Bayelsa will soon be a food hub in Nigeria- Agric. Commissioner, Alagoa

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Chief David Alagoa, the Bayelsa State Commissioner for Agriculture and Natural Resources holds a Master of Arts in Diplomatic studies. A voracious reader and a scholar, has special research areas to cover studies in third world politics, strategic studies of international law on human rights, global economy and politics of international economic relation.

Upon his return to Nigeria after many years of academic sojourn abroad, Chief Alagoa had very interesting work experience with established organisations like the Intels Group of company where he rose to a very senior management position before calling it quit.

The arts enthusiast later ventured into agriculture to contribute to food production in the country. His various farming interests cover pig farming and processing, goat rearing, dog breeding, fish farming, Ogbono plantation, cassava multiplication programme and plantain farming.

A former governorship aspirant under the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) was appointed Commissioner for Agriculture and Natural Resources in 2020 by the Governor of Bayelsa State, Senator Douye Diri, to advance the course of prosperity agenda of the present administration.
His assignment to the ministry was not by accident but for his practical involvement in farming over the years and to bring his wealth of experience to bear. Many have described his appointment as that of a square peg in a square hole.

After his appointment, the brilliant farmer with sound upbringing, high morals, sound academic background, and vast experience is bringing real value to the prosperity administration as a member of the State Executive Council through new approaches adopted by the ministry in making Bayelsa a food hub and to also earn foreign exchange. Excerpts.

Q: The Prosperity Administration just marked one year in office, could you just share with us the direction of the ministry towards ensuring food security?

Ans: I think I better just tell you, like you said, the direction that we are going in. I think what we have here is a two-prong approach in ensuring food security; the first being the need to provide food security and; the second, the need to mechanise our agriculture to the extent that it affects our internally generated revenue positively.
Let’s take the first one, the food security: we are all here, a year ago when Covid-19, or the lockdown started and we all felt indeed how a bounce of plantain went up from three to ten thousand naira, and exactly same thing happened with garri, a basin went from about two thousand five hundred to ten thousand naira.
And of course, everything else in terms of food skyrocketed and that very seriously highlighted the fact that we are totally, totally not secured in food production.
It seems all our food are more or less imported from outside the state, it just takes a lock-down for example, to lock us-of and that’s exactly what happened. So, His Excellency has seen that, and that is one of the main focus of this Agriculture revolution that we expect to take place in the state.
How is that going to work? the great challenge that farmers have is that they don’t have access to all the services they required; (you know I am a farmer too and along the way you always need some extension services, you need some advice, some seedlings and all the inputs you required from the government; they should actually be a facility perhaps that provide that for you).
And so, the strategy here is to first and foremost, I would say, develop- the-School to-Land Authority, because that is the purpose of the school to land to actually reach the farmers, train them and all the services they required would be provided there.

Q: How do you intend to achieve this?

Ans: So, we are proposing that, the School-To Land-Authority, now become what we have called here in the ministry, the food security hub, so whatever you required as a farmer, whether be it extension services, veterinary services, be it seedling, whatever you required as a farmer you get from there.

Now, when I chat with His Excellency, he said that’s all very well, but he wants all these farms in the villages as well, so we are looking at models. Firstly, we will now have these extension farmers in local government areas. But I think that to really reach the people, we could even make these farms constituency- based, so instead of having just eight, you probably have twenty-four now. That’s of course, since it is constituency- based, each farm is reaching a cluster of smaller communities, rather than local government areas so that’s the type of strategy we hope to develop.

I had mentioned to His Excellency indeed that even a lot of the old extension farms had either being taken back by the communities or in taken back by, in some cases the church is now using the building what it is their issues with the lots of them.
And he said well, it is okay, let us even acquire new farms, let’s have this new revolution reach the people, so, clearly, that’s the type of thing we expect to see very soon in terms of food security.
So that if you want your plantain on multiplication center, they will be in all the extension offices, you need cassava stems, you can get it from extension. Basically, if you reach the farmers, then you can get the result you want from them, but right now, farmers are quite negated in the value chain and that’s one thing we must, must start to save food security.

