‘Nigeria has capacity to feed the entire African continent’


Simon Conveney, Irish Minister for Agriculture, Food, the Marine and Defence led a delegation on a trade mission to Nigeria recently where he met with key government officials. He later addressed a press conference where he spoke on the socio-economic benefits of the renewed bilateral relations between both countries among other issues. Ibrahim Apekhade Yusuf was there

What informed the trade mission to Nigeria?

We have the largest ever trade mission in Nigeria. We have 42 companies with us, ranging from aviation to financial services to construction to waste management to agriculture, to software system. So, it’s a really broad spectrum of different Irish skill sets that we’re hoping will become embedded in the Nigerian economy in the future. We have quite a strong trade relationship already wit this country. Ireland has a long tradition of partnership with Nigeria.

Beyond the trade mission, what is the level of bilateral relations you have with Nigeria?

We are quite close with Nigeria. In fact, I can tell you the very first embassy that Ireland set up in the continent of Africa was in Nigeria in 1961. So, our relationship with Nigeria goes right back many years. So that is the political connection between our two countries. We’re very different countries in many ways in terms of size, scale and population but there are 40, 000 Nigerians currently living in Ireland and of course, we have been here for many years through Irish companies but also more recently through companies like Guinness, and many other smaller companies like the Kerry Group, which is the largest dairy company has a presence here also.

But personally, from my own perspective, I see Nigeria as possibly the most exciting economy in the world to work in and the potential for growth and expansion here in terms of resources, in terms of population growth living here currently, over 170million people. By 2050 that figure could be 430million. And that pace of growth is going to drive food demand in terms of consumption, in terms of energy, water, transportation, financial services, and quality of life and so on. That is a very challenging environment to work but it’s also very exciting. And so just like the Irish economy has been a very open economy attracting many foreign companies to work with us. Irish companies which already have global experience and global footprints can actually embed themselves and be part of collaborations and partnerships here in one of the fastest growing economy into the future.

We believe that the proximity to West Africa and as a country on the western side of Europe and also the relationship that is already there that we can build upon, can provide very exciting commercial opportunities for Nigerian companies. So we are here to encourage all of that. We’re here to reinforce the political message that Irish government is very supportive of the new government here in Nigeria. I think a lot of people that I have met are encouraged and convinced about the changes that are happening and to see this new government succeeds. And we certainly want to be supportive politically and in any way we can.

But I think the real interest is both a political as well as a commercial one. I had the privilege of meeting two of your government ministers, first of all, the Minister of Transport, Rotimi Amaechi, who knows Ireland well and secondly, the Minister of Agriculture, Chief Audu Ogbeh. We had a very good meeting with them and I hope that Irish agriculture which has developed on the back of innovation and added value in the last 10 years, can actually play a part in the agricultural growth journey that I’m sure will happen in this country in the coming years. Since we came into the country, we have seen lots of partnerships, we have seen contracts signed worth about €50million or about $35million in value terms. So this business relationship is real. It is not simply Ireland here trying to sell our products. This is about a lasting partnership to collaboration that can be beneficial to Nigerian companies and employ a lot of Nigerian people but also Irish companies sharing knowledge and know-how that is been developed in Ireland and in other parts of the world now for many years.

So, I expect, we will be back again in the not too distant future. To put it bluntly, there has been a lot of talk internationally and in the Ireland of the development opportunity in a country like China and we have seen huge growth in terms of Irish export and Irish business development in the Chinese economy.

But personally, I feel that Nigeria is just as exciting like China, in terms of economic development. In fact, may be even more exciting in terms of the momentous change at the moment. So, we’re hoping that the relationship that we’re building now can be lasting and develop pretty commercial opportunities for both companies here and companies in Ireland. So, that’s why we are here.

You said you talked with the Minister of Agric, I recalled during the senate screening, he talked about the challenge of agriculture in Nigeria in terms of livestock farming, innovation in farming. What is really in it for Nigeria?

Yes, we had a very good and very practical discussion in terms of what Ireland may be able to do here. The journey that Ireland has travelled from agriculture and food industry perspective is that there was a time Ireland did not have capacity to feed itself. We now have the capacity to feed 10 times our own population and most of that is driven by grassland management. So, the big industries in Ireland when it comes to agriculture is our dairy industry, our beef and sheep livestock. We also have pigs and poultry and we also have some arable land. But our research and expertise is very much around dairy and beef in terms of better breeding programme, better use of genetics through better grassing management, to looking at animal feeds to improve what is called feed conversion efficiency. In other words, getting animals to grow pasture on less feed and value terms using less water, reducing their emission during their lifetime.

