Shonga Farms Holdings: A Peep Into The Works Of Nigeria's Zimbabwean Farmers

Date: 2013-12-25

WHEN at the middle of the year 2004 the then government of Dr. Bukola Saraki of Kwara State proposed the move to establish a commercial farm settlement at Shonga in Edu Local Government Area (LGA) of the state, many people had initially been apathetic to the move. But when Saraki decided to accommodate the 13 Zimbabwean farmers, the government had the burden of explaining to Kwaran citizens, particularly natives of Shonga what the novel idea was all about and how it intended to implement the commercial farm projects.   

  The development could not be divorced from the experiences of citizens in oil exploration belts of Nigeria, where natives of the zones are reduced to paupers on their land due to pollution of their lands, thus making farming and other commercial activities cumbersome to carry out.

 Therefore, members of the opposition party in the state led by Akogun of Isin Land, chief Iyiola Oyedepo had condemned the project describing it as a White Elephant Project destined to fail even before its implementation.  Oyedepo, a former principal officer at the state’s House of Assembly added that the project was a siphoning pipe aimed at putting the economy of the state in jeopardy. In the same vein, former Publicity Secretary of the All Nigerian People’s Party (ANPP) in the state, AbdulRahoof Bello was of the opinion that the initiative was like teaching his grandmother “how to suck breast.”

  Promptly, the Shonga natives and indeed the people of Edu LGA, mainly of the Nupe stock, were mobilised to scuttle the project via sending a signal to them of the state’s government alleged intention to revoke their ancestral land under the guise of commercial farming. As momentum gathered for what could have been a battle between the natives and the perceived encroachers of the land, the highly revered traditional ruler of the nucleated community, Emir of Songa, Dr. Halliru Yahaya, had to intervene, assuring his people of government’s good intention over their ancestral land.  Yahaya, a prominent medical doctor thus calmed the frayed nerves and today the people can make a choice between the Biblical counting of one’s blessings and losses.

  Today, the critics appear to have understood how wrong they were, regarding the project they initially mistook for a state property. It has suddenly become a Public/private endeavour under the new name, Shonga Farms Holdings, (SFH) Ltd. 

 According to the chairman Shonga Farms Holding Ltd, Mr. Tope Daramola, in a chat with The Guardian in Ilorin, it would be more appropriate to christen the farm, a private organisation. Daramola said SFH is a private organisation owned by six institutional investors. These include five banks with each holding 15 percent shares while the Kwara State Government owns 25 per cent.

  He listed the banks thus: Guarantee Trust Bank (GTB), First City Monumental Bank (FCMB), Unity Bank, Keystone Bank and Access Bank through Legacy Intercontinental Bank.  He added that there were no private individuals holding a single share in the SFH.

Daramola went the memory lane; “the foundation of the farm was laid during the era of Dr Bukola Saraki as the Governor of Kwara state, when he made overtures to 13 displaced farmers from Zimbabwe for investment in Nigeria. The state government then acquired 14 hectares of land with additional 1,000 hectares as demonstration farm. Each of the 13 farmers was allocated 1,000 hectares under distinct and separate companies duly registered in Nigeria. SFH subsequently acquired 60 per cent of the shares of these individual farmers’ institutional investors.

  “A total sum of N2.5 Billion was raised for this initiative and was applied for the development, especially opening up of barren lands, cultivation, working capital, acquisition of plants and machinery, private residence and warehouse among others. We are at present structured along three major syndicates, which are Poultry Syndicate, Diary Syndicate and Mixed Crop Syndicate.”

  When The Guardian visited the Poultry section of the farm, it was devoid of the offensive odour, a common feature with local poultry farms. The drainage system is such that no faeces of the birds can be retained.  Besides, the space between one bird and the other allows comfort and free ventilation.

  For Daramola, while conducting The Guardian around the Poultry section, “at present, we have four farmers in the poultry. The poultry has a total capacity to raise 160,000 birds on weekly basis. It has a fully automated modern abattoir to dress 5,000 birds daily. The entire farm up to production is all fully integrated both back and forward. The farmers produce feeds for the birds on the farm. The farmers grow both the soya beans and maize required for the production of the feeds. We also procure from the local farmers in the event of any short fall. With this, we have enhanced quality of lives and contribute to the reduction of poverty in the community as this means an indirect empowerment programme for the people.”

