Nigeria has always had as one of its major goals, the attainment of self-sufficiency in food production. Government knows that it is imperative to meet local demand for agricultural produce, contain unnecessary capital flights on importation, create jobs and give hard-working Nigerian farmers good return on their efforts. But SAMSON OGBOLE, co-founder, Nutraceutical International Limited, a firm using technologies to drive efficiency in food production, in this interview with business a.m.’s TEMITAYO AYETOTO, opines that this might take longer than necessary to achieve, with the usual soil-based farming culture. Ogbole, a researcher who has been harvesting yams in the air believes the difference between domestic capacity for production and demand can be efficiently tackled adopting soilless farming system.
What was your motivating factor?
I love research and I realised we are way behind in agriculture in Nigeria, considering the fact that most Nigerians do not have access to quality equipment. We need to find a way to close the gap between what should be and what it is right now; and it must be a way that is cheap and inexpensive for Nigerians to use. At the same time ensuring we no longer have to depend on seasonal growing. The only way to do that is to go into research; find out what can be done and how we can ensure that the low income farmer is able to produce all-year-round. In addition, we also have to ensure that the food produced is healthy. It is important to take agriculture as a business. However, people are sacrificing health on the altar of profit. But I believe there is a way to make profit without sacrificing the health of the farmers, the consumer and the environment. We must be able to get a balance.
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When you say agriculture in Nigeria is way behind, what do you mean?
It’s no secret that when governments in Nigeria tell you they want to help agriculture, what they try to do is to give out tractors to farmers. The reality is that when you get tractors and give out to farmers, these tractors, one, will spoil the soil because you move them on the soil. Two, the carbon monoxide that these tractors will emit also destroys the atmosphere such that we now have things like acidic rain which will destroy the integrity of the environment and the farmer eventually harms the consumer. That is on the path of the government. On the flip side, most Nigerian farmers are poor. This means our equipment are not good enough to bring about profitability. You realize that where a foreign farmer tells you he gets maybe 20 tonnes per hectare for a particular crop, a Nigerian farmer tells you he gets five tonnes.
So in the area of equipment, we are behind. In the area of produce, that is yield per hectare, we are behind. In the area of safety for the farmer, we are behind. Respecting the environment, we are behind. In the area of the nutritional level of the food we produce, we are also behind. While farmers in Nigeria still use hoes and cutlasses, developed nations don’t even know what it means. We need to find a way to bridge these.
How do we describe your own concept?
The process of farming is called soilless farming; farming without soil. The idea of soilless farming is not to replace soil but to complement soil. By that I mean, we have different modes of transportation in the world. You can either go by air, land, sea or use leg. However, you are not going to be so rich that you will use airplane to fly from your bedroom to living room. But there is a place the airplane comes in. There is a point the train, ship, car or motorcycle will come in. When it comes to soilless farming, it is meant to close a specific gap in the agricultural value chain. We understand the fact that in Nigeria, we do not have good roads and because of that, transportation of produce from interior villages, where some of these perishable crops are produced, to the city takes a lot of effort. This means that the farmer tends to lose a lot or better still the middleman, which is not helping agriculture.
Soilless farming is to ensure that we can bridge the gap between the rural area and the urban area. So, perishable crops like vegetables can be grown in the city within a little space, such that you don’t have to worry about the road-long transport.
Also, you realize there is a season when tomatoes become very cheap and there is a season it becomes very expensive and the reason for these is because there is a change in weather. But what if we could produce tomatoes without depending on weather, it means the price of tomatoes will drop drastically. That is where soilless farming comes in to ensure that we can produce all-year-round at the same cost. The price of production becomes stable, making the price of food stable and even drop.
What exactly goes into the process of soilless farming?
Many people have done soilless farming in their houses but did not know because it was something really small. I try to explain by asking, do plants need soil to grow and obviously the first answer I get is yes, they should need soil. Then I ask the next question which is, if plants need soil to grow, why do we apply fertilizer to the land? And the answer I get is to supply nutrients to the land if the nutrients in the land are not enough. So, what if I can supply nutrients to the plants without the soil, will the plants grow? The answer is yes. So the question then becomes what is the function of the soil if the soil is not the one supplying nutrients? You realise the function of the soil is to act as a support system for the plant. The other function is to help in water retention. Also, it is for aeration. People don’t understand the root of the plant also needs to breathe. Once we understand these functions of the soil, it is now easy to find an alternative that can play the function of the soil. Examples are things like charcoal and others.