Q: What extent of mechanization will be involved in all of these?

Ans: Now, I also mentioned on the other hand the Mechanised farming, that’s we have already started. Of course, you are aware of the cassava starch factory in Ebedebiri, in Sagbama Local Government Area, which by the grace of the good Lord is about to be commissioned, we have been there about two to three weeks ago, we run the whole system and indeed, we came out with portions of starch and portions of all the products that came out of the machine which is very good.
For sure, we have test run it, but at some point, we need to formally commission it so, that’s the example of the type of mechanisation we are looking at.

What that does also is that, the factory remains like a center for all farms around it who will plant cassava, it encourages cassava to be planted by the farmers and communities around and all what they buy we will mop up for the factory.

Remember, it is a factory that requires sixty metric tons of cassava, that’s huge daily, so we need something in the region of about one thousand five hectares of cassava planted and am not sure we have anything near that now, so it would require that over and over time we will clear land and plant more, and more cassava over the time.

For now, we will use the little we have and of course we have to outsource and buy cassava from other states, but the idea eventually is to get everybody farming literally in the whole, one or two local government areas farming cassava so it empowers the farmers and of course the factory is also empowered.

Q: Would there be extension service in all the eight local government areas? can you lead us into that?

Ans: There are two models we are looking at; either eight local governments or better still, the twenty-four constituencies, the constituencies have advantage because they go deeper than the local government areas. If for example you are in the local government headquarters, it wouldn’t take you up to two hours to get to the farm. If we could have extension farms that was rather being two hours away, was forty to thirty minutes away or in fact in the communities, than it better, it can reach them better.

Q: We have been hearing about government recruiting about three thousand farmers, allocating lands to them and giving them monies to clear the lands; can you lead us to that?

Ans: Well, there was a time when the issues of loans came up, and everybody was exaggerating how loans have being taken and how loans were being abused by government and all of that; well, the truth of the matter is that the Central Bank has given a loan as far back in March or April last year before our time, and one of them was the accelerated Agric Development Scheme (AADS) sponsored by the CBN of course.

And what that was meant to do was to take three thousand five hundred (3,500) farmers, empower them, grow their products and we the government become their off-takers. The focus was or is on cassava, rice and fish, so yes, indeed, three thousand five hundred (3,500) farmers have been selected, trained and the training was in December last year and after that time, the extension workers within the system have gone.

They have identified farms and all that has been done, and right now as we speak, they have been sent back to the farms to clear, what I meant by clear, (the farms have been cleared some months back but in terms weeds have grown so they all being sent back with monies to go an prepare their farms for inputs to come and the inputs are available and all what they require in the various sectors).

So, if you are a fish farmer, you get your fish inputs, cassava person gets same and also a rice farmer.
The three thousand five hundred people, now, those are direct farmers so we have not added the input suppliers, we have not added the people who would be impacted from the three thousand five hundred farmers, so clearly, I would even go beyond the three thousand five hundred farmers to say three thousand five hundred families have been impacted.

And so, you can imagine the scope of that, it’s clearly going to be something towards ten thousand people that have been directly touched by the AADs project, it’s looking very good; of course, naturally, we had challenges when we started but you know it’s a learning process and by the grace of God, we are on the track now to start planting.

Q: Looking at the potentials in terms food production in Bayelsa: how soon are we expecting maybe more of Bayelsa made rice?

Ans: Well, like you mentioned Akassa earlier and rice farms in Akassa, the AADS farmer are spread across the state, now you would find out that some local government are more harking to rice, for example, Brass local government is more harking to rice than perhaps cassava, that’s why I mentioned Akassa because of the rice component there; and I think in the East generally, Ogbia and Nembe to an extent.
Yes, in terms of rice, you asked how quickly would you see Bayelsa made rice; definitely this year; I can assure His Excellency that we would have rice pyramid this year definitely.

