In 2004 when Freedom Ezeala tried to woo the woman whom he would eventually marry, introducing himself as a ‘gardener’, he got a scornful look and an outright ‘no’.
He persisted, assuring her his profession has a prospect of making him a millionaire.
Fifteen years now, not only did he win Ngozi Freedom’s heart, Mr Ezeala says he is now a millionaire. The couple now run the business together.
Currently, Mr Ezeala, who himself had horticultural training under an uncle of his in Lagos for years, said he has more than 54 staff under his payroll, having started the business with ₦150,000.
This did not happen by the snap of the fingers. He realised his dreams as a result of years of toil, he said.
The florist said his undying passion and love for nature, which met an equal measure of his wife’s support, made a difference in his financial turnaround.
“Here in Abuja, go and look around, other gardeners doing well are all looking up to me,” Mr Ezeala said. His wife quickly quipped: “Flower business gives you the opportunity to meet ‘big men’, as flowers are usually purchased by the elite.”
“One of the things that inspired me to go into the business is that I love nature,” Mr Ezeala said, while tending a flower in a case.
“On getting to Abuja to establish my garden, I saw people turning up to buy, I said to myself, there’s something good inside here, there is a goldmine that someone has not started digging. I asked questions, people told me more about horticulture, then I said yes, there is something good.”
Horticulture is a branch of agriculture that deals with the cultivation of garden crops, fruits, vegetables and ornamental plants.
It deals with the growing and propagation of exotic ornamental plants which aside beautifying the environment, also purifies the environment, removes toxic air pollutants therein, replacing them with pristine oxygen for humans and animals to thrive.
However, most gardeners in Abuja practice floriculture, which is the science and practice of growing, harvesting, storing, designing and marketing ornamental plants. It also involves the intensive production of flowers and ornamental shrubs.
PREMIUM TIMES found that in Abuja, beneath the horticultural business sits an untapped goldmine, capable of creating employment opportunities to many.
Data from the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) showed that as of the third quarter of 2018, the nation’s unemployment rate was 23.1 per cent. This figure has been projected by the federal government to reach 33.5 per cent this year.
Exotic fruits, vegetables and ornamental plants are of huge benefits to the ecosystem and the nation’s recreational facilities, Bernard Okafor, a researcher at the National Horticultural Research Institute (NIHORT), said.
”It is a means of attracting tourists and also a source of revenue to the country if accorded necessary attention by the government,” he added.
The benefits this branch of agriculture commands is not well known to many, he says ”and to some extent has suffered neglect from the government, which has rubbed smear on the sector.”
”Many don’t see it as being lucrative enough and this is perhaps the reason for the ignorance of the many to the benefits of gardens in our homes, surroundings among other places in this part of the continent,” he said.
Being a rapidly developing city and the seat of power, the business appears to be highly lucrative in Abuja, garden owners in the city told this newspaper.
This was the hint Johnson Ogbonnaya got when he arrived Abuja from Ondo State, where he had worked as an interior decorator. His interest in beautification was immediately redirected to running a garden.
With no money to rent land, he said like many other gardeners in the city, he chose a spot by the roadside along Games Village, a community tucked along Galadimawa, to start small.
“The space we are using now is free of charge. The government knows it adds beauty to the road and that’s the beauty of this job, you can start without land of your own,” he said.
His once few meters long garden now spans about 200 metres. It is with this craft that he says he has lifted many others, including his brother, Chibuike Ogbonnaya, out of joblessness.
He plans to move to a land of his own where he would run a mechanised farm and ‘consult’ for other gardeners and other flower enthusiasts.
Propagation to cashing out
Mr Ogbonnaya said to be successful in gardening, ”you need to blend passion with diligence and physical agility.”
But Christopher Chukwunta, a florist at the Federal Housing Junction, along Abuja International Airport, added that it is not a business you can start ”without the knowledge of the authority.”
Mary Omoh, the president of the Association of Flower Nurseries and Landscaping Practitioners Abuja, who herself runs Sharon Roses Horticulture Limited in Jabi, buttressed this.