For example, we had refrigerators in those days, I remember when you get fresh vegetables from the market and you don’t want it to spoil, what you do is to keep the vegetables in water and it doesn’t spoil. If I needed the vegetable to keep growing, all I would have done is to add nutrients to the water. When you do so, what you have done is called hydrophonics because you are growing in water.
Essentially, growing without soil is either you are reducing the water base substring, which is hydrophonic or growing in air, which is aerophonic or be able to combine aquaculture, which is rearing of fish with growing of plants, which is called aquaphonic. In Nigeria, we have many people that are rearing fishes especially catfish. They tend to change their water regularly; what they do not know is that the water being wasted contains a high level urea which is good for vegetable plants. In short, that is the nutrient, your liquid vegetable plants needs to grow from seed to harvest. Now, what if they can now channel the waste product from the fish to the plant? The plant will clean the water and you can then return the water back to the fishes.
So, it will solve the problem of having to change water regularly, thereby conserving water. At the same time, you are able produce another by-produce which is the plant from the same system. That is aquaphonic soilless planting.
One of the challenges facing agriculture is lack of access to funding, what has been your experience?
With soilless farming, you are able to predict what will happen to a reasonable extent, which means financial institutions are much more willing to give credit facilities. You can tell them, you are planting on Monday, January 1st, for instance vegetable and I know I will harvest by January 27th. You can monitor the process. You can actually go out and secure your market even before production starts. The insurance company itself is willing to insure because, they know you are not affected by weather and they know pest and diseases are taken care because of greenhouse farming practice. When you have the insurance company on board, financial institutions are now willing to give you money for whatever you need to do. If for any reason, you cannot produce, or if anything goes wrong, you are insured.
Are you saying you weren’t really challenged when you were about setting up?
There is always a challenge; because it was new in Nigeria, we had to go through the process of trying to make people know what it is and that it is not demonic. I faced that challenge at the beginning because we are a very religious country. After getting people to understand, I had to take them through the process step-by-step; not assuming they should know. As people got to understand how it works, I didn’t have to look for financial institutions to bank roll it. Instead I had people that were willing to invest their own personal money to bankroll it.
Have your produce been moving from the farm gate to the market?
For our partners who we have set up for, yes. Their produce are already in some of the top-markets in Nigeria.
Where does technology come into play in all of this?
In soilless farming, we are able to automate most of the processes. We are able to monitor how the plants are growing, the Potential Hydrogen (PH) of the nutrients, the Electro Conductivity (EC) of the nutrients, the chlorophyll level of the nutrients and be sure that it is functioning properly. It is not that we wait for the plant to show us symptoms before we start running helter-skelter. We get to know before the symptoms even show up.
Looking at the reality of the country where demand for agricultural produce is higher than the capacity to produce, can soilless farming bridge that gap?
I don’t really believe that our capacity to produce is outweighed by the demand. When you go to places like Benue or Kaduna, you realise there is a lot of food being produced that goes to waste just because they do not have a good transport, storage or preservation system. What soilless farming is helping to do is to ensure that whatever it is that is produced actually gets to the consumer. How it does that is by bringing the distance between the farm and the people. It is closing that gap. For instance, we have a farm setup in Sagamu that produces tonnes of tomatoes; there is one in Abeokuta that produces over 300 tonnes of tomatoes every 3 months, yet, I can guarantee you that none goes to waste. Why? The distance between where the farm is in Abeokuta and Lagos is short. Before that, they know when the fruit should get ripe, the market they want to sell to knows when the fruit should get ripe, they are able to harvest five days before it gets ripe and they are able to transport it to the market such that there is no post-harvest waste. Now, compare that to a local farmer also in Abeokuta, who does not have easy access to the market or maybe somewhere in one village in Ogun state that even before he gets to the first middle-land market, the tomatoes are already fully ripe and before moving them from there to the real market, he has lost maybe 60 to 50 percent. You now start realising that the reason why demand is not being met is not because the farmer has not produce enough but because we have lost so much of them.
An example is when you go to places like Ogbomoso during Mango season, the fruit becomes a nuisance because there are so much Mangos being thrown around every year such that when the Mango season is over, you don’t see any Mango. But, what if there was a way to preserve the mango for long, such that you can even control the ripening, that everything does not ripen in one or two months but we can control the ripening to be all year-round?