Now the strategy we are also going to use to achieve that, apart from what comes out from the AADS, I think we would have to also have farms that are government owned so to speak; (in inverted comma).

When I mean government owned is not as if we are buying the lands. But we will go into the communities, use the lands, cultivate, and harvest the crops. So, I think that in a way what happens with the AADS is a very minor short-fall that I found there, is that the farmers are in little units, I think they are in one hectare each.

So out of that type of small blocks, you are not going to get huge capacity, so we would identify two or three perhaps around the state that we would do cassava and perhaps rice and that’s where we would get the bulk to add to what would come out from the AADS. But I believe that rice of all the three components, is probably the most practical, I think to us because it can survive in flood.

Whereas other aspects in flood, they are Deltaic, cassava cannot manage flood although there are improve varieties and that’s what we are using, because we are getting the improved varieties from IITA in Ibadan, so clearly, we are using the best cassava sticks there are; that are flood friendly, but even though they are flood friendly the tubers cannot last for too long.

Q: What is the status of the Bayelsa Oil Palm Estate?

Ans: Well, the oil Palm Estate, His Excellency has given me a charge to get it going and we have lots of people coming who wants to run the palm estate, and we believe that, with all due respect to all those who have run it in the past and still there now, we need to take it to a level where it would be thoroughly profitable to the government.
As it is, we are in very serious talks with the Chinese, the talks are sounding good at the point, at which it’s getting to a point about to yield something, I’m sure they will be taken to His Excellency and we can look at them in the context of other options that we have.
There are palm plantations around the Niger Delta run by very good companies from multi-national companies, Belgians, French in Rivers and Delta States.

So, we are also talking with this type of people so I’m sure by the time we get the whole conglomerates of three, four and five companies, we would be able to come up with something sustainable, long lasting and profitable.
The model that would be used likely, because in terms of palm estate it’s only about 1212 hectares, and by plantation standards that is not huge.
One of the plantations in Edo State for example is thirty thousand hectares and they want it to expand, we are dealing on 1212 and if we push far, we could probably get about 1700 hectares, even that is not huge but I think our model would work for the people.

Remember that His Excellency is very particular that the population is taken along, so what would happen, our talk would be that let’s now also empower individuals around the state, if for example you had a hundred thousand hectares and you want to be part of this Palm Estate, fine we will clear for you, give you the seedlings and we become your off-takes.

So, we would now have 5,10,7 and 15, you also empowered your crops, also empowers the palm estate and of course the mill would be a mill that can mill all what you bring from around the state, that’s the model we are looking at.
I know people are getting quite impatient, Bayelsa palm is probably the one I always get flacked on, but I think that we shouldn’t just move from Peter to Paul, we should move from that level to a higher level so all these companies we are talking to will soon fruit something out of it.

Q: Food production is key to sustain the local economy; how can you woo Bayelsans to be part of food production, taking cognizance of the Agricultural potentials in the State?

Ans: You know, there is indeed a huge capacity in agriculture because the value chain is vast. Even before the planting, you could start from the seeds; there are people who in this country sell only seeds and they are making fortunes.
So, you get improved varieties you now plant, now there are people who after you have planted or while you are planting their inputs you put in there to increase your yields.
There are people whose only job is to maintain what is planted and it goes on and on until you harvest; and when you have harvested, there are people who harvest the crop and those who process the crop, so the value chain is huge. The word to Bayelsans would be, to just grab one section of it.

The awareness we are trying to create as we move along, you don’t need to grab a big crop, you don’t need to have a palm estate or hundred plots of land to farm; here we have started what we called a bitter leaf cluster and basically people who plant bitter leaf around the place and land, small or large at the end of the day the idea is that we would all harvest our bitter leaf and see how we can export or even process it.

We have been talking and having several meetings here with Export Promotion Council, those are the type of people we are also talking with so that the young person along the street can say ok, I don’t have much land but I have just one plot and I will plant bitter leaf, and that bitter leaf yields forever as long it’s watered.

