Q & A With Young African Farmer; Nigeria's Olowale Ojo
[Global Food Movement]
farmer Olowale at Songhai
Organic farmer, scientist, and writer, Ruby Olisemeka recently interviewed a young Nigerian farmerpreneur, writer, and youth-empowerment advocate, Olawale Ojo, for The Black Star News.
Olowale was a high school Agricultural Science Teacher and a graduate in Agricultural Engineering from the Federal University of Technology, Nigeria; he also has a Certificate in Sustainable Integrated Farming Systems from the Songhai Centre, in Porto Novo, Benin Republic. Olowale was also a finalist in the 2013 Futures Award Prize for Africa in the Agriculture category.
This is the first in a series of articles, profiles and Q & A's, that will explore the challenges faced by farmers all over the world, with a focus on African and African American farmers. If you know of any interesting farmer worthy of a profile please send a short not to Ms. Olisemeka via Rubythewiz@gmail.com
Ruby/Black Star: How did you get into agriculture to begin with? I know that you trained at Songhai and that you studied (it formally at the university), what made you choose to study agriculture in the first place?
Ojo: I actually chose to study electrical/electronics. I had to do like a pre-degree program at university; at the end of the day I wasn’t cut out for electrical/electronics. Instead of that I got into agriculture; the reality didn’t get to me until when I did the training at Songhai, for the first two, three years of university study it was just like we just had to go to school, and so we are doing it.
Going to Songhai got me to develop the practical aspect - working with other young people, attending trainings - all these opened my eyes to the various opportunities.
Ruby/Black Star: What did you experience at the Songhai center that changed your perspective on agriculture?
Ojo: While I was at Songhai I had the opportunity to work in various parts of the value chain. Though not the entire chain but the core part, which is basically production, processing, then marketing; of course we know there are other parts of the value chain that are embedded in these three parts I’ve mentioned. But basically working in those three areas actually made me see that it goes beyond what we know as being just farming and then the farmer goes to sell; it shows that if you're technically trained and you put your mind to it, you can explore a lot of avenues from even just one commodity. You could try to sell at the primary stage or sell at the semi-processed or finished process level. When we look at the issues surrounding Nigeria and other countries in Africa, unemployment, tuition, and so you see that agriculture is something that can actually solve these issues when done in the right way.
[So] being there for six months having to work with other young people, having to learn from others actually opened my eyes to the various aspects not just as an engineer but also as a farmer. With resources you’re able to make a living, employ other people, and also provide food.
Ruby/Black Star: And also provide food; I like that. How many more young farmers do you know of who are focused on sustainable agriculture [or even agriculture in general] in Nigeria and other West African countries?
Ojo: We have a lot of them; the fact that I can’t even count shows that we have a lot of them. Of course you know that everybody has a way of promoting what they do; some are satisfied with just doing it as a business, being able to make a living and that’s it. They don’t want to share what they are doing especially for those who go into it maybe out of pressure of not finding a job so it they just go back to agriculture at the end of the day. There are quite a lot of youths in West Africa [who] are doing wonderful stuff in agriculture.
Ruby/Black Star: Any one of them that stands out particularly strongly in your mind?
Ojo: In Ghana we have Edom who provides ICT services and global GIS services such that before a farmer goes into production he comes and with the GIS mapping for your farm he is able to calculate your expected yield. This is the spacing you need for this particular crop; this is how many plants you can have on this side of land; and from there, he can also project your yield, and offer market intelligence services. Edom is doing well.
Here in Nigeria we have Philip who got government grant and right now is into poultry and fish production, there are quite a lot of them, if you check my blog we try to profile every month a youth that is doing well in agriculture.
There is this guy in Ekpoma, in Edo state who is into poultry trying to expand to have livestock too very soon. There are quite a lot of young people. That’s why one of the things we are advocating for is that the government should recognize these young people. Share their work so they can get necessary support that is needed and also be a source of inspiration for other young people.
