George Marechera the Business Development Manager for African Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF), speaks on efforts being made by the Foundation to mechanise agriculture in Nigeria. COLLINS NNABUIFE brings excerpts.
CAN you tell us about AATF’s contribution to agricultural revolution in Africa, especially in Nigeria?
AATF as an international organisation with its headquarters in Nairobi, Kenya, has the mandate to identify appropriate agricultural technologies and deliver to smallholder farmers across Africa to ensure that they are able to create wealth, reduce poverty and increase food security. AATF started operations in 2003, and at the moment, there has been quite a lot of progress in terms of the projects performed and delivered. One of the major projects that AATF has been working on in Nigeria is called Cassava Mechanisation Agro Processing (CAMAP), project. This is a project that was initiated in 2012 based on the realization of the importance of cassava industry in Nigeria. This project was actually earmarked to ensure that we increase productivity; to make sure that enough yields actually increase our farmers’ wealth. If you look at the trades of cassava production in the whole world, Nigeria is the highest producer, but the yield per unit area is very low compared to countries like Brazil and Indonesia. And Nigeria, normally on average, they have about seven to nine tons per hectare of cassava that if you compare to other countries, you will look at about 30 for Brazil, 45 for Thailand and then 52 for Indonesia. So the reason AATF came into existence is to assist in productivity, to see what other countries are doing and Africans are not doing. So we realised that cassava is not mechanized in Africa. In 2013, we started working in Ogun, Osun, Kogi and Kwara respectively where we are commercialising mechanisation of cassava production. The first time we started introducing mechanisation in Nigeria, we realise that one could plant one hectare within 45 minutes. We could actually do land preparations within one and half hours. Of interest was the fact that we actually ended up from increasing the yield from the average of seven tons per hectare to over 30 tons per hectare.
How did the increment manage to shoot from seven tons to 30 tons within the short period?
One of the things that happened was that after realising the increased yields, we found out that farmers needed to be linked to processors, so we identified quite a number of processors who then would be able to link the farmers to the market. So, processors were able to buy cassava from the farmers and this really created a lot of wealth for the farmers in the sense that in 2014, we realised that prices for cassava actually rose from N13, 000 per ton to about N28, 000 per ton. These led to about 300 per cent in terms of the yield increase; and again, based on the price of that, we found out that farmers were gaining about 250 per cent in terms of the income. So, what happened then was that the introduction of the project was a way of catalysing agricultural transformation within the country. Then we realised that for the project to be sustainable, we needed to train service providers. This was mainly because we cannot train all farmers on tractors and implements, because mechanisation is expensive. What we did was to identify service providers.
Who are these service providers?
These are people who own tractors or government agencies that hire tractors. What we did then was to link these people with the mechanization equipment for cassava. This was providing services on a cost recovery basis where we clustered the farmers into groups. The farmers were trained in terms of best agronomy practices, the use of improved seeds, fertilisers and herbicides which was normally not what farmers were using because they used to think that cassava does not need fertilizer. To use best agronomy practice where we treat cassava just like any other crop, we managed the inter grade systems approach to cassava production. We are looking at mechanisation, the use of good inputs, improved seeds and market linkages. And with that, we might have actually trained over 30,00 farmers in Nigeria today and over 54,000 hectares put under mechanized cassava. And we are happy to report that most of the farmers started doing cassava production and have continued accessing such services from service providers. These are people who now own the equipment. Nigeria is a very big country, and we realised that for us to reach the last man, we need to actually come up with mechanisms to make sure that even if service providers are providing services to the farmers, how do we scale up these activities to ensure we reach all the farmers across the country? So, in 2018, we started the social enterprise called the Agri Drive Limited with its headquarters in Ibadan, Oyo State.
What is the mandate of Agridrive?
