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Agric revolution: Focus should now be on mechanisation in Africa – Bobmanuel

Nigeria has managed to make advances in farming and food production over the years but what seems to hold the surge back is absence of farm mechanisation especially what experts call tractorisation. With many intervention agencies at national and international levels especially the Bank of Industry and Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) special schemes to help with improved seedlings and fertilizer (backed by loans), what may be dragging the hand of the clock back could be absence of mechanisation to boost production than can triple the gross domestic product (GDP) of the country.

In an exclusive interview with Ibifiri Bobmanuel, an investor and chief executive officer (CEO) of one of Africa’s best tractor manufacturing ventures, Bob Tracks Nigeria Limited, it came to the open that Nigeria has tractor and farm equipment fund of about $1.1Bn waiting for drawdown through 10,000 tractor units that will come from Brazil any time soon, if the FG signs off on this.

Bobmanuel, who is president of the Rivers Entrepreneurs and Investors Forum (REIF), a group of Nigerian and foreign investors mostly in the Niger Delta steadily attracting foreign capital to the region, said if the FG can embrace agric mechanisation and provide mechanised processes for the farmers, the GDP would get up to 300 per cent leap. “If we have the number of products that come from manual labour and apply tech, the same farms would triple. The researches are there and the findings are readily available.”

He said absence of mechanisation is why the efforts by government agencies hardly moved the sector forward. “If you give farmers all the seeds and fertilizers and do not introduce technology, won’t get anything more than you always got.

“For us as agric equipment manufacturers (AEMs), if the FG wants to get it right, and if the nation must come out of the woods, they must include tractorisation as a national emergency,” he said.

Read Also: New agric minister must hit the ground running with $1.1bn Green Imperative Fund

He blamed absence of mechanisation for the reason most young persons and graduates runaway from agriculture. “This is because Agric is more of a punishment than an enhancement. It is not seen as a young man’s escape route or a way to solve his problem but as a way of regret and punishment.”

He said mechanisation has so made agric attractive and rewarding that a family he knows in the US is now in the sixth generation of farmers from great-great grand-father to the present son, all well to do and happy. Today, he added, mechanisation is going to AI levels (artificial intelligence), where the farm itself knows what it wants and triggers of high-tech to do them all having been programmed.

Nigeria's agri minister
Ibifiri Bobmanuel, CEO of indigenous tractor manufacturing company, Bob Track Nig Ltd


He disclosed that right in their factory in Iriebe area of Port Harcourt, there is an implement at the back of their tractor that plants the seedlings for you. “Your wife could actually climb unto that tractor, drive it and plant on a massive expanse of land while still listening to radio in a factory-fitted air conditioned compartment. Farming is now fun, now.”

He said each time he met student-farmers, their hands would be very rough, a sign that they are learning under slavery conditions and would practice wrong farming, whereas mechanisation has provided all the solutions.

“So, if the FG or states are serious about coming out of the cauldron of low IGR (internally generated revenue) and help the youth, they should simply leverage the quick-fix solution waiting in mechanised Agric. Mechanisation is cheap and affordable,” he emphasized.

Stressing on the huge gains in mechanised agriculture, Bobmanuel said if Nigeria can spend a small amount on Agric and mechanisation, the nation would have all the food it needs and much for export. Nigeria would achieve food security status.

He went on to show the prospects Nigeria has: “In the last webinar we had with the REIF, the High Commissioner of the Netherlands to Nigeria (a country just the size of three states in Nigeria) said they are the one of the largest exporters of agric products in the world, next only to the likes of America. Nigeria can do better because cost of cheaper land, labour and production costs.

“Africa has 60 per cent of arable land in the world and Nigeria has 60 per cent of it. What are we doing with it? Bob Track is in the Niger Delta that is oil rich section but we have never seen oil as the true potential of Nigeria. We have always seen Agric as the real potential. That is why we didn’t bother to invest as much as we are investing in Agric. Oil is an investment that has a time span. In the next 20 years, we will never get good revenue from oil, but in Agric, it keeps getting better by the day,” he further said.

He also said that countries such as Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Qatar are snapping up lands in Africa. “They do not have much back home but they are setting up massive farms to augment their local food production. We must know what is happening around the world.”