Ruby/Black Star: That’s great--What kind of incentives do you think will help attract more young farmers to sustainable agriculture or just agriculture in general?
Ojo: For me it’s both states -- first of all its the readiness for a young person to say that okay this a viable career that I want to go into, and to also either through the government or by himself get technical training. Agriculture is a bit technical, when you get one process wrong you hurt the entire production. It’s not about saying that 'agriculture is viable.' It also means that you have to take the necessary steps to be briefed technically to achieve what you believe is viable.
So one of the incentives the government could do is to provide capacity building opportunities for young people; various aspects of agriculture. If the person says he is interested in doing poultry for example the person should know where they can go either by the government that he can get trained on how to do poultry. What we learn in university often-times does not cover the practical aspect of agriculture. If you are talking about food production there are so many elements. It's not just about producing the food; we're talking about producing the food in the right quantity and quality, either for the local consumption or for international market.
The other issue is making land available, or at a subsidized rate so the youth can access it. Youth can know that if he goes to the state government he can get one hectare to do agriculture; one acre as the case may be. Then they’ll be ready. Because of what I do, I encounter many young people and the issues they have are funding and land.
For me I believe that funding should not be an issue. Why have I said that? For every business including agriculture you should always have an initial capital that you use to start your business. Often times people are lazy about raising capital. They just want to be spoon-fed. It doesn’t work that [way]. You should be able to say 'okay, if I need 500,000 Naira to start my business, I already have maybe 150k, because even here in Nigeria most of the banks that would give loans for agriculture will expect that you have a certain percentage of the capital you will need. It's key that the youth understand that they need a particular amount of capital they have to raise themselves and then the government can be of assistance either through grants or soft loans.
Building capacity also means financial management; youth need to know how to manage their finances and how to also to plan their businesses.
Ruby/Black Star: So your basically suggesting some type of infrastructure that assists in…
Ojo: Maybe like an agric hub in various parts of the country; where you can go to get technical and financial knowledge. Agriculture is a business; it's not just to bring the crop to market -- we are also talking about the business aspect.
Ruby/Black Star: Is there any lobbying being done? Is there anyone actually petitioning the government, anyone going to Abuja or their state government and saying 'hey we need this'? Who is lobbying for farmers in Nigeria?
Ojo: We have a lot of NGO’s trying to do activities like for example, the One Campaign is seriously going on in Nigeria. I’m sure you’ve heard of “Cocoa Na Chocolate”?
That’s one of the campaigns going on now. They're asking the government to increase their investment in agriculture. This year’s budget is 1.47% for agriculture. The campaign is really hammering that Nigeria, the government should increase this budget. Of course if the budget is increased then some of the things I've mentioned will definitely come into play. It’s not just about giving money to farmers; you have to be sure that the money will be used for farming.
Of course, you also have this aspect of other non-farming activities that --are related to agriculture. We are talking about maybe logistics, processing, distribution. We need to have formalized models of doing these things, and of course ICT for agriculture, extension services, these are various aspects that youth can actually get involved but there are no policies. There are no guidelines to ensure that these things happen. That’s why the young professionals in agriculture have respect for development. Also in the country, to ensure that at events/activities where there are discussions about agricultural policy, there is a youth voice and they share the youth perspective. Agreed, we have a very vibrant agriculture minister but then often times after these policies are made, the implementation stage is very poor which will affect the progress of the sector.
Ruby/Black Star: Sounds complicated. It seems that there needs to be a unifying body that works with the government to not only regulate agriculture but provide the necessary support for farmers in the nation. That’s a monster in and of itself. While that part of agriculture is being built how many young people really are into sustainable farming, where they are doing things organically, rejecting herbicide, pesticide use? How many people are focused on that or is it really more on conventional farming?
