Food security depends on full farm mechanisation, says FUNAAB VC
• Harps on enabling environment for young farmers
• Says security, good inputs imperative for crop production
Vice Chancellor, Federal University of Agriculture Abeokuta (FUNAAB), Prof. Felix Kolawole Salako, explains challenges of his administration, how he tackles the hurdles, and footprints he would love to leave behind in this exclusive with FEMI IBIROGBA on his four years of leadership. He also asks for enabling environment for food production amid insecurity and COVID-19 pandemic-related challenges.
Four years into your tenure as the Vice Chancellor of FUNAAB, how would you describe the challenges so far?
Under the tenure of Professor Olufemi Balogun, potable water was a big problem on campus and he went ahead to dig quite a number of boreholes. He had a plan to build a dam, but it didn’t materialise until I came on board. I am happy today that our dam and water treatment plants have been constructed, and the next stage will be to reticulate treated water.
The job has not been completed, but I am satisfied with what we have achieved so far. It has got to a stage where one is no more scared of not completing it. Now, I know that we have got to a stage where we are so proud of it, though it has not been easy. That is why it has been challenging. We did not get the money to construct it at once. It takes us gradual funding from the capital funds of the Federal Government year-in, year-out to be here. You can imagine the kind of anxiety that I have been having, getting that kind of funds that we were not too sure would come, but God has been faithful and we have got to a full stage. It has taken the grace of God.
One of the things that we are going to do with the dam is irrigation agriculture. Apart from water, we were too dependent on manual agriculture before I came on board. The farm landscape has been transformed in such a way that we have boosted food production with mechanisation. That has been a challenge.
The other thing that I think I should mention is the anxiety about maximum utilisation of the equipment that we have been buying, both for laboratories and classrooms. We have really bought a number of equipment to advance laboratory research, but getting people to use them in a sustainable way is what we are on now, and I think that would involve some training and orientation.
Does that imply shortage of adequate skilled manpower?
I think it requires upgrading of skills because as laboratory equipment change, some equipment get updated, and so we need to really train people and then we need to get committed people too; people with good attitude to government work to provide positive legacies for generations to come.
What about hostel accommodation for students?
We will keep building hostels, but we also keep having increase in the number of students that will come into the university. The hostels are not enough. We are currently building four hostels, and we are going to start new post-graduate and graduate hostels (male and female) soon.
But just last year, COVID-19 pandemic came and there was no way we would put students in hostels and let them be crowded. The number of students that would be in a room has been reduced and will always be reduced because of the pandemic. We have been proactive by frequently fumigating hostels even when the students were not there. When they came back for the last session, we had to reduce the number of students in rooms and we did not open up all the hostels. So, no matter how many hostels we build, challenges will keep coming and we have to face them. And do not forget that having everybody on campus will mean the need for more power and water supply, more facilities and all that.
How did you get support to get here?
We are lucky to be under the Federal Ministry of Agriculture for capital projects. It means we are about four universities under them with the newly created one in Kebbi State. That improves our capital grants, I think. So, we must thank the Federal Government.
Apart from capital funds, we have been having funds from TET-FUNDS, the Need Assessment for Revitalisation of Universities and when all these funds are put together judiciously, we have good results.
And, we have contributions attracted to the university by scholars and they translate to sustainable projects and permanent features. So, when those grants come, they translate into something that the university can use for research and learning. We have a confectionery that is sustained by grants and run by some researchers in the university. A number of projects come from donations or grants. The World Bank-supported African Centre of Excellence is there and the laboratory is one of the best in the world.
What about internally generated revenue?
The issue of internally generated revenue (IGR) has always been coming on and off. We are expected to teach, do research and do community development. If we want to go into production or generating money like the private sector, it is going to be difficult to remove the public sector mentality from the university. So, we have low base for IGR.
Some people take service charges as IGR. If students pay for their drugs or treatment and they deposit in the university’s account for running the health centre, the money does not belong to the university but to the students. But we provide the backup of how it should look. That is a third-party fund. Again, if a student pays money for an identity card (ID card, which has to be handled by the university for uniformity and security), that ID card money is for the student. So, this are issues that are at stake and people confuse those things to mean IGR. So, the so-called IGR is very low.
