• Thursday, September 28, 2023
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‘Farmers are yet to integrate into the school feeding program’

Deji Rotimi is the managing director of Hills Harvest Limited, partner to the Federal Government in its School Feeding Program. In this interview with JOSEPHINE OKOJIE, Rotimi talks about the Federal Government’s school feeding program and its impact on Nigeria’s economy.

Can you tell us about Hills Harvest Limited?

Hills Harvest Limited started out as a distribution and marketing company but now we are involved with the entire agric value chain development, basically creating a sustainable ecosystem for stakeholders in the sector for guaranteed investments. Our operation cuts across the entire value chain from advisory to private extension services. We are also working in conjunction with the Agricultural Development Programs (ADP) for effective marketing of farm produce.
Hills Harvest is also partner with the Federal Government in its school feeding programme and has engaged over 7000 farmers for the initiative. We are working closely with the Federal Ministry of Agriculture on the project but the operation is directly coordinated by the office of the Vice President in conjunction with the Federal Ministry of Health, Ministry of Agriculture, Ministry of Education and the various state governments. Our job is to coordinate the agricultural components of the programme alone with the Ministry of Agric. If you look at the school feeding programme, 80percent of it constitute agriculture. From the distribution to the food the children eat.

You have been involved in the food feeding program of the Federal Government. What is the state of the school feeding program now- that is an overview?

The target of the school feeding programme is to feed 24 million children across the country from primary one to three at N70 per child which is cumulative to 1.7 billion for 200 days when fully implemented.    The agricultural mandate for the initiative it is to create a guarantee market for farmers thereby increasing their livelihoods and also bring in other off-takers from the private sector. Currently, 15 states have been engaged and 10 of the states have started receiving money from the Federal Government since October last year. The reason why it is yet to be implemented across states is because there have to be readiness from the various states where the team from the ministry will go to coordinate and (validates) the schools in the state.
Currently, we are working on the modality to ensure that every state in the country come on board with in the next one year. We are also grouping farmers into cooperatives and ensuring that they get the required funding from the various funding schemes of the federal government. Within the next couple of weeks farmer’s registration will commence across states. If we have had two year of planning before implementation of the initiative, all the states would have come on board at once. The governments aim is to use the school feeding programme to attract out –of- school children to school, vaccinate them and give them nutritional meals to reduce stunting and malnutrition. Different states have different localised meals that must be nutritious for the children so that the children can have food that they are used to eating that must contain the five classes of food.

Why is the school feeding program yet to commence in some states?

All the states have been contacted so now it is the state governments that have to be proactive about it because it is the state that has authoritative control over the children in their states. Also, funds are not coming in as expected so if there are adequate funds coupled with states readiness, ideally within the next one year all states will be on board.

Kaduna State can no longer continue with the school feeding program. What is responsible for this?

Kaduna state government started the school feeding program themselves without the involvement of the Federal Government and the state was making use of their own model and resources. The state could no longer continue with the program when they ran out of funds, so they had to suspend the initiative. The Federal government has engaged the Kaduna State government and the program will resume in the state in the new term the children would be entering.

To what extent are local farmers benefitting from the school feeding program?

The cooks are giving 100 percent of the fund to go to the market to buy the food items and this does not allow for the opportunity for farmers to be integrated into the scheme. But now, there is a new model we are implementing to ensure that the farmers get a guaranteed contract before anything and the contract with be financially backed by the banks that once the farmers supply the produces they get paid immediately. The model is to have the farmers, the aggregators and the cooks. The agric team has not really been out there in the scheme. The fund itself is limited and without aggregation #and# there is no way the N70 per child will be sustainable. Prices of food items are going higher because of high prices of inputs like fertilisers, seeds and the likes owing to the scarcity of these products.

Food prices have been on the increase in the country, so it the N70 per child still sustainable?

The model was used first in Osun state two to three years before it became a national programme. Then the costs of food were cheaper compare to now. So the only way the N70 can be sustainable is when we engage farmers to buy at a direct guaranteed price because we cannot buy at a retail level.

What can be done to make the quality of the food for the program better?

There is food safety nutritional component to the school feeding program. Food safety protocols were developed along the menu to ensure that everything is being measured from the farms where the food is produced to where it is being distributed, warehoused and cooked. Ideally the full model where we are supposed to have traceability of food safety from the farm down to the warehouse and the kitchen where the food is supposed to be monitored is lacking in many of the state. In some of the states, there are no central kitchens, the cooks are currently cooking from their homes and ideally it is best to have a central kitchen. This requires other investments. We are currently working to get the private sector to invest in the aggregation of the services so that monitoring can be effective. The plan is to use international standard for traceability so that we meet the required standards that can also ensure that farmers can export their goods without fear of not meeting standard.  Right now there are protocols like the hand washing mechanism in the school where the children are taught to wash their hands. We don’t have everything in place yet but we are working towards it. Once the agric components comes into the program there is going to be a monitoring and evaluation team and also ensure that the process will be measured through technology. We are going to ensure that the process would be transparent so that we can get feedback from parents, the children themselves and even journalists.

What is the total amount spent so far on the scheme by the FG and total number of farmers engaged?

I can’t give figures on that because we are not on the disbursement team. On average each state hires between two to three thousand cooks. Ideally, when the agric component comes on board we are looking at 300,000 farmers’ minimum for each state. We want farmers to produce for the programme as well as other needs so that the private sector can off take the rest. We are also looking at making youth’s extension agents to the farmers.

How is the program supposed to impact the economy?

We are supposed to engage 15million farmers to produce food. Our target is to get at least 40 million tons of food to produced annually across different value chains continuously. #But now we started with 200 farmers per state.#(incorrect please delete )  We are only using the school feeding program as a platform where agro allied business can also be engaged. Everybody across the value chain will be engaged from those in the warehousing, ->delete->facilitators (aggregators), farmers’ trainers, tech experts and down to exporters as many that would want to be part of the imitative (initiative).

What is your experience so far of the school feeding program?

The government cannot do it alone they need the private sector to achieve sustainable results. The job of the government is to provide the platform and the ecosystem to regulate but when it comes to the business and practicality of things the private sector is needed. It takes a special skill from the private sector end to deal with the government because their process is very slow. For private sector, time is money, there has to be a hybrid in between  to ensure that the private sector and the government work together seamlessly to move things forward and a lot of patience is needed. In general the government wants to do things for its people, however, the relationship with the private sector is lacking, how to communicate to bridge the gap to drive the economy forward. Hills harvest has tried in this regard and we have been patient to ensure that things work out.