By Jeffrey Boshart, manager of the Global Food Initiative
I traveled to Nigeria in my role as manager of the Global Food Initiative (GFI), along with GFI consultant Dennis Thompson, from Sept. 20-27. Thompson has worked for the University of Illinois Cooperative Extension and worked in the US seed industry before retiring. On this trip, he also represented the US-based nonprofit AgGrandize Global.
The trip was a fact-finding visit and a chance to learn more about the agriculture and business initiatives of Ekklesiyar Yan’uwa a Nigeria (EYN, the Church of the Brethren in Nigeria). We had opportunities to discuss and assess the possibilities of EYN’s idea to open a government-recognized seed business to serve farmers in northeast Nigeria. With the inclusion of AgGrandize and its expertise in business development, it seemed like our team might be able to be of benefit to EYN.
Along with EYN president Joel S. Billi, we visited the EYN Micro-finance bank and met with bank manager Samuel Yohanna and members of the bank’s independent board of directors. The bank provides a variety of loans to EYN members and others, with many (approximately 60 percent) being micro-loans to farmer groups. All EYN staff are required to have an account with the bank.
Please pray… For the ministry of the agriculture department of EYN, and for the planning for a new seeds business for the Nigerian Brethren.
The bank now manages some hundreds of millions of Naira. The Nigerian government requires it to have more than 1 billion Naira under management in order to open branches in other locations. (The current exchange rate is around 900 Naira to the US dollar.)
The bank manager shared concerns including that the new federal government has removed controls on the Naira and it is now allowed to fluctuate freely, leading to rapid devaluation of the currency. The Nigerian government also has removed fuel subsidies and the ripple effect throughout the economy, along with the worldwide effects of the war in Ukraine and global inflation, has led to increased poverty and hunger across Nigeria.
At the EYN Headquarters in Kwarhi we met with the steering committee of EYN’s agriculture department. This volunteer group has guided the Soybean Value Chain Project, a recipient of GFI grants, since 2017, and is the group that came up with the idea for a seed company. The committee met for several days before we arrived and developed a rough draft of a business plan. They presented the need for farmers to have reliable, quality seed. Currently seed is purchased in local markets or from local dealers and there is no way to know its germination rates or its age. Farmers often are victimized by people selling old or expired seeds. What commercial seed is available often is sold in quantities too large for most farmers to access. What is needed is quality seed that is sold at reasonable prices in quantities (around 2 kg. in the case of maize) that are suitable for farmers.
We heard again and again that the name EYN is trusted not only by its members, but also its neighbors. The plan calls for the EYN seed company to be located south of Yola in a region where land is cheaper and more fertile, and where rainfall is more predictable. This is because the population density is lower. Land would be purchased, staff hired (including a university-trained agronomist and a plant breeder), and storage and office buildings constructed, among other needs. The project would begin with open pollinated maize (corn) and soybeans, and later move to raising and selling hybrid seeds, with germination a top priority along with varietal purity, yield, and resistance to pests and drought.
In addition, we met with the staff of the agricultural department for a review their current ventures and toured their poultry, swine, seed replication, orchards, and other facilities. They operate a tractor donated by Brethren from the US and are now in possession of a multi-crop thresher built in a GFI-sponsored workshop held in Nigeria earlier this year. We did not meet with the volunteer extension agents involved with the soybean project but learned that it continues to be welcomed by the church. Soybean prices have remained high and have provided good yields and increased incomes for EYN farmers.
In addition, we met with the denominational standing committee of EYN and heard an excellent summary of the church’s interest in opening more businesses to help fund its ministries from Ayuba Balami, director of Finance and Economic Development. EYN’s businesses include Crago Bread, Kulp Water, and a cement block-making business, along with the Micro-finance bank. Start-up capital for each of these businesses came from the pastors’ and employees’ pension fund. Basically, instead of investing pension money in the stock market as we do here in the US, they are investing in themselves. All of the businesses are fully owned by EYN and are registered and regulated by the Nigerian government, particularly the food industries. All are profitable, with Kulp Water being the most profitable as the water comes from the bore hole on the headquarters property. The entire standing committee accompanied our tour of the water bottling plant and block businesses. We traveled to see Crago Bread with a smaller contingent.
I asked EYN president Joel Billi if church members have questioned the idea of the church getting involved with running businesses, as some in the US likely would do. He smiled and said that to the contrary, EYN members have been saying for years that the church needed to be utilizing its funds, particularly the pension program funds that Tom and Janet Crago from the US church helped them set up in the early 2000s.
Overall, it was an excellent trip. I see EYN’s experience in operating pension funds and businesses as something that has value for many of our other emerging international Church of the Brethren groups as well.
— Jeffrey S. Boshart is manager of the Church of the Brethren’s Global Food Initiative and the Emerging Global Mission Fund. Find out more at www.brethren.org/gfi.
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