Re-igniting Rivers Agriculture Stakes

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By Nelson Chukwudi

Let us agree on this: prima facie, in many parts of the world, Nigeria and Rivers State inclusive, agriculture has not been maximally harnessed. This is so because, what we have seen happen in the sector has not contributed to fulfilling the vital function of feeding the people sufficiently. It has also not provided basic commodities as required, or helped desirably, in the generation of stable income too.

But this is not what it should be, neither should it be allowed to be so. This is why productive hands should not remain idle and germane efforts merely wished away when deliberate and consistently implemented policies can coordinate robust agricultural activities, necessarily so, to ensure support for human survival and promote enduring well-being. Perhaps, this is what sane leaders do in any society that plans to grow and also feed its people.

The administration of Governor Siminalayi Fubara of Rivers State is in such ranking: forward-looking and mindful of those things to do, that can help real growth of all facets of the society, howbeit, agriculture. It has taken decisions on what must be done in order to increase attention for agriculture, and mobilising requisite resources that will support in refocusing the interest of majority of Rivers youths, and indeed, agro-actors, towards harnessing agriculture potentials in Rivers State.

Nigeria has, regrettably remained a consumption-dependent economy, and Rivers State is a part of this quagmire. The reason for this is clear: age-long, chronic and troubling lack of holistic attention to public policy implementation on a consistent basis to achieve sustained progress. But pulling off from such stance, the Governor Fubara-led administration is resolved to strengthen the comparative advantage of Rivers State in the agriculture value chain. It is a herculean task but not impossible because the potentials are glaring. So, there has been careful examination of what should be done, and how it should to be done to achieve an agricultural growth status that will make the State stand out.

To start, Governor Fubara has taken a critical look at the level of existing support previously offered by the State Government to promoting agriculture before he assumed office. Books may not lie, even when there could be disparities in what is recorded and what can be seen on ground. That, in itself, does offer a bearing. So, at least, what is clear is that such support was often driven by the quest to achieve economic development, promote key target interests, set out the prescriptions and requirements that would boost agricultural production.

With mind set on the mantra of “Consolidation and Continuity”, vital decisions are being taken, arising from those critical scrutinies, not necessarily to undermine what existed but to establish a path for continuity. With a policy direction that should stimulate commercial farming, and let it signpost the level of awareness that should be created in achieving food security in the State, there has been a determined posture secured without ineluctably falling to the trappings of incoherence and poor coordination most policy initiatives had suffered.

So, to have a holistic perspective for the required results that are expected, the decisions being taken took into cognizance: the need to identify support or collaborations where none existed, commence one, and gear up efforts in seeking requisite and workable collaborations to achieve success. In areas where such support did exist, but were incongruous, a review has been streamlined to give a new direction. Where there was abandonment of any process, a revitalization has been decided and production capacities of endeavours of agro-actors strengthened.

There is also a focus on small holder farmers because their concerns are in keen consideration of what the administration intends to do in the sector. These farmers belong to the brackets of small and medium enterprises that do need greater opportunities facilitated for their agribusinesses in other for them to access credit that would enable them expand their portfolio. More efforts are being harnessed with a search for an effective synergy within favourable environment to attract investors and financial institutions into funnelling credit to farming endeavours and the process of having an updated databank is being formalised. Regardless, the Rivers State Government has brokered partnership with the Bank of Industry (BOI) in the disbursement of N4billion to small scale entrepreneurs in the State. This is an initiative that should impact on the sector, nonetheless, if the beneficiaries were true to tact.

But of note is the review embarked upon by the government concerning its agricultural investment in the Songhai Integrated Farms. This farm is located in Bunu community, Tai Local Government Area of Rivers State. The Songhai Integrated Farms sits on a vast expanse of land measuring 314 hectares. Where it sits was, in 1985 established as part of the School-to-Land Farms project. But it was repurposed in 2011 to become Songhai Integrated Farms.

It had distinct production sections that included livestock production, crop cultivation, fisheries, forestry, engineering services, agro-industrialization, and the training of aspiring farmers. The farm started off with an environmentally-sustainable agricultural production system that harnessed a holistic value-chain approach to ensure higher incomes for farmers and processors, as well as other agro-actors to guarantee social and economic prosperity.

