‘Despite gains in agriculture, farmers still suffer 50% post-harvest losses’
Founder of VDS Farms and Foods Limited Jinmi Ajayi, in this interview with EDU ABADE lists some of the challenges impacting growth and food sufficiency in the country, lamenting that farmers still suffer almost 50 percent post-harvest losses. He also argued that closure of the nation’s land borders has exposed the realities of the Nigerian economy, especially on importation of rice.
There are infrastructure concerns and deficits that limit the push for food security. What measures can stakeholders explore in this regard?
Unfortunately, practitioners have had to bear the chunk of this burden alone. There’s poor and inadequate accessibility to farms, which makes it almost impossible to transport farm produce out to the cities, which is why farmers still suffer almost 50 percent post-harvest losses.There is also security concern, as some farms can no longer operate like they used to. Efforts must be channelled into restoring confidence beyond our city centres. Some years back, we had forest guards who knew the terrains and inhabitants of such communities. These guards were civil servants who took pride in their jobs. Adoption of this will boost investor confidence and encourage new entrants.
We also need sufficient and regular electricity. We cannot imagine what the output will be if there was sufficient power. Processing and value addition will be less cumbersome. The contribution to GDP will be huge and it will also boost export. Awareness around adequate transportation, storage and handling must increase. The use of refrigerated vehicles must be encouraged. In fact, the cold chain sector is witnessing some activities, albeit slow.
You have identified existing and prospective players in the sector as critical groups. Which routes would you recommend in ensuring that these players adopt these practices and put them to good use?
It is high time we took the bull by the horns. Concerted effort is what is needed. Government and its agencies have a huge role to play but they cannot by themselves drive the needed efforts. The role of Government and the appropriate agencies as regulators must be revamped to improve on sensitization of the public; people need to know the right questions to ask, know what to expect at the markets and supermarkets. It’s a journey we all must embark upon to ensure a healthy society and sustainable future. Regulators must ensure that there is no room to cut corners. Health inspectors should be trained and continuously retrained.
Your organisation (The Guardian’s) interest in this subject matter is a step in the right direction. That is, creating and increasing awareness for the public to be enlightened by. Civil Society Groups can make this a front burner. Practitioners and consumers must be on the same page. The second United Nations Sustainable Development Goals does not only advocate Zero Hunger, it calls also for safe and nutritious food, in the backend-from seed handling to types of fertilizers used in crops, animal handling, feeding regimes, use of growth boosters and antibiotics. There must be adequate considerations for hygiene of the farm crop, livestock and humans. We must inculcate global best practices on our farms. Like keeping to the appropriate distance between farms. These are biosecurity concerns.
How do we handle culled/returned produce and infected livestock, mode of transportation to storage and on the shelves or refrigerators in our supermarkets? It is important for existing and would be practitioners to have these questions and more at the back of their minds. For instance, I can’t comprehend why a farm will not make provision for clean water and bathrooms for workers and visitors. Also, there must be designated points in our markets where traders who need to wash their fruits and vegetables have access to clean water. Right from inception we infused ethical concerns into our planning phase. We gave considerations for biosecurity, equipment handling and storage, refuse and waste disposal, types and quantity of fertilizers, pesticides; produce cleaning and packing.
Beyond regulation and enforcement, how can the agricultural community harness opportunities for higher growth?
What is most important is Knowledge for the community and new entrants. Continuous learning is of essence. Agriculture is life and to ensure a sustainable and a healthy future generation we must start doing things right. Every detail will add up in the long run. It is imperative not to condone any form of ignorance in the sector.You will attract investors when your business is hinged on ethical considerations. You must set out with the right intentions, not to cut corners or being greedy. Be it agro-logistics, Cold Chain, Processing or any aspect of the value chain has great growth prospects. We must prove to consumers and investors that we possess the potentials for growth.
Do you think these measures will promote healthy consumption among citizens?
