Cross River and Otu’s oil palm revolution

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By Michael Jegede

When Senator (Prince) Bassey Edet Otu was sworn in on May 29, 2023 as the governor of Cross River State, he made a very strong vow to build the state’s economy on Agriculture. One of the commodities which he said would be of great priority in his determination to escalate agro-industrial revolution in Cross River was Oil Palm.

In his inaugural speech after taking the oath of office as Cross River helmsman, Otu, fondly referred to as Sweet Prince, while stressing that he would depend largely on agriculture to boost the state’s economy, had said: “We shall reactivate oil palm and fisheries in Calabar, while the trade consolation centres for cocoa in Ikom and rice in Ogoja shall be developed and promptly established… I am determined to change the fortunes of Cross River State by implementing a vibrant agricultural ecosystem supported by various trade consolidation centres.”

With four months into his administration, Otu appears to have taken laudable steps towards revivifying and enhancing oil palm production as part of the drive to fulfil his promise to strengthen the economy of Cross River through agriculture. Some of the significant moves the governor is believed to have made to bolster oil palm production include the partnership entered into by his administration with the Oil Palm Growers Association of Nigeria (OPGAN), the commencement of planting of 3.5 million hybrid oil palm seedlings in 13 identified locations across the state and the securing of a private sector investment of $15 million for the Ayip Eku Oil Palm Estate in Akamkpa Local Government Area (LGA) of the state, as was revealed last month at the media briefing held to mark his 100 days in office.

The governor has been widely applauded for working tirelessly round the clock to leverage on the state’s comparative advantage in agriculture to provide employment opportunities for his people. For instance, at a recent Town Hall event organised by OPGAN, the association poured encomiums on Otu for his massive agro-industrial revolution, making particular reference to his steadfastness towards the reactivation of the oil palm industry in Cross River. The group likened the commitment of Sweet Prince to oil palm production in Cross River to the impactful efforts of late Michael Opara, renowned for his unprecedented agricultural exploits, especially in the area of oil palm development during his reign as the Premier of Eastern Nigeria in the first republic between 1959 and 1966.

OPGAN, ready to work with the Cross River government under the dynamic and pragmatic leadership of Otu to create the biggest sustainable small-holder oil palm economy in Africa, acknowledged “the concluded plans by the governor to establish a permanent branch office of the Nigeria Institute for Oil Palm Research (NIFOR) in the state, aimed at assisting farmers in achieving high-quality yields.”

Speaking at the event that brought together national officers, state leaders, coordinators and members of OPGAN from the 18 LGAs of Cross River State, National president of the association, Chief Joe Onyiuke, reportedly said: “It is important to note that Nigeria is the world’s fifth-largest Oil Palm producer but is a net importer of the commodity as it has huge local demand gulping about 500 million dollars annually according to the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN).

“The Nigerian palm oil industry is very fragmented and dominated by numerous small-scale farmers, who account for 80 percent of local production and most of these farmers do not have access to improved seedlings/inputs and are not attuned to modern farming practices, meaning their yields and outputs are lower than it could otherwise be.

“Cross River State has always been a fertile environment for oil palm development and it is time for Cross River State to build coherent oil palm programs to regain its pre-eminent position as the number one oil palm state in the country.

“There are numerous activities in oil palm value chain and its socio-economic impact is so huge that we must harness the abundant human resources in the state, especially women and youths to key into this oil palm revolution.

“Together, these activities build and strengthen the component parts as well as the whole value chain which is an important aspect of the livelihood of the rural farmers and the state GDP thereby promoting community stability and reduction in rural-urban migration.”

Onyiuke noted that it takes a governor who has good intentions for the ordinary citizen to invest in the oil palm industry, maintaining that Otu has portrayed himself as a proactive leader with deep understanding of the predicaments of oil palm farmers in Cross River. According to him, “This gesture of Governor Otu is a national duty that will see Nigeria gain back her lost position in the global index because Cross River State have the best ecological advantage than other states.”

The OPGAN Chief further observed that Cross River has the capacity to produce the best palm oil quality in Nigeria and fill the gap created by the millions of dollars spent yearly to import crude palm oil into the country and equally be a net exporter.

In the words of the OPGAN boss, “The surplus availability of fresh fruit bunches is the only thing that can put the state back on the national and global map. Investors and industries go where the base raw materials needed for their production are found in commercial quantity.

“We therefore cannot thank His Excellency, Senator Prince Bassey Otu enough for his deep love for his people. We in turn have been greatly encouraged and will not let him down as all possible risks of failure have been duly mitigated.

“NIFOR will set up a permanent base in Cross River State so we are together for the long haul. The permanent presence of NIFOR in the state simply makes it easier for training/building the much needed local capacity that will ensure sustainability.

“The members shall be helped to cluster themselves into Cooperatives after profiling and mapping through the different departments of Extension and Mapping in NIFOR institute as they have enormous human resources to help us achieve the above.

“OPGAN members here will work hard to promote and protect the nurseries, their plantations in order to achieve the lofty objective of the present administration – grow quality certified oil palm and process same in the state for the shared prosperity of Cross Riverians.”

In his remarks at the town hall meeting, Cross River OPGAN Chairman, Nyaim Bisong, while also commending Otu’s impressive initiatives in the oil palm sector, and his zeal to grow the state’s economy via agriculture, reportedly, said oil palm growers in Cross River would leave no stone unturned to fully partake in the whole value chain of oil palm produce in line with the governor’s plan.

He was quoted to have said: “We expect that in about three years, the oil palm refinery will have been up, the food industries will follow and we will support the governor in ensuring that the value chain economy of oil palm produce will be attracted and made to subsist in the State.”

It is the thinking of many that Otu indeed deserves commendation and support for the efforts he is making to create an enabling environment and workable system intended to bring back to life the oil palm industry in Cross River. The governor’s decision to collaborate with genuine oil palm growers would, in the views of observers, make his fantastic plans for the growth and development of the oil palm industry in Cross River come to fruition.

At the press conference on his 100 days in office, Prince Otu had disclosed that aside the oil palm investment, his government has developed a six-year N30 billion agriculture guarantee fund for rice, maize, fisheries and livestock farmers in pursuit of the actualization of his agricultural vision for the state.

The governor, who was reported to have allocated 100,000 hectares of land to farmers in Cross River for the production of cassava and other crops, had said during the media chat: “As we are aware, agriculture is the area Cross River State has comparative advantage over many States of the federation. Prime attention is therefore given to this sector with the following achievements so far.

“The present administration has attracted $15million private sector investment into the Ayip Eku Oil Palm Estate, with multiple effects on employment and growth of State GDP.

“Government has also developed a 6-year N30bn agricultural credit guarantee fund for rice, maize, fisheries and livestock farmers.

“In order to ascertain with precision, the soil texture for specific crops in the different zones of the State, Government has commenced the State-wide Digital Soil Fertility Mapping. This will translate to greater yields of different crops.

“In partnership with the Oil Palm Growers Association of Nigeria (OPGAN), the State Government has commenced the planting of 3.5million hybrid oil palm seedlings in 13 identified locations across the State.

“In agric-related human capital development, the State Government has sponsored indigenes of the State to participate in cassava-bio value chain conference in Asaba – Delta State for subsequent establishment of cassava – bio fuel factory in the State, as well as workshop on sustainable oil palm economy.

“50 starter-rice growers have been given free rice seedlings, fertilizer and pesticides, while 30 starter-livestock farmers have been assisted with day old chicks, feeds etc.”

Michael Jegede, a journalist writes from the Federal Capital Territory (FCT), Abuja

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