It was set up to operate a self-driven zero waste farming model designed to protect the natural environment by mitigating the impacts of climate change. So, each production section was made up of different units, overseen by specialists who work in synergy. Within the production line, nothing became discard-able waste since the finished products/byproducts were sent from one production unit to another in a sequential manner to further transform them into other useful products for human use. It was a continuous circle, and consistently so to promote sustainable economy.

Those features had been carefully enumerated to have a proper understanding of the venture that was to make Rivers economy bigger and more progressive. But either by commission or omission, it became lame because it was driven into despicable condition, or rather, because it was abandoned. Every facility became decrepit as a result. For almost a decade, it remained so, and nothing was operational there. The hope that once soared, about all the potentials and contributions it was to make towards food security, and to provide gainful employment for the teeming Rivers youths, died, albeit, for the time it was in limbo.

Also, laid in waste were all the structures, those that were constructed with concrete, metallic, or wooden, and others that were installed, over the ground and underground. Most office equipment were stolen too, and carted away by vandals. The entire premises of the Songhai Integrated Farms became overgrown with short and tall grasses. And it was dangerously bushy too.

Those were the sorry sight that Governor Fubara beheld when he visited the farm on Saturday, October 7, 2023. The billions of naira in Rivers tax-payers’ money that was invested in the Songhai Integrated Farms project by the State Government went down the drains. So, the visit availed Governor Fubara the opportunity to do an on-the-spot assessment of the present condition of the farm, and ascertain what possible ways to bring it back to production stream again. On that visit, the Governor was conducted round the facility by the Manager of the Songhai Integrated Farms Project, Dr. Tammy Jaja. The revitalisation works to be done looked massive and very demanding but nothing is insoluble with political will, wisdom and courage.

In his explanation, Governor Fubara asserted the urgency that is required in restoring and repositioning the State for sustainable economic growth and development. With his visit, arising from the resolution reached when they last had the National Economic Council (NEC) meeting in Abuja, where they had considered the exigency of diversifying the nation’s economy and harped on the need to cushion current economic hardship experienced by the citizenry, he was determined to kickstart the version for the State. In his words, Governor Fubara said: “In our last National Economic Council meeting, because of the present situation of our economy, which you are aware; the issue of removal of fuel subsidy and other economic bites affecting everyone, everybody was advised to diversify. The other option is agriculture, and we were all advised to see what we can do to improve on food sufficiency.”

The Governor had assured that his Administration was determined to use the Songhai Integrated Farms as a launching pad to revolutionise agriculture in Rivers State. To achieve that, everything would be done to revamp the Songhai Farms. And when revitalized, the economy of the State could then be diversified, providing foundation for the people to be engaged meaningfully while also increasing the food sufficiency capacity of the State.

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Governor Fubara assured: “As I leave here now, we are going to bring in all the stakeholders to discuss the way forward. What I am seeing here will require long-term planning and going back to the site to reinstate the installed facilities that have become desolate. The State Government will not just do that, we will bring in people who have the resources, expertise, strength and commitment to partner with us to bring back this place to life. The advantages to be derived when this place comes back to life include food sufficiency and employment generation. It will also address issues of youth restiveness.”

That process has begun. The people who had been identified to have the strength and commitment to partner the State Government were already in touch, and brought to the negotiation table. The talking has been extensive and intensive. The best among them with more enduring approach and sustainable model are at the verge of being engaged. Songhai Integrated Farms must be revitalized. That is the commitment and it remains unwavering.

While the discussions were ongoing, the farm has been repossessed by the Government. It would no longer be accessed freely as thorough fare to members of the public as it was in the days of abandonment. Gradually, the clearing of the short and tall grasses and trees are ongoing, and would be concluded, eventually. What shall be done with that project would be devoid of a lack of clarity and the adopted plan, nothing of abrupt disruption is anticipated. For this farm, the level of independence with which it would operate would be such that it could remain dogged, contest its place within the sector and drive food sufficiency process at a pace more sustaining and enviable for the State.

Another investment that is of critical concern to the Government is the 45,000-metric tonnes Rivers Cassava Processing Company, which is located in Afam Community, Oyigbo Local Government Area. This is a multi-billion-naira investment that was engineered as a public-private partnership (PPP) venture between the Rivers State Government, Shell, Vieux Manioc BV of the Netherlands, and the Netherlands Embassy.

