In this interview with FEMI IBIROGBA, Chief Executive Officer/Country Manager of Dizengoff Nigeria, Mr. Antti Ritvonen, reveals what the government, farmers and policy makers can do to restore Nigeria to its fame of being a leading food producer and exporter. Read the excerpts:
Nigeria was a leading food producer before and shortly after independence, but the reverse is the case now. How can this be corrected?
There is a huge potential in the Nigerian agriculture, but I think we have a lot of work to be done. I very much believe that Nigeria can return to its glory of being a leading food producing country in Africa in term of food production before independence. And I don’t see why that cannot happen again. Although there is a lot of work to be done to get there, it is very much possible. So, there is a huge potential in the Nigerian agriculture.
I think Nigeria has one of the largest arable lands in the world, but I don’t know what percentage of it is actually utilised for farming. Yield per hectare in Nigeria is very low. And this is due to the use of very old and inefficient farming methods and tools. To increase productivity, we need to use more of modern and more efficient farming methods and do away with old ones. We need to start with mechanisation, and education of farmers is very important so that they know how to use more advanced methods. Mechanisation is something you need to use in good quality and agro-chemicals should be quality, fertiliser and seeds have to be quality and these will increase the yields.
You harped on mechanisation and quality inputs, but these are mostly unaffordable to smallholder farmers. What is the way out?
You are right that the farm size is an issue in the Nigerian agriculture, but the solution is that farmers should form clusters or cooperatives and they can, as cooperatives, go into farm mechanisation. Another point is that there is an increase in the number of service providers. Companies which have tractors, equipment and machines where farmers can hire tractors and modern tools are now many. They can work on farmers’ fields. Farmers do not need to invest much in tractors or equipment acquisition. I could say that these are the two solutions to the smallholder farmers’ challenges of poor access to machanisation. We at Dizengoff are working with those service providers and with farmers to create this kind of cooperative so that they can do this kind of investment as cooperatives.
What about fertiliser, seeds and other inputs? They are expensive to these farmers too?
It is a question of education. I know that usually some farmers are always considering price, and always settle for cheapest inputs. I can tell you that if you buy cheap chemicals or seeds, the differences or effects are huge. So, they might actually end up paying more because they may have to use more chemicals than normal. Usually, the best economic solution is to use quality inputs for stable production.
The government has always claimed to want the economy diversified through the agro-allied industry, but less has been achieved. With your experience in the industry, how should the government go about it?
I would say, at a general level, not just in agriculture, though the government has been making moves, more efforts have to be made on making the country more business and entrepreneur friendly. Sometimes, the regulations and authorities are not flexible and understanding. So, there are some actions that can be taken to make doing business in Nigeria more friendly.
Again, the government should ensure that quality agricultural inputs are used in the country. Fake agricultural inputs should be prevented from coming into the country. Education of farmers and finance, as I said, are very important. Affordable finance is one of the very key things to push agriculture forward. There are some government finance schemes already in place, but more needs to be done in that area and some of them are too complex and too difficult for a farmer who does not have lawyers or financial managers working with him, who can do all the paper works for him. So, the government should make financing easier and simpler for farmers to access.
You talked about the ease of doing business in Nigeria. How would you describe the taxation in Nigeria based on your experience?
I don’t see taxation itself as a big issue, but sometimes the reporting could be cumbersome. I mean my finance team spends a lot of time and resources on reporting back to this and that, and reporting to enquiries. It is frustrating sometimes. Our corporate philosophy is that we would definitely abide by all the laws and regulations governing business operations in Nigeria. So, we will do our best to follow all the regulations. In some places, simple regulations and less government control save wastage of resources of the companies.
How would you describe the socio-economic impacts of Dizengoff on Nigeria?
I would like to think that we are making a contribution by providing world leading solutions for the Nigerian farmers. And, of course, it is always most important to find the most suitable solutions to the Nigerian farmers. There are also a lot of technological solutions that perhaps Nigerian farmers are not ready for, but we try to find the most suitable and affordable solutions for the farmers.
Do you have a research and development unit, and do you carry farmers along while developing technological solutions?
Obviously, we constantly sell our technological solutions like greenhouse, irrigation solution and products based on experiences of farmers. So, we are always looking for the best chemicals and best performing seeds so that we can really provide best solutions for the farmers. Dizengoff has been 60 years in Nigeria, and we are part of the CP Group in the United Kingdom and with offices in Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia, Ghana and Ethiopia, among others.
What I am saying is that our customers have group resources. If they need technologies or solutions that we don’t have here in Nigeria, all the group resources are at my disposal and I can use all the expertise that we have in the group.
What are you doing on the corporate social responsibility in Nigeria?
We have been doing collaboration with schools, universities and different farming organizations wherever we see we can make a difference. We provide training and information of new technologies and more advanced farming techniques. And so we feel that it is not just selling inputs or equipment to farmers, but to actually make sure we provide comprehensive training on how to use and get maximum results from tractors, greenhouses and irrigation technologies. And we will always stay with the customers after selling the products, giving after-sales support.
Youths in Nigeria are somehow averse to agriculture perhaps because of the old and inefficient ways and tools of doing farming. How can they be attracted?
I think you are right that many young people’s understanding of farming is from the perspective of these old ways of farming, and so it takes them to understand what modern farming is. If they understand, I think they will change their thinking and attitude.What I am saying is that agriculture is a good business in Nigeria. It is better to talk of agri-business. If well managed, agri-business is very sustainable in Nigeria. And definitely, agri-business has a future in this country. The potential is greater than what many people realise in Nigeria.
What is your advice to the youth?
They should do their research and really find out how sustainable agriculture is. We are very happy introducing them to our existing customers doing well in agribusinesses. I have a lot of customers doing very well in agriculture and they are kind of planning to expand. So, young Nigerians have to understand how modern agriculture is all about.
Source: The Guardian