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Sustainability of agribusinesses is challenging, says Lagos commissioner

By Femi Ibirogba
24 January 2020   |   3:59 am
Lagos State Commissioner for Agriculture, Mr Gbolahan Lawal, spoke with FEMI IBIROGBA, Head, Agro-Economy, on the state of the integrated rice mill of the state

Gbolahan Lawal

Lagos State Commissioner for Agriculture, Mr Gbolahan Lawal, spoke with FEMI IBIROGBA, Head, Agro-Economy, on the state of the integrated rice mill of the state, the partnership with Kebbi State and other efforts on food security and poverty alleviation, assuring that the rice would be ready by October. Excerpts:

The Lagos rice mill has been on for a while. Can you shed light on the state of the mill, the challenges, and other issues?
Yes. We are talking about 32-tonne-capacity mill and apart from the main mill, we also have warehouses, 16 silos of 4,000-tonne capacity each. So, the construction period is supposed to be 18 – 24 months, as of today, the completion rate is at 50 per cent and I want to assure Lagosians and all well-meaning Nigerians that we are working seriously to ensure that the mill will be commissioned between September and October 2020.

Since when did the construction of the mill start?
The construction started in 2018, so it’s not up to five years.

How do you intend to source raw materials, paddies specifically?
Lagos has the challenge of land. Arable lands are constraints to Lagosians, but there are ways of solving that if we can improve our yield. Currently, the yield is around 2.1 tonnes per hectare. Also, we can scale through by using the right technologies. Of course, we can do four-five tonnes. But the available land cannot be enough. We will need nothing less than 50,000 to 51,000 hectares of land to supply rice paddies. We are already in collaboration with some other states in the north and the southwest. You know we have a productive relationship with Kebbi State already. We used to have 500 hectares of land on a lease that is just close to the Owede area in Ogun State. We are in discussion on how we can have more land in those areas that rice can do very well.

LAKE Rice is a product of that partnership and people have been complaining of its availability. Is the partnership still in place?
Yes. We still get our made-in-Nigeria rice from Kebbi. As of January 9, 2020, two trucks of rice came in.

The complaint is that it is always available at festive periods, but rice consumption is daily, especially here in Lagos with the growing population?
What we are doing is an intervention programme. We intervene to ensure that in festive periods, our people have enough high quality and affordable rice. That’s why we intervene.

Again, after festive periods, we will still have rice but the main sustainable model is the rice mill. Once our rice mill is commissioned, we will be having rice. It is not going to be an intervention, but a permanent process. Lagosians and Nigerians should bear with us.

Considering the challenges of this period when we have the border closed, a lot of people now patronise the same partner. We have other people in the southeast and south-south also going to the same source, thereby reducing the quantity available to Lagos State. That’s is, as they are servicing Lagos, they are equally servicing other states. 

Are you assuring them that by September or October this year, the mills would be ready and rice shortage would be over?

Once our mill is ready, we will. It’s a commercial component of the ministry.

Can you give us the total estimated cost of the mill?
It’s work in progress, but as of today, about N14 billion has been spent on the procurement of equipment and other things.
Where live birds are slaughtered and processed in Lagos are always dirty. There could be contamination and other associated problems. Operators and processors have also urged the state government to provide processing machines. Is there any plan for the government to intervene?

As of today, we are already in 26 major live bird markets. They are in seven zones and our officers are doing the disinfection and decontamination. What we normally do is, before the festive periods, we try to decontaminate so that when the birds come, they would be in a safe environment. Immediately after the festive periods, we disinfect the environment. So, that is what we are currently doing in the 26 hubs. In term of the hygiene level of the market, it is in progress. We are collaborating with the Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO). We are using chemicals certified by satisfied by FAO.
Lagos was known for coconut but before the closure of borders, Lagos imported from Ghana, Benin Republic, and others. What is the government doing to rejuvenate coconut production?
The agency of agriculture here in Lagos is Lagos State Coconut Development Authority (LASCODA) working in collaboration with LASPARK. Not only them, but we are also collaborating with some other local governments.