You can use that to form a small cluster of bitter leaf and before you know it, pharmaceuticals come looking for you all the soft drink companies come looking for you, the value chain is high, but I think here our role is to create an awareness as much as we can, just a matter of time.

I know people who are buying crayfish from Brass, bagged it and selling it to Lagos, all these opportunities they avail themselves; it is also true and this is where His Excellency also has emphasized, there are people doing wonderful things. If you look at the product behind you, they are all products made by a Bayelsan, the palm oil produced by somebody from here, fish feeds, vegetable produce by Bayelsans, but they need that upliftment.

One of the women who brought one of these products here is doing beautiful things, griding cassava, beans etc. and such people need to be empowered of course, that’s what His Excellency is advising.

The past government trained about three hundred students in Songhai, I have had to chat with them and they are brilliant children, the wrong impression about empowerment you have to be very careful is, with all due respect to the youths, there are people who think that in empowerment you will give them money and they run away, we don’t want that.

But the three hundred youths I have seen that have gone to Songhai, Songhai is one of the best places you can get trained as a farmer and these people are enthusiastic in various aspect of what they have been trained, so those type of people would be brilliant, they could be accommodated into the empowerment scheme and I think they would make themselves proud firstly, the State and make His Excellency proud that it really happened.

Q: Can you please talk to Bayelsans on the huge investment ongoing in the Agriculture sector?

Ans: Before I do that, l will just tell you one or two things along the line that we are also looking at, the abattoirs are very controversial, we have been very fortunate to have passed a policy that’s going to be the bases for abattoirs being developed.
There are certain conditions that must be met, sort of best standards that we put in place now, but most of them are not meeting up now and I think most especially what is good about the policy, is that it allows even the individuals to run abattoirs to our standard, so people can now have private abattoirs and basically make money from there as well, maybe in or outside Yenagoa or maybe in the communities. So basically, what we are saying is that we are also making sure we are empowering the people, His Excellency is very careful about that.

His Excellency has advised us to think outside the box; because like he always says “you can’t do the same thing and expect a different result”, so as much as he has told us that, we for example we have been talking, in fact yesterday we had a zoom meeting with government and public affairs managers in Milan along with the Green River project in Nigeria, and we are still talking and we hope there will be some sort of collaboration with them at some point.

There are talks we had with Bayelsans in Diaspora, I am particularly fortunate to have met one or two people who are in Australia and they are also so excited with the Prosperity Government’s focus and they want to be part of it.

They are very particular about water hyacinth, making that into mechanised form, that is, processing of water hyacinth into paper perhaps. I have seen where they have turn it into furniture, we are still talking, the Diasporans have also mentioned the issue of sand to glass and cattle as well, and of course for cattle, His Excellency is so particular that we ranch animals.

You know when he mentioned that, I was so taken aback, because when you looked at all the cows that have now come to our State, it is because of our grasses, and we are all staring at the grasses doing nothing, and he said “why do we keep the grass for us to look at, why don’t we ranch”? And so that’s the type of facility we hope for with time, very soon we will have in place; there is a lot coming.

Q: What’s your word to Bayelsans on the need to embrace agriculture?

Ans: I would say to Bayelsans lets get planting, let’s get somewhere along the value chain, it does not have to be big just get somewhere along that line, and I’m sure if you do it properly, you have to be committed, you have to be patient.
Farming is a very patient process, nothing happens too quickly, you are not going to farm your rice and get it out quickly; it would take the four to five months as required, you are going to have your fish and get it ready quickly, it’s not a quick win, but a steady win so I would advise everybody, young, old, woman and man to get involved.

Q: As a member of the Prosperity Administration, how would you describe the personality of Governor Douye Diri?

Ans: Yes, I have worked with him for six months, but I was with him throughout the whole hand, so you know, there are certain words that just come to mind when you think of Douye Diri, humble, focused and I always get the feeling that he is very experienced and also taking us somewhere; you know what I mean (whenever you seat with him, he has that sense of direction), come with your ideas, and I think he defines where he’s going; prosperity.

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