I will argue that the Irish dairy industry is one of the most efficient in the world. We’re going to be the fastest growing producers in volume terms in the next five years. We see 50% growth in value in dairy farm between now and 2020. We currently produce about five million and half litres of milk and it will be certainly eight billion litres of milk by 2020. So, it is an exciting growth journey and it is not just strictly about producing volume in terms of powder, it’s also about producing premium products. Infant formula for instant, Irish produces about 40% of the world’s requirement, especially protein-based component coming from milk.

There is no reason why Nigeria cannot develop its dairy industry because you have got plenty of water in this country. A lot of fertile grassland and a lot of opportunity to grow animal feeds and crops and I hope we are able to provide some assistance in terms of sharing our experiences in terms of our mistakes as well as our successes to help you make that journey and that’s going to be something we’re offering at a political level but also at the commercial level.

The truth is in a population of this size and scale, the opportunity to develop the meat industry here is significant but it’s also very challenging in terms of guaranteeing safety, innovation, feeds control and management, flood management, efficient water usage as well as feed usage, maximising benefits of good genetics in terms of fertility and so on.

So, actually, you’re using up as little natural resources as you need to use as much feed as you can from those natural resources. And that has been a big progress in Ireland and again, we want to share that knowledge and experience and hopefully help to increase capacity and volume so, we are not just here to sell Irish products. I think we are also here to help build capacity into the future from the lessons that we can bring. Some people associate farming to poverty but we can change that mindset through proper management of the agric resources.

Your association with Nigeria dates back to over 50 years. Can you tell us the quantum of investment you have made over the years?

Well, it’s difficult to give the figures from the 1960s because I wasn’t born at that time. (Laughs). But I can tell you offhand in terms of the companies that tried to increase value in terms of volume of trade with Africa as a whole. The companies that are doing their bits are young new technology companies from environment, to fishing, energy. So there is a long history of dealing with Nigeria. It is a much more cooperative and knowledge-based partnership.

Earlier on you recalled that you had discussions with heads of two Nigeria’s key ministries, including the agriculture. Did you share experiences about how Irish government has been able to turn around its economy?

Of course, the ministers sounded to me as individuals who are very serious in terms of what they want to do. They were very clear as to the direction they want to see this government go. I think there are opportunities for development in other areas. In Ireland, we faced some tough times too. We had overreliance on construction sector but when the Irish economy failed eight years ago, and the banking industry collapsed, we had to rebuild everything in Ireland. We now have the fastest growing economy in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and by far, it’s fastest growing in the European Union. That had been hard-earned. We had to find ways of ensuring sustainable growth across the sectors from agriculture to tourism to ICT, to software development, to pharmaceuticals and so many other different areas.

Of course, there are big challenges in your country because of your overreliance on oil revenue. But there are opportunities. So, the question is why can’t Nigeria be the most efficient agriculture producer in Africa? There is no reason why you can’t be. You actually have the natural resources to do it and do it well.

What are your aspirations for the trade missions?

We will like to see a lot of Nigerian students coming to Irish universities. Ireland is a very international country. So we want to have experiences of people from all over the world. We want Nigerians to come and work in Ireland and we want partnerships hopefully with Irish companies by Nigerian companies working in Nigeria. It could be partnership in the future which may well look at selling Nigerian-produced products in the European Union through Ireland as a gateway. Ireland has been the most successful gateway in the European Union for US companies and for many other multinationals as well. We’re the only English-speaking country in the Euro zone. Don’t forget, Britain is an English-speaking country but they have their own currency. So, Ireland in many ways can be a very attractive gateway for Nigerian companies that want to become multinationals and certainly, we have a proven track record in providing that kind of platform for trade. So, hopefully, as the relationship develops and more and more Nigerian\Irish companies start working together, products can be produced here because Nigeria has a very competitive advantage. When I go back home, the first thing I would do is reach out to my counterpart here, especially the Agric Minister (Chief Audu Ogbeh) to invite him to Ireland. We have already invited the Nigerian Agriculture Business Group to Ireland and they are planning to bring a number of companies to Ireland to forge partnerships.

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