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Mismanagement, embezzlement cripple Lagos Agric-YES Project

By Gbenga Salau
02 December 2018   |   4:06 am
Ten years after Lagos State Agriculture Youth Empowerment Scheme (Agric-YES) kicked off, the project has suffered serious hiccups, which have led to the two centres at Epe and Badagry being rendered inactive. While the Epe centre has been partially taken over by weed, especially the administrative building and green houses, the Badagry centre is still…

Greenhouse in a shambles at Epe farms

Ten years after Lagos State Agriculture Youth Empowerment Scheme (Agric-YES) kicked off, the project has suffered serious hiccups, which have led to the two centres at Epe and Badagry being rendered inactive.

While the Epe centre has been partially taken over by weed, especially the administrative building and green houses, the Badagry centre is still kept neat, despite the fact that activities have been grounded.

The Guardian investigation revealed that the lull experienced at the facilities was occasioned by the alleged mismanagement and embezzlement of funds by representatives of government as well as beneficiaries.

On a visit to both centres, no beneficiaries were on ground, neither were the centres admitting new trainees. In fact, the few workers who were on hand said they had no idea when new beneficiaries would be admitted.

The Agric YES programme, which started in 2009, ran successfully until 2015 when things took a different turn owing to the stoppage of allocations to the centres by the state government as alleged by some stakeholders.

According to them (some stakeholders), this resulted in the centres’ inability to admit new set of trainees after the last batch passed out.

The programme, a three-phase initiative, includes a six-month intensive hands-on practical based training in aquaculture, poultry, vegetable farming and bee keeping.

Thereafter, the trainees are exposed to another six-month practical experience in aquaculture, poultry, vegetable farming and bee keeping in a commercial farm, before they are permanently settled in farm estates in various locations across the state.

Even though there were allegations that the Akinwunmi Ambode-led administration technically stopped the programme, investigation revealed it did not, but only changed its focus and philosophy for the provision of takeoff grant for participants that have completed their training.

Before the present administration came on board, the state government provided direct loans to the enrollees, but Ambode asked the only set of participants trained in the first year of his administration to apply to the Lagos State Employment Trust Fund for their takeoff grants to enable them set up their farms and poultries.

This, it was gathered, did not go down well with the managers of the scheme, as the step effectively cut them off the highly lucrative fund disbursement style of the previous administration.

While the programme lasted, all enrollees were trained at the Agric-YES centres in Epe and later Badagry. Now, the two centres, which play host to poultries, green houses, fishponds, farmlands and residential quarters are derelict.

Equipment/machineries that are in the open have been encircled by grasses, and pathways within the facilities have been taken up by weed. The greenhouse at the Epe centre is already totally damaged.

The two Agric-YES centres were meant to train and produce new sets of agric-entreprenuers; while the Badagry centre was modeled after the Songhai farming system in Republic of Benin, and the Epe centre patterned after the Israelis farming system.

Commenting on the two centres, the Permanent Secretary, Ministry of Agriculture, Dr. Olayiwole Onasanya said the Badagry centre is still work in progress, as the infrastructure is still being built, even though training has commenced there.

He said the centre, which adopts the Songhai farming system emphasises integrated farming and zero waste technology. These, he said are the processes and learning experiences that students admitted into the centre are made to go through.

The Badagry project sits on a massive 167 hectares of land with additional available land for other projects. So far, the facility has trained just 25 youths, a far cry from the target of training 2, 000 modern farmers from both centres.

The Epe centre, he said, is about commercial farming, and has a completely different value chain from the Badagry facility.

Notwithstanding that the programme stopped running since 2015, Onasanya said the state government is committed to the project and not willing to renege on its promise to train 2, 000 youths to become modern farmers.

He promised that more youths would be trained and encouraged to go into agriculture.

A former Commissioner for Agriculture and Cooperatives, Prince Gbolahan Lawal, while shedding light on the initiative when he was still in office said Agric-Yes was meant to create jobs, provide food security, and eradicate poverty in the state, noting that the programme, which started in October 2009, was also initiated to make agriculture attractive and rewarding to the youth population in the state.

Lawal said the programme has concluded two cycles of training, internship and settlement of 100 youths in each cycle, with the first batch, which graduated in December 2010 settled in Araga Farm Settlement, Epe which is fashioned after Kibbutz in Isreal.

Lawal, who is now commissioner for housing also explained then that participants of courses II and III of the programme have also graduated, and all hands were on deck to settle them as soon as possible.

That settlement eventually came two years after the trainees had completed their training. That notwithstanding, Lawal then informed that products from the scheme, which include over 1, 500 crates of eggs per day; 32, 000 broilers per month; 18, 000 tonnes of fresh fish per cycle; 160 tonnes of cabbage, cucumber, watermelon and leafy vegetable per month were already being marketed in the state.

In December 2013, the immediate past governor, Mr. Babatunde Fashola (SAN), presided over the graduation of courses II, III and IV trainees in Epe.

At the ceremony, which also witnessed the official handover of 32-tonnes capacity per day of high quality cassava flour mill, and a 50, 000 tonne capacity automated five-unit broiler houses, among other facilities to the initiative, Fashola said the progress and achievements recorded by the AGRIC-Yes programme in such a short time showed that what is needed to boost food production in the country was “a clear idea, a clear plan and unflinching commitment to implement those plans.”

