Nigeria has been consistently in policy somersaults — Alimi Bello

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By Omoh Gabriel, Business Editor,
Franklin Alli & Providence Obuh

In 20 days time, the 35th Kaduna International Trade Fair will hold in the state. Dr. Abdul Alimi Bello is the President of Kaduna Chamber of Commerce, Industry, Mines and Agriculture, the organiser of the yearly exhibitions. He spoke with Vanguard about the thrust of this year’s edition, their preparations so far and what is new for local and international exhibitor, among other issues. 
EXCERPT

CCCCWe are indeed very happy to receive you and your team.  As you are aware, Vanguard was established 30 years ago by the Chairman/ Publisher, Sam Amuka. Today, one million people read our paper everyday on the web and hard copy. So no platform gives your chamber a better exposure than Vanguard. What is the purpose of your visit today?

We want to thank you for the support you have been giving the chamber in all its activities, particularly during its annual international trade fairs. We want to request for such continuous cooperation especially now that the chamber is coming up with a number of issues with the aim of promoting the business environment of our great community.

The purpose of our coming here today is to inform you about the preparations for the 35th Kaduna International Trade Fair. The preparations have commenced; the fair is scheduled to start from February 21st to 2nd March 2014, at the usual venue -Kaduna International Trade and Investment Centre, Zaria Road, Rigachikun.

Our theme for this year is Agriculture Transformation For Industrial Development: Public-Private Partnership Approach.  This theme was chosen  by the Council of the chamber to reflect on the country’s over-dependence on oil as more or less the only source of revenue sustaining our economy despite enormous potentials available in other areas particularly agriculture.

“We try as much as possible to always choose a theme that relates to the current realities. Recall that the theme of last year’s fair (34th) was on combating security challenges.

In arriving at a choice of this year’s theme, we considered the expressed concerns and discussions on the country’s over-dependence on oil as more or less the only source of revenue sustaining our economy despite enormous potentials available in other areas particularly agriculture. It is therefore the position of the chamber that focus should shift to agriculture and industrialisation.

The opening ceremony for this year’s fair will be on Saturday, February 22nd in honour of our exhibitors.

Our presence in your office today is to request for your usual support and cooperation by giving the trade fair activities the much needed publicity both before and during the trade fair periods.

Editors, on behalf of my team and the chamber, I once again thank you for your time and I hope we are going to have a mutual and rewarding relationship. Thank you very much.

I am well acquainted with Kaduna International Trade Fair. I used to cover the trade fair when I was a finance reporter. What is new to me that I am not aware is the inclusion of quiz competitions for secondary schools. What is the essence of the quiz competition and  who is it targeted at?

You just said something about the future readers of your newspaper; that they are generations yet unborn. As a form of corporate social responsibility, what can the chamber do to create awareness among secondary school students in the 19 Northern states?

So the essence of the quiz competition is our social responsibility for the educational sector of the economy in these states. It is supposed to add value to the educational sector.

This year’s competition will be the fourth in the series.  We also have a one day seminar on the theme of the fair.  At the seminar, we are expecting General Theophilus  Y. Danjuma, retired; former minister of Defence, Prof Ango Abdullahi, former Vice-Chancellor of Ahmadu Bello University/ former Special Assistant to the President on Food and Security.

The event comes up on Monday February 24 at the conference Hall of the trade fair.  On Tuesday, 25th we intend to have interactive session with major stakeholders in the financial sector. It is scheduled to hold in the evening at Hamdala Hotel. Again, in the evening of March 2, there will be a farewell dinner in honour of our exhibitors.

Most of the products at our intentional trade fairs are imported, why are you not using the platform to promote our domestic products?

I am happy the Chairman, Organising Committee, Alhaji Awwalu Makarfi, is here. He shall respond to that question. He has been in contact with so many manufacturers locally and outside the country.

He has been working round the clock and I would like him to add a word. To a very large extent, you and I and other persons know the situation of the economy.

Generally, our market is flooded with foreign products and what you see at the trade fairs is a reflection of the economy.

Many people think trade fairs are platform to buy and sell. This is very wrong. In reality, a trade fair is a forum where ideas are exchanged; it is a place where you explore investment opportunities that are available in a country; it gives you information about what is available here and there.

The chamber serves as bridge between our members, the government, manufacturers in Nigeria as well as those that are coming from outside the country.  So, we are yet to be where we should be.

A lot of the time, people see the trade fair as a place to display and sell items. We allow that to happen now because it adds glamour to the fair. If this feature is not there, people are not likely to come. So, your observation is very right. It is a reflection of our society.

What value will your trade fair this year add to the economy?

As you could see from the theme we have chosen this year, Agriculture Transformation for Industrial Development, it was deliberate because last year, for instance, the theme was combating security challenges because last year, we were at the height of security challenges particularly the Boko Haram issue and it is our duty to look at the situation on ground and formulate the theme along that line to reflect the reality on ground. Having attained reasonable peace, what Nigerians are concerned about today is to go to farm. Generally in Kaduna and even in Maiduguri, Adamawa and Yobe before this time, the situation has been more or less normal for now.

A year ago, the situation was so bad that we postponed the fair. This year, we have not had security issues. When you are bringing local and international people to attend your fair, you have to do everything possible to protect their lives and property.

Coming back to the issue of the theme, there has been a lot of discussions on Federal Government’s Agric Transformation Agenda. Nigeria basically is an agricultural society. We have the land which is fertile and we have the population. And in almost each state in the country, there is one resource or the other that can grow very well and meet the demand of local consumption and even exporting it to other countries.

