• Thursday, June 20, 2024
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Hibiscus farming: Creating wealth for Nigerian communities

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Since the renewed focus on agriculture, Nigeria seems to have shifted to horticulture as the country seeks to boost its foreign exchange. Hibiscus is one horticultural crop that is not just earning foreign exchange for Nigeria but also creating wealth for communities writes Josephine Okojie.

At the entrance of Babura Local Government Area in Jigawa state is a towering hibiscus farm painting the entrance of the town pink.

The exotic look and colourful boom attracted lots of butterflies and birds that feed on the nectar of the bright coloured petals on the hibiscus plants that have grown to about two feet in height.

The farmland belongs to Idris Abubakar, a forty five years old farmer.

Abubakar who farms only hibiscus in the last eighteen years is unable to meet up with the current demand of the flower from his customers.

He resulted to paying other farmers to grow hibiscus for him as the crop continues to gain traction at the international market.

“I had to expand my production area and also employ other farmers to grow hibiscus for me by giving them money because I can no longer meet up with my customers’ demand that is increasing daily,” he says.

Hibiscus an important perennial herb is fast booming in the Nigerian market as exporters are now exporting a larger percentage of the crop to Mexico, United States, Europe and Asia.

Agro allied firms such as AgroEknor are making huge investment in the hibiscus value chain in Nigeria owing to the ever increasing global demand for the flower.

Nigeria is the natural habitat for five varieties of hibiscus and among the world’s top producers and supplier of the crop, experts say.

In 2017, Nigeria exported 1,983 containers of hibiscus to Mexico alone, earning $35 million in nine months, according to the Association of Hibiscus Flower Exporters of Nigeria (AHFEN).

Hibiscus scientifically called Hibiscus sabdariffa and commonly known as Roselle, grows in many tropical and sub-tropical countries and is one of highest volume specialty botanical products in international commerce, the Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) says in its postharvest report.

The hibiscus plant is drought tolerant, relatively easy to grow, not suitable for mechanised harvest, labour intensive to process, and can be grown as part of multi-cropping system.

Prices and country production volumes are not tracked like a conventional agricultural commodity and this is why the global industry currently does not have adequate data.

But Tunji Lawal, president of Association of Hibiscus Flower Exporters of Nigeria (AHFEN) says that Nigeria is next to Sudan in the production of the crop and that the Africa content is the largest grower of the flower.

It takes an average of 3 to 4 months to grow and mainly cultivated in the northern states with Jigawa, Kano and Kastina leading the pack.

The flower can stay up to five years if well aerated and kept to avoid moisture.

Women putting the dried flowers into a sack

 For beverage, medicine

The extracts from hibiscus flowers and leaves have many uses and benefits, either medically or in industrial production.

Its antihypertensive and food colouring properties have continued to attract the attention of food and beverage manufacturers and pharmaceutical industry for the commodity globally.

Dry hibiscus flower, locally known as Zobo, can be processed into hot and cold herbal beverages, jellies and confectioneries, among others.  The leaves are used extensively for animal fodder and fibre.

Medical experts say consumption of Zobo made from the leaves aids detoxification. It helps reduce high blood pressure, cholesterol levels, as well as blood sugar levels. It also helps in darkening hair colour and slows aging as it contains anti-aging properties.

It induces sleep and has antidepressant properties as well as helping in the treatment of flu.

All these numerous health properties have made it one of the key raw materials in the global confectioneries industry.

“My father takes hibiscus drink daily to control his blood pressure,” Bimbo Ademola, a buyer purchasing the flower at Ketu market in Lagos says.

“The hibiscus flower has been working effectively on my father since he started drinking it. His blood pressure which was high is now normal,” Ademola says.

Hibiscus tea is rich in antioxidants minerals and vitamin C and several studies have found that the tea lowers both systolic and diastolic blood pressure.

The uses of the flower show the huge opportunity in the subsector for potential investors. With strong global population growth, particularly amongst children and young people, consumption of hibiscus products has been on the increase in recent years.

Impacting communities

Hibiscus production and processing is making big impacts in rural communities. Farmers growing hibiscus flower are now increasing their farming areas to grow more of the crop as demand continues to rise. This is positively impacting their livelihood.