  At this era of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR), the SFH boss said the farm gives back to the hosting community what it had given to the agricultural business in terms of patronage of local marketers and employment opportunities to the local population. According to him, “on annual basis, we purchase a minimum of 520 million tons of grains from the local market. Besides, we provide direct employment for between 1,800 to 2,500 populations of the villagers at the peak of farming season at Shonga. The local farmers equally benefit from the methods of modern farming, especially in cassava planting. The cassava hectarage among the local farmers have remarkably increased due to the assurance of readymade market for them.  At present, we are holding the national record of production of highest tons of quality cassava in Nigeria. 

 “The farm has been used by the Federal Government as demonstration farm not only to grow high quality cassava stems but also used as a training ground for local farmers for high quality cassava production. The success of the group has attracted multinational companies to source their cassava requirement from Kwara State, while some of them are even making direct investment on cassava within the state. It is on record that Songa Farm is the first Nigerian company to have successfully exported high quality Cassava chips to China and Israel. Nigeria Starch Mill in Anambra State and Thia Farm and subsidiary of Nigeria Flour Mills are at present sourcing their Cassava needs from Shonga.”

  At the dairy section of the SFH, are four farmers with combined cattle herds of about 2,000. These cattle are tagged New Jersey Breed. These cows are specially bred for milk production in high quantity. For now the dairy produces fresh milk from which Yogurts are made. It supplies fresh milk to WAMCO and NUTRICIMA, a subsidiary of PZ under an off taker’s agreement. In essence, anyone who had taken a sip of any of the products had indirectly taken a sip from Shonga products. 

  Like the poultry syndicate, the spillage required to feed the cattle are grown on the farm and properly preserved throughout the year.

Giving a holistic view of the farm experiment, Dr Mueeden Akorede, special assistant on media to Governor Abdulfatah Ahmed described it as a huge success and a pride to kwarans and Nigeria as a country. Akorede said; “over all, the farm has not only become a success story but a reference point internationally. Ambassadors of such great nations as the United Kingdom and United States had at one time or the other visited the farm.  They were both impressed with the level of investment, resources, commitment, courage and professionalism. In total, the farm provides over 4,000 employment at peak periods. Besides, it has substantially improved the farming techniques of our people, I mean the local community.”

  Already, the Dairy syndicate of the farm has begun experimentation of Jersey breed crossing with local Fulani cattle. The aim is to increase the milk yield. Besides, it will boost the disease resistance syndrome common with the local breed and increase both the productivity capacity of the local herdsmen and their earning competence. 

  For the Emir of Shonga, the location of the farm at his domain and during his reign deserves praises to God. “We are happy, our people are grateful and we thank God for making the dream a reality here at Songa.”

  Ibrahim Makun, a native of Shonga said, “since I started working at the dairy, I have good health because of the opportunity to collect salaries on monthly basis. Now, I can send my children to school without much problem. I can take good care of their health challenges whenever such arise. Initially, we didn’t want the farm here because we felt the government was coming to take away our ancestral land. But when our Emir assured us of the good intention of the government, we listened to him and today we are singing a good song.”

  For Naomi Kolo, her days would not be complete without first picking eggs at the poultry. Kolo added; “the job is not like what I was doing before in terms of physical exertion. On this new job, I have great relief, yet I earn more money. Honestly, there are some things we also enjoy here outside our salaries, so the farm is a blessing to our generation.”

  Speaking on the challenges facing the farm, Daramola said, “these challenges start from the problem of low quality imput in such areas as seeds, fertilizers and herbicides. For example, seeds in Nigeria are produced under open pollination. Therefore, you can’t get pure and determinable yields and cross-pollination from other seeds also. We have had incidences where fertilizers especially the NPK add less than 20 per cent value and completely compromised our crops for that season. The issue of herbicides is such that we have some weeds that are resistant to the herbicides being produced. This has increased cost and also reduced the yields.

“Another challenge is the issue of getting the appropriate funding structure for commercial farming business in Nigeria. Whereas funds available in Nigerian banking system are largely short term, farming businesses are long term in structure. So, most of the funds we were able to assess in Nigerian banking industry were all short term and were not even sufficient. This is my own personal view now. For a developing economy like Nigeria, a more pragmatic re allocation of our Capital Stock Funds must be urgently embarked upon.  We must have policies that will direct funding to critical, key and employment generating sector of our economy, so that rather than funding consumption, we can fund production like agricultural sector. 

