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From cocoa to cannabis: Nigerian farmers seek fortunes inside forbidden farms
In this report, Bayo Akinloye tells the sad story of farmers who produced cocoa, the mainstay of the economy of South-west Nigeria in the past, but have now abandoned the crop for a more rewarding but illegal one, cannabis
HIS telephone rang only twice before he picked it. His muffled voice indicated that he was speaking with head tucked between pillows. It was 10:34 pm last May. “It’s not true,” says Yemi Owolabi, Ondo State Commissioner for Information, when he was asked what he thought about cocoa farmers in the state going into cannabis cultivation.
“Cocoa farming is a huge money-spinner. Cocoa is gold,” he explains further, even though medicinal marijuana has been projected to be a billion-dollar industry in the next few years.
Yet, a month-long investigation by THISDAY points in the opposite direction: Cannabis farming is the new money-spinner and farmers, particularly cocoa farmers, are massively embracing its cultivation.
Inside Nigeria’s forbidden farms
Many former cocoa farmers who spoke on their newfound golden plant said they wished they had started planting cannabis long ago. Some even merely use their cocoa farms as a cover to cultivate cannabis.
One of them is Niyi Adams. His darting look indicated unease. He had never taken a stranger to his farm before. Even though he has been cultivating cannabis for many years, he has not been able to grapple with the risk of falling into the hands of the National Drug Law Enforcement Agency (NDLEA). Adams is one of the dwindling numbers of Nigerian cocoa farmers now reaping bumper harvests cultivating cannabis.
“I’ve been a cocoa farmer for up to 32 years,” he says in local Yoruba dialect. “I’ve made a fortune from the proceeds of cocoa since I was a youth. I learnt cocoa farming from my father.” But he was not satisfied. With a grin on his face, Adams admitted that the allure of lucre was irresistible.
In Lagos alone, according to one of the farmers’ claim, a cannabis farmer can make at least some millions of naira a day.
“Ah, the profits from cannabis are very huge and the cost of production is low,” he explains matter-of-factly. “Also, cannabis does not suffer any diseases that affect other crops like cocoa.”
His cannabis farm is hundreds of kilometres away from where he lives – far into the bush, away from prying NDLEA officials’ eyes. As a cannabis farmer, he spends months on the farm, especially before the harvesting season. But the cultivation and consumption of Indian hemp are illegal in Nigeria and it must hold enormous risks for any farmer to engage in its production. The Ondo State commissioner did talk about the run-ins cannabis farmers have with the law.
“There’s no money you want to make in cannabis that will make you as wealthy as cocoa farmers,” Owolabi insists. “How much can you make from cannabis? The cannabis farmers have daily battles with the NDLEA.”
But investigations reveal that in the South-west states of Ondo, Osun, Ekiti and Oyo, many cocoa farmers are not hesitating to cultivate cannabis as an alternative in spite of the enforcement agency.
Twenty-five-year-old Deji Iyanda is one of such farmers. The reporter found him at another far-flung farm. With coarse hands, hefty shoulders and a rough face, Iyanda is uncharacteristically convivial. He dropped out of college of education because his parents did not have enough money to send him to school.
“I ventured into cannabis farming as soon I realised that my parents could not cater for my higher education,” explains Iyanda.
Unlike the much older Adams, this young cannabis farmer talked about his activities with ease.
“I’m not boasting. It’s true. I’ve built two houses and have two cars,” he reveals with two fingers from each of his hands raised to the sky, “and I’m taking care of my aged parents.”
Without specifying though, he claimed he has made a lot of money as a cannabis farmer.
“I have markets in the South-west and in the South-east.”
Cocoa farming has never had an appeal for young Iyanda. “I can’t wait for years – ah! I can’t spend years in the sun trying to dry any crop and some wicked middlemen will come and rip me off,” he says. Iyanda, Adams and their ilk cannot wait to have cannabis legalised in Nigeria.
Cannabis farming: The world leaving Nigeria behind
In Nigeria, there seems to be no sign of foreign companies’ interest in local cannabis. But farmers who spoke with THISDAY said they are already ‘exporting’ the product to neighbouring countries.
James Akorede is 35 years old, who began to cultivate cannabis 10 years ago. Like Iyanda, he was eager to show off his cannabis-gotten material success.