Food inflation is making Nigerians to get poorer and hungrier. What do you suggest to make food more affordable?
It is important we realise that the problems we are talking about are worldwide: the 2020 COVID-19 lockdown and closure of borders all over the world. They have a lot of effects on food supply chains around the world.
In Nigeria, we have never prepared for shocks and that is unfortunate. Even now, I am not sure that we know that things are really getting too bad as a nation. As I would always say, the problem of Nigeria cannot be placed at the doorsteps of any particular person or particular group – everybody should examine himself or herself. How many Nigerians really want to go into agriculture? How much of security has the government provided such that those who are in agriculture can really go to their farms? I know quite a number of poultry farmers in Ogun State who have abandoned their farms because of kidnapping. I have an alumnus of this university who has always come back to give the university citrus and to develop plantations, but I learnt that the person was really harassed by kidnappers.
I am saying this because it is easy to say everybody should produce food. We do not need everybody to produce food, but those interested should be protected enough to stay on the farm. Are crop and poultry farmers protected? The capacity to produce is there, Nigeria is endowed but a new problem has emerged.
Check what happened in advanced countries during the COVID-19 lockdown. They threw away milk, eggs, vegetables and all that, but they sustained the farmers.
Here, we are not protecting the farmers. We produce Ofada rice and it becomes more expensive than the imported rice, and naira and dollar are fighting each other with the dollar winning. So, if you have five naira or 10 and you see Ofada rice that costs more than the imported rice, you will surely spend it on the imported rice. Then the local farmer loses.
In fact, the issue is first out governance and protection of citizens. Secondly, it is about the citizens themselves believing in their country.
I cannot tell you a solution about the management of Nigeria to get us back to the glorious days, though we had some glorious days when we started, because it requires that we should sit down properly and decide if we really want a glorious Nigeria.
How would you evaluate contributions of Nigerian universities and colleges of agriculture to food production?
I would tell you that I do not agree that our agricultural institutions, be they universities, colleges of agriculture and research institutes, have not contributed much. In fact, it is in that sector that you have a lot of knowledge and research-based outputs. But, is there any interest to pick up the technologies they have developed? Is there an interest to protect the knowledge that has been generated?
Last year, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, we had a scheme and what we did was to encourage our staff who were interested in agriculture, particularly crop cultivation. We have land that we help them to develop and they continue from there and have their farms maintained.
Have they been responding positively to that?
They have been responding. That was part of the response we had for COVID-19 pandemic. We knew that it was going to create a problem in terms of food.
Specifically, what are the legacies you desire to leave after your tenure as a vice chancellor of the university?
I keep asking people, why should you hold an office and your footprints would not be seen after you have left? So, the legacy that I would wish to leave is the legacy of sustainability of progress.
What I mean is this: you have done certain things no matter what, and somebody should come and build on them. Professor Olufemi Balogun left as a vice chancellor in 2012, but he thrived to see that a hall was constructed and we have a good ceremonial building now. I think that is the kind of thing I would be interesting in doing.
I keep referring to Obafemi Awolowo, but I never met him. I think he was still alive when I was an undergraduate, but I read his books. If today, people like us still talk about Chief Awolowo, then I think you should know that when you see an elephant, you should know that an elephant has passed. So, the kind of legacy I am thinking of is the kind left by Chief Awolowo, Nelson Mandela, Wole Soyinka and many other great people in the realm of intellectualism, political achievements and development.
In specific terms, what would you say you have achieved so far?
In the past four years, we have touched virtually every aspect of the university’s life that we should, positively, in terms of staff development, welfare, infrastructural development, and relationship with people and unions.
The Camp-Alabata road is currently being rehabilitated with resources from the university. We rehabilitated it in 2019, unfortunately trucks carrying stones from quarries destroyed it again. It is not a FUNAAB road; it is not within the campus, but we must pass through it to the campus and that is why I feel responsible for it. Students of Civil Engineering Department and the Directorate of Works and Services are working on it.
