Senator Emmanuel Onwe, is a British trained lawyer, and currently Commissioner for Information and State Orientation, Ebonyi State. In this interview with FELIX UKA, Senator Onwe says he is the largest rice farmer in South-East geo-political zone. He explains how he cultivated 250 hectares of rice farm, and is doing another 500 hectares. He describes herdsmen as the greatest enemy to farmers, especially rice farmers..
Why are you engaged in rice farming?
The interest of the Ebonyi State government is my interest, and the policy of the government is my personal commitment. When this government was inaugurated in 2015, the overriding policy commitment was people, industry, and economy, (PIE). The people encompass empowerment and helping individuals who have business ideas or enterprises to do so. Economy means to diversify the economy and get Ebonyi from being a small microcosmic component of a mono-economy to take creative steps to diversify. The country runs a mono economy, and to diversity, you have to rely on agriculture, the mainstay of Africa’s economy. If the whole continent would focus much energy in the sector as in policy, it would be economic and politically independent. Ebonyi has devised a means of building cluster industries in each of the three senatorial zones. Agriculture being the only enterprise a public office holder is legally entitled to embark on; I decided to practice this policy of government.
How far have you gone with this rice farming project?
In 20I6, we did about I50 hectares of land, and in 20I7, we did about 250 hectares. This year, we are targeting 500 hectares of land, all under rice cultivation, but we shall diversify into cassava cultivation as the years go by. But let us establish a high level of expertise and lay proper foundation on rice production. So, regardless of being a lawyer and whatever, I am a proud farmer. The problem with Nigerians is that we are status obsessed. That is part of what is holding us back. Whatever you are, agriculture can still be practiced by anyone. What we have done for the past two years proves that this assertion is true.
Is yours a government-owned rice farm, or wholly owned by you?
Government cannot make agriculture or any business work. Government workers are inherently lazy and by their nature, prone to corruption. Those two elements cannot make it work. The state governor David Umahi, has his own farm. A picture where he was handling a cassava tuber in a cassava farm is trending on the social media. He took the lead in farming, making the citizens and government appointees to own at least one hectare of farm. It can be in rice, cassava, yam, tomato etc.
So far, what has been your personal involvement in the government agric programme?
The more I am involved, the more I realized that the sacrifices to be made are huge, but there are correlating benefits. Due to smuggling, President Muhammadu Buhari, has not been successful in stemming the tide. Smuggling is killing the otherwise brilliant agricultural policy. It is not only rice that is smuggled but anything ‘smugglable’. The porosity and lack of coordination at the borders would ultimately kill the wonderful efforts that Nigerians are making. What drove us to the farm is when the foreign exchange skyrocketed to about N500 to a dollar. People got scared and a bag of rice was selling between N25000 to N29, 000. That was what got everybody back to the farm and made many state governors to get involved. We are going back to the bad practices. The dollar is slightly weakening against the naira from N500 to over 360 per dollar. It is not a way to run the economy. You have to steer the course.
Have you taken stock to know whether you are gaining from the rice yield? What has it been like?
The yield is modest in some areas and very rewarding in some other areas. The farm in Ezillo is upland or semi upland farm. Rice performance there is usually very low. We struggle to make up to two to three metric tonnes of harvest per hectare. In proper swampy fields in Ikwo for instance, we have hit five metric tonnes. The return is directly proportional to profit made. You make the same level of investment in both the upland and swampy area because the CBN benchmark as at 20I7 is 250, 000 per hectare. In Ikwo, you will invest such and make 450, 000 returns per hectare. In Ezillo with upland, you will make 300, 000 which translates to a profit of N50, 000. You can replicate it across the hectares cultivated. So it depends on soil type, location. We are cultivating in Ezillo because there is a rice variety called faro 44 which is genetically modified to do well in upland areas. That is why we are at least breaking even. We don’t do these most times for the profit but to show it can be done. Making profit most times doesn’t have to be I00 per cent returns. If you invest N250, 000 for a four or 5 months period and make a profit of N50, 000 for each N250, 000, it is not a bad deal.
It is rare to find public office holders deeply involved in farming or agriculture. Do you think you have been given due recognition?
As an individual, the choice is individualistic. The assistance available to all citizens is to help those that don’t have the capital to invest. I have the capital to invest in the level of farm operations I am doing. I believe the CBN has facilities to assist
private farmers like me who does I00 hectares or more. You can access a certain level of funding but that requires collateral. The bulk of assistance is for the low, middle level farmers who do about one or two hectares, hence the anchor borrowers scheme which States got between 2 to 5 to I0 billion naira, just to assist those that don’t have the resources to farm. The CBN officials met a farmer in his 100 hectares of land in Anambra, and offered him loan in billions. I have the largest rice farm in South-East of Nigeria. If anybody is in doubt, or proves otherwise, I will surrender my entire yield in the previous years I have farmed to charity. I don’t know about the South-South or South-West, but I haven’t heard about that. And even if there is, I could have heard about them. Otherwise I could have said, the entire Southern Nigeria. I am talking about individuals not companies, even at that; I have not seen the company that would
farm 300,400 or 500 hectares of land as I am doing. Before now, the major problems of rice farmers were pests destroying the rice, and weather issues, but now the greatest pests are the herdsmen.
How have you managed?
The herdsmen are the biggest pests to walk over the face of Nigeria. They are the biggest pests threatening the survival of Nigeria. Until we decide to take effective actions, to stop and exterminate these pests, its extermination would ensure that Nigeria is on the path of diversifying the economy through agriculture. If we do not do this, they would overrun us, For example, in 2017, after the anti-grazing law was passed in Benue, herdsmen from there began to move southward with their next port of call being Enugu and Ebonyi states. We had a running battle with them for more than four weeks. Because of my farms’ extensive nature, we began harvesting in November and harvested until February. This was as a result of the fact that we are still using the primitive method of manual harvesting. We do not have combined harvester in Ebonyi State. Anyone who knows what a hectare is and multiply it by 200 would understand what it means to employ manual labour to engage in such harvest. It got to a point when these AK 47 wielding pests confronted us. And by the great guidance and wisdom of God, we were able to repel them without any loss of life either on their side or on our side. Who knows what will happen during next planting season. So, the federal government through its security apparatus should come up with a policy, a sort of insecticide or pesticide for the brand of pests that wield AK 47 and drives cattle.
The herdsmen problem got so bad that the President Buhari set up a committee headed by Governor Umahi, to tackle it. Do you think the president has done enough to solve the problem?
The Ebonyi State Governor did a marvelous job. He devoted time and creative thinking to it. But it is one thing to do this assignment; make your recommendations, but it is implementation that is a different ball game. He cannot compel the IGP who I must say tends to be on the side of the herdsmen. If a President of the country gives the IGP an assignment, and he later expressed surprise and shock that the assignment had not been carried out, and since then, nothing has happened to the IGP, then, something is wrong somewhere. If a Commander-in-Chief gives a command, you don’t need to ask questions, you obey the command and bring results. So I commend our Governor for being seen as the man having the capacity to find solutions to the problem. His recommendations were brilliant but have they been implemented?