Giving hints about Bob Track as a firm, Bobmanuel said; “We are the first indigenous manufacturing and assembling company in Nigeria. We take that with all modesty, but the vision behind it is to be able to position Africa as an agro-hub in the world. We have the potential to do it. What Africa lacks is mechanization and that is what Bob Track provides.’

He said the company has six outlets in Nigeria: Port Harcourt, Lagos, Abuja, Enugu, Kano, Bayelsa. “Next year, we intend to have in offices in Benin Republic and Ghana. These are the hot West African markets and later, we expand to the Central African region and other regions of Africa. The prospects are huge.”

He advised the FG and states to collaborate with Bob Track or any other genuine tractor manufacturer to embark on massive provision of tractors and other forms of mechanization implements. “If the government wants to buy agric products, they should buy first from the local producers.

“We know the country is in dire need and the market is wide enough to contain everybody, but we need to contextualise what we call local content. So, we encourage the Government to run along with the Green Imperative ($1.1Bn fund for tractors from Brazil) which is a key project. We do not know why up to know, it has not crystalised. We expect the government to benefit from it because they do not have to put in a dollar. The Brazilian government and the Brazilian Development Bank are providing the facility to Nigerian farmers. The FG will just stand as a guarantor while the Brazilian government provides Nigerian farmers with tractors and equipment to run their farms. The revenue from this support helps to repay the loans.’

The REIF president said the scheme plans to supply 10,000 tractors, but in a country of over 200m people, the number is a drop in the ocean. “So, we encourage the FG to see that the project comes into fruition and also encourage the local manufacturers to produce to fill up the gap. The problem is bigger than 10,000 tractors. The FG needs to kick-start this scheme and to encourage the likes of Bob Tract to upscale.”

Bob Track and the tractorisasation journey

The CEO hinted that the company is marching to phase two which would start with a groundbreaking event with either a governor or minister leading. He said phase one guaranteed 60 to 120 tractors per day and the production is automated to achieve flexibility of number.

“The products are designed for the African market. The African space is actually a junk and that is the truth. This is because there are no strong regulations that block unethical practice. Bribe can fetch anything, but we decided to do the right thing.

“We developed tractors only for the African market because that is our focus. So, we took up to five years doing back and forth with the US to develop Bob Track brand. When we came out of the development phase, we saw we have a tractor on hands that was going to be a world challenger.

“We have from the 60 to the 200 horse power. From the 80 hp, you have top of the range factory-fitted air conditioner while the 120hp up range has the GPRS facility. This facility solves the problem of measuring each owner’s size of farmland to work on. In Africa, joint ownership of a tractor is full of quarrels but this facility solves it through automatic mapping and measuring.

“Now, the climate in Africa is quite harsh. So, we found out that when most tractors that are brought into Nigeria, often, they become scraps in less than three years (like the over 1000 by NDDC). If you own one that works with your climate, it will be an asset of up to 40 years and you spread your cost.

“This is coupled with maintenance with us which is easy because of training and availability of ready service hands. As we speak, we have been in business for many years and we have had certifications of up to five years, meaning that we have tractors running in farms for up to five years.”

Economic factor

The Investor wondered why the nation’s handlers do not see the huge instant impact agric mechanisation would bring. “Our focus has been always to solve the problem in Africa and Nigeria, because of the Agric’s contribution to the GDP. For decades we have practiced same type of Agric. Europe and other continents practised subsistent farming in the 1920s and modernization came into play. The 2nd industrial revolution was on the back of agric revolution dating back to the 1920s with tractors and others coming into play.

“Today, Nigeria’s tractorisation dept is lower than 0.5 per cent, which means that if we bring in tractorisation the GDP would triple.

“When the FG proposed the Green Imperative (worth $1.1Bn) during the Jonathan administration, we felt that they should have partnered with the local private sector, but we later found the FG was receptive and open to partnership. We encouraged them to embrace it.”

Bobmanuel said knowledge at any given time is key. “When we were antagonistic, we did not have the full information. We felt that process was going to shortchange the Nigerian manufacturing space, but we find out that even at that, the number (10,000) in the Green Imperative Scheme through completely knocked down (CKD) parts, the Nigerian producer will play a huge role such as assembling. They would have to work with the Nigerian counterparts.