Definitely! In the open market they say “tomato is tomato” but we know this is not the case. Tomato with a shelf life of about two weeks is not the same as that which is mostly water and can only last a few days. However, affordability is still a challenge for those whose economic realities are about striving to get some food with the little they have. “Healthy eating” is becoming a large community with social media also helping its tribe learn more and ask relevant questions. In fact, some consumers go as far as visiting farms to see how things are being done.
What should the government be doing in 2020 for agriculture and the stakeholders?
Security is essential to growth of agriculture. We used to have forest guards way back. These were locals who knew the terrains and inhabitants of their communities. More work is needed to improve on current efforts to guarantee confidence of practitioners and investors.
About 10 years ago, I read somewhere that African countries can no longer wait for first world infrastructure to grow. While that is true and we have been making efforts to make do with the little we have, it is doubtless that we need improved infrastructure across board. Accessibility to and from farms is still poor and inadequate hence the 50 per cent post-harvest wastes we currently experience. Transportation cost is also astronomical and some of the reasons for this are security issues and bad roads. Transporters end up spending more on parts and security detail. Other than force majeure, I should be able to forecast Returns on my Investment (ROI). We must cultivate the habit of continuity. Our policy frameworks must be enduring and devoid of political interferences.
To take agriculture to the next level, how do we evaluate the processes and at what stage should government or regulators step into it with the entrepreneur?
We all have a part to play in this. Food and feeding is of utmost importance and is already a challenge. With an annual population growth of over 3% set to hit 400 million by 2050 then there has to be a concrete and continuous plan to tackle this challenge. Government agencies right from our ports must ensure strict policing. That is Customs, health inspectors, quarantine officers etc. Items coming in must be duly checked and certified worthy for import based on statutory requirements only. There has to be health officers checking our production points, factories, restaurants and markets.
Regulators will ensure things are done right. In accordance with global best practices, Government will create an enabling landscape and ensure that those cutting corners are promptly checked irrespective of which side of the spectrum they belong. Entrepreneurs will simply go to work. Concerted effort is imperative. All stakeholders must work together before policy is formed or reviewed. There must be constant communication across board, vertically and horizontally.
As an agropreneur, what is your take on the border closure in Nigeria? What change has it brought on Nigeria’s economy?
The border closure has exposed the realities of our economy, especially Nigeria’s importation of rice in comparison to it neighbouring countries. It’s encouraging to local producers who are now motivated to optimise production. Various accounts have shown the numbers don’t add up; that is tonnage per population. While revenues increase via Custom duties and reduction in fuel subsidies, it is affecting many with insufficient purchasing power.
We have a lot of learning and unlearning to do. There’s a long chain attached to the smuggling activities. Subsidized fuel is taken out in return for rice. There was a loophole for this to thrive in the first place and people found themselves with limited options and simply capitalised on the lapses. Some were born into this activity, that’s all they’ve known so they will do anything to protect their source of livelihood. Now, this is no justification, but the authorities must properly manage this to ensure a sustainable outcome. We must help build confidence of existing producers to encourage new entrants and ensure that lives and investments are secured. Rules guiding out grower schemes must protect all parties involved. The price of locally produced rice should not be higher than imported rice; cost of local rice must be competitive apart from its better taste and nutritional value. Individual efforts, government initiatives must continue for us to win. We need to equip customs and other agencies and make use of more information technology and automation for accountability. Our ports need to be decongested, efficient and we must tackle the rising cost of logistics and transport.
It’s been said that the closure negates the ECOWAS Protocol and discouraging to the recently signed AfCFTA. In fact, we ought to have since moved past where we are now before signing the AfCFTA. And from the lessons of the Bakassi Peninsula, I hope adequate reservations were put in place to avoid future economic issues that may cost us. The closure has several dimensions to it. This is an existential issue-a battle for survival. You must be alive for you to be a relevant player in the comity of nations.
Gradual adjustments need to be made. We need to be true to ourselves. We have always been an import-based economy and we must be able to feed ourselves. We cannot become industrialized if we cannot figure out a sustainable way to feed ourselves. Only time will tell if we can build on current trends for a sustainable rice value-chain in Nigeria vis-a-vis the price of crude oil. What happens when the price of crude oil goes up?
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