An example is the activities of AgroEknor – an agricultural commodity exporting business in its communities of operation. AgroEknor has invested in farmers in Kano, Katsina and Jigawa states in the form of inputs while also serving as off-takers after the crop has been harvested.

Also, the firm has its processing factory in Kano state where it is empowering over 60 women. These women are involved in the various segments across the processing value chain of the commodity.

With little or no education, these women clean, sieve, sort and handpick stones, dirt and other foreign bodies from the flower to ensure standards are met.

Mariana Abdullahi, a worker at the factor says that AgroEknor has empowered her to be able to support her family.

“Now I support my family with what I earn and before now I do not have a bank account but since I started working here, the company opened an account for me,” Mariana says.

Just like Mariana, AgroEknor is supporting several women entrepreneurs across the hibiscus value chain and this is helping them work their way out of poverty.

“Hibiscus is not only promising the country economic development but it can also contributes to the economic empowerment of women and transformation of rural communities,” Tim Oke, executive director-corporate and global growth, AgroEknor Limited says.

He says the income generated from the business has help rural producers rise out of poverty and is likely to have wider long-term benefits

Women carrying out first stage cleaning of the dried flower

Strong FX potential

Nigeria literarily seats on a hibiscus goldmine as the flower can be grown in virtually all the northern states of the country, according to the Institute of Agricultural Research (IAR) ABU Zaria.

The Association of Hibiscus Flower Exporters of Nigeria (AHFEN) estimates the value of the country’s hibiscus industry to worth about $100million.

According to AHFEN, hibiscus flower export holds great promise as an economy booster, especially in the era of diversification from oil.

Victor Iyama, president of the Federation of Agricultural Commodities Association of Nigeria (FACAN) describes hibiscus as one of the most important crops to the Nigerian economy.

“If we adequately harnessed the potential in hibiscus production, the country will boost its non-oil export because the market is huge” Iyama says.

“Hibiscus flower farming is a business on the rise and the demand for it is increasing yearly. It can become a money spinner when we address some of the issues limiting Nigeria from fully harnessing its potential,” he says.

Low research, awareness still persist

Despite the high economic importance of hibiscus, especially it’s potential as a crop with high export value and medicinal properties little attention has been paid to the crop in the area of research for improvement.

The research institute mandated with the crop is yet to develop technology that will boost farmers’ productivity and tackle issues of pests and disease outbreak as well as enable the cultivation of the crop in other regions of the country.

Many fungal and few bacterial diseases of hibiscus have been reported from various parts of the world including Nigeria. Farmers are still unable to handle the situation when their farmlands are invested by pests and diseases.

Production of the crop in the country is still very low because farmers are yet to identify the potential in its production.

“We have very few numbers of farmers growing the crop currently and this is because there is still low demand for it locally,” says Adedoyin Adesanya, director of operations, AgroEknor.

Despite Nigeria being among the top producers of the crop, farmers have very little knowledge of the plant. Most of them cultivate it to barricade their farmlands.

“Nigeria needs to educate farmers of the potential of cultivating the flower and the huge international market for the produce. With this information, lots of farmers will start growing the crop,” Adesanya adds.

A farmer harvesting the fresh hibiscus flower in gugindu village in Jigawa state

Standards

Mexico is the most prominent destination for Nigerian hibiscus – account for 85percent of the exported crop from the country, but in 2015, it improved checks on Nigerian hibiscus exports, alleging adulteration.

Since 2017 Mexico had enforced a ban on Nigeria’s hibiscus export owing to standards and quality issues.

As a result, the country is losing billions of dollars it would have earned from Mexico since it was enforced. This further slowed the traction the crop was gaining in the country.

“A lot of people go into the exporting of hibiscus without actually knowing the nutty gritty of the business and that is what is responsible for the Mexican ban,” Adesanya who was earlier quoted says.

To address the issue of standards, experts say Nigeria needs to set up standard sanitary and phyto-sanitary labs, as well as increase processing to earn more foreign exchange through value adding.

This is what AgroEknor is currently doing by ensuring that standards are met in the production of its product.

As a result, the company has gained entrance into the United States.

The experts also called for the training of farmers, empowering them with finance to produce in larger scale, and the opening of marketing and trade opportunities as well as supporting export.

“It is needful that we training our farmers and empower them to boost production. AHFEN is currently ensuring that any exporter of the produce met up with the standards of the exporting country,” Lawal says.