By James Eze (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Who would have thought that Anambra State had anything else to offer the word beyond commerce and industry? Who would have thought that Onitsha and its surrounding areas would one day heave a long sigh of relief from the vicious criminals that once had it in a choke-hold? Who would have thought that a state with a paltry 4,844 square kilometers and over 950 gully erosion sites could force its way to Nigeria’s agricultural map? No one perhaps, except Willie Maduaburochukwu Obiano. And as he turns 61 today, these questions compel us to take yet another look at those things that may once have seemed impossible to us and speak to them with dominion.
In a recent live webchat session with her fans via the Guardian UK, Anambra-born phenomenal writer Chimamanda Adichie observed that “to be human is to be flawed.” The statement carries in its deceptive, everyday words, the full weight of human tragedy – man’s ability to predict the weather but not himself. And so, when the mass hysteria that recently washed through the social media on whether or not Anambra State had exported Ugu and Onugbu valued at $5m raced to a crescendo, I smiled indulgently at our flawed humanity. I smiled at man’s love for incredulity, our persistent desire to see things in one way but not the other and some people’s failure to realise that Willie Obiano did not need to make any false claims about any vegetable export to lend weight to a reputation he has already established as a high performer. As the saying goes, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!
It is somewhat puzzling that those who squirm with the burning desire to put Obiano on the cross for saying that Anambra exports vegetables, tragically fail to squeeze in a little thought on the audacity of all his achievements in two years; that they fail to even see the unlikelihood of Anambra staking a claim to agricultural production of any value at all. But that is the challenge of leadership – to take the people unawares with an impressive work, to move them from the deep trenches of doubt to the dazzling lights of passionate belief. So far, Obiano has achieved this with his great records in security, investment drive and aggressive infrastructure. His achievements in agriculture are even more astounding. But some mischief makers have latched onto the staggering disparity between the Naira and the Dollar to cast doubts on the ultimate promise of his agricultural export programme. They crinkle their noses at the estimated value of the Ugu and Onugbu that Anambra claims to have exported and make derisive remarks about it. But two things are involved here. One, they consider it impossible that Nigeria can export anything else beyond crude oil and least of all, perishable vegetables. And two, they doubt that the value of such export would amount $5m. And these are all understandable. However, people are more likely to believe a claim if they know enough about it.
Now, anyone who wishes to interrogate Obiano’s claims on vegetable exports must first understand that Agriculture is the number one pillar of his Economic Blueprint which he calls the Four Pillars of Development. The other three are Industrialization, Trade & Commerce and Oil & Gas. Obiano’s choice of Agriculture as the key pillar of his programme instead of Trade and Commerce for which Ndi Anambra are already known speaks to his ambition to break away from tradition and carve a new path, to travel the road less trodden. It also shows his desire to burst the ceiling of underachievement by successive Nigerian leaders; to challenge our timidity in the face of the mounting pressure on our mono-economic structure.
And so, taking himself rather more seriously than his contemporaries, Obiano pursued his agricultural programme with doggedness upon assumption of office. His approach was strategic and anchored on vision. He set up a Special Committee on Agriculture, headed by Prof. Omaliko a renowned agronomist. The Committee was charged with the mandate to study the land available for agricultural production in the state and run tests on the various soil types in order to find out where the different varieties of crops would grow best. Then he established a Land Acquisition Committee headed by Dr. Tim Menakaya, the Former Minister of Health. Menakaya’s Committee helped solve the problem of negotiating with the various agrarian communities to acquire land for large scale farming. Obiano’s next step was to formally ignite the fire of Agro-revolution in the state with the formal launching of the 2014 Farming Season at Nteje on May 15. He rose to the demands of that historic moment with a fierce speech that established the significance of the event. He appealed to the pride of the people when he reminded them that “from time immemorial, our ancestors judged a man by the strength of his arm. A man who could not feed his family was regarded as an efulefu! A failure!” He played on the Igbo distaste for failure and got the audience revved up in an instant. But he also smartly outlined the three basic objectives of the revolution – That Anambra State should be among the Top 3 states in agricultural production in Nigeria, that Anambra should become N0 1 in the production of rice, cassava and fish in the first 4 years of his administration and finally, that Agriculture should contribute at least 40% of the GDP of Anambra State. This is a clear strategic approach which only high-minded administrators apply to drive a process.
