REVEALED: 'Igbo' Business Takes Over Cocoa & Rice Farmlands In Nigeria

In this special report, Kunle Falayi finds out how two Nigerian states known for massive production of two ‘golden crops’ – cocoa and rice – went from the highest producers of the crops in the country, to the highest producers of cannabis. It's an interesting read:

45-year-old Omobomi Olanrewaju was in a five-foot by five-foot kiosk where he sells soft drinks having a light-hearted conversation with some of his friends when this Punch reporter walked in.

The goods in Olanrewaju’s shop, one of many that dot streets in Ogbese, Ondo State, could not have been more than N20,000. But when the conversation with him started, it became clear that was all the source of livelihood he depended on.

But life for this man, could have been way different. If things had been the way it used to be in the days of his father, he could be living a wonderful life now, he said.

By the time his dad died many years ago, Olanrewaju said he left at least six hectares of cocoa farm. It was supposed to be a source of wealth, but it quickly became a burden to the old man’s children.

“If I have the means to cultivate that cocoa farm, you can imagine how rich I would be by now. But if I venture into the cultivation, everything I make from it would go into labour and agro-chemicals. If I want to die young and in poverty, then I would go and cultivate what is left of my father’s six hectares of cocoa farmland. Many of the cocoa trees have even died off. Cocoa farming is not a joke anymore. The profit is not worth it,” the man said, with an expression that tells of the seriousness of his explanation.

This same kind of answer would be repeated by many former cocoa farmers and children of cocoa farmers that this reporter spoke with during a two-day visit to the community.

Two crops, one love
The rustic town of Ogbese in the northwest corner of the state, was once a centre of massive cocoa farming like many other towns of Ondo.

But today, Ogbese has become a community with a single reputation – one of Nigeria’s largest producers of cannabis, popularly called Indian hemp.

Just few weeks ago, the National Drug Law Enforcement Agency intercepted a shipment of 3.7 tonnes of cannabis in the area.

Few years ago, an NDLEA commander in the state said the duo of Ogbese and Owo, another town in the area, accounted for at least 95 per cent of the cannabis plantations in the state.

The reason for the large scale cannabis cultivation became apparent.

The residents explained that it is simply a matter of which of either cocoa or cannabis mostly satisfies their love for money with relatively easy production process.

“Imagine spending three to four years to cultivate cocoa from seedling to fruiting and selling it at about N500 per kilogramme despite the labour and expenses on chemicals such as Ridomin (used to fight black pod disease). But a cannabis farmer spends about six months in his own farm with little labour or expenses of fumigation and makes almost N10,000 on one kilogramme of the weed. For those who are desperate to make money, which product do you think they would rather cultivate?” a farmer asked correspondent.

This explanation may not be totally off the mark.

One tonne of cocoa according to the International Cocoa Organisation, sells at $2,520/tonne (about N794,430) as of November 11. This means N794.43 to a kilogramme.

On the other hand, the NDLEA spokesperson, Mr. Mitchell Ofoyeju, said one tonne of cannabis sells for about N10m ($31,720) on the street. That is about N10,000 for one kilogramme.

The result of this disparity is the gradual ‘death’ of cocoa and a massive cultivation of cannabis, in a state once known as the cocoa powerhouse of Nigeria.

In fact, in the 60s, Nigeria was rated the second largest cocoa producer in the world, while the area that later became Ondo State produced about 70 per cent of national output, according to the office of the state’s cocoa revolution programme.

But currently, cannabis cultivation in Ondo State has become so massive that NDLEA discovers and destroys hundreds of hectares of these farmlands every year.

In 2014, for instance, what was described as the largest cannabis farmland in Africa was found and destroyed by the agency in Ondo State.

The incursion of cannabis cartels
In Ogbese, a town once surrounded by hectares upon hectares of cocoa farms, large cocoa plantations have become a rarity.