Ojo: Of recent there was this body that came together, can't remember the name precisely, but I attended an event where they launched the organic agricultural initiative with support from Baobacity Africa and a couple of bodies. They are really doing their best to say that people should do organic agriculture. But to be sincere with you, I think it a bit odd at the moment for us to go into organic agriculture. One, for technical reasons, secondly people want to be able to produce and sell for sustenance. People want to produce and sell and make money continuously. Of course we are not saying that organic would not do that, but ultimately not too many people are practicing it.
Ruby/Black Star: That's interesting. What do you see your role in the agricultural movement, or the agricultural world in West Africa? Where do you see yourself fitting in? Are you a farmer, are you an advocate, are you a political advocate? Are you a person that just wants to spread your word through your writing/journalism? What's your role?
Ojo: One of the challenges or problem I see affecting the sector, is that the academic environment does not give you practical and realistic knowledge about the sector and of course you’ll also agree with me that six months of Songhai training is not enough to transform the sector. So for me, I have a long term goal to go back to academics; this time to get practical knowledge. For me to be able to do that, I also have to have that practical knowledge. Apart from what people see as the advocacy which I do, which I see as my own part of contributing to the sector I also work underneath as an agronomist. Right now I wouldn’t say work, I'm still getting trained. I am still getting trained in agronomy. Mostly I work with rice farmers. While I’m doing advocacy work I'm also doing my best to be more grounded, so that I'm not just advocating for something I do not know about. And also at an entrepreneurial level, I help my parents in our family farm --we do pig production, pork.
Ruby/Black Star: How big is pork in Nigeria?
Ojo: It's a very big business. We have a lot of foreign investors that come to run their businesses; we have the Chinese. It’s a regional market. People come from other parts of West Africa to buy here. Where we have our farm is a big farm settlement where we have about 3,000 farmers.
Ruby/Black Star: That’s interesting --Was going to say I don’t know one Nigerian dish that uses pork.
Ojo: People from Niger Delta, they eat a lot of pork; Delta, Benin, Edo.
For me the next two years are more formative years for me. Trying to make sure I become a professional in one aspect of agriculture. So that in the near future when I try to go out to an academic environment, either lecture or research, I know what I’m talking about.
Ruby/Black Star: Just to switch the conversation up a little bit, I've read that in Ghana there was some protesting around Genetically Modified foods. What's your take on that? Do you think that the technology is something we need, or do you think that we should stick to breeding? Because without the seed stock farming doesn’t happen; at least vegetable production. It's all about the seed stock. What's your take on the activities surrounding genetic modification and genetic engineering?
Ojo: Personally, I’ll be sincere. I've not made a personal stand on the issue of GM or no GM. Because I believe that for us to produce more we need to consider a couple of factors: climate change; drought, which are things that affect us here; pest invasion and all the rest. For us to produce enough, to eat enough as a nation and also as a continent, produce seeds that can combat these challenges that we face -- what we should look at is that these breeding that we do, it should be done in such a way that it doesn’t harm the environment negatively. To use the easy word, it should be done sustainably. I think that is what we should be fighting for; that these things should be done in a sustainable manner, not in a manner that would harm the environment.
Ruby/Black Star: That's the biggest complaint here [in the U.S.] is that all of the GM, GE crops are reducing the population of insects; and particularly bees, butterflies, and also soil microbiology that there is adverse affect --- Some crops are vitamin enriched but a lot of the engineered crop actually contain some type of toxin and we've seen it to have adverse consequences here in the States, in the Americas.
Ojo: For me I think that is where the government agency needs to play their own role. In setting up regulatory bodies, such that whoever comes in and says these are the seeds I have, they should have trials, both institutional and commercial trials to ensure, that those seed do not have any effect on the environment. That’s why the research bodies are there; if this is done well then they won't have issues. So when someone brings seeds and says you can do this, you can do that, all in the name of wanting to sell, we can say fine we will do our own testing. You do your test, you monitor all the variables and whatever else you need to do and ensure that it doesn't affect the environment negatively. Once that is done, you can say 'this works fine for us here, we can take it'; if not fine, 'please we don’t want it.' I think it’s all about regulation. Like I told you earlier I have not made a personal decision on Genetic Modification because as far as I’m concerned Africa seriously needs to work with improved varieties; combat the challenges we face.