At the last and first international coconut summit that we had, the summary of the communiqué was that we must promote coconut re-plantation. First and foremost, we have commenced the plantation process. We have seedlings and we are rejuvenating and we are also making use of hybrids.

On APPEALS that been on for a while in Lagos, what is the main objective and have you been seeing positive results?
A few weeks ago, three 350 women were trained in poultry, aquaculture and rice production. They have submitted their business plans and in the end, once we have gone through the business plans, we have a committee working on those plans and we will empower them.

Most of such trainees in Nigeria say once they are trained and get the empowerment, after two or three years, the businesses are gone because of harsh economic situations. What are you doing to sustain their businesses?
That is the challenge. I will not lie to you. A lot of people try to use agriculture as a stopgap. While they are looking for jobs, they want to use it as a stopgap. That is why we always emphasise that if you have a passion for agriculture, the government will support you all the way.

How do you ensure that you select the ones that are passionate about agriculture?
We bring in mentors in that sector to talk with trainees. That will make them see that this agribusiness/enterprise makes you this or that. You need to make them understand that the work is rewarding and make them see the attractiveness. That is why we will continue to encourage people to see the importance.

Every individual that we train, we expect such individuals to create three to four jobs and with that, the poverty rate will reduce. In some countries, China, for instance, three 350 million were taken out of poverty trap using the agricultural sector. Likewise, Brazil, Vietnam, South Asia and even in South America have used it.

After one or two years, agribusinesses from such training are gone because of the challenging environment. What is the integrated plan to make the people actually contribute to small-scale business and lift as many households as possible out of poverty?
Thank you very much for that beautiful question. In the ministry of agriculture, we have designed a five-year roadmap from 2020-2025. We have a strategy. Whatever training that we do, even before we begin, we do a baseline survey of our farm estates and settlements, and farms within the estate corridors. And our officers are asking questions: how’s the business-like now? What is the production level? What are the constraints? Are you not doing more than what you are doing? As of today, I want to assure you that at the end of that exercise, we are adding the report of that estate into our roadmap. And that is what will guide and guard our interventions.

We have gone beyond predict-and-provide syndrome. For example, you want to create jobs, just look for youths without asking questions on what to do and how to do it. Do they have a passion for it? This area, let’s give them water. Water might not be their challenge, though it is one of the basic amenities. Or you might say, let’s give them the road, but that also might not be their challenge. Maybe their challenge might be a marketplace or roads. They might even be saying, “we are producing too much but no storage facility.”

The border closure has triggered some effects on local products, chickens and rice particularly, and the Federal Government is also considering reopening the borders if taskforces are able to devise a means of curbing smuggling, while some farmers have demanded they keep the borders closed for 10 years. What is your advice to the Federal Government?
There’s hardly any highly industrialised economy today that has not gone through protectionism policy. Protectionism in the sense they protected infant industries to grow and stabilise. We also call it import substitution industrialisation (ISI). I am sure that is what the Federal Government wants to achieve. In the past six years, Nigeria has the second-highest importer of Thai rice. They were spending a billion naira a day to import rice. That is N365 billion a year to import rice. But based on the report of the Rice Farmer’s Association, Nigeria has the capacity to produce 10 million tonnes.

So, if we have to evaluate, the border closure and policy of rice is yielding fruits. Before now, the state ministry of agriculture had a 2.5 metric tonne capacity rice mill and we were buying from Niger and Kebbi states. That is was Eko Rice in 2013. So, considering the population growth, the Federal Government policy is helping to escalate from 2.5 tonnes to 32 metric tonnes. It is in line with population growth and government policy.

So, do you support the call that the border closure should be extended to 5-10 years?
I don’t have the data the Federal Government has, but for me, it has greatly made us be focused on production. If only I have the data, I would say but for my farmers in Lagos, it has really helped us.