“We also need to embark on policy redirection that will compel companies importing their raw materials to use some local contents. These may include direct investment or partnership with local producers of such raw materials. The continuous existence of SFH was possible because of the government. Government has not only sustained the vision, but has tremendously improved on it by taking the project to the next level. We need concerted efforts to develop the critical sector of this commercial farming business, such as investments in laboratory research, like soil fertilizers and soil quality among others; that way, the bedrock of this sector can be improved upon.” 

  The management of the SFH, especially the crop syndicate would have preferred an all-year- round planting, but for the dearth of water.   According to Daramola; “up to date we have not received any support on irrigation, which is the heart of any commercial agriculture despite assurances from the Federal Government. We have the need of about N5 Billion to put this in place.  I think we should start paying diligent attention to the issue of farming, which is the largest component of our GDP and employment sector.

“We have been relying on rainfall, which is susceptible to weather variability; by extension this has impacted negatively on our productivity. We have the potentials to do three circles in a year, but we are able to do only one, which is not too good for business concerns.

  On whether there have been cases of youth restiveness against the SFH, Daramola said the cordial relationship between the owners of the farm and the host community was second to none. According to Daramola, “we have not had any incidence of restiveness due to mutually beneficial relation between us and the community. This smooth and cordial relationship has resulted in increases in houses, replacement of thatch roof with corrugated iron sheets and exponential increases in numbers of cars, motor cycles and bicycles among the members of the community.”

  He spoke of the Emir of Shonga thus: “he is our father, the pivot of the project and our stabilizing factor within the operating environment. Any suspected or strange movement around or within the farm or theft is reported to him and he promptly deals with it. He is indeed a very principled and cooperating monarch.” 

  At Shonga farm, the state government has given adequate security needs to it. Besides, the management of the farm in conjunction with the members of the host community has set up a strong security network around the farm.         Generally, the relative peace in the state has greatly assisted in the running of the SFH.

  Allen Jack, the leader of the expatriate farmers said each of the farmers remains the managing director and the chief executive of his company. Jack added that they run the companies professionally without undue interference from the holding company or government. He said; “We have completely avoided the issue of politics. The SFH surpasses politics. Ahmed, a former banker had never dealt with us on political angle. He deals with us purely on professional grounds.”

  The produce from Shonga may not have widely spread among the people of the state as expected, but the commercial nature of the project, which requires good marketing strategies and profits to keep it alive, may be partly responsible for it. The SFH experience seems remarkable and shows that when the will is there, things can work in Nigeria. But kudos must be given to the Emir of Shonga and his people for mounting effective campaigns that have seen the farms growing steadily.

 It Is An Exercise In Futility, Bankruptcy – OYEDEPO   

    IN spite of claims of successes by stakeholders in Shonga Farms, Chief Iyiola Oyedepo described the project as a complete failure, citing its alleged non profitability, failure to train the youth in modern ways of agriculture and alleged renege by the owners, on the clause in the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU), promising remittance to the local community of one percent of the total annual profits made on the project.  

  Oyedepo in a chat with The Guardian in Ilorin said recent developments on the project has confirmed his initial fears that it would be an exercise in futility adding that it is Kwara State that is still sponsoring the project due to its alleged failure to churn in the required profits.

  He said; “the project is nothing to write home about. I was there few days ago. In fact, it appears as if they are no longer producing. The cash flow on it is gone. It has added no value to the youth who may be interested in farming and this was one of the reasons given at the inception. It is drawing a lot of resources from the coffer of the state government, as it could no longer finance itself. The government is the one bankrolling it now; it should not be emulated by any other state.

  “The members of the Shonga community are employed as labourers on the farm by the Whites. I know all these because I am very close to the community. As a legal practitioner I am representing them on a matter at present. Again, the Memorandum of Understanding between the project owners and the community states that it will be giving to the community one percent of the total profit made on the project annually. But now that the project can’t make profit what will it give as percentage to the community?”

  He added, “we have two examples of how commercial farm is run in Kwara State but that of Shonga is not nearing it at all. See the farm of former Inspector General of Police (Chief Sunday Adewusi) along Ilorin/Ogbomoso Old Road and that of the former Chief of Naval Staff, Samuel Folayan at Obbo, (Ekiti Local Government Area of Kwara state). These two farms are good examples of commercial farm ventures with good profit.”

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