CHRIS BAYWOOD IBE is the governing council chairman of Nigerian Institute for Oil Pam Research (NIFOR) in Benin City. In this interview with BDSUNDAY, he highlights the potential of the palm oil industry and its capacity to catalyse growth in the economy. He assures that, without bureaucracy, the council can make the industry the real sector for investment, insisting that the industry possesses what it takes to turn around the economy as it did about 55 years ago.
Many people out there do not know Nigerian Institute for Oil Pam Research (NIFOR) beyond its name. Tell us, what is NIFOR all about?
Nigerian Institute for Oil Pam Research (NIFOR) is a federal government agency that has to do with palm oil production. Over 50 years ago, it was one of the agencies that the federal government heavily relied upon. It is one of the oldest agencies in the country established in 1964.
It was from NIFOR that the Malaysians picked up their first palm seedling with which they developed their own palm industry. Today, Malaysia is one of the leading producers of palm produce. So, if we apply the business sense and allow the private sector to drive the agency, we can take it back to greater heights.
As the chairman of this agency’s governing council, what are your agenda for its turn around?
If we are not bugged down by bureaucracy which is the hallmark of the civil service, I’m hopeful that we are going to come up with programmes that will make NIFOR a worthy venture. That is why we are going to embark on awareness creation to make Nigerians realise that if Nigeria can turn around rice production, almost to zero importation within two years, we can also make the palm oil industry the real sector for investment.
Everybody in Nigerian today is thinking rice. So, we can get as many Nigerians and foreign investors as possible to begin to think the palm oil industry. If there are Nigerians thinking of businesses to invest in, let them think the palm industry. By so doing, we can turn the sector around and make it competitive alongside crude oil. We can make it an investors’ haven for Nigerians and foreigners. So, our focus at the moment is to make NIFOR investor-friendly for both Nigerians and foreign investors alike.
One target we are setting for ourselves is to make NIFOR a brand. We will seek to promote the NIFOR brand and get Nigerians to identify with it because NIFOR can boost the Nigerian economy. By creating this awareness, we will make people know that it holds enormous investment opportunities.
If we don’t realise our target in terms of revenue, we would have succeeded in establishing a strong platform for growth and sustainability. We would have created opportunities for investment and become a catalyst for development and improvement. So our word here is that we will seek to be a catalyst to turn around the fortunes of palm production at NIFOR and the country as a whole.
Given that we don’t have much time on our hands and that the palm seedling takes a minimum of 4-5 years to mature and begin to yield revenue, we are going to set up a template and establish a frame work for investment and attract private sector and entrepreneurs’ interest in NIFOR. People are not interested in oil palm because they are not aware of the opportunities it holds. That is why we want to bring that to the attention of investors seeking investment opportunities.
What possible relationships, similarities or differences exist between palm and crude oil business?
The relationship I see here is business. Therefore, my personal approach to this assignment will be from the standpoint of a businessman. As a board, our approach will be to position NIFOR as a private-sector-driven agency. If we don’t apply this approach, we are surely going to have challenges because a lot of Nigerians do not even know what NIFOR stands for.
As a businessman who has been in oil and gas business in the last 28 years, I have gone through the sector’s swings and business policy tumbling. I have always weathered the storm. So, I will bring that experience to bear on this assignment as the chairman of the governing council of NIFOR. My take is that we will adopt the private-sector approach in order for us to make something out of the agency.
For an effective turnaround of this agency, you must have set targets for yourself. Let us into these targets.
Left to me, as chairman of the governing council, NIFOR should be private-sector driven. When we effectively do that, we are sure to surpass our target. Our target is to make NIFOR one place everybody would do business with. We are inspired by the sudden turnaround of the rice sector in Nigeria. We are enamoured that Thailand would soon come to Nigeria to set up a milling plant for rice production, following the news that the government of Thailand is gravely concerned that rice importation from Thailand had dropped by nearly 97 percent. So, my take on this is that we can do the same given the enabling environment, the political will and support of the government.
One thing we have to make clear to government is that if we are talking about diversification, oil palm is one key area in agriculture that can turn around the economy of the nation. I believe that government is paying so much attention to rice and that was why it was able to come up with the Anchor Borrowing Scheme of the central bank of Nigeria (CBN) which has revolutionarised rice production. I see no reason government cannot set up such a scheme for investors to develop the palm oil industry sector. This will be a revolution that will change the face of palm oil production in the country.
Government and, indeed, investors are interested in sectors of the economy with export potential. Can palm produce be exported?
If we are able to produce enough palm produce for domestic consumption, we can export the excess. Every produce from the palm is exportable. So, the important thing for now is to set up a time frame, a target and a frame work that will establish a real value chain. If we are able to do that, we will become a net exporter of palm produce – oil, sheer butter and others. Our word here, therefore, is that we will work hard within the short time we have to help NIFOR attain the next level of performance.
With all the potential in this sector as you have pointed out, what is your message to investors?
I call on potential investors to consider the enormous opportunities in palm oil production. Nothing about the palm is a loss; everything from the palm is re-useable; everything from the palm has revenue base. If it is well supported, it is one aspect of agriculture that can attract the confidence of investors. It is an opportunity waiting to be tapped. I therefore call on entrepreneurs like me to consider giving this sector a look in as it is an opportunity that has manifested itself.
Here is a crop that can be planted both in savannah and rain forest belts of the country. It is one crop that can withstand adverse weather conditions. We are going to take this message to the door steps of many Nigerians and during our tenure as members of the board of NIFOR in order to make our impact felt.
What role do you expect the government to play for a palm oil revolution to happen in this country?
I wish to appeal to government to come out with policies that will help to make land available to investors willing to go into palm production. The biggest challenge in this sector is the size of land required by every serious investor wishing to go into commercial oil production. Every investor, indeed, needs massive swats of land to establish plantations.
We all know that the Land Use Act places land firmly in the hands of government. And we know the challenges involved even in acquiring small parcels of land for property development what more a large expanse of land for palm plantation. For us to break this jinx and surmount this hurdle now that government has woken up to this agricultural revolution, it must make conscious effort to facilitate land acquisition wherever and whenever an investor is interested. From federal to state government, there must be a policy that should allow for easy access to land.
From my experience, it will take a minimum of three years to perfect any title for any big land required for palm plantation. And so, for us to attain self-sufficiency in palm production within five years, there must be the political will to make land available to investors who show evidence that they are willing to invest.
Besides, there should be an equivalent of the Anchor Borrowing Scheme type of funding. That will enable investors to access huge money because palm production is a long-term business. The gestation time is about five years. And there is no bank in Nigeria that can fund such business that will require six years of maturity.
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