Bayelsa: Feeding frenzy in the Niger Delta
Bayelsa State's local government and private investors are backing projects to set up fish farms and to produce more staple crops, like cassava
Bayelsa State is a textbook example of the resource curse and the ills of an oil-backed economy. Agriculture has been a primary casualty, and despite the fertile soils, its rainforest and savannah climate, the production of staple root crops such as cassava has been badly hit.
The state’s mangrove swamps and networks of creeks define its landscape, but it is onshore oil wells and gas pipelines that have dominated the economy at terrible human cost. Although the state produces over a fifth of Nigeria’s gas – the country has the ninth biggest reserves in the world – the population suffers from poverty and violent militancy.
Over the past 50 years, millions of barrels of oil have leached into the creeks and farmland, destroying livelihoods and poisoning the water table. Also, much of the oil revenue stayed in the centre. Of the little that dripped into the state treasury, vast sums were hijacked by kleptocrat politicians while only the small change was invested in schools, clinics and roads.
Now the Bayelsa government wants to launch a “cassava revolution”, says Doodei Week, the state’s commissioner of agriculture. “We want to industrialise cassava […] because we have to create jobs through the production of by-products like cassava flour, tapioca, starch,” Week tells The Africa Report in Yenagoa. “Every day, starch buyers go to the Central Bank of Nigeria to change dollars. Look at how we are dispensing hard currency we don’t even have!”
No extension services, no growth
For decades, farmers in Bayelsa lacked almost any technological support such as improved crop and livestock varieties and extension services. The state government has made setting up a starch mill with an output of 60tn per day a top priority to kickstart the sector.
1,500: Number of jobs the state intends to create through its aquaculture strategy: one complex in each local-government area
It has also signed a memorandum of understanding with a Danish firm to build a quasi-industrial farm linked to a network of smallholders and off-takers to boost Bayelsa’s self-sufficiency in food production. Bayelsa officials say the government is on the brink of signing a deal with private companies and the central bank to establish a 50,000ha oil-palm plantation, of which 1,500ha has already been concessioned.
“We have earmarked land for it, done preliminary surveys […]. As soon as funds are provided, we’ll go into it,” says Weeks. “Once we get that right, then Bayelsa becomes the next Malaysia.” Such investments should be major revenue earners for the state when the oil and gas revenue dry up, argues Weeks.
Elsewhere, the government is also fishing for support to take advantage of its swampland, including reaching out to Israeli firms to establish high-technology fish farms. “You cannot leave agriculture for government alone. It cannot be sustainable,” Weeks says.
The first Bayelsa Aquaculture Village, a 500-pond complex in Yenegwe, is operating on a self-financing basis complete with processing facilities, feed mills and a restaurant. Two others are under construction. The grand plan is to build at least one aquaculture complex in each of the state’s eight local-government areas and create at least 1,500 direct jobs.