The whole mandate of Agridrive is to provide agri-business solutions for farmers within Nigeria and other countries in Africa. Agridrive came in to provide those mechanisation services to a commercial entity and within the Agridrive mandate, what you are providing is not only mechanization, but you are actually opening up to ensure that you provide all the solutions which include mechanisation beside the provision of ploughing , harrowing, weeding, herbicide application and harvesting. But then, we don’t also stop there; we also engaged in irrigation in processing, sales and marketing, among others. That’s how Agridrive defines mechanization. Above all, we are saying if you do good land preparation and you use wrong input, you will not maximize yield. Then if you plant seed without any fertilizer, you will also not also maximize yield. Same is applied to the use of chemicals. Most farmers are using adulterated chemicals. So, what we have done in Agridrive is to identify companies that are working with or producing genuine products. That means we are working with those companies that are producing certified seeds as well as herbicides that are of good quality. At the moment, we are supporting our farmers with all those inputs where when the farmer comes to us, we provide the farmer with mechanisation.
We support the farmer with inputs and best agronomy practices where the farmer is trained on how to produce good quality products, how to market those quality and how to increase their productivity. Currently we have expanded the number of states we are working in. We now work in Ogun, Oyo, Ondo, Delta and of late we moved to Abuja. It is our hope that we will reach millions of farmers as soon as possible.
Recently, the CBN restricted forex on importation of starch and other byproducts of cassava. What do you think about this?
I’m happy with the move to restrict importation of starch and other byproducts of cassava, because that will work as an incentive for the cassava producers. Towards the end of October and November last year, our farmers were being paid N40,000 per ton, and this year, the price went down to N20,000. They were getting 100 dollars and all of a sudden they are now getting 50 dollars. With this incentive, more starch products. It also means that these companies are going to demand more cassava from the farmers. And this means farmers will grow more cassava thereby making the economy improve in the sense that instead of wasting a lot of foreign currency on import, it will be used to develop the agriculture sector in the country.
We are actually working with the CBN through the Cassava Growers Association of Nigeria. So Agridrive is one of the companies that have been identified by the association to be the service provider for mechanisation, we had a meeting in May this year, where all the members met in Akure, Ondo State where Agridrive was identified as the sole provider of mechanization services.
The CAMAP programme was free initially and farmers enjoyed it, now that it has been commercialized by AATF, are there plans to make it affordable to farmers because most of them are scared of going into it because of the cost involved?
Still CAMAP is operating, what we have done so far is to make sure we identify what CAMAP do, also what Agridrive do, CAMAP is operating in a case where by we can actually set up demonstration farms for any area we have not operated so far, for example we can go to the state where we have not started, get the farmers and demonstrate what mechanization is to them and show them how important mechanization is. The reason why some farmers think the price of mechanisation is high is because they have not seen it on the field, in such a case, we can go there, set up a chain demonstration and say the farmers are paying 60 percent, then CAMAP pays for the rest, what this means is that the farmers will benefit from the investment, and gain 60 percent, and with that 60 percent, they can reinvest in the project. During that year that they are working with CAMAP, it also means that we are training the farmers on best agronomy practice, the benefit of mechanization, market linkages. For example, if you are working with 50 farmers, out of the 50 farmers, you will realise, that you might get 30 percent who might say it is beneficial, and might want to invest. One of the ways we are supporting farmers is that we also have where we look at the challenges of the institutions we are working with. As long as the farmers go through CAMAP and Agridrive, we can actually link them to our micro credit institutions who are actually funding agriculture, we are seeing how we can work with them on entrepreneurship scheme to make sure that the farmers can assess the one digit interest rate for agriculture.
Apart from training farmers, does project carry along extension officers?
For us at the moment, we can actually train extension officers on good agronomy practices, market linkages, new technologies, but what we do in Agridrive is actually identify based on the value chains, remember CAMAP is all about cassava but Agridrive is for all crops, so it dependes on what interventions the farmers and the stakeholders are in need of, most times people come through CAMAP, because it identifies farmers into Cassava, aggregating them into groups, training them on mechanisation, market linkages and others. If farmers are trained in these aspects, we then either face with the services we provide for Agridrive, then it will now provide those services, then we will provide the complete solution to solving the farmers problem in agricultural productivity of agriculture in Nigeria.