By Chuks Iloegbunam
Nigeria has it on the authority of Mr. Godwin Emefiele, the Central Bank Governor, that the country spends in excess of $500 million annually on the importation of palm oil alone. That is more than a whopping N180 billion every 12 months for a commodity the country was previously the largest exporter of. For a broad swathe of the country, the untenable situation passed off like just another news item. But, for Mr. Ifie Sekibo, the Managing Director/Chief Executive Officer of Heritage Bank Plc, the development is not only scandalous but urgently deserving of stoppage and reversal.
It is easy to pinpoint the reason behind Mr. Sekibo’s outrage. In the 1960s, Nigeria was the world leader in palm oil production and exportation, accounting for 40 percent of the world market. Countries like Indonesia and Malaysia came to Nigeria to pick and collect palm seedlings for cultivation in their countries. Today, they are the principal entities reaping humongous export profits from Nigeria’s relentless pacification of its palate’s craving for palm oil, and its dependence on other derivatives of the palm fruit like margarine, soap, toothpaste and medicines. Yet, Nigeria’s South-East and South-South geopolitical zones still retain such land arability that made it the centre of palm oil in the days before and immediately after political independence. Nigeria’s current situation as a net importer of palm oil is as absurd as an Ngwo indigene of Enugu State importing coal, or a desert-bound Arab buying sand.
Fortunately, the Heritage Bank’s boss stands out of the pack that only sees and readily compartmentalizes Nigeria’s multifarious handicaps but remains numb, dumb and inactive. This is for the simple reason that he sits at the apex of a financial institution that has devised a full-proof means of turning around the unfortunate reality of wasting money on things that nationals of this country should be enjoying and, additionally, exporting for huge profits. That is why Heritage Bank is into a scheme to help relaunch Nigeria as a globally recognized agricultural juggernaut. This is saying that Heritage Bank’s interest is not tied to farming of the cultivation and harvesting alone, but is also aimed at animal husbandry and dairy farming.
This is Mr. Sekibo’s articulation of what he and his team of go-getters are into: “We provide innovative services. To us, innovation isn’t only about creating something new, it is also about taking something that exists and transforming it into something bigger and better. As a new entrant to the banking sector, our edge is that we are starting from where our competitors stopped while being able to avoid all the mistakes they made along the way. Having imbibed a culture of continuous innovation, I am confident of Heritage Bank’s ability to adapt to envisaged customer and sector changes.”
This overall entrepreneurial viewpoint can forensically be examined against the backdrop of the former Eastern Nigeria, which today is the South-East, and the South-South geopolitical zones, minus Delta and Edo States. During the First Republic, when Dr. M. I. Okpara was the Premier of the Eastern Region, there was no talk of hunger or starvation; it was a season of multi-sectoral developments that peaked in the agricultural sector. To quote from a public lecture I delivered last year, “When Okpara took charge in 1959, he saw to the inauguration of the University of Nigeria. He established the university’s College of Agriculture in Ogoja. His entire Agricultural programme, modelled after the Israeli Kibbutz, translated the various farm settlements he established in key parts of the East and ultimately made Eastern Nigeria the country’s breadbasket by 1965. It is a matter of public record that, by 1965, school children in Eastern schools were having an egg each for their breakfasts in Eastern schools as a result of the quantum of eggs produced in the Region.”
After M. I. Okpara, and after the Nigeria-Biafra War, everything went to pieces, to the extent that the people’s transition from starvation diets to famine is possibly as close as the wink. It is this contingency that Mr. Sekibo is viscerally against. His antipathy for it is seen in the scheme his Bank has set up to revive agriculture in Nigeria, but especially the South East. True, three renown Anambra businessmen – Chief Innocent Chukwuma of the Innoson Group, Chief Ifeanyi Uba of Capital Oil and Chief Ernest Obiejezie of ObiJackson Consolidated – have thrown their entrepreneurial cap in the ring to foster largescale cattle ranching. This is praiseworthy. Mr. Sekibo acknowledges the healthy development but argues that, although three is good, 300 is infinitely better. His message is straightforward. Heritage Bank is primed to provide extensive loan facilities and technical support to Ndigbo willing to go into agriculture.
Hardly any news can be more welcome because the outcome can only be a giant leap for the region in food production, job opportunities, wealth creation and revenue accumulation. Things can hardly look better. Previously, many great business ideas perished for lack of financial backup. Now, Heritage Bank is inviting all and sundry to come with their proposals and get equipped with the financial muscle to return the entity to the joys of agricultural plenty and the peace and contentment that issues therefrom! Not only the moguls are invited. People could team up as cooperatives. Societies could ditch all the grammar and train some attention in the general direction of tilling. Town unions cannot be left out. Once they are synced with the Heritage Bank, “all systems are go.”
It is imperative to reiterate what is at stake. In terms of palm oil alone, it bears repetition that Nigeria annually expends nearly N200 billion in importation. The world teems with countries that fall short of this figure in their annual budgets. Now, if the South-East and the South-South geopolitical zones recreated the oil palm business that previously boomed in the zones, that is approximately N200 billion in annual earnings for them. Yet, palm oil is infinitesimal in relation to the aggregate agricultural potentialities of the two zones. Knowing the entrepreneurial spirit of Ndigbo, it goes without saying that Heritage Bank’s offer of loans to enhance agriculture is one they are bound to grab with both arms.
It is self-evident that Heritage Bank’s pitch stands on an economic pedestal. But, stemming from that base is the pennant of the patriotic flag. If the former Eastern Region regains its previous position of the nation’s breadbasket, it will represent a tremendous economic fillip to the national economy; if the national economy sheds its preponderant dependence on the sale of crude oil, the time will be ripe for a primal scream of hurrah.
One last word from Mr. Sekibo: “Heritage Bank’s philosophy is to create, preserve and transfer wealth across generations. We are in the business to provide service per excellence and to grow with our customers. We are here to help our customers create wealth for themselves, assist our partners preserve their wealth and guide them in transferring it to the next generation. We have specialized products that enjoy zero commission on turnover charges and high interest yields, amongst others for our partners. These products help us in supporting our customers’ businesses and taking them to greater heights.”
- Mr. Iloegbunam writes from Awka, Anambra