Exploring the Songhai option for Oyo Agric revolution

IF there is anything that occupies the mind of the Oyo State Governor, Senator Abiola Ajimobi today, it is how to explore the agricultural potentials of the state to rescue it from the current economic downturn and turn around its fortunes. It is noteworthy that the state is blessed with the largest landmass of 28,454 square kilometre, which makes it unarguably the largest in the entire Southern part of the country. With this advantage of vast arable lands, Oyo State has available water bodies of no fewer than 22 dams, coupled with the largest concentration of agricultural research institutes.

These are the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture, IITA, Cocoa Research Institute of Nigeria, CRIN, Institute of Agricultural Research and Training, IAR&T, Forestry Research Institute of Nigeria, FRIN, Nigerian Institute for Social and Economic Research, NISER, and Nigerian Institute of Horticulture,NIHORT, among others. Beyond tapping into these to ensure the state becomes the food basket of the nation through massive agricultural outputs, the governor has also gone a step further by establishing an agriculture initiative known as ‘AgricOyo’ through which the government has brought local government councils, traditional rulers, out-growers and off-takers, interested individuals and corporate bodies to get actively involved in agric business.

The overall objectives of creating one million direct jobs across the agric value chain and turning the state into the food hub of the Southern part of the country are thus being pursued vigorously by the state government. This is apart from the ongoing construction of 10,000 metric tonnes silos in Oyo town which is aimed at enhancing preservation, storage, value addition and price stability of food items in all seasons. Even though some measure of success has been recorded from all these initiatives, it is Governor Ajimobi’s belief that more could still be achieved in the agriculture sector. Consequently, the governor was in Porto Novo, Republic of Benin, from March 14  to March 15, 2017 on a working visit to Songhai Regional Centre, which is described as the largest integrated agricultural centre in the West African sub-region. On the trip with the governor was the Secretary to the State Government, Mr. Olalekan Alli; Commissioner for Agriculture, Prince Oyewole Oyewumi; three Special Advisers, two members of the state House of Assembly, other top government and ministry of agriculture officials.

The delegation was received by the Director of the Songhai Centre, Prof. Godfrey Nzamujo. The centre, established about 30 years ago by Nzamujo, a Nigerian from Rivers State and Professor of Microbiology and Micro-electronics at the University of California, United States of America, is the largest employer of labour in Benin Republic, with a staff strength of 1,300. In Songhai, it is from the farm to the table, as the centre engages in agric production, processing, packaging, sales and exporting. It is a one-stop centre where all the sectors are integrated and intertwined. The farm is a beehive of activities, as companies, traders and individuals throng it for their daily needs ranging from different types of vegetables, fruits, toilet soaps, table water, assorted fruit drinks, honey, palm oil, coconut oil, cooked food, roasted meat, fish, chicken, eggs, yam flour, garri, to fabricated farm implements.

Apart from growing crops and vegetables like maize, cassava, rice, yam, millet, carrot, cucumber, lettuce, pawpaw, palm tree and others in commercial quantities all year round, the centre, which occupies 40 hectares of land (about 110 acres), with eight satellite farms spread across the country on 2,000 cumulative hectares of land, also engages in fishing, poultry and livestock in large scale. One other interesting feature about the farm is that it produces its own fertilizer which it employs in growing the crops and vegetables.

The centre equally turns human wastes into organic manure to feed the fish in its various ponds and produce biogas through which it generates energy for consumption within the centre. In essence, everything within the centre is recycled, with nothing wasted. It also manufactures different types of machines for local usage and export. Nzamujo, a Reverend Father, who described the centre as the pride of the country (Benin Republic) and the West African sub-region, attributed its survival in the last 30 years to the fact that it is being run strictly as a business enterprise. “In our centre here, it is business unusual,” Nzamujo said, adding that merit is strictly observed in the engagement of workers, while they are under strict supervision and monitoring to ensure efficiency in the discharge of their responsibilities.

According to him, stealing of anything, no matter how small, is forbidden as anybody caught is usually shown the way out, but was quick to add that the welfare of the workforce is, however, not compromised. Nzamujo said when he started the centre 30 years ago on a hectare of land, nobody believed in the project. ‘’It took dedication, commitment and leadership by example to see Songhai Centre develop to its present level. When I started, I had little money; land was also available but all the ingredients to make it work were not there,” he said. Impressed by what he called ‘the wonders of Songhai’, Governor Ajimobi said nothing would stop his government from replicating the integrated farming system in Oyo State within the next three months. To this end, the governor constituted a seven-man committee to midwife the project in conjunction with Songhai Centre. “I am highly impressed with what I have seen,” declared the governor, adding “Songhai Centre is an epitome of integrated farming in Africa. From scratch to finish, nothing is wasted. Even a drop of water is used for something. From farming to processing and then to value addition, it is a mixed basket for me.

He further explained that the main philosophy of the centre was to unlock the capacity of the soil, maintaining that he was all out to let Africans know that they could create wealth within themselves, giving the determination, commitment and a paradigm shift from the culture of entitlement to the belief that everything is possible. On why the farm was not sighted in Nigeria, his country, Nzamujo said he was not welcomed. “We could have established the centre in Nigeria but we were not welcomed. We tried but it didn’t work. Our first attempt was in Cross River State. But the change of government didn’t help. It was not a question of lack of money or unavailability of land, but lack of commitment on the part of government. We have the tendency in Nigeria to drag our feet over everything. It is very unfortunate,” the director regretted.

The centre has not only gained recognition, it has also attracted the attention of world leaders and international organizations. For instance, the immediate past Secretary-General of the United Nations, Mr. Ban Ki Moon and one of his predecessors, Mr. Kofi Annan, had once visited the farm to observe its operations. Besides, former President Goodluck Jonathan, the Chairperson of African Union, Mr. Alpha Conde and the Director-General, Food and Agriculture Organization, Mr.  José Graziano da Silva, had also, at one time or the other, been guests of the centre. It also has technical partnership with the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) in Washington DC, USA, French Corporation and some universities in Nigeria. “If a Nigerian can do this here (Benin Republic), I don’t know what is wrong with us in Nigeria. This is unbelievable. Here, you are trained to think right, to believe in farming, to be Godly and to learn the lesson of hard work and above all, to be patriotic. With Prof. Nzamujo and all the experiences we have garnered here, I can assure you that within the next three months, this integrated farm will be replicated in Oyo State. And nothing will stop it,” he said. The governor added that the project would be private sector driven, with government providing all the necessary support in terms of policy formulation, enabling environment as well as security, while the day-to-day running would be left in the hands of the investors.

This, according to him, is to enhance the sustainability of the initiative which, he said, would revolutionalize agriculture in the state. The governor added that the initiative would provide employment for the teeming unemployed youth, serve as a training centre for stakeholders in the agric sector and ultimately, unleash the potentials of the soil. To demonstrate the seriousness attached to the take-off of the project, while the Rural Community Development Centre, Awe, with 60 hectares of land, is to serve as mother farm, satellite farms will be established in other parts of the state and crops planted based on the comparative advantage of each zone. With the governor’s avowed commitment to seeing the project taking off without delay and Songhai’s readiness to partner the state, the stage is now set for government to further tap the agriculture potential of the state, not only to boost food production but also, to improve the economy of the state through agric production, packaging, processing and export. It certainly promises to be one of the legacy projects of the Ajimobi administration. Sadeeq is the Senior Special Assistant on Media (Print) to the Governor of Oyo State

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