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Deaths, thorny debts: Inside Nigeria’s largest pig farm where farmers lost billions to African swine fever

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FOR Olanrewaju Ajabi, a pig farmer resident in Oke-Aro, Ifo Local Government Area of Ogun State, the year, 2020, will forever linger in her mind. Last year, she lost her spouse, Funsho Ajabi, to the effect of African Swine Fever (ASF) on their pig farm. He died from  trauma.

Strangely, the double tragedy occurred during COVID-19 outbreak in Nigeria. Close to a million pigs were reported dead. But more than 13 months after, no financial help has come her way, alongside relatives of other deceased farmers, some of who took loans to start the pig farming business. Unlike poultry farmers who get compensated once the Avian Influenza H5N1 (bird flu) strikes, those in piggery affected by the ASF are left to bear the brunt. Still, both diseases have no cure.

 

How Ajabi died

The late Ajabi retired as general manager at the Nigerian Wire Industries. Prior to his retirement, he had been supporting his wife, Olanrewaju, at the pig farm at Oke-Aro. The farm settlement is considered the largest in West Africa with over a million pigs and about 5,000 farmers, but it is managed by the Lagos State government.

The couple had spent over 20 years in the business. But days after Ajabi’s retirement, he moved his retirement benefits into the pig farm. Olanrewaju did not disclose the exact sum, but the couple was hopeful the return on investment would run into millions. Fewer than two weeks into the investment, their hope was dashed. They lost about 200 pigs to the ASF. Sadly, unlike COVID-19, the ASF has no vaccine except for good farm hygiene known as biosecurity.

In March 2020, Ajabi sat on the farm, just a few metres into his pen. Lost in thought of his losses, he watched as his support staff walked in to pick the dead animals to bury.

Late Funsho Ajabi slumped as he watched his pigs buried in mass. Photo Credit: Olugbenga Adanikin, The ICIR.

 

As the event unfolded, he stood up, took a deep breath, and collapsed. That was the beginning of his predicament.

“He had no prior medical issue,” his wife said, pointing to the pen’s entrance where her late husband sat. “I quickly called on people to assist me. We rushed him to three hospitals before he eventually died.”

Still with a swollen face, and red eyes, the mother of three fought to flash some smiles while appreciating friends, relatives who stood by her after the incident. She denied any monetary support from the government. Luckily, her children have graduated but still unemployed.

 

What is ASF

The World Organisation for Animal Health described ASF as a highly contagious hemorrhagic viral disease of domestic and wild pigs. It is often responsible for serious economic and production losses once a pig farm is infected. It spreads fast, and the infected animals become reddish while they stop feeding.

Depending on the type of pig production and environment, the ASF could infect the domestic animals through direct contact with infected domestic or wild pigs, or indirect contact through intake of contaminated food waste, garbage, or feeds.

Though it poses no public health risk to humans, infected pigs die within six to 13 days, thus the death rate may be as high as 100 per cent. After last year’s outbreak, officials of the state ministry of agriculture visited the farm, took animal waste samples but never returned with results.

Nigeria is recognised as one of the leading producers of pig meat globally. From 1961 to 2019, pig meat production witnessed steady growth, increasing at 29.41 per cent in 1984 until it plummeted to 0.85 per cent in 2019, according to World Atlas Data.

In 1970, Nigeria’s production was pegged at 28,350 tonnes. By 2019, it had grown to 302, 027 tonnes until the 2020 ASF outbreak.

Still, between 2016 and 2019, at least 63 cases of ASF were reported in Africa, 392 in Asia, and 9,756 in the European Union. These account for 10,211 as total outbreaks globally within the three-year period. The outbreaks have continued to raise concerns among local and international actors.

Infograph on Nigeria's Pig Meat Production from 2009 to 2019
Infograph on Nigeria’s Pig Meat Production from 2009 to 2019

 

Poor government policy, weak insurance service from NAIC 

In situations such as loss of farm produce and livestock, the Nigeria Agricultural Insurance Corporation (NAIC) is expected to wade in because it was established to serve as a buffer, and help farmers manage these losses.

Founded in 1987, the establishment wholly owned by the Federal Government was meant to fill the gap of private insurance firms which have shown low interest in insuring risks bordering on agricultural activities. As such, if the broad objective of NAIC is to protect local farmers against hazards on the farm and provide indemnity, good enough to keep the farmers in business after losses, what effort has been made to support the farmers?

Findings showed that most of the farmers were not aware of their services. It failed in its primary function of providing “premium subsidy up to 50 percent chargeable on livestock insurance policies.”

