AgroEknor International (AEI), an agricultural and commodity export trading business, is reducing poverty in rural areas, creating jobs and boosting women’s income through hibiscus flower, DANIEL ESSIET writes.
Widely known for its lush red petals and a combination of sweet and tart taste, HibiscusSabdariffa, commonly known as the hibiscus flower, is used for tea, medicine and animal fodder, among others.
Due to its diverse use, the dried hibiscus flower, known in local parlance as zobo, has enjoyed an increase in demand from European, Asian and North American clients. Poor farmers and producers living in rural areas make up 75 per cent of the hibiscus cultivating population. However, they lack access to crucial input and services. Most of them are contract labourers working for firms which supply input and start-up capital, the raw materials and collect harvested and semi-processed hibiscus flower.
One of such firms is AgroEknor International (AEI), an agricultural and commodity export trading business based in Abuja. The firm has invested in farmers in Kano, Katsina and Jigawa states, a region with a tradition in the cultivation of quality hibiscus flower. The company provides agricultural inputs and services to farmers. One of the beneficiaries is Alhaji Idris Abubakar, a contract farmer engaged by AgroEknor.
He cultivates a 5,000-hectare hibiscus farm in Dambatta, Kano State. In a hectare, he makes at least N50,000 return on investment of N250,000. He is not alone. Life has changed for Abdullahi Tawal, who cultivates hibiscus flower on a 1000-hectare farm at Dutsima Local Government Area in Katsina. His income has increased thanks to AgroEknor contract farming project to improve the hibiscus flower industry. He has built a house and is married. To them, the support has helped farmers to capitalise on an untapped market opportunity – growing hibiscus.
The company works with people of all faith to ensure that they have the security, livelihoods, and rights they need to live life to the full.
The company is building particular expertise in empowering poor producers to improve and process their goods, which it offtakes and export.
Director, Operations, AgroEknor, Adedoyin Adesanya, said hibiscus flower would be one of the biggest areas of opportunity for agro entrepreneurs in the next 10 to 20 years.
He said the government and the private sector should understand and harness the potential of the flower as a money spinner. He identified a number of challenges for small businesses seeking to make money from hibiscus to include application of internationally- recognised safety standards and knowledge transfer.
According to him, hibiscus should be a major focus area for government with functional beverages and syrups as having particular potential for hibiscus products and other derivatives.
He said the company engages in collection, cultivation, harvesting, processing, and marketing of hibiscus in Europe, Mexico and the United States.
He said hibiscus is a potential crop to fuel economic growth due to huge market demand from overseas countries and reasonable prices. Additionally, the crop can withstand many of the climatic changes that destroy other crops.
To thrive, he said small producers of hibiscus need to produce to high standards and have access to markets on favourable terms.
The focus of the company, Adesanya explained, is to empower small-scale farmers to grow and commercialise hibiscus flowers. To this end, he said its contract farmers receive funding to expand production through access to training, credit and specialist tools. This has generated hundreds of direct and indirect seasonal jobs. Due to the success of the project, Adesanya said the firm has support from Nigerian Export-Import Bank (NEXIM) to enhance contributions to non-oil exports in Nigeria.
This level of impact and scalability, he noted, would not have been possible without the assistance of the bank. The bank provides long-term concessionary funds to support its export project to help local farmers.
To avoid rejection which most exports suffer, the company pays particular attention on the process of preparation, packaging and storage of the hibiscus flowers picked on its farms to reduce the possibility of contamination and assure clients of its commitment to high quality.
He said the firm focuses on improving the skills of farmers and processors at different stages of the production process. This has resulted in better quality products and more efficient production methods.
He urged investors to explore opportunities in the hibiscus export market.
With N250, 000 investments, he believes investors can raise at least 20 per cent return after a harvest season.
In general, he said free on board (FoB) export prices range from $1,500 to $3,000/metric ton (MT). He said the support for farmers, such as Abubakar has resulted in the creation of new jobs, mostly for rural women, and profits have been invested in their families’ welfare, children’s education and the development of small businesses.
He explained that if one doesn’t have a good product, it’ll be harder to make a good profit. So make sure the agro producer ensure the flowers are grown in healthy soil, he said, adding that one also has to use organic materials, such as organic fertiliser.
According to him, Nigeria has the capacity to export a huge volume of hibiscus if the country is able to meet the requirements of importing nations.
Founding Partner, AgroEknor, TimiOke said the firm has supported several agro entrepreneurs, including women in Kano, to work their way out of poverty, and that hibiscus sector has played a key role in reducing poverty and empowering women. The sector, he explained, is not only promising for the country’s economic development, but also contributes to the economic empowerment of women.
He said Mexico accounted for more than 85 per cent of the import of the product from Nigeria.
Mexico is now considered the second-most-obese country in the world, and the Mexican government has made it a priority to reverse this through education campaigns and new food nutrition laws targeting school children. He said organic hibiscus enjoy premium prices thanks to their benefits for health and the environment.
He said the income generated from the business can help rural producers rise out of poverty and is likely to have wider long-term benefits.
He lamented the ban placed on the export of hibiscus flower by Mexico, adding that the action had crippled the businesses and led to massive job losses.
According to him, hibiscus flower farming is a business on the rise and the demand for it is increasing yearly.
He saw the main challenges in creating an enabling environment for the farmers via training services, empowering farmers to produce in larger scale, to increase productivity, opening marketing and trade opportunities as well as supporting export.
The Nigerian Agricultural Quarantine Service(NAQS) said the country generated $35 million from hibiscus (zobo) export. The Coordinating Director, NAQS, Dr Vincent Isegbe said hibiscus popularly called zobo has high commercial value that state governments could key into, which already Jigawa State has and now the largest producer of the commodity, followed by other states, such as Katsina, Kano, Zamfara, Kebbi, Zamfara, Borno and Yobe.
Meanwhile, states such as Edo, Kwara, could cultivate zobo plant due to the dry weather they have and would also boost their revenue generation.
For the farmers of zobo who were registering in Jigawa and Kano states, he advised them to form organised hibiscus farmers’ clusters as seen in other crops and value chains, which would further increase the production and export volumes, thereby access government and donor interventions in capacity building and technical assistance.