By Edidiong Esara
To discover possibilities of wealth creation through agriculture, students of Ritman University (RU), Ikot Ekpene have taken a field trip to a farm where thousands of cocoa plants are nursed to feed a burgeoning food and beverage industry.
Undergraduates from different disciplines under auspices of the university’s Entrepreneurship Club had this learning experience at Aqwacoco Enterprise’s cocoa nursery in Ikot Ekpene, Akwa Ibom State and returned brimming with ideas about realizing RU vision of making its graduates entrepreneurs and employers of labour.
President of Ritman University’s Entrepreneurship Club, John Mendie, expressed optimism that exposure of students to real world agriculture and business development will help them find sustainable ways of producing food and generating income. He said that with the world’s population growing at an exponential rate and projected to reach 9.8 billion by 2050, food production is a necessity for human survival. He disclosed that he and his fellow students are taking advantage of entrepreneurship programmes of his university to acquire skills for becoming active players in the dynamic global economy. He described sustainable food production as “the new internet”, denoting the importance and income-generation capacities of agriculture. Mendie, a student of Management, stressed that the market for food production is very large and that the global food market raises trillions of dollars annually. He however noted that the nation’s present means of food production and distribution is unsustainable, and that this inspires his club to give farming of food and cash crops priority attention.
For Blessing Avura, the field trip reminded her that farming is not the dirty job people take it to be, but a lucrative venture that students and graduates should embrace. Blessing said she learnt how to nurture plants, minimum amount needed to start a cocoa farm, dedication and the correct methods of planting and control to forestall attacks by pests and diseases. She urged government to do more for the agricultural advancement of Nigeria through providing ample credit facilities and reducing importation.
A student of Sociology, Livinus Baloga, said the trip was an opportunity for him to see agricultural entrepreneurship in practice. He enthused that with a will and right amount of resources, Nigeria can surmount her food problems. He said he is already a farmer and hopes to be one of those who will feed the world in future. Baloga averred that it is an honour to be in agriculture, and that as an entrepreneur, his target is cash crops. Debofa Ben of the Department of Administration recounted that he has learnt the patience required in farming and that agriculture is a long-term investment that may not bring immediate profit. He expressed a desire to help feed the nation by getting others involved in farming even if he is not directly involved in the planting.
Director of Ritman University Centre for Entrepreneurship (RUCE), Dr Godwin Essoh, disclosed that this is one in a series of continuous exposures his centre is taking students through to prepare them for challenges of life after school. Students were taken round the 170-hectare farm, which will feed a value chain covering cocoa farming to the manufacture of final products such as chocolates, beverages, liquor and others. The student entrepreneurs learnt steps in planting cocoa, process of preparing the soil for planting and methods of maximizing crop yield. Their guide disclosed that poultry manure was the best type for cocoa farming and that the soil needs to be wet, hence closeness to water source is essential. They were however warned to guard young plants against excessive rainfall which would affect germination and growth adversely.
The young entrepreneurs were also taught that much heat is not good for cocoa at the nursery stage, hence, the provision of shed using palm fronds, and that cocoa stays six months in the nursery before transplanting. The Manager of the cocoa nursery said that after six months of being raised in the nursery using soil in a bag, they sell off to farmers at a subsidized rate of N200 per stand.
The farmers then plant on their own farms and after harvest, Aqwacoco plans to buy back the fruits for processing into beverage and other products. Selling and buying back helps them decentralize their supply chain and leaves room for larger areas of cultivation (on other people’s farms) while also generating income for more people. Decentralization, they said is a core factor in their business model. The enterprise expects that in three years time, they would have taken delivery of machines for processing the cocoa into finished products. When that is done, they would buy back harvested cocoa fruits from farmers to whom they had sold the young cocoa plants and thus help develop the agriculture value chain.