Other facilities handed over to the programme at the ceremony were 200 units of two-bedroom apartments for farmers; ram ranch/feed mill of 64-tonne capacity per day, and 234-kilometer road network within the centre.

From all indications, some of the programme’s beneficiaries are not happy with the treatment meted to them since they completed their training.

For instance, in a comment posted on the Facebook page of Lagos Agric-YES Course V, a member of the Facebook group on October 9, 2015, commented thus: “Good morning to you all, it is quite an age. Was wondering if you all are happy and satisfied with the way Lagos Agric-Yes has treated you. It is almost 15 months now that many of you left your places of livelihood all in the name of embracing sustainable agriculture. Ten months now, still wondering how colleagues asked when we go resume? Is this a brainwash or complete waste of life.”

Another beneficiary, who simply identified himself as Shittu, was one of the lucky persons that succeeded in the test administered by the Ministry of Agriculture, for the third batch of the programme.

He completed his training and internship in 2012, but said his group had to wait for about two years before they were mobilised to practicalise what they were taught.

According to him, after the training, they were grouped into five cooperatives made up of 20 members each. After startup funds were released to them after two years, another problem arose as the contractor hired to build the pen abandoned the project midway, and walked away with funds already paid to him.

This, he said, forced his group to look for another company to execute the project, and this caused a strain on what was left as running cost, forcing some of the beneficiaries to back out midway after coming to the conclusion that the proceeds would be nothing to write home about. “ We spent extra N6m to complete the building of the pen, which means we spent about N14 to N15m on the building of the pen instead of N9m. The N6m extra affected the whole project running cost.”

Shittu, who disclosed that trainees were issued with University of Jerusalem certificates, also disclosed that only three of the five batches that were trained got funds released for them to kick-start their fieldwork. And of the outstanding batches that are awaiting empowerment, only one of them got trained under Ambode administration.

He described the programme as a “failed project,” adding that “if not for the persistence of those who stayed back, none of us would have got funding. Waiting two years to get funds release was very discouraging.

“It was not just government officials that contributed to the failure of the project, some of the beneficiaries after selling their produce mismanaged the money and used it for personal needs instead of remitting same to the banks. This is because everybody felt that those in government were mismanaging the money, so they should also take their share instead of remaining committed to the project.

“Course II and III participants were given N50m per cooperative, and each batch had five cooperatives. For the three groups, there were 15 cooperatives. The first group got N100m per cooperative, which was appropriate, but Course II and III got N50m,” he said.

Despite Shittu and some of his colleagues describing the programme as a failure, the state government, through the Ministry of Agriculture has surprisingly continued to paint a picture of a programme that is still very active.

For instance, during the 2017 Annual Ministerial Press Briefing, the Ministry of Agriculture in its account of stewardship said: “The Agric Youth Empowerment Scheme has trained over 500 youths in course 1-V.

Three hundred trainees in courses I, II, III have been settled on various farms, while courses IV and V are waiting for empowerment. Course VI started in January with 100 youths.

Products from the scheme the ministry alleged include over 1, 500 crates of egg per day; 2, 000 broilers per months, 18 tonnes of fresh fish per cycle, and 160 tonnes of cabbage, sweet melon, cucumber, pepper and assorted leafy vegetables per month, which are marketed in various centre across the state.

In the 2018 edition of the briefing, the ministry again claimed: “The Agric Youth Empowerment Scheme has trained over 600 youths in Course I-VI. Three hundred of these beneficiaries have been empowered in various agricultural enterprises such as poultry, fishery and crop (arable and vegetable) production.

“Training of another batch of 100 commenced in January 2017 and shall soon commence the internship phase. In 2018, a new batch of 100 individuals for Course VII, is expected to join the scheme to resume as trainees and subsequently graduate into interns before their eventual empowerment.”

However, a critical look at the account of stewardship provided by the government in 2017 and 2018 about the project showed glaring contradictions.

In its 2017 account, it said: “The Agric Youth Empowerment Scheme has trained over 500 youths in course 1-V. 300 trainees in courses I, II, III have been settled on various farms, while courses IV and V are waiting for empowerment. Course VI started in January with 100 youths.”

Surprisingly, in its 2018 account of stewardship, the number of those that had been trained increased to 600, yet the training of another batch of 100 commenced in January 2017. And as far back as 2013, the first four batches of enrollees had completed there training.

Also, the state government claimed 300 enrollees, that is members of course I, II and III had been empowered. But findings showed that by the time the takeoff grant was made available, not less than 20 per cent of the trainees had abandoned the programme for something else.

Shittu corroborated this, when he said five members of his cooperative group left before funds were disbursed, while others left when they realised that funds made available was 50 per cent short of what participants of Course 1 got.

The Guardian was unable to ascertain the 2015, 2016 and 2017 budgetary provision for the programme, but in the 2018 budget of the ministry, there is provision for both capital expenditure and overhead cost. While N36.7m is budgeted for overhead cost, the sum of N650m is set aside for capital expenditure.

When The Guardian contacted the Ministry of Agriculture to clarify some of the issues raised by some of the participants, clear some of the contradictions, and speak on observations, including claims that that the three batches of enrollees got their takeoff grant two years after completing their training and the fact that five cooperatives in Course 1 got N100m each, while cooperatives in courses 11 and 111 got N50m, the ministry failed to respond to queries.