Understandably, the motivation for establishing this processing factory was to address the challenges of value addition of the cassava crop in the value chain sub-sector. So, the factory was inaugurated on May 28, 2021, as a company that will support the economy of Rivers State to earn more revenue from the cassava value chain.

The company then had a board of directors in place, which helped in the preliminary stages of preparations leading to its inauguration. But barely within the first two months of start of production, the subsisting administration then dissolved the board, which left the company without adequate supervision to help it actualize its core mandate.

Things remained so until March 7, 2024, when Governor Fubara visited the factory. The visit, the Governor explained, was propelled by the desire to see the level of effectiveness and efficiency of the existing production line.

He explained that the team managing the factory, led by the Managing Director of the Rivers Cassava Processing Plant, Ruben Giesen, had requested financial support, in a letter sent to him. This, the team said, would enable them complete two more production lines at the factory to increase capacity utilisation in order to churn out more products.

Governor Fubara said: “I got a request from the people who are managing the cassava processing plant that we need to extend our support for them to complete two production lines that will give them a standard that they can start to supply in earnest to a lot of distributors who need the products from this plant. And I felt it would be proper for me to see what we have already invested, the stage they are at, so that it will encourage us to give more support.”

Governor Fubara further said: “From what I have seen here today, it is really impressive. I can assure them that we are going to give the financial support to ensure that the production lines are all completed. This is to encourage them to go into full supply of the products with international standards to anywhere in the world.”

The promise given by Governor Fubara to inject more funds is with the aim of revitalising this mega cassava processing factory in order to ensure that the finished products meet internationally accepted standards. Of course, these are well intended responses, and the drive is to ensure an increase in quantum of food production capability and attain the level of sufficiency while also creating gainful employment for the growing youthful population of the State.

It is obvious that the Governor Fubara-led administration clearly understands that Nigeria is the largest cassava producer at the global level. It is on record, that Nigeria accounts for about one-fifth (20%) of total cassava production worldwide. Indeed, Rivers ranked among the Top Five Cassava Producing States in Nigeria. It is, therefore, of necessity and thoughtful of a Government that cares for its farmers, to keep keen interest on this factory, and ensure that it is supported to enhance value addition, and guarantee employment for the people.

In fact, Governor Fubara knows that this factory would also promote adoption and the use of 10 per cent high quality cassava flour (HQCF) in bread and confectionery businesses, so as to reduce wheat importation and conserve foreign exchange earnings to meet other needs. Indeed, cassava is one of the defining ingredients of our family lives in this region, and it is a valued crop in Niger Delta and in other parts of Nigeria. So, this factory, with the promised support from the Governor Fubara-led administration, will attain full operational status. This will further be propelled by feedstock from about 3,000 farmers within the farming communities and other far away farmers in neighbouring communities.

What the people need to understand is that, as long as this factory’s capacity is not fully strengthened, it will be difficult for it to receive uninterrupted supply of raw materials from the thousands of hectares that could be cultivated to service it. By extension, this means massive waste of hundreds of jobs its prospect assures, particularly the over 20,000 farm families that will earn income to enhance their livelihoods and improve their standard of living.

Even as the threat to food security continues to alarm watchers in Nigeria with food inflation rate rising from 33.93% in December, 2023 to 35.41% in January, 2024, and not yet abating, these efforts of the Rivers State Government are to ensure that people do not spend more money before they can afford enough food for themselves and their families. Instructively, if there is no change in focus and the required actions are taken, guided by well-thought-out policy and implemented with the right political will, the threat to acute food security will be reversed.

It is possible that at the end of the day, these measures geared towards building sustainable food systems will feed everyone, everywhere, and every day. The cry of hunger is loud and palpably so. And Governor Fubara understands that only a focused attention on finding enduring solutions through strategic investments in boosting agricultural yields and increasing its value chain would address the needs of the people. This is why the Government sees the initiatives as a task that must be done. The Governor’s eyes will remain on the ball, until desired results are achieved with maximum impact. That is a promise he made to the people, a SIMple promise he has vowed to fulfil without fear of intimidation or favour.

Nelson Chukwudi is the Chief Press Secretary to the Rivers State Governor, and writes from Government House, Port Harcourt

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