The social media handles are inactive. For instance, the corporation’s last post on Facebook was on October 5, 2011. Its official website details insurance services such as subsidised and commercial livestock activities but lacked information. Its last sensitisation campaign, as found on the website, was done three years ago when it organised a workshop for farmers from the North-West zone. It held from 25th – 27th April, 2018. Besides, lots of farms have continued to shut down due to the rising cost of inputs and insecurity despite the growing population. Still, these clearly raise doubts about the Federal Government’s commitment to repositioning the sector.

 

Inactive Facebook page of the Nigerian Agricultural Insurance Corporation (NAIC)
Inactive Facebook page of the Nigerian Agricultural Insurance Corporation (NAIC) last updated 10 years ago.

 

In a scorecard conducted by ActionAid Nigeria, a non-governmental organisation (NGO), the NAIC was found liable for poor awareness creation and low service/value to rural farmers.

The study was conducted between 2014 and 2018, and the outcome was shared in August 2020.

“Smallholder women farmers have extremely low access to insurance services in the last five years,” the NGO’s programme officer on Agriculture Azubuike Nwokoye said. He called for more budgetary allocation to the corporation and tasked the organisation to improve its services in order to increase insurance coverage to affected farmers.

The Brookings Institute and World Bank also recognised the importance of designing a workable insurance policy for farmers, describing it as an antidote to  risks. Though, the Federal Government has the Nigeria Incentive-Based Risk Sharing System for Agricultural Lending (NIRSAL), a $500 million non-bank financial institution, it has facilitated more credit lending to farmers, unlike NAIC that was solely established to provide insurance services.

 

More deaths from loss of livelihood 

Unlike Ajabi’s children, who have graduated, Olufemi Adeyeye, another deceased farmer, still has children in school.

He left 12 children behind – eight girls and four boys. It has been difficult taking care of the kids, Adeyinka Adeyeye, who is the second son, told this reporter. He believed his father died from ‘shock’ due to the ASF-induced losses in his pens.

Photograph of Olufemi Adeyeye held by one of his sons at the Oke-Aro Pig Farm Estate during The ICIR’s visit to the family.

 

Until his death at 69, Adeyeye was operating three pens – C2, C11 and A61A at the same farm settlement. His sons said he had 500 pigs valued at about N15 million. Having retired at the Federated Steel Mills, Ota, Ogun State in 1992, he ventured into the pig business. He was known for breeding piglets which he supplied to other farmers until the outbreak.

The ICIR later found out that the deceased was on loan when the ASF outbreak struck, killing all his pigs. It broke him and rendered him hopeless. Taking care of the home front was a challenge. For seven months – March to October 2020 – the Lagos State government had to shut the settlement covering 40 hectares for proper disinfection.

By November 2020, he was among the few farmers who managed to raise new swine and returned to the farm. As of February 2021, he had restocked with 10 female pigs. Yet, around March 2021, rumours of ASF resurgence emerged, while he was yet to offset the existing loan.

Two months after, his son received an urgent call about his father. He was told the deceased was exhibiting unusual behaviour, and was rushed to the Ifako-Ijaiye General Hospital. He eventually died.

“The doctors told us there was no hope by the time we rushed him to the hospital.”

All three pens were empty and locked when The ICIR visited. These are agonising stories of Ajabi and Adeyeye, including Taiwo Ayanleke.

Anthony Awogboro, a retired secondary school teacher, and a woman identified as Mrs. Soleye, were also among other farmers that lost their lives due to the impact of the ASF on their livelihoods.

Some of the affected farmers agreed to have received two bags of maize and sorghum offered by the state ministry of agriculture as a relief. Support also came in the form of training on biosecurity on the farm. Yet, the farmers saw the relief as offering medicine after death. The ICIR found bags of the feed stocked because the pigs that would have fed on them had already been killed by the ASF.

 

Late Olufemi Adeyeye’s pen now under lock. Photo Credit: The ICIR

 

A top medical director at the state government hospital, when asked for his medical opinion, said a sudden increase in blood pressure could cause a rupture of vessels in the brain and blood clot formation in one part of the body. He pleaded for anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter.

“Everybody knows that if blood pressure goes up uncontrollably, it can lead to stroke….if the blood cloth is on the left side of the body, the right side will paralyse and vis-versa. So, for someone who took a loan and cannot pay, of course, it will cause blood pressure.”

Beyond the expert’s opinion, the World Health Organisation (WHO) describes hypertension as a major cause of premature death globally. It is also called it a silent killer. Reports say it could cause stroke, damage to the kidney and eye, including the brain.

In Nigeria, about 76.2 million people are hypertensive, according to the Executive Director of Nigerian Heart Foundation (NHF) Kingsley Akinroye, who said only 23 million were on treatment. Incidentally, these are similar to narratives of the deceased’s relatives who held strong belief their breadwinners died due to the trauma from the losses.