In terms of impacting on training, we have embarked on infrastructural development, equipment of laboratories, emplacement of a veterinary laboratory, health centre and so many others. We try as much as possible not just to construct buildings, but to furnish them with necessary facilities like furniture and multimedia equipment.
So, we have touched virtually every aspect of development that is necessary for a university to advance in terms of teaching, research and community development.
FUNAAB on Wednesday, August 28, 2018, made history as the National Centre for Genetic Resources and Biotechnology (NACGRAB) formally presented a certificate of registration of the first improved indigenous chicken breed, customised and branded as FUNAAB ALPHA.
According to the Executive Director of NACGRAB, “FUNAAB ALPHA is a real breakthrough. The last time we registered an animal breed in Nigeria was in 2,000 and since then, the committee has been worried, though we have registered over 600 crop varieties.’’
The current administration is repositioning the Centre for Agricultural Development and Sustainable Environment (CEADESE) for better service delivery and impact.
The administration commissioned some buildings funded by TETFUND on April 22, 2018 during the university’s 30th anniversary. These include 750-seater science laboratory complex; 250- seater capacity computer facility and cassava processing facilities. The facilities can now produce high quality cassava flour, fufu, garri, poundo yam and plantain flour. The fufu and garri factory was refurbished and commissioned as roots and tuber regional training centre.
Also, the university health service grew from a four-bed facility in 2008 to a 22-bed comprehensive health centre in 2018.
The FUNAAB Water Service has improved as the factory acquired equipment for water quality assurance, which are the reverse osmosis machines for water treatment and four highly functional automatic liquid packaging machines.
Early in the year, we got a brand new 72-horse power tractor (Massey Fergusson 275) with a set of land preparation implements and a tipping trailer. This, with other smaller tractors we have acquired, has boosted the capacity of FUNAAB for full farm mechanisation, and has enhanced training for students. Food security of the country depends on farm mechanisation and large-scale operations, and these students are expected to play such roles after graduation.
As part of efforts to boost transportation of students within and outside the campus, FUNAAB Alumni Association has supported the institution with 10 mini Suzuki branded shuttle buses to join our fleet of buses because they trust our administration.
How have you managed staff/management and student/management crises? How have you been able to manage some potential crises?
I think I like the words “potential crises” because it would not be true if I tell you that everything has been peaceful. There is no community where you would not have opposition anywhere in the world. We have tried as much as possible to ensure that everything has been peaceful; we consider where we are supposed to consider and we stand our ground where we are supposed to stand our ground. When people decide that they want to be in the opposition by all means, we stand our ground by telling them that, ‘let’s go to the public and let everybody hear the case.’
There are things that even the opposition would know that people should not even hear what they are fighting for. So, we won’t succumb to blackmails, but at the same time, we would respect everybody. I think that has kept us peaceful.
Do you buy the idea of bringing back commodity boards for produce?
We must bring back the enabling environment that made them to work. The point is that the enabling environment must be there for people to work and be committed to the work. With the way we are now, the youths are even copying the wrong things and believing the wrong philosophies and it has become so difficult that you cannot really say that there is any particular group that you can really rely on for the development of the country.
Virtually every sector of the population has a tendency to always think that anything goes. The policies of agriculture are many, how have we implemented them?
How can more youths be engaged or attracted to the sector?
I read about a lady around Badagry. She graduated from LASU and she said she had been living on agriculture for years. But, she is living in the rural community and the lady did not even study agriculture. She adapts herself to the rural area. Not many youths would do that, but she is making a living in such a way that she has produce from month to month.
Right at our backyard here at Odeda, earlier this year, an indigent student of ours, who was making a living by working on a farm, was kidnapped. Within 48 hours, we got the student back. The point is that we do not need everybody in agriculture; we need those who are interested and those who have passion. When they are driven away from agriculture, what can we do? So, we can get the youth back if we give them an enabling environment. It is not the youth that will provide that. We need roads. Even the roads in our towns and cities are not good; how do we expect rural roads to be good?
You have harped on enabling environment. Can you explain what you mean?
Water, energy (electricity), roads, security and quality inputs for farmers are the things that must be provided for willing citizens. If these things are available, then the citizens can produce food sustainably.