“I began cannabis farming 10 years ago. I have two houses and a car,” he announces.
Though he inherited cocoa farms from his grandfather went to school with their proceeds, Akorede feels cultivating the crop is a thing of the past. According to him, there is no chocolate industry in the country. He also pointed out that the government at all levels have no plans to rejuvenate the cocoa industry.
“No cocoa processing plants anymore. But the cannabis market is huge; the consumer is large,” he explains. He sells his cannabis beyond the borders of Nigeria.
“I have customers from neighbouring West African countries like Benin, Togo, Ghana, and Cameroon,” he reveals, as he scratched his armpit under the scorching sun.
“I have markets in Lagos, Ibadan, and Abuja too.”
Walking deep into the bush with dry leaves rustling under one’s feet, Shadrach Arinola led the way into his cannabis farm after trekking for more than an hour.
The vast cannabis farm of the 67-year-old is incredible. Even though he has been into cocoa cultivation all his years, “built many houses and sent many of his children abroad from cocoa farming’s proceeds”, he soon fell into hard times.
“But things fell apart a few years back,” he notes. “Though I still make some income farming cocoa but not like before.” One of his sons, who had returned from the United States of America, introduced him to cannabis farming. “NDLEA destroyed a large part of my cannabis farm two years ago”, he said, but today, he is back to the business.
“I said goodbye to cocoa and welcomed cannabis because of its huge profits. The return on investment is very high. There is no amount of frustration from the NDLEA that will stop me from investing in cannabis,” Arinola vows.
The statistics of cannabis seizure and destruction by the anti-narcotic agency can be daunting for any would-be cannabis farmer. Between 2013 and 2015, the NDLEA destroyed farmlands containing 68.1million kilogrammes of cannabis, worth N681 billion on the street.
In 2013, out of the 339,968kg of drug seized by the NDLEA, 205,373kg of it was cannabis alone. That year, the agency destroyed 847 hectares of farmland across the country, containing an estimated 10,051,554kg of cannabis.
In 2014, it confiscated 158,852kg of cannabis and destroyed 4,529 hectares of cannabis farmland containing an estimated 53,719,342kg of cannabis plants. In 2015, the cannabis, the NDLEA said it seized 871,480kg of cannabis and destroyed 377 farmlands with 4.4 million kilogrammes of cannabis.
For 72-year-old Hafiz Ogundele, those figures are not sufficient to stop him from joining the set of farmers working “less but making more money”.
It is Arinola’s conviction and success that is pushing him to start a cannabis farm. His plan is to begin cultivating cannabis by 2020. “Since cocoa farming is not encouraging,” he reasons, “and new improved varieties of cocoa seeds aren’t available, I’m determined to start a cannabis farm next year.” Ogundele lamented that he had attended many seminars organised by various government’s agencies.
“The ADP promised cocoa farmers new varieties and pesticides to combat cocoa plant diseases. But all the promises did not yield any results. So my production was very low which resulted in low revenue,” the aged farmer says.
According to him, at a point, he was unable to take care of his family. All his responsibilities could not be met.
“Next year, I’ve made up my mind. I’m jumping on the bandwagon of cannabis farming.”
Olusola Adeleke, a consultant for the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA), believes that what makes cocoa farmers ditch cocoa for cannabis is because “cocoa planting is a perennial crop that needs a lot of good agronomic practices year in, year out.
“But cannabis is not like that. It is a sought-after crop. A bag of cannabis can fetch a farmer some N200,000,” the agriculture expert says. Adeleke believes legalising cannabis farming will do more good than harm to Nigerians.
“With what I have seen the legalization of cannabis will be a huge welcome and it will add to the government’s internally-generated revenue – both farmers and the government will be happy,” Adeleke says.
Cannabis farming: The billion-dollar industry
As Nigerian authorities continue to live in self-denial about the booming local Indian hemp industry, other countries of the world have started to see the economic potential of this psychoactive drug. Last April, a Ugandan producer consummated deals to export $160 million worth of cannabis to pharmacy chains in Canada and Germany.
In fact, an Israeli firm, Together, has set up a business called ‘Industrial Hemp Uganda Ltd’ in partnership with local Ugandan businessmen. Two months ago, Industrial Hemp received 20,000 orders from pharmacies in Canada and Uganda.
