April 18, 2019

Life after insurgency

Boko Haram

By Gambo Dori

I WAS in Maiduguri on a routine visit when by happenstance I watched on the local television a harvest of exotic tomatoes in a greenhouse farm in Njimtilo – a settlement just before Auno, the nearest major village to Maiduguri on the Damaturu road.

Boko Haram

Boko Haram insurgency

What struck me was both the size of the greenhouse as well as the tomatoes that were being harvested. The greenhouse farms I have so far seen, particularly those dotted in the suburbs of Abuja, were much smaller than the Njimtilo one and the size of the tomatoes harvested were the ones you only see in those highbrow outlets in Abuja and Lagos. I became curious.

My curiosity was further heightened when I realised that it was Borno State deputy governor, Usman Mamman Durkwa, who was leading the harvest. I wondered why I have never noticed the structures whenever I drove into Maiduguri.

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Probably, I missed seeing the imposing structures because they were adjacent to one of the last security checkpoints into Maiduguri and at that end of the stressful journey one was always eager to get over and done with it. One wouldn’t be in the best frame of mind to scan the bushes. Nevertheless, I resolved to pay a visit.

I found out that the greenhouse farm is actually the hub, the nucleus, of a number of related industries that had been in the works for quite some time. When I visited the first time I was privileged to be taken around by Ibrahim Ali, a Special Adviser of Borno State governor and coordinator of the entire project.

I have known Ibrahim Ali as a well-rounded public figure who had been a member of the House of Representatives in the Second Republic, and thereafter an elected chairman of Maiduguri Metropolitan Council, a Minister of State, Petroleum Resources and MD, Federal Housing Authority.

A US trained engineer, Ibrahim Ali has also been known to have a deep and abiding interest in agriculture. A few days later when I visited again it was Abatcha Jarawa, also an engineer, who was also involved in setting up the net house who took me around.

The Njimtilo green house, one of the largest in Africa under a retractable roof net house, covers an area estimated at over 5.3 hectares. When I was ushered into the greenhouse the first impression I had was how cool it was at that time when it was already about noon. The end of March temperature outside was already climbing up into three digits.

But I learnt that, that was the beauty of the retractable roof net house. It has a cooling effect on the grounds and crops cultivated under its canopy enjoy increased quality production. There were other crops under cultivation but it was the ripening, brilliantly reddish-coloured tomato fruits that caught attention under a translucent light. The tomato fruits were rampant on ridges after ridges, as far as one’s eyes could see. What a sight to behold! I was just wowed!

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Ali told me that the intention of setting up the greenhouse was to reposition the state through means of agriculture as part of the state government’s response to the destruction of the citizens means of livelihood by the Boko Haram terrorists. It is all part of the grand vision of Governor Kashim Shettima to use agriculture to fight poverty and end insurgency. Himself an agricultural economist and a banker, Shettima would rightly be viewed as one of the most experienced public servants in the state government having served as commissioner in the key ministries of finance, local government and education, before being elected as governor.

As soon as he became governor he went after his vision earnestly making wide consultations across the country among stakeholders in the agriculture sector. He humbly knocked on many doors to gather ideas on what to do. Audu Ogeh now Minister of Agriculture was his ally and Honorary Special Adviser and they collaborated on many of the interventions in agriculture to enhance farmer support services, encourage agricultural mechanisation, processing and farmer entrepreneurial skills. Governor Settima’s harrowing experience in administering a state besieged and traumatised by insurgents, probably underlines his empathy for the citizens and prepared him to harness all the resources of the state to give the greatest good to the greatest number in the state.

What is remarkable about the greenhouse is the range of industries in the hub that form a complete agriculture-based value chain. There is a paste and juice industry for tomatoes, mangoes, oranges and the like; a dehydration plant for onions, pepper and related vegetables; a garri processing plant; a corn chips and cake baking industry; and a bottled water industry. Other prominent industries include the solar panels industry and the PVC pipe factory.

The solar panel factory is said to be the largest in Africa and will annually be producing 40 megawatts worth of panels with a capacity of 300 watts each. The PVC pipe factory that is also set to take off will be producing all types of pipes, conduit, water hose and drips, and will target as its market the small and large-scale irrigation farmers, municipal water suppliers, boreholes drillers, etc. It is said that though there are a number of PVC pipes industries in the country, the one I saw in Njimtilo is the most comprehensive because as Ali explained, it is the only one operating six lines of production.

What is more remarkable about these industries is that they were bought directly from their manufacturers in transactions that cut off second and third party meddlesomeness. And as the factories arrived Maiduguri, it was the local engineers and technicians assembled from University of Maiduguri, Ramat Polytechnic and like institutions that successfully unpacked and set them for testing. I did not come across a single foreign technician in the premises.

I had the privilege to further confirm that when I went back a few days later to spend a whole day in the premises. That day the last of the factories – the juice extracting one – was in the process of being assembled for testing. I watched how Ali and his colleagues, Umar Zubairu and Chris Wakawa, all engineers, supervised the installation. Over endless cups of tea with the hot April winds swirling around us I kept probing them whenever I caught their attention on the present predicament of the project as well as its sustainability.

The only problem the project faced at that time was to do with supply of electricity. The whole project was still on generators which were expensive to maintain. This is despite the fact that the supply and distribution of electricity in Maiduguri and environs had improved tremendously. But they remain hopeful that in the next few days the project will hook on to the 133 KVA line for a more efficient and cheaper supply of electricity.

The other question that nags the mind is where does this range of massive investments go from here? It is evident that by the close involvement of local engineers and technicians some lessons had been learnt from the failures of many such enterprises established with the best of intentions. At least now the intricate know-how of all the industries is within the immediate grasp of the locals. But as I saw it, there is an immediate need to set up a formal structure to get the industries to the next level of their self-sustenance and their ultimate use to the community.

Other questions that beg for answers include the control of the industries and the farm itself. Will the government continue to run them or will it allow a partnership with the private sector or even completely withdraw and allow a full takeover by private hands? I guess Governor Shettima must be mulling over these nagging questions affecting this paramount legacy before handing over in the next few weeks. I am confident we will get the answers soon. Keep a date with this page.