With soilless farming, we are able to ensure that over time the perishable crops can be salvaged so that their production meets demand. So if someone says I’m going to need 10 vegetables by the next month, you have started planting just 10 in the next month. And because these farms are in the city, you realise you don’t have to worry about transportation.
What kind of crops does this fit into?
It can work for all crops but we are not encouraging you to use for all crops. If you want to grow tree crops, there are other technologies you can use. We are not trying to advocate that everything should be converted to soilless farming. That is why I said it is to complement.
What exactly can you use them for?
It’s basically for vegetables. The reason why in the past there was food security was not solely because the farmers were producing more, neither was it solely because we have less population, it wasn’t more than the fact that every household had a mini-farm where they could get crops from. But today you realise that most houses in Lagos don’t even know what a farm looks like. But imagine a scenario where every household has a farm around them, you will realise that the burden on the farmer to produce will reduce.
The farming population in Nigeria is aging and youths are slowly taking interest in agriculture, how can this old category of farmers leverage on this?
There is this parable that says you cannot teach old dogs new tricks. The vision is not to go and convert all the older generation farmers to pick up new technologies because it might be hard for them. Having said that, the reality is some of these older farmers already know what we are talking about but they may not have the technical or educational background to pick up some of these things. However, the goal is for the younger generation farmers to realise the fact that farming is no longer what it used to be. It doesn’t have to be hoes and cutlass.
Is this technique capital intensive? If it is, how do you connect that with profitability?
The honest answer is yes. But the amount that you are going to spend for setup is a onetime cost. If you are a soil-based farmer, you know that every planting season, you have to input new cost but with soilless farming, your major amount of planting is only going to be once, after which your spending will be on maintenance. Because of the fact that you might be doing vegetable, you are able to do vertical planting, meaning you can plant in multiple layers. There is a partner farm in Lekki, the size of the farm is just two plots of land. The harvest from the farm is equivalent to 15 acres of land. This means where your soil based farmer is producing for 6 months because of rain and has to do nothing during dry season or has to start looking for how to get water during dry season and his produce is just what two plots will give him, the person that is doing soilless farming on the same size of land is getting greater harvest. His cost of production doesn’t change and you realise that, whether you like it or not, the soilless farmer is the person that is controlling the price of the produce.
Evaluating the President Muhammadu Buhari’s administration strive in the agricultural sector, would you say the policy and infrastructural framework are enabling enough for players to thrive?
The government is not a collection of extra-terrestrial people. They are human. How much they can do is also dependent on how much knowledge they are exposed to. The first goal of the government is to create an enabling environment, which they are trying to do. The onus of pushing agriculture forward still depends on you and I. It now depends on our ability to pick up the loophole that exists and fill it up. The reason why governments have been able to help with fertilizer is that people have made it clear what they need. Why is the government giving out credit through Anchor’s Borrower’s Programme? Because people are saying they need the finance. It is what is clamoured for that the government will respond to.
About 6 years ago, there was nothing like soilless growing of yam in Nigeria but with the great work done through IITA, the government is now willing to see how we can produce seed yams without using soil. If somebody has not picked up the mandate to push what they can do on their own, the government will not know that it is possible.
There are talented and innovative Nigerians who are constrained by the lack of enablement. Lack of infrastructure, funding and high interest rate draw them back and the government is in the know of them.
These issues are not only affecting agriculture but other areas. What I want people to understand is that in all of these things that government is not doing, it is a loophole for somebody thinking outside the box to key into it and create something.
Being a youth, what words do you have for other youths looking at agriculture from a distance?
The answer is always, know what you want to do in the agricultural value chain. Be sure where you want to play. Don’t just come in because they say it is profitable, understand the system, where you want to play and stick to it.
Start with what you understand but very importantly, get the knowledge. I mean, if you want to go into any other field like banking, even if you studied banking and finance in school, the banks will train the person first so that they can succeed.
The same way, if you want to go into agriculture, get the knowledge.
Understand it. It is not about going online to get theoretical knowledge; look for a place to attach yourself and learn the rudiments.
The reality is that about 15 years ago, Nokia 3310 was the reigning phone, there were laptops that were the best but today they are no longer in vogue.
But the reality is, Garri has not left vogue, since it has been in existence; and it still is. So agriculture is one thing that cannot go out of style, except we find a way to download food from the internet.