The 7 Curses of Nigerian Farming and my Cucumber Success Story - JASPER CHIDERA EZIRIM
As he stepped out of the car that brought him from Ibadan, I was surprised at his youthful looks. Gaunt in frame, I almost asked him if he was the Jasper Chidera I had been speaking to on the phone. I had waited for him at the hotel room I booked for him as the Guest Speaker at our Sunday Business School. I had never met him before. I took a leap of faith to invite him and only followed my "inner witness".
Our connection was rather fortuitous- or let me say divinely orchestrated. A senior colleague of mine had called me to ask for my help in introducing his wife who is a cucumber and tomato farmer to a major customer of mine who runs one of the largest supermarket chains in the country. I took the wife to my client and she showed the Purchasing Manager the sample of cucumber and tomato in my presence. She was shown how to package the tomato and cucumber and I heard the PM ask if she would be able to meet their demand. Is there such a huge demand for cucumber? Up till that time, I had always thought-erroneously though- that cucumbers were only planted in the northern part of the country. Exactly a week after this incident, my senior colleague was asked to leave the employ of my organization. Feeling sad and dejected for him, I called another colleague who is around his location to ask for his welfare. "Don't worry about Oga", he told me. "He is a major cucumber and tomato farmer and he even supplies to ------ and ------ supermarkets", he said. One of the names he mentioned is even a South African entity.
I got curious. Cucumber? Tomato? I went online and googled "cucumber farming in Nigeria" and out came a story about a young man doing amazing things with cucumber. I did some more research as I typed in "jasper7", his moniker on the Nairaland platform and out came his story "Modern Cucumber Farming: My One Million Naira Experience". The story was splashed with pictures as evidence. I spent three days reading his story and several comments ( you can read it all here http://www.nairaland.com/2015314/modern-cucumber-farming-1-million). Then I got his contact, sent him a text and later called him. We met for the first time today. Read on after the cut...
In his mid-twenties, he may look young but he is giant in stature and has an incredibly amazing mind. As I ushered him into his hotel room, we connected immediately. I shared my passion about how I want to inspire the entrepreneurial spirit in the young members who form the bulk of the church I pastor. I shared my belief that the church should go beyond building the "spirit man" but building the "total man". I told him how Nigeria is one of the few countries in the world where tomato can be planted thrice a year whereas Thailand that we import tomatoes from has only one season. I shared how the water body in Oke Ogun area of Oyo State can grow enough fish to feed the South West. And how Onigambari has been bought by the Indians because of the water body. He also told me how Indians buy cashew from farmers in Ogbomosho and environs at N150,000 per tonne and then sell same to other Indian businessmen, at times on the spot, at N800,000 per tonne. The same cashew is now exported by the Indian businessmen, processed and imported into the country at N2m per tonne. Obviously tired from his journey as he told me he came in from one of the farms in Oyo, his face lit up as he shared his experience with me. His foray into farming started with an innocuous response to a question someone asked him. "I want to be the richest man in Nigeria", was his response to that question. And the man asked, "How?". That got him thinking. He knew he couldn't be as rich as he wanted to be working for somebody.
He decided to start cucumber farming. He had watched his mother and grandmother farm. He achieved some measure of success and now diverted to poultry. He regards this as one of the failures and turning points in his life. "I was frustrated. I heard that poultry brings big money and I just ventured there. One day, I was so frustrated that I took 2,000 birds, put them in my car and drove to somewhere on the road and released the birds". I screamed, "2,000 birds just like that?". The birds had refused to gain weight after he had spent so much money and he decided to cut his losses. That experience drove him to meet his mother. He had observed how his mum was making money doing subsistence farming. He approached his mum and offered to be an apprentice under her. That decision was to change his life forever. Initially Jasper's mother refused. "I will not treat you like my son if you work under me. I will treat you like every other staff", she said. Jasper agreed and an apprenticeship that spanned over one year and two months started.
But Jasper observed that his mum would always pick the hoe and join her workers in actually tilling the land and working the farm. He was surprised. He had expected his mum to just sit down and dish out orders to the workers. Willing to know the reason, he asked her why. "You must know your job and one of the ways is by actually working with your staff. If you want to excel, you must be able to do all they do". Suddenly, it occurred to Jasper why he failed in his poultry attempt. He was used to dishing out orders to his staff. After, the apprenticeship, he started his cucumber farm again. Now, he was fully prepared.