“We signed annual supply contracts with pharmacies in Canada to the tune of $100 million and €58 million for Germany,” the company has said. “The current contracts run for 10 years, but along the way, we shall expand to satisfy future demands.” This is happening even though cannabis is illegal in Uganda and Together is opening an export-focused cannabis cultivation facility there and coordinating with regulatory bodies. As of April, the Ugandan authorities had received applications from 14 different companies that want to cultivate cannabis and export it, which is legal under the Narcotic Drug and Psychotropic Substances (Control) Act 2015 of the country.
Since 2018, many stores in Canada have been struggling to meet the demand for cannabis. Most residents are made to get the products through a government-run website, and on the first day of legalization, the Ontario cannabis store had processed 100,000 orders and had only been able to supply a few. When cannabis was legalized in Colorado, the United States of America, it took three years to meet up with demand.
It was only in 2012 that Uruguay announced it would be the first country in the world to legalize recreational cannabis use. In large part, the move was aimed at replacing links between organised crime and the cannabis trade with more accountable state regulation.
Later the same year, voters in Washington State and Colorado became the first in the United States to support the legalization of the drug for non-medical use. Some reports from Colorado State University, recently found that the cannabis industry has contributed more than $58 million to the local economy primarily through tax and other fees.
In many parts of Latin America, governments want their farmers to have access to the potentially lucrative medicinal cannabis markets that are developing. Corporations have also expressed interest. For example, Altria, which owns cigarette brands including Marlboro, has made a $1.86 billion (£1.46 billion) investment in a Canadian cannabis company. A report from Prohibition Partners estimates that the European cannabis market will eventually reach €56.2 billion ($62.6 billion), of which €37.5 billion ($41.8 billion) will be medicinal and the rest recreational. Many European countries, including Germany, have legalized cannabis for medical purposes.
African countries such as Zimbabwe and Lesotho have also legalised medicinal marijuana. In Zimbabwe, both individuals and cooperation may apply for a license to grow the plant while in Lesotho, they solicit for foreign investment to grow medical marijuana on their soil, in order for them to become one of the top exporters.
Ondo governor advocates legal production of cannabis
Governor Rotimi Akeredolu of Ondo State has relentlessly canvassed for the legalisation of production of cannabis for economic gain, particularly in terms of exports. When our reporter spoke to Owolabi weeks ago, he disclosed that his boss and the Chairman/Chief Executive of NDLEA, Col. Muhammad Abdallah (retd.), were on their way to Thailand to strike a deal on how to export cannabis. The governor told his hosts, “We are here to study how cannabis can be of more advantage to the state (Ondo) and Nigeria at large just the way the Thai government has done. Cannabis is used for medical purposes.” While in Thailand, Akeredolu, with Abdullah in tow, visited the Faculty of Pharmaceutical Sciences, Naresuan University, Phitsanulok and were shown how to control cannabis, licensing and pharmaceutical benefits of cannabis. They also toured the university’s cannabis research laboratory.
With an estimated value of $145 billion in 2025, Akeredolu said his state must have a bite of the cannabis ‘pie’. “We all know that Ondo State is the hotbed of cannabis cultivation in Nigeria. We know how to grow it and it thrives well in the Sunshine State,” he had said on Twitter. “We would be short-changing ourselves if we fail to tap into the legal marijuana market.”
According to Akeredolu, the state government’s focus will be on medical marijuana cultivation in controlled plantations under the full supervision of NDLEA. After his visit to Thailand, the Ondo State governor appealed to the President Muhammadu Buhari-led administration to reconsider the country’s stance on cannabis.
“I strongly implore the federal government to take this (commercialising cannabis) seriously as it is a thriving industry that will create thousands of jobs for our youths and spur economic diversification,” he said.
Sowore thinks Nigeria can do better
Akeredolu is not the only Nigerian who sees potential in Indian hemp production. During the last general election campaigns in Nigeria, Omoyele Sowore, the presidential candidate of the African Action Congress (AAC), strongly believes Nigeria can do better with cannabis. At least, he once vowed that Nigeria would export marijuana if he was elected president of the country. He said people are making billions from cannabis while Nigeria is lagging behind.
“We have to start taking care of our weed (cannabis), such that we can also contribute to the GDP of the world,” he said. Sowore claims that Nigeria has the best weeds (types of cannabis) in the world and that they are grown in Ekiti State.
