Why greenhouse farming may not be profitable in Nigeria, yet

Greenhouses have in recent times become a vogue in Nigeria, but how practical its usage will be in the country’s quest for food security as well as guaranteeing financial returns for farmers appears doubtful, at least presently.

When Emmanuel Ijewere, CEO, Best Foods Fresh Farms Limited started his tomato farm in Igbodu area of Epe in Lagos, he found the first harvest was very good (about five years ago). However, he told Agribusiness Insight in an interview that the second harvest was a disaster because “it was then we realised that most of the land in Southern Nigeria, because of the humidity have a preponderance of something called Nematodes.”

These Nematodes attack the roots of tomatoes. They allow the tomato to grow and flower but at the time of actually fruiting, it dies and withers off. Nematodes were a big deal and the cost of dealing with it was a real problem. The only solution was to get lime. At that time, Lagos state government was very kind, according to him, by selling lime to him and a few others at a subsidised price and this helped briefly.

He decided to adopt the Dutch system. Lagos does not have much land, and the little it has should be used optimally, he said. Taking a cue from the Dutch who built greenhouses, Ijewere started making enquiries about greenhouses and eventually got a company that was ready to partner with him to start out the greenhouse. Soon after the greenhouses were set up on his farm, problems set in. The quality of the greenhouses became a serious problem, he said.

Ijewere who is also vice president of the Nigeria Agribusiness Group (NABG) would later bring in some French and Dutch experts to look at his farm, and both groups gave independent assessments that the greenhouses (20 in all) will never be profitable. According to him, the size of the greenhouse was a problem, considering the kind of humidity in Nigeria. It was too low and the specification was wrong in terms of size. The material used is such that, it can work in a city but not in the bush or forest, as insects will penetrate it and then a farmer ends up looking for insecticides.

“You then ask yourself, why did I spend millions of naira to build a greenhouse and then use the same insecticide applied on the open field. It does not make sense, so it became a regret,” said Ijewere. “It is true that greenhouses are becoming more popular but I am yet to find people who are having profitable greenhouses.”

Last year, this reporter met Rutger Groot, chairman, East-West Seed Knowledge Transfer, and a member of the Supervisory Board EWS BV and asked a question, what can Nigeria learn from the Netherlands?

“First, don’t try to copy Holland,” he said, going further to explain there are lessons to be learnt, but there are also ways not to go. Putting this in context, he said, “The best example probably is greenhouse technology. Everybody loves it, it looks very nice, fancy and high tech but what you see in (I dare to say) 80 percent of greenhouses in West Africa, after five years, they are a mess.”

He said this is because, one needs to be a good farmer to manage them, they always have to be sealed, shoes and hands have to be cleaned as one goes in, (and generally) managing them very well. Secondly, with the temperature in Nigeria if a greenhouse is not cooled, “tomatoes are going to be cooked when they come off the plant. So you need to invest in cooling,” he said.

According to Groot, the whole price of the (greenhouse) setup is huge and those tomatoes are often grown for “five star resorts, top notch retail chains for the high class and fancy people who like organic, but hey, 99 percent of people in Nigeria buy their vegetables from fresh markets and they cannot pay for that kind of technology.”

While it is lovely to want a greenhouse, maybe as a benchmark for farmers that; this is where we could go someday, but if Nigeria wants to feed the country, and employ its rural people, just get the normal technologies going. Don’t try to overdo it, said Groot.

One reason often given for preference in using greenhouses for instance in tomato cultivation, has been to combat pests and diseases such as Tuta Absoluta. But just as Groot observed, “going to greenhouses to stop Tuta Absoulta is lovely but it won’t feed the country.”

With a demand of 2.2 million metric tonnes for tomato as contained in the 2016 Agriculture Promotion Policy, it would be quite evident that not all tomatoes in Nigeria can be grown in greenhouses. To feed Nigeria, as Groot observed would require hundreds of thousands of hectares cultivated for tomato and that cannot be done in greenhouses because of the cost. The tomatoes from such are going to be too expensive for (ordinary) people to buy.

“If using greenhouses is because of Tuta Absoluta then it will be cheaper to buy tomatoes from Holland,” he quipped.

Ijewere who was an evangelist of sort for adoption of greenhouses in Nigeria, however noted that even with all the difficulties personally encountered, “There is big hope”. He says a number of companies have been able to take care of those problems experienced on his farm. The question however remains, how profitable is greenhouse for the average farmer in Nigeria, and how scalable is it? The answer from interactions with Ijewere, Groot, and other experts, is less likely to be positive anytime soon. Beyond overdependence on technology, good farming skills and management appear to be a better bet in making a lot of difference.



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