Entrepreneurs sidestep uncertainty to redefine farming in Plateau state
In recent weeks, Jos, the Plateau State capital, has been in the news over some killings that took place, and even 950 kilometres away in Lagos, one only needs to follow events to feel the tension.
Apart from insecurity, which is now a national concern, off-taking agricultural goods remain a big deal and especially at risk are perishables like vegetables and fruits.
Just as they can fetch a premium, especially in off-season, they are also easily lost and the millions a farmer should get could easily turn into zero, and possibly debt.
Some farmers are however investing more in producing these crops, not only them, but exotic fruits, some of which, are being exported.
Jos is known for its peculiar weather in Nigeria, but actually, much of Plateau State benefits from the unique combination of climate, topography and elevated hills.
“The climate in Jos is a bit comparable to a temperate climate,” says Marie Ekhator, an Austrian who runs Mama-Itohan RegenSoil, who BusinessDay met while in Jos. “That is why I decided to try seeds from my own climate,” she said.
One of such is monk cress, an edible flower that was growing in a trial bed along with other vegetables being experimented in a home garden.
She brings different varieties to Nigeria to find out which one will do well, so that she can plan for proper propagation.
But before Ekhator, people in Jos had already figured out there was something special about their environment and it could support crops not indigenous to Nigeria.
Even though its particularly cool weather may have been described as conducive for growing ‘exotic crops,’ farming in the state, like much of Nigeria, has historically been subsistence based.
In recent years, a crop of new, mostly young entrepreneurs, is not only riding on the wave of unique crops their environment puts them at an advantage to produce.
They are making money from crops produced under regulated conditions and in seasons where most farmers in Nigeria would not be producing; these are especially vegetables from tomatoes, to bell pepper, which is their new cash crop.
Fruits like grapes, pomegranates, strawberries, mulberries, gooseberries and a half dozen other types of berries, some of which was seeing for the first time, are being grown under regulated conditions.
“Jos has comparative advantage in the sense that it is not the only one that can produce but it produces better,” notes Nanpan Guyit, a trained economist who has found the agricultural economy more appealing.
Paul Weng, who prefers to introduce himself as a gardener, while giving a tour of his farm (and home), points at three mulberry trees by the fence of his 10-plot property located a few meters from the National Institute for Policy and Strategic Studies, Kuru.
Those trees, he states, fetched him N450,000 in 2019, and this year, he has 32 being grown in a greenhouse nursery, to further cash in.
In another part of the compound, he covers another tree with a net – from top to bottom.
One may mistake it for one growing actual money, but for him, it could literally be so.
The tree is covered from birds, who like another farmer, says are their main competitors.
He is one of thousands of educated farmers who have sought knowledge, applied it along with their passion for agriculture, and are making money on few plots of land, more than even those using many times bigger expanses.
His sale of mulberries two years ago was between N1200/1500 per kg, but currently sells for N2000/2500 per kg.
Without expanding his land under cultivation, he is going to increase revenue by up to 20 times.
Just from one crop that serves a rather niche market.
While two years ago, BusinessDay reported that greenhouse farming may not yet be profitable in Nigeria based on some experiences in the South, but the revelation in Jos is a completely different reality.
From improvised greenhouses made of wooden frames, to the proper galvanised steel types, the white structures dot many parts of the state, and no single farmer interviewed had anything short of good news to report.
They may have had unpleasant experiences with management, but they reported profits, not loss.
“The difference (in revenue) does justify the investment. Truth be told, a lot of farmers are starting to invest in farming this season,” says Guyit, whose first time in farming 13 years ago was a near disaster.
Usually, farmers avoid producing certain crops, especially vegetables in the rainy season, when managing the farm and crops, pests are hard to contain, unless of course, for those who own greenhouses.
They are the ones who can produce and sell when there is scarcity, along with the very few who brave the odds of open field production in the rainy season.
“Things like broccoli, beef tomatoes, bell peppers can be produced off season and they will be very expensive. After growing them in greenhouses, the demand is usually very high from all over the country,” emphasises Guyit. As he explains, in recent years, and the whole agric consciousness, more educated and middle-class people have started to go into agriculture, and they are able to afford investments like the greenhouses and irrigation systems.
One of such new entrants would be Wiebe Boer, whose LinkedIn post on going into farming in Plateau State generated some buzz on LinkedIn.
To most people, it was strange seeing an ‘Oyinbo’ who has worked in Oil and Gas, and currently with an off-grid power company, venturing into agriculture.
However, he said, “First, it’s in my blood. My ancestors were farmers, and my surname ‘Boer’ means farmer. But, more importantly, because it’s the best way to create jobs and economic opportunity in rural Nigeria.
“The land is one of Nigeria’s greatest assets and a lot more people need to invest in agriculture to unlock the value for the investor, the farmers, and the nation.”
A story on emerging opportunities in the Jos landscape will be incomplete without Bell peppers, dubbed by many as the new cash crop. Off-season, it sells at the farms for N700 per kg, at most, N1000 per kg.
It sells between N1500 and N2000 per kg from the farms. In the big supermarkets in places like Lagos and Abuja, similar quantities could sell five times more.
The Bell pepper is called an indeterminate plant, which means it grows non-stop, for as tall as 2 meters, and can be harvested for up to 18 months, depending on how one takes care of the crop. In a 300 to 400 square meters greenhouse, one could harvest an average of 200 kilograms per week and 800 kilograms every month.
At N1,500 per kg comes to about N1.2 million per month from one green house, and that is one crop.
Having 10 of such greenhouses on just one hectare of land could be netting N12 million monthly.
While none of the farmers on this trip had up to 10 greenhouses, one had six greenhouses, and many easily made this much money from bell peppers and other crops on their farms, which curiously, are not large but capital intensive due to the greenhouses.
They all also hardly expressed the need to get more land, as it turned out; productivity has little to do with expanse of land covered with crops.
A strawberry community in Jos, where that is what the whole community does.
In a place called Chaha along Vom Road, Guyit, had in fact, showed a parcel of land he was growing strawberries this year, for someone who is to export them to other African countries.
At the time of visiting Jos in July, not many fruits were available to see, as most farms had just replanted in anticipation of the end of the rainy season.
By the end of the year, harvests would start, peaking between January and February of the next year, and then it finishes by April when the rain starts because strawberries do not like rain.