Jonah Agagaraga, an okada rider, who took Punch reporter to a farmland his father once owned 10 hectares of cocoa, spread his arms as he explained the expanse of what the plantation used to be like.

On one part of the farm, a lone cocoa tree stands with few pods hanging on it. The tree stood in the middle of weeds like a tragic hero of the golden days gone by.

In another part of the farm, few fruiting trees still stood with pods hanging on, many of them dying a slow death from the ravages of black pod disease.

It is doubtful if Jonah, son of the late Chief Agagaraga, could gather enough money from the meagre revenue of his commercial motorcycle to fumigate what is left of his father’s cocoa plantation.

“What is the point?” he said. Like Olanrewaju, the kiosk owner, the massive plantation left by his father, became a burden after the old man’s death because the support enjoyed in the golden era of cocoa was no longer available.

But wouldn’t the harvest and revenue have been worth the investment of time and money if he had tried to rescue the surviving cocoa?

Jonah did not think so.

In fact, it was so bad that cocoa was selling for N200 per kilogram at a time. That was N200,000 per tonne. That would have been a waste of energy and money,” he said.

But what about now when the price is much higher? Jonah is still sceptical.

If the price remains this high by next year, I will try. I heard I can make almost N1m from one tonne now. That is a lot of money,” he said.

Jonah explained that many families such as his have simply leased or sold large portions of their late fathers’ cocoa farmlands to enthusiastic farmers from Delta or Edo states.

In Ogbese and former cocoa-rich lands in the area, it was learnt that this arrangement has become so popular most of the cocoa farmlands have been taken over by people pretending to be cocoa farmers.

Jonah took this reporter on his motorcycle to an expanse of land that had no crops on it. It belonged to a popular family in the community, he said.

One day, one of such “farmers” approached the family and a sharecropping arrangement was made. This time, the family asked to be given 50 per cent of the profit from the cocoa cultivation on the farmland.

Two years later, one of the members of the family, who was disgruntled about the arrangement visited the cocoa farm and found that much of it had been turned to a cannabis land.

The family member was said to have contacted NDLEA operatives who raided the farm.

Twenty-five hectares of hemp plants were destroyed during the operation that lasted one week. Five of the farmers were arrested and charged to court by the agency.

Stories such as this have become all too common in the area where many families even deliberately turn a blind eye to the illegal cultivation on their land, feigning ignorance, so far as the profit comes in regularly.

Agronomist and Chairman of the Ondo State Agricultural Commodities Association, Mr. Akin Olotu, said this system has become a widespread practice that many cocoa producing communities in Ondo State now give out their lands to people with promise of share in the profit of the farm produce.

“This is the problem in all the main cocoa producing towns we have been to. When the owner of the cocoa farm is dead, the children look for people who would take charge of the farm and give them a share of the profit. Unfortunately, this is when some of the new people begin to grow illegal crops,” he said.

Much of the farms are barely accessible by motorcycle. For few cocoa farmers remaining in Ogbese, this is a tragedy. Bulk of their products decompose before they are able to get out of the farms.

The natives say it is an advantage to Indian hemp growers who have become sophisticated in their operations. The cannabis farms are sometimes discovered inside the jungle that requires at least 30 minutes of trekking from the nearest road. In fact, Ondo State has the largest forest reserves in the country, which government has no capacity to completely monitor. Locals say most of the remote parts of these reserves have also been turned to cannabis farms by the drug cartels.

Those who lease their lands to strangers here don’t just go there anyhow. If they do, these Indian hemp growers, may shoot them dead or attack with cutlasses because they believe our people report them to NDLEA,” a native, Elder Oluwaniran Gbadegun, said.

Few years ago, two officials of the NDLEA were killed by the members of a drug cartel that owned a cannabis plantation the agents went to raid.

“Our men have been attacked on cannabis farms on several occasions. The cartels also set dangerous traps on the bush paths leading to the cannabis farms. Many firearms have equally been recovered from cannabis farmers. So, it is a serious battle,” Ofoyeju said.