By Telema Wilson
Niger Delta region, home to about thirty million people and popularly acknowledged for its rich oil reserves that fetches over 70 percent of Nigeria’s export earnings, is also a rich producer of plantain.
Aside plantain being a widespread staple food, it is a unique delicacy that can be prepared by frying, roasting or boiling. For commercial purpose, it can be processed as plantain chips or into flour which has become a preferred substitute for wheat flour given its high quality nutritional content.
Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) statistics show that Nigeria is a major plantain-growing nation with more than half of its estimated annual production capacity of 2.74 million tonnes coming from the Niger Delta alone. Of the sixteen states classified as plantain producers, nine are in the Niger Delta. These are Edo, Ondo, Delta, Rivers, Cross Rivers, Akwa Ibom, Imo, Bayelsa and Abia states. Coincidentally, they are in the oil-producing region of Nigeria.
Given that plantain grows in abundance all-year round in the Niger Delta, the expectation is that it would constitute a high income generating source for farmers and those engaged in its post-harvest production.
Unfortunately, that has not been the case. That the Niger Delta plantain potential has remained untapped for decades is an ugly statement of fact that is overdue for remedy. This sad story of unexploited wealth becomes very uncomfortable to digest especially when it is tied to a people that have for decades sought fresh narratives beyond reliance on federally-controlled statutory allocations from oil earnings and have expressed resentment over environmental degradation from oil exploration activities.
The huge percentage of plantain lost to post-harvest inadequacies is regrettable. However, with the recent focus of the Federal Government on green economy for the region through its overhauled Niger Delta Disarmament, Demobilization, Rehabilitation and Reintegration (DDR) programme, a new dawn seems to have arrived.
Specifically, with a fresh economic vision of capturing ex-militants into agro-related initiatives, it is obvious that the present leadership of the DDR programme is offering an optimistic future and narrative that not only gives a sense of real economic hope but demonstrates increased genuine interest of the Federal government in the Niger Delta.
No doubt, the Special Adviser to the President on Niger Delta, Brigadier-General Boroh (rtd) has embraced the economic change agenda of the federal government, especially in running a series of new empowerment programmes focused on harnessing the potentials of Niger Delta ex-agitators. What stands out is the newly-introduced tarter pack plantain chip (a.k.a ‘kpekere’ or ‘hunger quencher’) production scheme which it grants Ex Agitators with special equipment like industrial plantain slicing machines, gas-powered commercial deep fryers and sealers. Even though, it is difficult to apply a sweeping narrative to all DDR agro projects, but there is sufficient evidence to affirm that most of the agriculture projects are successful especially the plantain chip production, a highly profitable venture.
The desire of the Office of the Special Adviser to the Presidency on Amnesty to use ex-agitators for industrial production of plantain chips to create value-added plantain products and income-generating opportunities is a welcome development.
Aside this DDR plantain chip production initiative having the capacity to reduce both redundancy and unemployment in the Niger Delta, it comes with huge economic prospects for beneficiaries of the programme.
Presently, the economic transformation of ex-agitators involved in plantain chip production seems to have just begun as the market is enormous. The Boroh-led DDR programme envisages that these products will eventually be exported across West Africa.
For now, the anticipated economic growth from the initiative may not be very noticeable because of the limited scope of the scheme.
However, emerging signals indicate it is a good partners’ approach by the President Buhari-led federal government as it is encouraging entrepreneurship through small business support for ex-agitators.
Certainly, such a quick impact money-earning project will advance peace and security in a region massively rocked by waves of restiveness powered by idle youths before the introduction of Amnesty aspect of the DDR in 2009.
On plantain chip production by Ex Agitators, the realistic forecast should be that with better equipped new entrepreneurs, the Niger Delta can become the biggest exporter of value-added and finished plantain products in Africa. Indeed, if the plantain abundance in the region is fully exploited and well managed, this hitherto hidden treasure may be a major source of wealth that could catapult the region’s fortune as the estimated annual economic gain for Niger Delta runs into hundreds of millions of dollars. However, whether or not the initiative can become Niger Delta’s new engine of economic growth will largely depend on next steps taken.
At the moment, all the economic variables of some Niger Delta ex-agitators becoming exporters are clear. The likelihood of the initiative thrusting the region to the top of trade in value-added plantain products rather than just suppliers of unprocessed raw materials is very high. With such an initiative in place, the economy of the Niger Delta will be driven mostly by agricultural production.
This will make the federal government’s dream of a Niger Delta green economy accomplishable. Also, it would have positive multiplier effect on employment of youths in the region and reverse the culture of reliance on government handouts.
While the big infrastructure projects that drive overall economic growth are being carried out by other intervention organisations like the NDDC and the Ministry of Niger Delta, it is vital to recognize resentments expressed in Niger Delta that the benefits from such do not trickle down immediately to the masses nor offer direct monetary enhancement. The engagement of these agencies in plantain chips production will also assist in offering instant gains for the Niger Delta people and help dismiss the many misconceptions about the present administration’s good intents. Realistically, if this particular DDR programme can be replicated by other government agencies and interest groups involved in developing the region, then that might mean that a viable blueprint for the Niger Delta green economy would have been discovered.
This unique initiative under President Buhari’s administration towards harnessing the untapped potentials of the Niger Delta region’s plantain resources is commendable as it has already indicated positive results as being capable of introducing distinct gross financial gains and freedom from poverty for some ex-agitators.
However, the leadership of the DDR programme should recognize that the work ahead is much as only a minute population of the poor has been covered. As such, the need to dedicate more resources to broaden the scope of this winning initiative to accommodate more persons cannot be overemphasised. It is really unfortunate that women are almost completely excluded from the Niger Delta Developmental Action Plan but this idea of granting starter packs for commercial plantain production chip offers the leadership of the DDR programme an opportunity to redress the disturbing gender imbalance in its empowerment schemes, given that women are globally recognized as the veritable peace and home-builders especially in such a post conflict region.
Telema Wilson, Ph.D, is the Co-ordinator of Activists for Niger Delta Advancement & Positive Engagement. (ANDAPE) and writes from Port Harcourt.
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