Jinmi Ajayi is an Agribusiness Practitioner and founder of Vds Farms. In this interview with Daniel Obi, he assesses the agricbusiness and the possible impact of coronavirus on the industry. He advises that Nigeria must at all cost avoid a major spread considering our current realities.
The world has been thrown into panic over coronavirus. Are you satisfied with government responses to contain it?
There is uncertainty at the moment. It is necessary for people to act responsibly and not panic and follow the WHO guidelines on how to reduce and halt the spread of Coronavirus. I believe the government is doing its best. On the state level, we see a lot of activities going on with tracking of returnees who have shared flights with those that tested positive. We need to further sensitise the populace and it is a good call by the Lagos State Government to ban gathering of more than 20 persons. In my opinion, a temporary broader restriction should follow soon to nip it in the bud considering our fragile facilities. We must at all cost avoid increased community spread. It’s quite disheartening to see even those who should know better focusing only on those traveling back into the country when we all should be practicing social distancing. These returnees seem to be more aware of the dangers of coronavirus spreading at an exponential rate.
What are your fears if the cases of coronavirus increase in Nigeria?
It’s uncertain how our MSMEs and SMEs will withstand this trying period. These cadres rely on daily or regular cashflow to manage to stay afloat. A number of businesses will fold up while some will adopt innovative strategies to stay afloat including online platforms. It will be interesting if we fail to learn from this when Covid-19 eventually clears. Praying is good but I also believe we possess what we need to be creative so we must get to work to combat a nationwide spread. We must at all levels develop bio-safety facilities to provide effective and rapid response that will at least stabilise patients before necessary transfer if needed. Mind you, the health and safety of healthcare workers cannot be taken for granted. This is for the immediate and it must not stop there. One can only imagine how well equipped we would have been if we had stretched our capacity post-ebola. We require broad based sensitisation and perhaps enforcement efforts. Our armed forces and paramilitary outfits are already stretched so should things get out of hand then volunteers will be needed to coordinate logistics and movement. If countries that invest in science and technology, varying types of medical practices and research etc. are shaken by Covid-19 it is only important that we act responsibly to stop the spread. The Nigeria Centre for Disease Control published guidelines on social distancing. This task is for all not only government.
When this virus broke out on China, other countries had opportunity to take proactive measures to contain it, why do you think it has spread to many countries?
It’s easy for people to speculate and argue. However, effective policy decisions are not taken in a hurry. You observe, thoroughly analyse events and possible outcomes before taking a decision. By extension, who says what to the press will depend on the proliferation of the virus. Furthermore, we could not have hurriedly shut our doors, not only because of economic and trade activities but we have and still have our citizens all over the world who embarked on essential trips either for personal reasons or in the interest of the nation. We cannot neglect them. I’ll rather be home in such a critical moment. That said, the responsibility is upon us to ensure we maintain good hygienic practices and embrace effective distance control. Government has given sufficient window and once the travel restrictions take effect I’ll suggest we observe a stay home for a few weeks. We now need strict measures. If I may add, it is important to commend the efforts of staff of the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control, Federal Ministry of Health, and the Ministries of Health at the State Level. These people are at the frontline. The activities of Lagos State Ministry of Health is always noteworthy. Other states need to quickly step up capacities to support Lagos State and the FCT from being potentially overwhelmed. Likewise, the private sector must act fast to pool resources together further aid a seamless collaborative effort.
With rising cases of Coronavirus, many sectors are receiving the hit, generally how will it affect Nigerian agriculture sector and farmers?
Like the healthcare workers at the frontline who take necessary precautions, farmers as always are at the background providing dietary support. We require good nutrition to stay healthy and also during recovery from ailments. In the case of a lockdown, we will require logistics assistance and may need more hands across the value chains to enhance processing and delivery of food items including fruits and vegetables. I don’t expect a major blow to the agriculture sector, rather we will experience a form of readjustment. In fact, Covid-19 realities should encourage us to pay close attention to details around handling across the entire value chains, that is, farming, harvesting, processing, distributors and food workers. The downstream sector will face more scrutiny from consumers who will be more interested in assessing production facilities and work culture.
Do you foresee workers standing the risk of being laid off as the pandemic intensifies across regions in Nigeria and affecting businesses?
People’s health and safety should be of importance right now. I’m in support of a ‘stayhome’ to allow for adequate evaluation of the situation. We cannot afford to allow a major spread. Considering the cases in Italy, United Kingdom and Spain, the next two weeks is crucial. The actions we take now will determine whether it will intensify or not. Businesses with enough capacity should implement a work from home policy to limit contacts. We must at all cost avoid a major spread considering our current realities. If not, it will further drain the people’s morale. We are our greatest assets. The current administration is building infrastructure, a nexus for all sectors to thrive, however, Covid-19 is already affecting work progress. The sooner we overcame it, the better for all.
Production is likely to decline in many agro-allied manufacturing companies as workers are advised to work remotely (from home). This means farmers will be affected. What is the implication of this to farmers and the economy?
Health workers, patients and the populace need healthy diets. If production declines around processing, efforts must increase around cereals, fruits and vegetables then transporting harvests to the markets. I do not expect a major scarcity. We cannot hoard or hike prices unnecessarily for cheap gains. We cannot be driven by greed.
Consumption may decline in the time of Covid-19, what does this portent for agriculture?
It is expected that there will be strict restrictions against social gathering, parties and the likes, it is for our own good. We can only wait and see how events unfold. Consumption may decline but people will not starve. Agriculture practitioners will have to adjust and improvise to weather the storm. Whatever happens, I’m sure it will further enlighten practitioners and the authorities. There are learning opportunities in every situation. Apart from the call for fruits and vegetables, we have abundant medicinal crops used in treating various ailments. There’s growing investment interests in medicinal crops and it seems the world is gradually returning to a stone age type of diet though in a more sophisticated manner. Now, this is a form of awareness towards quality over quantity.
To what extent can we take a good advantage of the situation to address agric business?
It’s another call on consumers and practitioners to pay attention to details. Food business is serious business without room for the greedy and mediocre. Those downstream are more of the face of the sector hence must show and regularly train their staff on how to adopt best practices. They must understand the scruples of the food business. Consumers have the right to question sources of their groceries and meals served in restaurants. It helps bring to the fore the importance of the Global GAP, Good Agricultural Practices which emphasises food safety and traceability. Upstream practitioners also have a glorious task of setting up a regime that guarantees food security right from the farm.