New players in the agric space: Implications for food security and inflation, By ‘Tope Fasua

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Reading Time: 6 mins read

In a recent interview, I saw as one famous Nigerian, who was recently indicted by the US government, claimed that he had so much investments in the agriculture space and is something of an agropreneur or owner of an agricultural technology company. Now, here was a guy who had been accused of cooking the books and floating non-existent companies by the world’s most-feared capital market regulator! I then remembered and re-read articles which had come up right after the COVID-19 pandemic around the fact that Nigerians had turned the agricultural space into a haven for fraud. Many Nigerians – who could also be blamed for being greedy or naïve – had invested immensely in many companies that promised superlative returns, and promptly lost such money. The damage runs into hundreds of billions of naira. And some of the reverberations is what has resulted in the frustration of many Nigerians today. The average returns promised by these companies were around 100 per cent per annum. Like the typical teeming and lading Ponzi scheme, the initial investors got their money paid with returns, with many reinvesting and bringing in their best friends, parents, spouses, office pals, and even enemies. And then these boys – and some girls – struck. Some of the more famous scams included:

Agrilet

Farmsponsor

Bazuze

Farmcrowdy

Crowdyvest

Farmforte

Porkmoney

Agrorite

HoCorn

Shopagric

ReQuid

ThriveAgric

Eatrich

Titan Farms

Farm Agric

Farm Power

Payfarmer

Goldvest

Emerald Farms

Vestpay

Menorah Farms

SGL Farms

Then there was Ovaioza, the Kogi-born lady who swindled people with her food warehouse scam, and Chinmark, who also said he was into some form of Agricutural practice.

The numbers are way too many. There are the ones who moved billions, but hundreds more who ate people’s millions. The template is usually to create a fantastic website, pose with some farmers and start the scam. In Ovaioza’s case, she posed half-naked and had many men drooling as they parted with their life savings.

Some newspapers – traditional and online – also focused on these scams and ran articles like “In Nigeria, Agriculture Became Fraud; and Tech was the Enabler.”From Celebrated Cases to Fraud Claims“, and “Agripartnership is a Scam”, among many others.

Imagine the rash of these digital farmers who invaded Nigeria’s food space with evil intentions – and in some cases naivety – within a space of perhaps three years!

But today, the cry is about food inflation, which peaked at 35.41 per cent at the last release of the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS). Many pundits have insisted on analysing the inflation phenomenon as it affects Nigeria, in narrow terms around demand and supply, as well as excess money supply. Well, I since decided never to join such narrow-view economists. So, I am ready to consider every intervening factor, with a view to analysing their weights in explaining inflation. Even the simplistic analysis of demand and supply and the search for a mythical ‘equilibrium’ does not serve us in this country, if we know we wish to solve our problems. When the government was worried about the illegal or informal export of grains from Nigeria, these same orthodoxy-gatekeepers accused government of doing too much. Not even the explanation that the export proceeds from these informal exports never came back into Nigeria could suffice. For them, it was just ‘demand and supply’. The ones who cared amongst these friends of mine, asked why the government cannot police the border. But in the middle of the night, Nigerians do things. And those in Nigerian Custom are Nigerians too – just like the average pen-robber in sharp suits with well spoken English. Why people offer nebulous, long-term solutions for immediate problems, I don’t know.

And these same chaps swiped aside the concern of government around the hoarding of food by those who could. They mocked government for being concerned and averred that whoever has excess money (including money-launderers, drug barons, and even the corrupt politicians they feign to hate so much) could legally and validly buy tons upon tons of grains and then seal them away in warehouses, even if people start to die of hunger on the streets and in their houses.  Why do the Irish detest the English today? It’s because history tells them that when their people died en masse in plagues and famine, their English colonisers didn’t lift a finger to help with food.  Like I posited at one forum, well, it is the right of anyone to do with their money whatever they wish – including buying up all the grains they can find and storing away for years if possible. But it is also the right of government to ensure that its citizens who look up to it for protection and survival, do not starve to death. And even in the United States of America, the bastion of democracy and capitalism, this had been done before, no doubt in wartime.

We may not be in another World War here, but I believe Nigeria (and many countries in Africa) have been in a perennial and perpetual economic war and we must take wartime decisions. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in December 1944 had caused the National Guard to remove one Sewell Avery, chairman of Montgomery Ward, a department store chain, who refused to toe the line after the defunct Office of Price Administration had warned companies not to raise prices above a certain level or face fines or prosecution. Whereas President Bola Tinubu had made it succinctly clear that Nigeria was not going to control prices, yet it is important to understand this history and be wary of the prodding by those who should know better that we should skip history and not solve our problems the way other successful countries have in the times they were at our level.

The problem now is that many of these tricksters and conmen have not left the agricultural space. Some have seen how gullible people can be when it comes to agricultural investment. They know that once they pose in front of some ears of corn, people will come rushing with their money. I always suspected each time I see a ‘digital farmer’, especially on TV or social media, looking all fresh and waxing lyrical. The real farmers have no time for television or social media. They don’t care to use makeup or wear Gucci suits. And so, it was a matter of time before it all came tumbling down.

When the government started fretting about hoarding, the usual suspects tried to shut down the idea. They even have hack writers on their payroll, whose role it is to dissemble and convince everyone that the status quo must be maintained, while they heap the entire blame on government. But in truth, the government did well to fret, because it is now getting as much information and data about that critical industry and others. Many agritech companies still play as middlemen and aggregators. Some of them are the middlemen who dictate the prices in the markets. They detest the idea of

commodity boards, but we must keep reminding them that our farmers need protection and cooperatives have always operated at that level and must be given a chance to come back. I hope the efforts of the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development will be well-documented at this point, so that we don’t keep repeating mistakes of the past. There is, however, still tremendous space for improvement, innovation and expansion. We haven’t even started. The minister is on the quest to bring on board 500,000 hectares for planting wheat. I pray for success for that programme. Other crops could also be included. But the industry is still suffering from this era of a locust of fraudsters, and the few stragglers they left behind. The Ministry of Agriculture and all stakeholders should remain focused and vigilant, and continue to gather data – even more precious than US dollars. We need to know, almost accurately, the productivity of our farmers and farmlands, and where our precious farm products are heading. The Nigerian Customs Service should also perk up and back up the work of Mr President and other MDAs in this quest to save our nation.

‘Tope Fasua, an economist, author, blogger, and entrepreneur, can be reached through topsyfash@yahoo.com. 

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