Return of Railways and Nigeria’s Agricultural Intermodal Mix

For decades, Nigeria’s agriculture intermodal mix has been out of balance, leaning heavily on road transport. Seventy percent of agro produce transportation is through a crumbling road system. For stakeholders, the return of rail transport services is a good omen.They have suggested ways to make it work.

THE railway sector has played a key role in the diversification of economies, facilitating gross domestic product (GDP) growth and providing a sustainable alternative method of ground transportation.

Worldwide, railways play a very important role in moving grains from farms to mills, food manufacturers and international markets.The net impact is profound, triggering several effects across industries.

Last year, according to global research firm, Statista Research Department, global rail freight traffic amounted to above nine trillion tonnes.

Rail freight in Africa, the report say, reached over 150 billion tonnes last year, down from over 155 billion in 2018. Indeed, Africa is one of the world’s fastest growing cargo markets. Rapid economic growth has seen volumes surging and freight traffic recording strong performance. While railroads  haul various agricultural products, the primary commodities carried are corn, wheat, soybeans, barley, and sorghum, which account  for  over  90 per cent of yearly rail farm product tonnages, according to analysts.

At present, the road network accounts for the majority of agro commodities freights, even though there are few high-quality paved roads.

For Nigeria to achieve its economic goals, experts believe the continued development and success of its agriculture sector would depend on optimising the railways.This would build a competitive, integrated, inclusive and sustainable rail transportation system.

The government, acting on the railways master plan, is modernising and upgrading the network, which has become dilapidated over the decades. For agro industry stakeholders, upgrading its infrastructure for agro commodities and livestock is a priority for the railways.

With increasing focus on the agriculture sector and special agro economic zones progressing rapidly, stakeholders see rail projects as pivotal to increasing the country’s agro logistical capacity. One of them is the Vice-President, Nigeria AgriBusiness Group, Emmanuel Ijewere, a livestock farmer.

Addressing an agribusiness forum in Lagos, Ijewere maintained that when all the linking parts of the logistics chain are in place, the volume of agro cargoes would rise considerably.

The nation’s trains, Ijewere observed, lack the facilities for ferrying livestock healthily.

His words: “We tried to use the rail system. We got Railconnect and entered a contract with them. They supplied us the first batch of 1,820 cows, but 20 died in between. And when they were being brought down at Ijokoro, 11 of them broke their legs, because there was no platform. Because of the stress of bringing them to my place, we lost another 11 cows. Tell me where the profit is in all these? These are the practical things we went through. The same thing happened to tomato. I brought tomato by rail twice. The first time the train arrived at Iddo with 800 crates, it arrived fully cooked, water was dripping all the way; Why? Because the Nigeria Railway Corporation (NRC) sealed it all up, no air-conditioning. The second consignment arrived, they put windows on them, but at Lokoja, there was a derailment, the train had to stay there for four days, and the time it arrived here again, we got only four crates out of 800. That is the situation that we are facing.”

Three decades ago, movement of cattle and farm produce from the North to the South was done by rail. NRC would deploy special carriage wagons to ferry cattle from places as far-flung as Maiduguri and Sokoto, among others. The trains arrived their destinations on time and the cattle and perishable farm produce in good conditions, still retaining their freshness and nutrients. This is not the situation now as growers move their fruits and vegetables by trucks.

For a country promoting agriculture, Ijewere observed that the transportation system has continued to struggle, meaning it needs special attention.

According to him, the government’s agriculture strategy to increase food production to respond to  surging  demand places  an enormous burden on the already-congested roads unless rail infrastructure is modernised – to  adapt quickly to market opportunities.

The Country Manager, OCP Nigeria, Mr. Caleb Usoh, agrees with this. He said the railways should play a crucial part in maintaining the supply of essential items and helping livelihoods by stepping up the transportation of food grains, milk and dairy products, by changing the traditional traffic routes, wherever required; and aggregating collections  at the various stop points.

A lot of expanding agric opportunities, he  noted,  exist  which should  encourage the railways to create a new business model to account for a major share in transportation of bulk commodities  such as food grains which are drivers of the economy.

He explained that this would benefit large farming corporations, food companies and processing facilities,  as the rail has the potential to transform agricultural freight, especially for fresh produce farmers.

Usoh noted that revamping the rail would assist horticulture growers in reducing transport costs and lead to fewer heavy vehicle trips yearly.

For him, the success of the value-added food sector is premised on a reliable cold rail chain for transport and distribution.

One area he wants the railways to focus on is acquiring cold storage facilities to enable farmers pick produce at their peak of freshness and transport them in a state that prolongs shelf life.

