DRIVING AGRICULTURAL RENAISSANCE THROUGH TECHNOLOGY
EL KANIS AND PARTNERS:
The difference between wealth and poverty is knowledge. While the poor perish for lack of knowledge, the wealthy leverage knowledge to increase his output, and getting richer by the day. In agriculture, a desert embedded nation like Israel has excellent agricultural records, while Nigeria with a large expanse of arable farmlands and congenial weather throughout the year, still relies on importation of food and agricultural products to feed her citizens. ENGR. EKANIKPONG BEN, the CEO of El Kanis and Partners, a Nigeria-based Agritech company, offers solutions for the development of the agricultural sector in Nigeria through technology. Engr. Ben is a member of Institution of Engineering and Technology, UK, Global Open Data for Agriculture and Nutrition and Global Forum on Food Security and Nutrition, FAO.
In Akwa Ibom State where his firm is partnering with the State Government to develop a databank of all farmers, Ben is optimistic agric- entrepreneurs will access greater investment opportunities in the sector. He hailed the governor, Mr. Udom Emmanuel for massive infrastructural development in agriculture for food sufficiency and security. Engr. Ben shares here his thoughts on the sector and how technology can enhance productivity.
Why technology in Agriculture?
We’ve been faced with food insecurity and insufficiency in Nigeria and when I looked around, I found there was a huge food potential in Nigeria, then I asked what could be done to help solve the problem and I discovered that agriculture was one way I could leverage my skills to help Nigerians and support the economy. I mobilized a team and registered El Kanis and Partners in 2012. We started with 5,000 capacity poultry farm.
Then we discovered that we could not continue to do things the way others were doing it and expected a different result. What do I mean by this? In some places in the world, you find people cultivating one hectre of cassava and harvesting 12 to 15 tonnes of yield but in Nigeria we struggle with 5.5 tonnes. So, what were others doing differently to get much results? This is where technology comes in to play a greater role. We now asked ourselves, what kind of technology are they using? So, I got involved in an organization in Netherlands which was about the second largest food producer in the world, yet with a very small land mass. You could see technology being deployed in every segment of the value chain from cultivation – knowing what kind of land, doing soil test to know the kind of seeds that will grow there to harvesting and the market – every segment was optimised. It was there we acquired basic training, tools and skills to leverage on Agricultural sector of the Nigerian economy.
In Akwa Ibom, almost every home has some farms at the backyard, my mother was a peasant farmer who specialized in poultry, likewise my grandmother. Anytime my dad went broke he would rely on the farm for sustenance. This was my first exposure to agriculture, I have also attended trainings on agriculture.
Food insufficiency in Nigeria
There are many factors responsible for this. We have a terrible fragmented value chain. We have farmers struggling to cultivate and harvest their crops, and then struggling to get them to the market and in the process they have a lot of waste because there’s also no good storage facilities at the reach of rural farmers. Besides, you find out that some of the mega food companies in Nigeria are still importing agricultural-based raw materials into the country, thereby killing the local market. Now, here is the imbalance: we have the Asian tigers supporting their farmers to produce at the lowest cost possible, but here we are struggling because our cost of production is very high. The big food industries import at 60 percent landing cost and the local farmers produce at 100 percent cost; the importers will prefer to import. Why is our production cost this high? Because the farmer here is hiring tractors, he has no electricity, no good road access, poor funding of the sector, there is also insecurity and at the end of the day you might find out that his profit from 100 percent production cost is just 1 percent. So, this will discourage farmers to get back to the filed, and the result will be food insecurity. The number of farmers leaving farming is more than that of those going into farming because of high production cost. Lack of data is also a major cause of food insufficiency in the country.
Commitment of Government to Agriculture
Nigeria as a country has always been serious with Agriculture. Since the 70s Nigeria has been having fantastic policies in the sector and these policies are rolled out with sincere hearts but the problem is systemic – the implementation. Take for instance, the Anchor Borrowers Scheme by the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN), it’s an excellent programme with potential for success. But you now send it to commercial banks which now ask farmers to bring Certificate of Occupancy to access the fund. How many farmers have even sighted the C of O that you are asking for? To make matters worse, the commercial bank will ask farmers to bring the audited accounts for five years and all manner of collateral before they can access loans.
So, at the end of the day, it translates to making these policies a failure. Government should not only roll out these good policies but should be concerned about the implementation plan. When you roll out Anchor Borrowers programme, did you carry out a survey of your target end users and how they can access these loans? What’s their level, does your criteria for accessing these funds match these farmers? At the end of the day, these policies don’t achieve their full objectives.
Akwa Ibom investments in Agriculture
I will score the Governor of Akwa Ibom State, Mr. Udom Emmanuel, very high in investment in agriculture. I have been following his programmes towards agricultural investments and I have watched him matched his words with actions in this sector. Personally, I have carried out checks on my own and I have found out that investments in agriculture that he talks about are on ground – the vegetables Green House, Rice and the rest of them. I have been to Okubo, Ikono, Ini where some of these agricultural projects are cited. I have met scores of market women trouping into the Green House farms to buy tomatoes and other vegetables for commercial purposes. Akwa Ibom State government is trying and at this point, there should be a buy-in, people should support what the government is doing instead of just sitting down to criticize.
The governor has said over and over that at least 80 percent of food consumed in the state should be produced within, and this baseline is achievable. We have to establish the tonnage of cassava produced to meet the over seven million people in the state. However, some crops like palm oil, 80 percent are exported.
Technology in Agriculture
Technology has come to help in a number of ways in the sector. America today was built more than it was discovered. If the farmers and government agencies saddled with the implementation of the government programmes on Agriculture are sincere, they will succeed. Technology Is more needed in agriculture for food sufficiency more than any other sector. For instance, you want to cultivate cassava in a particular land, you need to know the ph of the soil if it will suit the cultivation of cassava. We have sensors that will test the ground to know if it will be congenial for cassava cultivation. This is where technology comes in. Also, you need to know the soil conditions and the quality of seedlings or stems you can grow; there are improved varieties. There is a discovery that you can plant cassava with the leaves. We are lagging behind because of dearth of technology, but the good thing is that with your android phone, there are apps you can deploy in this sector. We cannot go far without technology.
Database in Agriculture
Data is life in agriculture. You start with data and end with data. For you to know what you are doing and where you are going, you need data. Data will let you know your soil condition first, data will help you know the weather condition and what the market is like (and attract investors for expansion). The mistake farmers do is that they start farming first before looking for customers, some will open a fifty thousand capacity poultry farm just because you have some money and when the birds start laying, you go into the market to look for who will buy the eggs. Why not do your data analysis first? This is where data plays a critical role. Data will also help us in storage of goods especially when there is a glut in the market.
Building a database for Akwa Ibom State will be the best thing to happen in the country, not just in Akwa Ibom State. Arming yourself with good information is the first thing you need for proper guidance in agriculture. For instance, if you bring in investor to invest in ethanol industry, how many tonnage of cassava is the state producing now? Whoever will answer this question will have an information that will guide the state and the investors in decision making, it will also guide the citizens in decision making. Data will also encourage everybody to get back to farms because you are sure that you will cultivate and that there is a ready market for your produce. Aside data development, we have a platform, Ibom Interactive Voice Response, that can help government reach out to rural areas.