‘With 10,000-hectare coconut plantations, we’ll employ100,000 youths’


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John-Bede Anthonio is an architect, entrepreneur and consultant involved in real estate, construction, architecture, project development, management and business mentoring. He promotes establishment of coconut plantations, cassava and yam cultivation and their value chain development. He spoke with Head of Agro-Economy Desk, FEMI IBIROGBA, recently. Read the excerpts below.


Anthonio

How did you start agricultural export awareness?
In 2015, President Muhammadu Buhari came in and we were very optimistic. So, we concluded to contribute to diversifying the economy through agriculture. And one of the ways we considered was exportation. And we started promoting exportation of agricultural products, skills and we started running seminars and getting orders from abroad. So, we did not have the capacity to meet up locally and adopted backward integration as the way forward.

Are you working with the Nigerian Export Promotion Council (NEPC)?
Yes, we are very close to them and they attend all our seminars. In the last seminar we had October last year in Abuja, NEPC supported us. They came to all our seminars in Lagos too. We also have support from the Standards Organisation of Nigeria (SON), NEXIM Bank and the National Agency for Food, Drug Administration and Control (NAFDAC), the Custom Service and the Nigerian Agricultural Quarantine Service all do come to our seminars and make presentations. The public come and ask questions.

Specifically, what are you promoting? Are they raw agricultural materials or finished products?
When we started, we just wanted to promote exports and in 2016, we moved back a bit, trying to build capacity. And 2017 and 2018, we went into backward integration and processing. We focused on processing, packaging and presentation. We found out that processing is very critical and building capacity is also important because buyers want to see the level of quality. Libeling is also critical, and so we are doing a lot of that.

Right now in 2019, we are focusing on out-grower schemes. The African Growth Opportunities Act in the United States of America for some countries, of which Nigeria is one, makes the participating countries to take advantage of certain tax benefits. So, we are creating awareness through seminars in Lagos, Abuja, Kano and Port Harcourt throughout the year. We are involving companies that are already processing and we want them to export their goods.

Why are you promoting coconut production and new plantations? Are there special uses of the products?
In January 2018, we got an order for coconut oil and water from the US and I was very excited. I came back to Nigeria and went to the Lagos State Coconut Development Authority because I thought there were plenty of coconuts in Badagry. There are many coconut trees, but there are no plantations in Nigeria. And the General Manager at that time said we would work together to promote coconut plantations. He said we should bring back the glory of Lagos as the number one coconut producer.

So, we formed a company called First African Coconut Company, because in the whole of Africa, we do not produce up to 1 million tonnes of coconuts per annum. And Indonesia produces 28 million tonnes of coconuts. Philippine produces 16 million tonnes of coconuts. And the whole of Africa, which is 30 million square kilometers, does not produce up to 1 million tonnes. So, we decided to take it, and do it across Africa, starting with Nigeria, in Lagos specifically. We want to plant 2 million seedlings in Lagos.

In April last year, we held a conference on coconuts and we had participants from India and Indonesia. They showed us what they were doing and encouraged us.

This year, we are trying to plant 2 million coconut trees in Lagos alone and we want to expand to 10 states in Nigeria, targeting 10,000 hectares in the next 10 years.

Right now, we are selling seedlings to farmers at N2,000 per one and we are monitoring and insuring the seedlings. We will go there every three months to evaluate. In the fourth year, those seedlings will start to produce and we want to buy all the nuts from the farmers.

You said each seedling costs N2000. Is not too expensive because the local horticulturists sell between N500 and N1000?
If they sell at that price, they will not help you to plant or monitor and they will not insure the seedlings for you. We are selling for N2000, planting, monitoring and insuring the seedlings for the buyers. And from the fourth year, we want to buy back all the products.

Who are the insurers?
We have the National Agricultural Insurance Corporation (NAIC) and Leadway Assurance. These are the insurance companies covering the business. And we are organising a seminar to that effect very soon in Lagos.

The important thing is that we want to build on the value chain between now and the next three years. We want to train people every month or every other month on the value chain.