“It is not about personal interest but about the end justifying the means. If the Nigerian manufacturers are carried along by the Brazilian suppliers, it would be good.”

Challenge to next agric minister

President Muhammadu Buhari just removed his agric minister and another is awaited. Now, the REIF president has a bucket of advice to the new man, saying me must hit the ground running with $1.1Bn waiting for him, if he can push for the quick realization of the Green Initiative.

Saying he is not in a position to say if it is true that President Buhari is displeased over the failure of the $1.1Bn tractor/implements deal with Brazil to start, the REIF boss however remarked that the deal was negotiated soon before Buhari came to power, and that going by his passion for agriculture and local production, hopes were high that the scheme was sure to start off fast looking to pump 10,000 tractors into the mechanization space. He regretted that six years down the line, any president would be worried that nothing has happened and that no single tractor has entered Nigeria in that scheme.

He said; “Imagine the impact the nation’s agric mechanization space would have enjoyed by now. The kick-off of the scheme kept shifting. The National Assembly even had to give a go ahead to it but I won’t know why it has still not kicked off. If the NASS and the presidents of both countries have endorsed it, then the new minister should just fly with it.”

He advised a new agric minister not to think of starting a new programme which may also take many years to start but to launch a tractorization scheme and kick-off agric mechanization in Nigeria.

“The only quick fix for him is massive deployment of tractors and to start the Green Imperative. By this singular move, he would have injected $1.1Bn into the mechanization space in Nigeria and the FG is not going to spend a kobo on it.”

The CEO called it a win-win for the farmers, the FG, and the manufacturers. “The minister simply needs to work in synergy with the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) and the Ministry of Finance to find a way around agric mechanisation. How much mechanisation that the minister could put into fruition would determine how well he would have performed in office.”

He observed that if in the GDP spreadsheet of Nigeria, Agric contributes as high as 24 per cent, the third highest after services (46%) and Industry (28%), then mechanized agric would do three times more than that.

Many experts say agric plays huge part in the performances posted by the top two; industry and services. “If that be so without mechanization, and this is the quick-fix to your problem, imagine how much leap the GDP would lift if 10,000 tractors are pumped into the space. That is why the next agric minister should strike now.”

He said the foreign partners were ready with their funding, adding that the incoming 10,000 tractors would however be a drop in the ocean in a country of over 200m people. “The Minister should engage indigenous tractor manufacturers and ask them the number of tractors/implements each can produce right away.”

On insecurity and farming at the moment, Bobmanuel said: “What the next minister needs to do in this aspect is to highlight those areas of the country that do not have too much insecurity problem and use them as pilot stage to launch the mechanization scheme. Reliable local manufacturers can be asked to produce 1000 tractors each to be sent to certain agric belts that are not exposed to high insecurity. This would immediately impact the GDP. The land is there, the know-how is there, and the market is readily available. The only thing not available is mechanization. If he can do this, he would have hit on the nail of success. It’s an achievement waiting to pick up.’

On how southern parts of the country would participate in the scheme because of their small-holder farm system, the expert advised the new minister to map the country and start from agric belts that are not prone to high insecurity.

“Such areas are in the south. The east does small-holder farming and this can be up-scaled. The South-south is oil palm zone. The West has a lot of potentials around cocoa and rubber. The Middle belt is still farmable, not very volatile. There are areas in the north that are good for farming. The minister can map out areas and start pilot stage. He can partner with tractor manufacturers to provide mechanisation.”

He suggested that there should be milestones and tasks. “We will give ourselves 12 months. You will see the amount of harvest and more people to be engaged.”

He said solving Nigeria’s problems is not rocket science. “We can narrow ourselves to some problems and solve them. If he can sit down with his staff in the Ministry and work out a mechanisation scheme. Our group can provide a blueprint for 12 months work plan. It is doable. He should not think he does not have enough time because he can do a lot in 12 months.”

The way it is, Bob Track may have huge propositions ready for Nigeria in terms of tractorisation and agric mechanisation with automation and AI in view. The GDP can do with a shot in the arm.

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