“I’m very serious,” he says. “People are making billions out of that particular plant that is very potent in Nigeria. We should be focusing on it,” he stated.
“Our NDLEA should get the notice, memo in advance that Nigeria will be exporting weed to cure cancer in other parts of the world. Instead of chasing after people who are growing weed (cannabis) whereas we are not chasing after our politicians who are smoking cocaine in their houses.” But Abdallah is not buying any of that, saying: “The NDLEA under my leadership has been consistent in our opposition to legalisation and decriminalisation of cannabis. “For example, ‘Operation Thunderstorm’ undertaken by the Ondo State Command of the NDLEA destroyed 3,900.73 hectares of cannabis sativa planted in forest reserves.”
Many cannabis farmers who spoke with THISDAY think Abdallah is lying through his teeth. “Ask him and his boys why they haven’t prosecuted any of us? Ask them to show you all the cannabis they’ve claimed to seize before burning?” one of the farmers says. “You can quote me: NDLEA agents collude with big-time cannabis farmers. They don’t collect bribes. They get many bags of cannabis as kickbacks. They sell them outside the borders of Nigeria.” But the agency’s Head of Public Affairs, Jonah Achema, said the opposite.
“Who said we don’t prosecute cannabis farmers? We do. We have zero tolerance for illicit drugs and the highest number of people we have arrested so far are those who cultivate cannabis and those who deal in cannabis,” Achema says. Though he did not provide a figure of the number of cannabis farmers prosecuted in Nigeria, he directed attention to the NDLEA’s website.
“The statistics are there on our website – go and check it,” he advises.
After a repeated search of the website, no record was found regarding the number of cannabis farmers arrested, prosecuted or undergoing prosecution. Yet, according to the Nigerian Hemp Act, “In this Act “Indian hemp” means any plant or part of a plant of the genus cannabis… Any person who knowingly plants or cultivates any plant of the genus cannabis shall be guilty of an offence and liable on conviction to be sentenced either to death or to imprisonment for a term of not less than twenty-one years.” The legislation also states that any person who exports any Indian hemp “shall be guilty of an offence and liable on conviction to imprisonment for a term of not less than twenty-one years”.
Kayode Ajulo, an Abuja-based lawyer and former National Secretary of the Labour Party (LP), observed that under the NDLEA Act, which came about by the promulgation of Decree Number 48 of 1989, the possession or smoking of cannabis, or even allowing one’s premises to be used for dealing in cannabis, can result in a prison sentence from 15 years to life. “A careful perusal of the NDLEA Act will reveal that there was no mention of the legal use of narcotics. What could appear to seem as a provision for legal use is provided for under Section 3 of the NDLEA Act,” he notes. That section provides that NDLEA shall have responsibility for facilitating “rapid exchange of scientific and technical information and the conduct of research” geared towards eradication of illicit use of narcotic drugs and psychotropic substances.
It is based on that provision that the NDLEA gave a letter of “No Objection” to Medis Oil Company Limited and two others to import seeds of industrial cannabis for research purposes.
“Similarly, Under Article 3 paragraph 5 of the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs to which Nigeria is a signatory to, it is envisaged that as a result of research, a drug may be deleted from schedule IV of the 1961 Single Convention,” explains Ajulo, “if researches reveal its therapeutic advantages.” Considering the high rate of unemployment in Nigeria, Ajulo believes that legalising cannabis will provide job opportunities for many Nigerian youths – that is already happening in Ondo, Osun, Ekiti, and Oyo. “It is succinct to point out that the war on drugs is often far costlier than the drugs themselves,” he adds. “Thus if the money pumped against the use of drugs could be redirected in cultivating marijuana for economic use, there will be a great boost in the economy of the country.”
At this point, he thinks the National Assembly should be lobbied to amend the provisions of the NDLEA Act and other relevant laws in order to make room for the legal production, manufacturing, sale, and use of cannabis in Nigeria, which, in turn, will boost the economy of the nation as a whole. “The NDLEA should also enforce the provisions of the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs,” Ajulo argues, “and allow the use of Marijuana for medicinal purposes.”
Cocoa farming: going, going, gone?
Owolabi did not admit that cocoa production and its profitability have dipped.