With big production facilities established across the country, he maintained that the railways could play a significant role in delivering the fertiliser needed by farmers on time, considering congestion on the roads.

He explained that the railways helping customers was in the best interest of the economy and everything must be done to support businesses in terms of investing in infrastructure and facilities, especially from an intermodal perspective.

A dairy expert and Managing Director of Chanan Elo’a Integrated Farms Limited, Mr. Udeme Etuk, said cattle face the longest journey, on average close to 1,000 kilometres before they get to the abattoirs.

He described such journeys as an expensive exercise which affects the cattle health and weight

He  said there was strong demand for cattle train services provided  the railways authorities could guarantees a healthy condition for them to  travel on trains; and it is favoured over road networks, with more stringent heavy vehicle regulations.

With a lot of cattle coming from the North emaciated after long trips by road, Etuk reasoned that it’s probably best if they came by rail rather than clogging the roads. His concern is how to improve livestock cartage to give them road to move when they are being transported by train.

Though not complementary, a study by the African Development Bank (AfDB) has shown that the condition of railways’ infrastructure and rolling stock in many African countries is poor.

The shortfall, it noted, has undermined the potential of the rails to play a strong role in economic development. In fact, the report say rail transport market share in most countries on the continent is below 20 per cent of the total volume of freight transport.

Although there are no variable data for it, one would not expect the Nigeria’s share of railway-related agro exports to be 30 percent.

For the Chief Executive Officer, Multimix Group, Dr. Obiora Madu, the seriousness of the government about addressing the challenge of food security would be demonstrated when it pays greater attention to the role of transportation and logistics.

While it stands as one of the largest agricultural commodity producers in the world, Madu said the nation’s transport infrastructure still lagged behind other countries. According to him, logistics is a key element in achieving competitiveness and economic development. He added that development of agro-logistics would help address food security challenge holistically from “farm to fork”.

To enable the country ensure a balanced structure in foreign trade, he said the government must, as a matter of urgency, increase the share of rail transport in the logistics sector.

Other stakeholders shared his opinion that the railway is a critical piece that dovetails with inland transportation to create an economical and sustainable intermodal chain They highlighted the need to increase the effectiveness of logistic services to contribute positively to foreign trade.

A World Bank consultant, Prof Abel Ogunwale, said the agric sector has a strong appetite for logistics services.  As agro business expanded, he said a wide range of logistics services would be in great demand.

Currently, analysts said the proportion of agricultural products and food exported from Nigeria through a cold chain was low, which indicated that the market has a great deal of room for growth.

Ogunwale concurs. He urges for infrastructure enhancements, including additional terminal facilities to attract more agricultural traffic onto rail.

He said introducing special trains to carry perishable products, such as fruits, vegetables and fish from identified production clusters to consumer centres would help maintain quality and freshness.

Considering how tortuous agricultural road trips are, Ogunwale said trains were better in moving meat, rice and dairy products. He praised the government for revitalising the railway system.

His words: “Originally, railway lines were designed to encourage agricultural production and farm produce export growth and development in Nigeria. So, there were problems when railway system as means of transportation in Nigeria was truncated.”

For several reasons, the Chief Executive, X-Ray Farms Consulting, Afioluwa Mogaji, believes railways remains well-positioned to serve the agricultural market.

He explains that its network is strategically positioned through the heart of major farming regions across the country. According to him, rail is fundamental to agricultural prosperity as it provides a safe and cost-effective transportation system.

He said freight railways keeps economies rolling and help nations to stay competitive in the global economy

An agro entrepreneur, Rotimi Williams, said the challenges facing the agricultural industry required that the government and the private sector work to rebuild logistics infrastructure to boost competitiveness.

Meanwhile, the much-celebrated scheme to move cattle and grains from the North to markets, industrial zones and ports in the South has been suspended.

In January 2016, the Nigeria Incentive-Based Risk Sharing System for Agriculture (NIRSAL) launched its National Farm-to-Market Scheme to enable a low-cost and efficient transport link between producers and consumers across the country, particularly the North-to-South movement of cattle by rail.

The event witnessed the movement of the first 15 wagons of 500 cattle which left Gusau, Zamfara State to Lagos. The historic journey lasted for about two days with the final stop at Oko-Oba.

The initiative was in collaboration with the Nigeria Railway Corporation (NRC) and Connect Rail Services.

A similar initiative followed in February 2017, when NIRSAL also, in partnership with NRC, inaugurated the first stage of the initiative, where a consignment of 800 tonnes of soybeans left Funtua, Katsina State for Apapa Port, Lagos for export.

The scheme was in line with the objective of the Federal Government of making agriculture a key anchor of economic diversification

*The Nation

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