Understandably, people who doubt some aspects of Obiano’s agricultural claims are often inclined to ask where are the farms? They expect to see large mechanized farms with acres of Ugu and Onugbu waving in the morning breeze. They expect government owned farm settlements with reluctant civil servants sunning themselves lazily under the Udala tree. Well, that is not the case. Obiano chose a different route to pursue his agricultural programme. There are no government-owned farms anywhere. There shouldn’t actually be. What we have are strategic partnerships with industrial farmers and visionary collaborations with local vegetable farmers. While partnerships with Coscharis Farms, Joseph Agro Limited and Stine Industries Ltd have led to the emergence of the Anambra Rice brand, a strategic collaboration with ABX World Inc. has organized the rural vegetable farmers and prepared them to beat the stringent measures of exporting their produce to Europe. It is a great credit to Obiano that Europe has opened its doors to vegetables from Anambra State. But greater applause should even go to him for creating the structure for the emergence of the increasingly popular Anambra Rice which defeated other rice brands from South Africa, Morocco, Namibia, Cameroun, Egypt and Ghana to win the Best Rice in Africa at the African Products Forum held in Lagos early this year.
At the same time, Obiano’s investment drive in agriculture has attracted industrial farmers like Coscharis Farms, Novtech Farms Ltd, Joseph Agro Ltd, Ekcel farms Ltd, Delfarms/Songhai Farms Ltd, Grains & Silos, Lynden Integrated Farms, Tricity Integrated Farms and MIP Farms and GreenHouse Ltd. When all these farms become fully operational, people who are currently living in doubt will eventually believe that Anambra is finally on the rise. Already, in just two years, Obiano’s focus on Agriculture has pushed local rice production from 80,000 metric tons to 210,000 metric tons. At this rate, the state’s annual rice consumption figure of 320,000 metric tons will soon be surpassed.
Expectedly, Obiano is not focusing on rice production alone. About 50,000 farmers involved in the entire agricultural value chain in the state have been empowered through different cooperatives with about N120m worth agricultural business plans executed. In partnership with the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), Anambra has linked up 1800 cooperatives to institutions offering credit facilities to farmers. 15km of feeder roads have been constructed to open access to 2000 hectares of land while improved varieties of seeds have been widely distributed to thousands of farmers. And interestingly, even in these austere times, Anambra recently disbursed the first tranche of the N1bn Micro Small and Medium Enterprise Development Fund to 15,000 entrepreneurs, including agro-entrepreneurs who got 34% of the N1bn disbursed in the first phase of the programme.
Young graduates are being equipped with crucial agro-entrepreneurial skills at the Agricultural Training School in Mgbakwu where 250 of them have already graduated. These youngsters will be given seed monies to set up their own farms and agri-businesses. Fish production is on the upswing in Anambra and a Fish Demonstration Center has been set up in the Agricultural Training Center at Mgbakwu. When all these plans begin to rev with life, new export routes will be created to absorb the impending glut.
The Monitoring and Control Center in the Ministry of Agriculture is an important component of Obiano’s agricultural super-structure. It offers at the touch of a button a comprehensive data on all farmers and farms in Anambra State and makes planning easy and pleasurable. From this Control Center, Obiano can reach out to the 1800 registered cooperatives and stand-alone farmers with text messages and robo-calls. This same organization is reflected in the establishment of an Export Desk which interfaces with ABX World Inc. to open and maintain new windows in the international market for farm produce from Anambra State. If all these are not revolutionary, I wonder what is.
Sadly, the tragedy of living in a stagnant environment is that people eventually become so used to a dreary, uneventful life that they either lose the capacity to recognize and value progress or develop a strong aversion to it. Willie Obiano has courageously pointed us to a promising future in Agriculture. We may pretend not to see it or deny the immense benefits that are already streaming in from it but in today’s Nigeria, starting an agricultural revolution is an idea whose time has come. And as French Philosopher, Victor Hugo warns, “no army can stop an idea whose time has come.”
Happy Birthday, Akpokuedike Aguleri!