Through massive investment in agriculture, especially the Songhai Farm initiative, the government of Rivers State is creating wealth, jobs and opening up the state’s economy for greater opportunities
The Rivers State Songhai Farm project is the biggest of its kind anywhere in the world. It is known to be the most modern with all the knowledge and technology that have gone into the model in the last 30 years being transferred to the state. Seated on 215 hectares of farmland, it is 20 times bigger than the mother farm in Porto Novo, Republic of Benin, which is about 15 hectares. Under the government of Chibuike Rotimi Amaechi, the Rivers Songhai project is at the heart of the economic transformation programme of the state. A novel idea that only discerning leaders can embrace, the Rivers Songhai is many things in one. It is a technology park, an industrial park, a service centre and a place where new human resources are developed. Among others, the farm comprises of a rice plot, pineapple orchard, piggery, a cattle ranch of about 100 heads, feed mill, rice mill, agro forestry, fruit juice processing plant, mechanical workshop, a multi-purpose hall and chalets suitable for retreats and conferences. Apart from the wide range of livestock that are bred in the farm, some cash crops are grown all year round in commercial quantity. Even then, it is a zero waste farm, where weeds and waste are converted to alternative uses.
“At Songhai, we are creating a new kind of education where people are really educated; not just going to school but where people come out of school with all the capacities to create wealth, to invent and do all sorts of things. That is extremely important. That is the physical one. Songhai is where you get all these ideas,” said Rev. Fr. Godfrey Nzamujo, founder of the Songhai Farm Initiative. The Songhai Farm is the biggest programme of the Rivers State Sustainable Development Agency, RSSDA. And, perhaps, that stems from the fact that the Songhai Centre in Porto Novo is recognised by the United Nations as a means of driving community development in Africa. To underscore the importance of the centre to the government of Rivers State, Governor Amaechi, in April, went on a two-day personal retreat at the centre. That was followed by a state executive council meeting at the same venue.
Aside from the massive investment the government is making in the Songhai project, there is a wide range of agricultural programmes that are driving the revolution in the state. Four years ago, the state evolved a master plan for the agric sector. “What we met in this ministry was not a clear-cut definition of what an agric policy should be. So that was the first thing the administration did, to get a policy direction for the sector. We are also trying to see how we can use agric for community development, to drive the kind of development that this administration would want in the different communities in the state,” said Emmanuel Chinda, Commissioner for Agriculture.
One of such areas is fish farming. Nigeria produces about 400,000 tonnes of fish per annum but its demand is about 1.8 million tonnes per annum. The country, therefore, imports 1.4 million tonnes of its fish need. That means there is a huge market for fish and great opportunity for local fish production. To take the lead in filling this gap, the Amaechi administration has embarked on a number of fish farming projects. These include the Buguma fish farm project, which the commissioner says the state will begin to reap from by the end of this year. There is also the Andoni fish farm project and the Opobo fish farm project. Very close to the heart of the Rivers State government is the Oyorokoto fishing settlement, which is said to be the biggest in West Africa. “But it is not organised. Rivers State government has a blueprint on Oyorokoto fishing settlement. That is very important to us because it overseas one of the best sites this country has got to offer. It sits by the side of the Atlantic Ocean in an area where you can drive by the Atlantic,” said Chinda.
It is estimated that the three farm projects will give the state over 3,000 tonnes of fish annually. These projects are being carried out under a public-private partnership, PPP, with an Israeli firm, ONIDA. As a result of the modern techniques being deployed for these fish farm projects, fish projects across the state are expected to cost the government well over N4.5 billion. Additionally, the RSSDA is pursuing another programme called the Deep-Sea Fish Feed Aquaculture project. “We are in discussion with some Chinese investors and it is a way of balancing the opportunities that are available to agriculture,” said Noble Pepple, Executive Director, RSSDA. The many fish farm projects are also a means of taking advantage of the many rivers that crisscross the state.
With the acquisition of 2,000 hectares of land, Rivers State government has also started its banana project in Khana Local Government, LG, and Nweke in Tai LG areas of the state. The entire Niger Delta region and, indeed, Rivers State have one of the best agronomic advantages for growing banana and there are not many regions in the world that have that advantage. When some Nigerians travel abroad, they see very big species of banana and buy them at very high costs. “When you convert the prices at which we buy the banana, you will see that they are very expensive. These bananas come from Mexico; they are coming from Europe. So why can’t we join in the competition?” This is the thinking of the agric commissioner, who affirmed that banana is so profitable and that the state has everything for the business to grow. Some of these factors, he says, are the fact that the state has an international airport and two seaports for international trade.
The Amaechi administration is also reviving the state’s moribund oil palm estate, Risonpalm. Known to be the biggest of its kind in this part of the world, the investment went down the drain due to overbearing hands of previous administrations in the management of the estate. Now, under a PPP arrangement, the government plans to cultivate on a 16,000-hectare plantation, where one hectare is about 22 plots of land. The state has already entered into a 35-year lease agreement with foreign investors. Risonpalm now wears a new look because of the withdrawal of government from its management. According to Chinda, the governor’s refusal, against popular wish, to inject public funds into Risonpalm, located in his village, has turned out to be one of the best decisions ever taken by his administration. Said he: “That was one of the best decisions of the Amaechi administration. People were telling him to put money in Risonpalm because it is in his village. He said no because that is not the right way to go. The right way to go is to get investors.”
As part of its own effort to end importation of rice into the country, Rivers State government is reviving a rice farm project of about 10,000 hectares. This project started with the Rivers State government bringing land as its own equity in the business while the Niger Delta Development Commission, NDDC, and Transformation Agric-Tech, a company based in the UK, are bringing in part of the funding required. The farm took off and planting started. But shortly thereafter, some disagreements came up between the funding partners. However, that seems to have been resolved as the parties are once again back to the discussion table on the directive of the governor.
According to the state’s commissioner for agriculture, “History has it that the first cocoa we had in Nigeria came through Rivers State, that is Bonny. This and other factors have made the state to consider cocoa production as one of the possible areas of investment in the course of its agric revolution. The governor has, therefore, directed that an investment of about $115 million be made in the development of three agro-industrial villages. The three of them will be taking about 2,000 hectares of land. Each of them will have an industrial park at the centre. Each village is going to house 100 households. Rivers State government will build two-bedroom flats and each comes with two hectares of land behind it. So when a two-bedroom flat is allocated to a family, the person will now farm on these two hectares of land while living there. The people who are selected to be in those villages will have two means of income. One is the work they do within the commercial sector, which is either the farm or the centre. This is because they will also have their own plots where they will be helped and taught how to grow in a mechanised way.
Another groundbreaking programme is the Cassava Initiative of the state. It is a partnership of five organisations, involving Shell; Dutch Agricultural Development and Trading Company, DADTCO; an American organisation called IFDC, that works with primary farmers to improve their yield; and Stanbic IBTC. The purpose of that project is to transform cassava initiative by providing the means of processing it. Historically, the processing is known to be one of the challenges cassava has had and why it has not made entry into the international food chain. This will be achieved through the technology being introduced by DADTCO. The technology will also ensure that processing will be done on site and farmers can sell their tubers right in their farms and get cash for their efforts. In addition to that, the state government is planning to build a cassava factory at Afam. That factory is expected to produce about 50,000 tonnes of high quality cassava flour per annum. That creates a ready market for the federal government policy, which requires all the flourmills in the country to take 10 per cent of cassava flour into their production system. That requires 440,000 tonnes of cassava flour. No doubt, with all the agric initiatives of the Amaechi administration, Rivers State is not only on the path to food sufficiency, it is also a potential exporter of food and agric produce.