With the way Jasper shared his experience, he would be on his way to being a Professor if he were an academic. He spoke with such mastery and elocution that I wondered where the wisdom came from. Truly, wisdom is not synonymous with age. Jasper now shared the seven curses that bedevil Nigerian farmers with me. That was supposed to be part of what he would share with my people the next day but I was willing to get some advance tips.
1. State Of Mind Jasper asked me, "What is the first question that comes to your mind when someone is called a farmer?". He didn't wait for me to respond. "What comes to your mind is someone wearing rags", he said. I knew that was true. He said he used to introduce himself as a food consultant when he started out. How can he describe himself as a farmer? It's this mindset that has limited many people and put a lid on what they can achieve.
2. Knowledge Too much of it and too little of it. Jasper said most farmers know very little about what they do. He believes what you know is directly proportional to your output. He also said too much information could be detrimental as it could prevent an action from being taken. I guess that is too much analysis that leads to paralysis.
3. Horizontal Relationship This describes the relationship with neighbours and colleagues. Jasper told me the story of a farmer who had some water body passing through his farm but would later block the community in that area from accessing the water. He said it is necessary to build a good relationship with neighbours and even engage in some form of community service. He also shared how one community would always prevent cows and other animals from grazing on the farm of someone who was very nice to the community.
4. Vertical Relationship When Jasper visited Thailand to observe some farms, he noticed that all the farms had a particular section cordoned off where the farmers prayed to Buddha and other gods. He also told me the story of how Governor Rochas Okorocha decided to engage in large scale farming and invited the Thais to Imo State. He was surprised that when the Thais set foot on the land, the first thing they did was to bring out their incense and praying items, knelt down and started praying- right in front of everyone. Jasper approached one of them and asked him why. In broken and smattering English, the Thai replied that they need to seek the blessing of God so that they don't waste time on that land and for it to be productive. It was an 'ah ah' moment for him. He said he now recollected how our ancestors used to have shrines located in their farms. It is Jasper's belief that an atheist cannot engage in farming successfully. In his words, " You can have a hybrid product through genetic modifications and other scientific means. But no science can make a seed germinate. You just have to wait for it to germinate". The 'Thai Prayer' incident made him seek to invoke the vertical relationship on any farm he goes. He makes it a rule that himself and all the staff must pray- irrespective of their religion.
5. Integrity and Character He believes integrity and character is important in any business and most especially farming. He told me the story of Jethro, a female tomato farmer in Saki, Oyo State who has built such a reputation for herself that nobody can buy land for farming in that axis without the owner consulting Her and seeking her consent. I was told she even stands as surety for people who want to engage in one form of credit or the other with the farmers. Jasper said it's important to be known to speak the truth at all times.
6. First Step He shared the story of Joseph and how Pharaoh had a dream. He stated that Pharaoh didn't know what to do with the dream until Joseph showed up. "Dreams are free. Talk is cheap. Planning costs little but action is everything". One day, someone called me and shared his business plan for hours. When I asked him when he would start, he said very soon", Jasper said. So many people talk but few actually do. He said taking the first step is one of the most difficult things to do.
Jasper told me how one of his uncles called him one day and asked what he was doing outside Owerri. He had started his cucumber farm in Owerri but had gone to another State to start a new farm. His uncle was surprised that he left Owerri to start a new farm. "Is the farm in Owerri not doing well?", he asked.
He felt Jasper should be satisfied with what he had in Owerri. "I wasn't satisfied with staying in my comfort zone", Jasper said. "If you want to be a big time farmer, then you do small things in so many big ways", he said.
He doesn't believe in staying on one spot. For him, continuos improvement and expansion was key. I was surprised when he told me that he calculated how much time he spent travelling around his farms and others on which he consults and found out it was about the equivalent of 4 months in the year. He also told me in his bid for improvement, he has started small research units on his farms. He said he was ready to experiment even if it means some losses.
Jasper spoke to me from his heart and I was blessed. "You can't play in the big league and not have an all-stars team", he said. He shared how he is building his team and watching out for those he can entrust with greater responsibilities. 'I have turned my team into my partners. I pay them only pocket-money but they understand that proceeds from each farm they oversee and manage will be shared in the ration 50:50. For him, it is better to have 50% of 10 farms than to have 100% of one farm. He told me how he had to ask one of those who wanted to follow him to the Sunday Business School programme to go to Kaduna to solve a farmer's problem there. With his team in place, he doesn't have to travel as much as he used to.
He is our Speaker at our event later this morning (it's 1.07am as I write this) and I couldn't have wished for a better Speaker. He is supposed to speak for one hour but I have increased it by another thirty minutes. Jasper has a story everyone needs to hear. May God raise one million Jaspers in this country.