State, Ogun State and Oyo State, we can even be thinking of northern part of the country. W can produce vegetable here, we can also produce tomato here, we can produce virtually everything in the state.
So where are we getting it wrong?
Government still wants to reserve some areas to expand property development for those who are coming to occupy Lagos but by so doing, you are enslaving the state. We fought tooth and nail to ensure that Lagos State is listed among the rice producing states, but today I am not seeing things the way it ought to be. No tractors for farmers. You can do your research, and see if you can see a viable tractor in a hiring unit; where you are putting down two tractors for almost about 1000 farmers, you see them queuing, booking and time is running out and by so doing you are making Lagos a consuming state. Actually they have labelled Lagos as the state of excellence that knows how to start except maintenance. As for the rice mill they put at Imota, I pray that it will continue to survive because I know what is happening. Those people will go outside and bring rice and they will be telling them that it is Eko Rice they are milling.
You hardly find young men who are into farming in Nigeria, how do we encourage young men to embrace agriculture?
There must be an enabling environment for young men to operate. You cannot tell young men to come and farm with cutlasses and hoes, you must have machines that will clear and prepare the land for cultivation. We need to encourage these young men by providing them with good infrastructure that will enable them to have love for agriculture. But by and large we also have some problem among the youths. They have allowed their certificate to envelop them, we have five million students graduating this year; another year 5 million, now do we have 10 million jobs. So they too should look elsewhere and add something to their certificate. They can start from backyard farming, from their father’s house: snail is there, grass cutter is there, they are not meant for commercial quantity. It is when you do it in commercial that you can think of what to sell to other people. But for the one you can consume like vegetable you can start from backyard and then move to one plot, one plot to two plot, two plot to one acre one acre to one hectares, but government must do something. Another thing is fund. Government can encourage youths by giving them grant or loans in a smaller form to start agriculture.
In your lecture, you said in India there are about 500 tractors allocated to farmers per local government, if you are to recommend for Nigeria, how many tractors would you be looking at per local government to meet up with the 2015 target?
Conservatively in Nigeria, they told us that they have 30,000 tractors in Nigeria but I want to tell you that we need more than that, we need up to one million tractors in Nigeria. At the rate of 20 tractor per local government because a tractor is supposed to work on 250 hectares and if you have 10 farmers, a tractor can serve those 10 famers per day.
How true is the rumour that N200 billion released to farmers by the Federal Government for agriculture is not getting to you the farmers?
It is true, because when you are in the system you will know what is happening- all they do is tell you that the money is there. Recently N200 billion allocated to cooperatives was discovered by Ethics and Value in the Presidency and they asked why the money is in the Presidency when it should have been given to the cooperatives. We would have more than this but there are some people that are using the money to do other things. You give them the money and they use the money to buy Treasury bill. They are afraid of the farmers. They believe that if they give the farmer loans, there will be no possibility of recovering it. But if they buy Treasury bill with the money they can also use whatever they get from the money to pay fine that will be imposed on them but it pays them that way. So government must do something and not all the banks have agriculture desk, so they don’t know where the shoe is pinching the farmer.
Why are they doing that?
The banks are afraid of the farmers, but life is risk, it is even risky not to take risk. We must take risk in Nigeria and we cannot get it in a day. What if you have good motive to burrow and pay back, and because I have borrowed and refused to pay, does not mean that the other person should not get a loan. So, you continue to give out loans and that is why they put insurance in place. What is the essence of insurance, because when you are borrowing from them they tell you that they are going to deduct money for insurance. When that money goes comatose who is responsible for it. After all, banks too go comatose and it is NDIC that helps them out, so why can’t they help farmers too. Then another thing I appreciate the minster for is his going to the stock market to raise money for farmers. That one happened November 4 last year in Lagos but since then we have not heard anything. We also appeal to foreign partners to help farmers in the area of grants or loan.
You made mention of the Nigeria Incentive-Based Risk-Sharing System for Agricultural Lending (NIRSAL)how is it impacting on the lot of farmers in Nigeria?
It is one of the programme of CBN for farmers. CBN will release 70 percent while the banks will release 30 percent just to reduce risk element in the lending process. But if the banks contribute 30 percent and CBN contributes 70 percent or 75 percent of the money and the farmers don’t pay back the loan in time, the bankers can remove their money from the 70 percent. Then two, it will also enable the banks to go after the money because when they have a stake, that will move them to go after it but today they are not ready to give out the money both CBN and the banks, it is not working, if it is working then it is only working for the big time farmers?
So, what can be done?
What i know government can do is to tell CBN to do the right thing. But I know that banks have their own side of the story; they are telling us that they are borrowing from CBN for 14 percent and they are giving it out to farmers between 26 and 30 percent. When they borrow from CBN for 14 percent , do you know that this people too will add their own and they tell you to your face that they are trading with it. So the policy on borrowing in this country must be changed. Then the law on borrowing in this country is not that rigid. If you are borrowing you must bear it at the back of your mind that you must pay back. But these people in the banks are also borrowing money in your name, so if they are not able to pay their share, it becomes a big problem for them to come and recover your own, so that is the problem, so government needs to formulate new policy that will help the farmers to grow.
How is the bank of agriculture assisting the famers?
They are trying it is just that they are trying to recapitalise. Government need to fund that bank so that they can work better and compete with other banks. They give out loans to farmers at rate lower than the commercial rates in other banks.
What about the arrangement for cooperative members to cross guarantee one another?
That arrangement only works in Bank of Agriculture but they don’t allow it in commercial banks, even when they tell you to cross guarantee yourself they will still ask you to go and look for a surety outside that has collateral and who in this country will want to help poor farmers. Even if you want to open a current account and they ask you to go and look for referee, they will be running away from you. So no big time person will surety a cooperative society, because they feel that if the money is not forth coming they will come and hold them and by so doing they will liquidate their property, so it is only through the grace of God that you can see somebody that can say let us help them after all life is a risk.