There is no doubt about it. Every state has agric potentials. And now that there have been so much discussion on the agric issue, we feel that we have to go beyond these discussions by motivating Nigerians to go back to agriculture. We believe if agriculture is given due attention and you have mass production through commercial farming, I can tell you this country will be better. I can tell you even if you want to export; it is not everything you export.

That is why we feel if agriculture is transformed, it will lead to industrialisation. Kano and Kaduna are where a lot of tomatoes are produced. But these are perishable items and they need very few days to move them to the market.

Now that we don’t have railway, they take them in vehicles to the market and by the time they get to places like Lagos, half of the tomatoes would have spoilt. This is because we do not have means of processing them in Kano and Kaduna.

We believe if we have to achieve agric transformation, we have to collaborate. Government has to collaborate with farmers and other stakeholders and look at how we can get a better result, particularly on the issues of production- how do you process what we produce? We all have the responsibility to move Nigeria forward.

Sometime in the past, multinationals like UAC were the first to go back into agriculture with a view to backward integration.

I was part of the team that set up UAC farm. At that time, the manufacturing sector was competing in the open market. The then government asked what we can do to encourage the manufacturers.  UAC had their farm in Kaduna State; Nestle in Niger and Nigeria Breweries. This led government to grant multinationals single digit loan to encourage them. You asked what happened.

By the time the Federal Government established the commercial agricultural credit guarantee scheme, I asked the Minister of Agriculture what his focus is.

He said the large scale farmers will access loan at single digit – but have we sat down to find out what affected the multinationals – why did all of them abandon their farms? What happened? This is deliberate.

When I was farming in UAC Farm, despite our serious mechanization and investment, what we could get was three to four tons of maize per hectare but when we travelled to South Africa, a single farmer harvests 10 to 12  tons of maize per hectare, while we were struggling to harvest four tons and we are a member of World Trade Organisation (WTO).

Why are we not getting 10-12 tons of maize per hectare? This is an example of areas where we need to pay attention to, and be able to move forward. What is happening is a disease-reliance on a mono-economy.

How far are you collaborating with the Agric Minister, Dr. Adewunmi  Adesina?

Well, I had a one-on- one discussion with him and I said to him – ‘I hope and I pray you would be able to take the Transformation Agenda to a peak of no return.’ This is because our country has been consistently inconsistent in policy summersaults.

Do you understand what I mean? If you stand for 5 to 10 minutes with Dr. Adesina, you will be convinced he has what it takes to transform this sector. I participated in some of his agenda and I am waiting for stakeholders’ meeting. Each time we write him, he gave us audience.

In fact, what we have done in Kaduna Chamber is not only to carry out annual international trade fair, we have introduced some other things so that we are engaged in activities all round the year.

Agriculture fairs is another thing we will be doing. We shall invite you when it kicks off in the year. The minister is even looking forward to the actualisation of such fairs.

I was in the southern part of Brazil recently. If you could recall, Brazil was one of the worst nations – their monetary policy, everything was bad. They used to be the highest debtor to the IMF. But now, Brazil has a very strong economy. They are even creditor to IMF now. They borrow IMF money.

The farmer I slept in his house has an abattoir. On an average, he slaughters not less than 1000 heads of cattle a day. Do you think we cannot do it? We are coming to that one day.

There are so many things we need to do. Whether we like it or not, we will be forced to go back to the farm and I kept on saying one thing – God has given us abundant land. There are just one or two things to do if only we put the interests of the nation first above our personal interest.  It is not that we can’t do it.  

Do you still farm?

Yes, of course but not commercial farming. I manufacture things that are agric-related. I manufacture animal feeds.

What is your position on the current fertilizer policy?

On a serious note, we have policies that are never consistent. Let me tell you a typical example of what happened when we started UAC Farm. It was 5,000 hectares of land. In fact, fertilizerr applications were done by aircraft.  What happened that time was that government controlled fertiliser.

You pay your money in advance and when it comes to the time for planting, they give you the fertilser. Either you go and collect it from Minna or Port Harcourt or any destination which government controls.

We paid around November /December against coming planting season. Did you know we did not get the fertilizer -meanwhile we had spent a lot of money on land preparations? We had spent millions of naira and above waiting for fertiliser . We couldn’t afford to fail to farm that year.

That is what we call window planting. There is a particular hectare you must cover for you to break even.

If you invest, say, N5 million, you must be able to cover 2000 hectares and if you don’t and there is a period between which you must do your planting because rain in the north comes at a particular time.

If you plant maize, it requires 140 days of consistent rain but if the rain stopped at a particular period in the year and the maize didn’t get enough water, you are in trouble. Count yourself as a loser-you have lost money.That is why the present Minister of Agriculture took away fertilizer distribution from the government to the private sector.

Another thing you want to ask yourself is the level of nutrients in the soil.   From our social study or Integrated Science, if you plant something here in Lagos or at Iseyin, it can grow but it requires a particular nutrient for it to grow well.

Soil has nutrients but not all soils have complete nutrient. That is why you have to find out which nutrient the soil is lacking and then you add fertilizer.  But how many of us take time to find out which nutrient is deficient in a particular soil, and what quantity is needed?

Not only that, the fund that government said they are making available to farmers – are they really available? They make the loans condition so difficult for farmers to access.

These are things we want to look at and that is why we are organising the seminar; we want a situation whereby the next agric minister continues from where Adewunmi stops and not to

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