How many years will a coconut seedling take to fruit?
It will take three years. In the fourth year, we want to buy the coconuts. It is a surprise that most of the coconuts consumed in Nigeria now are mostly from Ghana and Togo. We want people to plant in their houses in Lagos and everywhere else. In those days when we were growing up in Surulere, we did have coconuts in our house, at the backyard. We want everybody to do this too in their houses, schools, churches, mosques and factories.

We are talking with the Lagos authorities to plant coconut along the expressways. We are talking to the New Town Development Authority (NTDA) to plant coconuts in their houses.

The Forestry Research Institute of Nigeria (FRIN) in Ibadan also promotes agro-forestry. Are you looking forward to working with it?
We are working with some state governments to do that. That is why we are working on 10,000 hectares in 10 states to use coconuts trees in the re-forestation plan because it is more valuable than using ordinary trees. And in-between coconuts trees, people can plan other arable crops like sweet potato, beans and other annual crops. Coffee can also be grown between coconut trees. Pawpaw and pineapples can be grown with coconuts too.

So, for every one hectare we get from a state, we will employ 10 people. And if get 10,000 hectares, we are going to take 100,000 people off the street.

Apart from coconuts, which other crops are you promoting?
We are promoting cassava. We are trying to cultivate large hectares of cassava in Isheyin, Oyo State. We are gathering cassava farmers in that place to know how many of them and how many hectares of land they cultivate so that we can train them in February. We are bringing in the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) to train them. The training would enable them to increase production to about 20 metric tonnes per hectare.

What are the end products?
We are targeting starch and flour processors. We want to feed the industry. There are some companies in Nigeria now that need cassava roots. We want to help people set up their factories too. We want to emplace at least 20 factories processing 1,000 tonnes of cassava every month into industrial starch and flour. The Bank of Industry is ready to support with loans at 9% interest rate. The Bank of Agriculture is also willing to support. Some companies are importing about 300,000 tonnes of industrial starch. We are not producing enough in Nigeria, but we have cassava as a raw material to produce it.

What about rice?
Cassava is a much industrialised product than rice. So, we are not involved in rice. There are many products from cassava such as gari, fufu and flour, and industrially, you can also use it for industrial starch, ethanol and other products.

Our plan, working with the Economic Summit Group, is to create a new city in Isheyin. There is a processing factory, and we want to replicate that with about 50,000 youths living there. We also intend to build houses for them through mortgages for one, two or three-room houses for the farmers. We are going to build schools, clinics, churches and mosques. My vision as an architect is building a new agricultural city. We want those cities to be driven by certain factors like production and industrial parks. With 200 million people, we need to create new opportunities.

You mentioned planting coffee trees with coconuts, but the coffee production in Nigeria is dead. How can we revive it?
Coffee has some real value outside. There is a huge demand for coffee around the world. Taraba State still produces coffee, but Ogun, Oyo and Ondo states used to produce coffee. My father was a professor of Agric Economics and I saw it in his books that Nigeria used to produce these things. We are working with the Federal Government to export yam.

But the first attempt of the government was not successful?
We have got a new plan now.

What is the plan?
We are going to export yams from Makurdi through Onne Port. We will use refrigerated trucks and containers on the sea. The yam coming from Oyo State will be exported through the Ikorodu lighter terminal.

What advice do you have for the youth concerning taking up agricultural businesses?
Yes, they can take up farming and export. I held a seminar where I told them that with N100,000, they could export.

What can they export with N100,000?
I told them to go to Shoprite, look at the food items packaged and sold there, take pictures of those things and send them to family members and friends abroad. Whatever they want, you can sell to them because every product in Shoprite has a NAFDAC number. Every product there has the name, address and phone number or e-mail address of the manufacturer.

You can contact the processor through the contact information and negotiate that you are buying in bulk. N60,000 out of the N100,000 can buy those food items, and you put them in a bag and dispatch it by NIPOST to overseas with N40,000.

A lady came to the seminar and did as we said, but the family wanted different things like chewing sticks, local sponge and bathroom slippers. So, those are the things she has been sending abroad. There are other locally packaged crops and vegetables that can meet this purpose.