Ruby/Black Star: How is the increasing drought affecting these states -- There is talk of the north becoming more and more like a desert? How is it affecting these states or how is it affecting agriculture in general? And as a part two to that, there is a lot of talk about the instability in the north, religious tension and this elusive Boko Haram [This interview was before the kidnapping of the girls]. How are these things affecting business?
Ola: You observed the Boko Haram issue. They are running around two to three states; the interesting thing is that the Boko Haram also understand that people need to eat, in a couple of ways they have not affected production per se. People are still doing their best. Example, some of the things we eat in the South, like our tomato and beans, we still get them, so it's not yet that bad. People are still doing their best to ensure that production goes on. Of course it will affect the activities of companies who are in these locations. But you will see that people are now moving and intensifying effort in areas where they will not have issues. Agricultural still takes place in the village, people are still doing their best. We cannot say it’s not having any effects totally. But people are still finding their way around it.
Ruby/Black Star: And then the climate, how is drought affecting, is there reduced output?
Ojo: For those who are not growing drought resistant seeds, they have issues of low yields; a couple of governments have been paying attention to irrigation. What you should understand is that most farmers depend on the rain; when you have less rain it spoils the whole season for them. So now some governments are to pay attention to irrigation so they [farmers] can do both in the season and off season agriculture.
Ruby/Black Star: How are they irrigating? Are they wells? Rivers?
Ojo: Talking about irrigation, sometimes they have boreholes; the governments do boreholes. Like in Kano they give them machines to pump water. Another challenge is that some of these farmers don’t know how to use this equipment; we also have the issue of extension services, that should be intensified so that these guys know how to use these things that they have.
Ruby/Black Star: What are the major crops that Nigeria is producing?
Ojo: We have maize, cassava, we have rice, sorghum, millet and cocoa.
Ruby/Black Star: One of the issues that we hear about is land-grabbing. The African government displacing people from their land and turning it to farms for agribusinesses. Not agribusiness that are local but agribusinesses that are foreign; do you know about this? Is this something people are worried about on the continent? What's your take on that?
Ojo: Ive read about these issues, but at a local level I've actually not seen it, or had a live experience of it happening. In my opinion these issues have to do with policies and what do I mean? If an investor is coming into the country and he needs 100 hectares of land [1 hectare is about 2.5 acres], there should be guidelines to ensure that he absorbs people who are already on that land, either by saying 'Okay, fine I’m taking 100 hectares and you guys already have maybe 10 hectares that you have been using before, keep producing on those 10 hectares' and even possibly saying 'okay we'll give you a guarantee buy-back of whatever you produce' you’re following?
Not that they now send the farmers totally off that land, taking their source of livelihood. There should be amenities; that people who were on those lands before be absorbed into the process so they don’t lose their source of livelihood.
Ruby/Black Star: Tell me about YPARD?
Ojo: It’s a youth network [from all over the world] that was put together by the Global Forum of Agricultural Research (GFFAR ).
They're being sponsored by the FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations) -- some years ago, there was a conference in France and various people in agriculture were sharing and speaking, it was discovered that all the young researchers did not have a say and group of young people got together, and said we are the future of this sector, we should be able to have a say. And so it was formed out of the fact that they wanted youth to be involved in the process of agriculture, including policy, ensuring young people are involved the sector. What YPARD does is to facilitate young peoples' voices to be heard.
That’s why you see at major conferences, they try to be part of it either through social media or have a special youth section where youth can share their opinion about that particular aspect of agriculture and be part of shaping whatever decisions are going to be made and then at country level they have representative youth that try to advocate for more youth involvement in agriculture to enter; get involved in policy discussions in their country.
Reach the writer via firstname.lastname@example.org
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