Prince Ugochukwu Okparaeke, otherwise known as ‘Oshimiri’ is the Chairman/Chief Executive Officer of Eagle Food Processing Industries Nigeria Limited. He is a renowned farmer from Umuchu in Aguata Local Government Area of Anambra State. From a humble beginning of keeping only 50 birds 35 years ago, he has become a multimillionaire with four food processing factories, hundreds of hectres of farm land and almost 200,000 birds in his poultry farm. In this encounter with SILAS JOHN and JOE CHIBUEZE in Lagos, the ‘Ezeumuanumanu’ provides a clue to how Nigeria can move from being an importer of oil palm products to an exporter.
The story of Prince Ugochukwu Okparaeke is the story of doggedness, determination and focus. It is the story of a man who knew where he was going to from the beginning and was determined to fight to the end not minding the challenges on the way.
Of course he comes from a farming background as his father was a farmer and he learnt the trade early in life and fell in love with it especially the aspect of rearing chickens.
He started rearing chickens when he was in primary school in the village and continued with it even when he went to leave in Onitsha. But a time came when he decided that that small business of just 50 birds needs to be taken higher. That was when he decided to return to his village to go into full poultry farming. Hear him, “I just told myself that I need to return home to go into farming fully that was in 1980.”
That decision has brought him fame and wealth, but not without challenges, heart breaks, mockery, frustration and at a point close to surrender, but he persevered.
“When I started poultry farming, I was in Onitsha, I started with 50 birds as I said before,” he began his story. “I was doing it on a small scale, any money I get I put it into the business. It was not easy. In fact it got to a time my people were mocking me saying that I have wasted the money meant for my business and have returned to the village, was it well with me I returned to the village? They mocked.
“But I can tell you today that all those who were mocking me are nowhere near me in terms of wealth.
“Actually when I went to the village I exhausted all the money I had. I was completely empty financially. It was a very traumatic period for me, I wept for about two to three years, but God heard my cry because I remained committed, I did not give up and things changed for good for me.”
Because he did not have money to buy feeds for his chickens, he had to improvise and so he went into maize and cassava farming.
“That is how I got used to farming maize and cassava. The truth is that if you are committed to something and there is a challenge, you must find a way out. That was exactly what happened to me.
“I then went into food processing, then I was processing garri and semovita with the brand name Eagle Garri. That was in 1986, the factory was opened by Late Commodore Emeka Omerua. In fact it was so difficult then that I had no money to continue. But I kept struggling till we got to where we are now. We now have many factories.
“Anybody that is doing something good must at one point or the other have some challenges. You don’t have to run away or abandon the dream. No, you just have to continue and remain focused, before you know it, you begin to smile again.
“I now have four food processing factories, our poultry farm which started with 50 birds, now has over 170,000 birds. We produce frozen chicken, with the brand name Eagle Foods Frozen chicken. We produce more than 10,000 every month, we also sell eggs.”
He has also branched into the keeping of other animals like cattle, rams, pigs, dogs and even fish. That of course explains why he is called ‘Ezeumuanumanu.’
He said: “We have over 200 cows and almost 1000 rams in our ranch, we have a ranch where we keep our cattle, they don’t roam about destroying people’s farms, we have our own feed mill that produce our poultry feeds, we also have palm oil mill, we produce high quality palm oil, we have a factory that does palm kernel crushing, we produce palm kernel oil. Our next plan is to have our own refinery to refine our palm oil into vegetable oil. We are hoping that government or a bank will help us to be able to set up the refinery. We are looking at a capacity of 100 tons per day.”
He said that nothing is wasted in his farm as the waste product from one section is a raw material for another. According to him, the maize and cassava are processed into animal feeds used in feeding Pigs, Poultry, Fishes, rams and Cattle while the dung from the farm is processed and used as manure in the cultivation of maize, Cassava, Vegetables, Cucumbers and Water melon.
He is particularly concerned that Nigeria so blessed by providence is importing oil palm from Malaysia, the same Malaysia that took palm nuts from Nigeria to plant. For him, that is an aberration.
“This year we want to plant at least 5000 palm trees,” he said. “We have over 150 hectres of land. We have just applied to the Anambra State Government to give us additional 1000 hectres of land where we will plant oil palm trees. If by the grace of God the Governor approves our request, we will take off immediately. Within the next seven years we will complete the work there. That would be where our cattle and rams will be grazing.
“Our problem in this country is that we are always blaming the government. Let us blame ourselves. It is Nigerians that are holding themselves, we no longer want to work. How can we be in Nigeria and be buying palm oil from Malaysia, whereas Malaysia bought palm nuts from us to plant?
“I can tell you that 65 per cent of oil in Nigeria either as vegetable oil or palm oil is coming from Malaysia, Nigeria is only producing 35 per cent. But if we plant palms, it will not only create job opportunities, reduce the level of oil importation from Malaysia and save the government foreign exchange. So those who are saying that the present administration is wrong for banning the importation palm oil are themselves wrong. What the government is saying is let everybody go back to the farm, five or seven years from now; we will no longer have any business importing oil from anywhere.
“Before the war, we had vegetable oil refineries in Arondizuogu in present day Imo State, Obak in Calabar; we also had that of Edewo in Warri. Their crushing plants had their farms. Then you must have your own palm plantation before you are allowed to set up your crushing mill. But today government has allowed people to set up vegetable oil mills without any plan of setting up a plantation. They import both palm nuts and red oil into the country instead of having their own farms. If they have their own farms it will help them and encourage other individuals to also plant palms. What I am advocating is that anybody that has a crushing mill in Nigeria must establish his own plantationwithin seven years otherwise such factory should be shut down because the person does not want the progress of Nigeria.”
For the young ones who are afraid of going into farming because they do not have money, he has this word for them: “Our people have a proverb which says that one needs to start preparing the field before he starts talking about what he will sow. It is when you start making ridges, if it is cassava stems that you see you plant, if it is yam, you plant. But if you say that you will not make ridges until you have what to plant, then you are probably not ready to be a farmer.
“I have told you how I started and the challenges I faced. So you don’t need to start waiting until you have millions before you start. There is no amount you cannot use to start either business or farming. It is a matter of whether you are determined and committed to what you are doing. It is only when people see what you are doing that they will be inspired to help you. In my own case, the First Bank has given me loan several times and I have paid off the loans. The bank has also helped us secure CBN intervention funds by guaranteeing that we are capable of paying back and we did not disappoint. So if you are working hard, people must help you.”
He called on the government to assist farmers by way of providing them with infrastructure such as good roads as well as electricity. In his words: “What we are seeking from government is good roads, yes the Anambra State government is trying in that area, but there is still more to be done. Farmers in the rural areas need good roads, we also need other infrastructure like electricity, in my farm, we use five drums of diesel every day to power our generator. You can imagine how much that is costing us in a month, in a year. This is money we should be using to expand our operations. So we need government to help us with electricity. Let me tell you, getting electricity is a small thing, a local government or two or three local governments can jointly generate their own power. We have small streams like rivers; we also have coal which we can use to generate power for the local government areas. So let the government goes back and take another look at the technology needed to generate power, all these talk about power being expensive is not true, it is cheap if we are ready and sincere to ourselves. The other thing we want from them is funds to support our operations, we will pay back. We want that money at low interest rate, say 5 per cent, abroad they even give their farmers interest free loan, and we can do the same here if we are serious about ensuring the nation achieves self-sufficiency in food production.”