I ran into trouble on my multi-million Naira farm in Nigeria after quitting mortuary job in the US – Oyekoya
By Ebun Sessou
Prince Wale Oyekoya, Chairman, Nigerian Chamber of Commerce and Industry on Agriculture and General Managing Director, Bama Group of Companies, had his education in Nigeria and the United States. Presiding over an enterprise worth hundreds of millions of Naira today, Oyekoya speaks on how it all started with an investment worth N100, 000 in farming.
In the United States, I did all kinds of odd jobs to sustain myself. I worked in some restaurants. I also worked as security guard and mortuary attendant. While working, I was also studying at the University of Alabama. After finishing at the University of Alabama, I moved to New York with my family. In New York, I secured a job as a social worker. But I did not find fulfilment in being an employee. I quit. I then worked in the agricultural sector of the cooperative society in New York City.
I did a research on community farming and found out that communities could feed themselves without necessarily going to the market. From community farming, I narrowed it to family farming which is an avenue for families to feed themselves so as to reduce the pressure of buying food. Once the nuclear family is fed, there will be excess in the store to sell to other people in the community. The only way agriculture can move forward is through family farming. When I came back to Nigeria in 2004, I felt the need to replicate what I was doing in New York City in Nigeria so as to alleviate the problem of feeding. I joined the Nigerian Chamber of Commerce and Industry and I was appointed as the Chairman of Agriculture. Today, young people are not ready to struggle but want to live extravagantly. They do not believe that hard-work pays.
Tell us how the journey has been since you came to Nigeria…
In the beginning, I was into oil and gas. There were times I slept on the road for three days in the course of doing the job. It was strenuous but I was determined. Eventually I quit the business and went into Real Estate. Yet, I was not satisfied. I wanted to impact on the people directly. Then the thought of being a farmer became a burden on my mind. The journey into farming started in Epe. The then Speaker of Lagos State House of Assembly was to hold his 100 days in office with a retreat in Epe, so I followed some friends to the event. I saw the atmospheric condition of Epe land and I was attracted by it. Then I gave it a thought to start farming in that area. I started with about 100 acres of land. I was leasing part of the land to other farmers. From leasing, I moved to outright sale of the land to other farmers and we formed a farmers’ cooperative society. People, including retired colonels, medical doctors, retired generals, lawyers, showed interest and we formed what we called “Corporate Farmers Forum”.
Anyone who came in as a member of the association was mandated to have nothing less than five acres of land because the forum was not for just any farmer. I started with fisheries and, later, I constructed earth pond’ fisheries which is the natural habitat for fish. Surprisingly, lots of people developed interest in farming business. I later progressed to poultry, piggery and then crop farming. I was determined to make it an integrated farming. This was what I learnt from Alabama. It was on this premise that people started visiting the farm and it became an interesting site for students. People wondered how it was possible for me to come from the United States and become a farmer in Nigeria. When I approached the Lagos government on my plans during Mr.
Babatunde Fashola’s regime, I was told that the project was too much to handle and so I realized I was on my own. When my efforts were fruitless with the federal and state governments, I approached a bank and I was given a loan of N100million. I was leasing land for N100, 000 and when the bank valued the farmland, the worth and its produce was N850million. Although, I requested for 250million loan, I was given N100million with the hope that once it developed, they would release the remaining N150million to me. Nigeria’s government is killing farming business. Government is not ready to help farmers to survive. How many farmers have N350 million assets on their farms? And it will shock you to know that the Lagos government threatened me to leave my farmland because it saw the prospects. That is another problem that farmers face. Today, it is herdsmen; tomorrow it is government’s policy that is not favourable.
What happened when you were asked to quit your farmland?
I was idle for two years fighting the state government and you know it was not easy to fight government. But the media came to my rescue. It was a terrible experience but thank God compensation came and money was released. But I was short-changed and I wrote a petition to Governor Akinwunmi Ambode who said he will look into it. My point is that before agriculture could be really successful in this country, government needs to be serious. I have a story to tell because the money I got as compensation was what I invested in my real estate business.
So, you don’t have a farm anymore?
It is in process. We were assured by Lagos State Commissioner for Agriculture and his Permanent Secretary that a letter of allocation will be given to us. Instead of being idle, I ventured into consultancy and, today, I have farmers who have benefited.
What was your total start-up value?
I started with N100, 000. I employed the services of people who helped me to dig five ponds. I brought fingerlings and also was training farmers on fisheries as well as leasing land to farmers. Lots of professionals came on board. In the long run, the business was successful. Some friends gave me contracts to buy land for them and I invested the commission on my farmland.
Was there a time you regretted any of your actions?
To be very honest with you, I was determined to subdue all the challenges. As a winner, I was trained not to lose a battle. There was a time I lost 3,000 chickens to stampeding. At that time, a chicken was sold for N600 which means I lost N1.8m. The challenge of fund was evidently unaffordable. No commercial bank was willing to give loan and that is why I say, Nigerian banks are among those who parade themselves as enemies of the Nigerian economy.
Another challenge is infrastructure. Nigeria roads are bad. There is no light, no storage facilities. This explains why farmers’ produce perish. We have come to the level where farmers now plant what they can easily sell without going through stress immediately they are harvested.
Tell us your experience as mortuary attendant?
I enjoyed being a mortuary attendant. I was using the salary to pay my house rent, tuition fees among other bills. America is not like Nigeria where you meet people for help. Mortuary is an interesting place because it is abode of the dead. It is peaceful. You do not need to talk with them to the extent of being provoked. All I had to do was to watch over them. At some point, I thought of building a befitting cemetery where people can keep their dead. I did my job with passion and seriousness because I knew someone was waiting for the job if I was serious with it. You do not joke with your job and time over there and that is one thing that has help reshaped myself. There were times I was doing three jobs in a day just to meet up with demands. It was a nice experience that built me up to whom I am today. There is no job I cannot do except stealing. I faced tough times being a mortuary attendant. I was shot at on seven different occasions, so I believe it is a life time experience. It is really an interesting job that really met all my needs.
What is family farming all about?
Family farming is a United Nations initiative. It is practised all over the world except Nigeria where it is not appreciated. And that is why I am doing my best to bring it to limelight. Lots of people have keyed into the initiative. Family farming should be embraced. Back in the United Kingdom, there was a place called “Flea Market”. It is type of bazaar that rents or provides space to people who want to sell or barter merchandise. Used goods, cheap items, collectibles, and antiques are commonly sold. Many markets offer fresh produce or baked goods, plants from local farms and vintage clothes. I believe food should not be our problem in Nigeria.
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