 

The retired agric teacher ‘Baba Awogboro’

While Awogboro, in particular, managed his piggery business, he also taught Agricultural Science at the State High School, Oko-Oba; Ebenezer Secondary School, Ijaiye, including Ojokoro Junior School, Lagos, where he finally retired as head of department. He retired to the farm.

To find more about him, The ICIR traced the deceased’s residence at Ajegunle, Alakuko, Lagos. At the entrance was a red gate, with a poster of his obituary glued to it. In his compound were a variety of plants that depicted him as a true farmer.

Wife of the deceased Grace Awogboro was seated, patiently waiting for the reporter. The ICIR met her on June 10. Dressed in a blue gown, with a black head-tie, she said her late husband had been into piggery for 35 years.

He would leave his home at Ajegunle, Alakuko, to the farm located about 12 kilometres away. No matter how much he had,  he would invest it into the piggery, the wife said.

Late Awogboro and his wife in a potrait photograph placed in his room. Photo Credit: The ICIR.
Late Awogboro and his wife in a portrait photograph placed on the wall in his room. Photo Credit: Olugbenga Adanikin, The ICIR.

 

“The outbreak affected a lot of farmers, including my husband. Even if we didn’t have much to eat, once the pigs ate, he was fine. So, he invested his whole retirement into the farm.”

Wife of the deceased was certain about her husband’s health. She said the late husband had never passed a night in the hospital. But that did not mean he did not get sick, but once he took medication offered from the hospital, he would be fine, she told this reporter.

“He was okay. He had no prior ailment, but when the thing started, we rushed him to the hospital. Eventually, he died after seven weeks.”

She said surviving since then had been difficult as the responsibility of taking care of the home front now lay only with her. He left six children behind.

Meanwhile, a farmer in the same settlement Lara Akinyemi took the NIRSAL loan but lost over N8m to the ASF. The Supervisor of Smallholders Women Farmers Association of Nigeria (SWOFON) Patience Oshodi also had N3million loan and pigs valued at N8 million. She was hoping she would repay the loan but lost the pigs. She now hoped for support from the government.

Secretary of Ifelodun Oke Aro Pig Farm Estate Omotayo Adekoya put the losses at over N12 billion, using an average of 70kg per animal. She identified six farmers who died due to the losses. About 225 pigs in total were killed by the ASF on the farm.

At that period, farmers were forced to sell their animals before the disease spread to their pens. “Some people sold live 100kg animal that would have gone for N80, 000 for N3, 000. That is how terrible it was. And it was worsened due to COVID-19 lockdown that prevented our buyers from visiting the farm.”

Decayed infrastructure, economic analysis of losses

Moving through the facility, it was a replica of neglect despite regular charges by the state government. Farmers are responsible for the maintenance of individual pens, and infrastructures. They also ensure the environment is tidy, devoid of weeds. But despite the yearly levy and other charges, the farm settlement lacks important facilities such as in-farm access roads, proper drainage system, and good maintenance.

Besides, The ICIR found out how lucrative pig business could be. Prior to the outbreak, the pig farmers supplied off-takers from Delta and Bayelsa, including other South-South and South-East states. A client from Imo State would often visit twice a week to purchase pig meat. They also got international patronages, especially from neighbouring countries. But despite their productions, satisfying the market demands has been tough.

Pig production by 5000 farmers at N450 per Kg

“Before the swine, we supplied US market, not directly but through middlemen. At least, per week, we do over 20, 000 tonnes,” a 35-year-old graduate of Computer Science David Mathew told The ICIR.

But rather than sell in tonnes, the farmers sell in kilograms, and a kg of pig meat is usually sold for N800. That implies that if a farmer has 1,000kg of meat in a pen, that amounts to N800,000. That means 2,000kg would sell for N1.6 million.

Ironically, if a ton is equivalent to 907.185 kg, and the farmers produce 20, 000 tons of pig meat per week (18,143,700kg), it means the close to 5, 000 farmers collectively make N14.4 billion per week.

There are 52 weeks in a year, which implies about N748.8 billion is made annually.

Mathew, however, narrated how he lost over 3,000 kg of pigs to the ASF. He started his piggery business in 2005 with 50 pigs when he could not get a job. By 2019, the animals had increased to over 200, but this was largely made possible through a N2 million loan facility he was yet to offset. Still, the ASF outbreak, which started in February, extended to his farm in March, and within two weeks, he lost all the pigs, including piglets. He has since been blacklisted with pressure from the commercial bank.

“If I should quantify the loss, it is over N5 million, excluding the feeds  valued at N500, 000 but still wasted.”

Olufemi Kehinde, another pig farmer became partially paralysed after losing N8 million loan to the African Swine Fever. Photo Credit: The ICIR.