Against the backdrop of declining production and the collapse of the commodity board members due to market liberalisation, the National Cocoa Development Committee was established in December 1999 by the Olusegun Obasanjo’s administration. Its objective was to develop a sustainable blueprint for reviving the waning cocoa sector.
Other objectives included improving cocoa quality and increasing production from 170,000 tons to 320,000 tons per annum in the short term and in the long term to 600,000 tons per annum.
Decades earlier, in the 1950s and 1960s, it was a top foreign exchange earner and at a point, Nigeria was the world’s second largest producer of cocoa. The average cocoa production soon began to decline from 420,000 tons in the ‘60s to 170,000 tons in 1999.
Production climbed to 389,272 tons between 2000 and 2010 but fell back to 192,000 tons in 2015 and 2016. After dropping to fourth place, Nigeria is now the sixth largest producer of cocoa in the world.
Besides the numbers, there is a growing army of cocoa farmers ready to move on to where the pastures are greener.
A cocoa farmer in Osun State, South-west Nigeria, complained about the menace of middlemen in the cocoa farming value chain.
In the cocoa production chain, Abolaji Sunday, who has been planting cocoa for 15 years complained about cocoa farmers becoming peasant farmers, toiling day and night while produce buyers and exporters smile. “After spending so much on hiring labour and purchase of chemicals, the farmer is not in a position to cost his input and give a price – he has no option than to sell at the price dictated by the buyer,” laments Sunday.
There was a time, he said, that he had to source for a loan through a cooperative society when the landowner raised his yearly rent from N25, 000 to N100,000.
“This is because of the sudden jump of cocoa price from N18,000 to N50,000 per stone in the 2015/2016 season,” he discloses.
“I paid upfront for two years to avoid losing the farm. By 2017, the price of cocoa dropped to N29,000 per stone. Even when I had to renegotiate with my landowner to adjust the rent as regarding the new price, I am still servicing the loan to date.”
For Olugbenga Ojo, in his 27 years of cultivating cocoa, the situation in its production chain has continued to impoverish the farmer. “The produce buyer sits comfortably in his office in the city and dictates how much the farmer gets paid for his efforts,” a tired Ojo lamented, sighing.
“As farmers, we cannot dictate the selling price of our cocoa – the buyers do that. There is nothing we can do about it for now.”
Another cocoa farmer of 25 years, Lateef Okunola admitted that it is no longer possible to live comfortably only on cocoa farming. He sees many problems plaguing cocoa cultivation.
“If I have enough capital, I would be able to do things differently. The cost of hiring labour to work on the farm is now high. I would have gone into cassava production, piggery, palm tree plantation, etc. It is no longer possible for a farmer to live on proceeds of the yearly cocoa production,” laments Okunola.
“The old people that planted these cocoa trees,” he says pointing to the plants, “over forty years ago were getting five to 10 tons as yield per year. Hardly can we get five bags of cocoa from the same farm at the end of the season nowadays. It explains why young people are leaving cocoa farms.”
There are other issues like the poor application of chemicals on cocoa farms, which affects the quality of cocoa produced – and often leads to huge loss of foreign exchange earnings on the global market due to rejection of cocoa produced in Nigeria.
“There was a report of too many chemicals in the cocoa produced in Nigeria when we were using copper sulphate (CUSO4) to spray our cocoa. It was later banned with the warning that any farmer caught using it will be arrested and prosecuted,” he recalls.
“We now use Altrax, Redomin, and Blueboat, Red Force or Cham D fungicides as substitutes. We also have pesticides like Gammalin 20, Adrex 40, Rocket, AK-47, etc. This problem was as a result of the disappearance of extension officers from the farm. They used to be around decades ago to educate farmers on the application of chemicals on our farms.”
Even after 20 years of cocoa farming, Fatai Babatunde cannot hide his frustration.
“We need a lot of money to buy farm implements, pesticides and hire labour to work on the farm. We also need money to embark on cocoa regeneration by replanting new cocoa on our farms that are already getting old,” Babatunde complains.
“But unfortunately, the government does not support us in any way that could enhance our productivity. We only hear that the government distributes pesticides, fertilizers, cocoa seedlings, etc. None ever got to us – the real cocoa farmers.”
This investigation was supported by Ford Foundation and the International Centre For Investigative Reporting, ICIR.