 

The situation was no different in Gberegbe. Among scores of other affected farmers, Olufemi Kehinde, 57, became partially paralysed and was paying N8, 000 per hour to a physiotherapist. He also took N8 million loan for the pig business but from the 600 pigs he had in his farms, he was left with only eight. “The thought of the loan was on my mind.”

“I couldn’t sleep and I already lost my animals, so before I knew it, my BP jerked up to over 172. One day, I slept and the next morning, I noticed a complete side of my body was gone. I couldn’t move.”

In total, 356 farmers in Gberegbe lost about N500 million, President of Gberegbe Piggery Estate Khadijat Simplice told The ICIR.

Experts speak

The farmers acknowledged FMARD’s effort in terms of a ‘train-the-trainers programme’ on biosecurity held in Jos. But beyond that, experts advised FG to design a compensation policy for pig farmers.

An expert Solomon Tilze asked the ministry to increase disease surveillance, discourage religious bias and see piggery as a means of livelihood that should attract needed support and attention. Besides, he advised farmers to, as well, prevent visitors and off-takers from coming into the farm and be mindful of the vehicles used to convey the pigs.

“Those in government should push aside religious bias. Religious stigmatisation of pork should be addressed. Some Muslims eat pork in Adamawa, Numan, Mitchika, so government should see it as a means of generating revenue, job creation.”

Animal scientist and retired pig expert from the Lagos State Ministry of Agriculture Aduke Akinde said several recommendations were made to FMARD and state ministry of agric to destroy all pigs and compensate farmers once there was ASF.

“Imagine, there is no incinerator in Gberegbe Pig Farm Estate. During the outbreak, people were throwing off dead pigs everywhere, by the roadside, streets. Everywhere was smelling. So, the government should wade in and support.”

Aduke Akinde, a retired pig expert and farmer lost over N9 million to the ASF. She is among scores of farmers who pleaded for compensation from the government. Photo Credit: The ICIR.
Aduke Akinde, a retired pig expert and farmer lost over N9 million to the ASF. She is among scores of farmers who pleaded for compensation from the government. Photo Credit: The ICIR.

“Once farmers are convinced they will receive government compensations during ASF outbreak, they won’t cover-up when their farm is infected.”

In Gberegbe Farm Estate, Ikorodu, Lagos, where she farmed, she was among 113 pig farmers who lost their swine. According to her, she lost her N3 million retirement benefit, N6.5 million NIRSAL loan, yet there were farmers who had three times her pig population.

“Our total loss runs into billions if a farmer lost N25 million. What about when there was no activity and the farm was shut down, yet we have unpaid loans? How do we make our repayment?”

An expert Pam Luka shared a similar opinion with Akinde when he suggested the need for proper monitoring and data development for the disease to prevent a recurrence.

FMARD, NAIC, Lagos State govt react

The Director of Information at the Federal Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development (FMARD) Theodore Ogaziechi acknowledged findings in the report, especially of the farmers who lost their swine after taking a loan to run the pig farms.

However, he said the ministry had already commenced efforts to provide support through palliatives to farmers across the country. He advised the affected farmers to make a formal request regarding the losses, saying that the ministry would assist the victims once there was provision.

On the contrary, the director advised farmers to insure their farming activities with NAIC, saying “in cases like this, they will get immediate compensation.”

NIRSAL’s Head of Corporate Communications Anne Ihugba exonerated the organisation from supporting the farmers. “It is not in our mandate to support them, NIRSAL is only a guarantor.”

Head of Public Affairs Department of the Lagos State Ministry of Agriculture Jide Lawal was unavailable when visited at the ministry at Ikeja. Repeated calls to find out plans of the ministry to salvage the farmers’ situation failed. But, a source in the media unit revealed the ministry was planning an ‘empowerment’ for affected farmers so they could return to business, but she was not certain of the exact week it would take place.

“They are planning to assist farmers with four piglets.”

Head of Livestock in the state agric ministry Tunde Sonekan was reluctant to provide a definite response, saying he would not want to pre-empt the right official. “I can’t expose government plan before it is unfolded.”

In her reaction, NAIC’s Head of Public Affairs Mag Omosema told The ICIR that farmers who registered with the corporation would always get compensation.

Once there was an outbreak, she said, the insured farmers would be expected to report within 24 hours in order to facilitate their claims. However, she could not establish if any farmer who registered with NAIC from the pig estates had been compensated.

She also claimed the corporation embarked on nationwide awareness creation, but field research showed the contrary. As of the time of filing this report, no official figure or names of claimants was provided by NAIC.

“If there is any claim on piggery, they will be compensated. We don’t compensate those who are not insured with us.”

Ajabi, Kehinde, and other affected farmers have since resolved to fully comply with biosecurity, but they are hopeful the government will, someday, come to their rescue.

This report was facilitated by the Wole Soyinka Centre for Investigative Journalism (WSCIJ) under its Free to Share project.

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