She said with registration settled, ”a garden can be set up with N100,000 since one does not necessarily need land with a certificate of occupancy to start up.”
This capital is needed to purchase nursery bags and seedlings, she said, adding that those without that much can be assisted by other garden owners ”or at least start somewhere.”
‘Started with N10, 000, now a millionaire’
David Onyedikachi, 45, currently runs a booming garden in Garki, Area 11. He was at the brink of bankruptcy when he chose to “start small with just N10,000,” first in Lagos for seven years, before relocating to Abuja in 2004.
“With the flowers I have now and the creative work I do with cement pot and the rest, I can tell you that if I begin to say my worth today, I cannot ascertain how much I am worth. But I know that I’m worth over a million naira and above,” Mr Onyedikachi said.
Toyin Osadolo’s 20 years stint in the trade which she said started with “as little as N10,000” is not different from Mr Onyedikachi’s.
She is happy the proceeds from her gardens in Gwarinpa and Garki are paying her bills and those around her but sad that not many are looking in the direction of the trade.
According to Pricewaterhouse Cooper International Limited, between 2016 and 2018, Nigeria’s total agriculture exports was driven by export of sesame seeds, fermented cocoa beans, cashew nuts, ginger, crude palm kernel oil, soya beans, frozen shrimps and prawns, among other commodities.
Cumulatively, the country earned N530 billion from agriculture in two years.
In contrast, Nigeria’s total agriculture import bill over the same period stood at N2.39 trillion. As a result, the agriculture trade deficit stood at N1.86 trillion, thereby making the country a net food importer.
Horticulture alone, being a sub-sector of agriculture, is one of the top foreign exchange earners for Kenya.
It generated approximately $1 billion annually and also contributed about 1.45 per cent to the National Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of Kenya in 2015.
Also, horticulture is currently the fastest growing agriculture sub-sector which ranked third in terms of foreign exchange earnings from export after tourism and tea in Kenya.
Nigeria, being the ‘giant’ of Africa can earn more in this regard if opportunities across the value chains of the Agricultural subset—horticulture are fully harnessed.
The importance of having plants around cannot be overemphasised, as it possesses the natural tendencies of remediating air pollution, which encourages healthy living, Mrs Omoh said.
Asides being of immense benefit to the environment, she says ”it wears the environment with a beautiful outlook when seen grown side by side along major and minor roads which brings forth a captivating landscape.”
“That is why we advocate, we go round, we let people know the importance of flowers,” Mrs Omoh said. ”During the last World Environment Day, we went out, we were even dashing out plants to people to go and plant in their houses. Anywhere you stay, have plants around you.”
A major challenge for those in the business is that most of the fruits, vegetables and ornamental plant species grown by these gardeners are not grown in Nigeria.
For instance, the seed of Alcaria, said to be the most expensive in most gardens visited, are imported from Italy, Ghana, and other neighbouring countries.
Mr Okafor, the researcher at NIHORT, explained that these seeds are difficult to grow in Nigeria but if they are to be planted in the country, the plants would have “difficulty in rooting, which makes its propagation quite expensive.”
Folarin Okelola, the spokesperson of the National Agricultural Seeds Council (NASC), the government agency that regulates the seed industry in Nigeria, said the council has not been doing so much to regulate seeds available to horticulturists in the country.
She said the Seed Act 2019, once passed, ”would serve as a tool to regulate the seeds available to horticulturists.”
Apart from the challenge of seeds, Mrs Omoh continues “especially within October to March — which are usually periods of low rainfall — access to water in Abuja proves to be a great deal of challenge.”
Jostle for space is also a problem for gardeners, Christopher Chukwunta noted. He complained that there had been instances where government officials send gardeners packing from a space they occupy without giving an alternative.
“Getting a space where no one will come ask you to leave anytime is hard,” Mr Chukwunta said.
Three other gardeners — one in each of Maitama, Garki and Idu — who were faced with this challenge told PREMIUM TIMES how they lost millions of naira in the course of relocating their plants.
Toyin Osadolo, in 2011, was ordered by authorities of the Abuja Environmental Protection Board (AEPB) to leave a space allotted to her. On getting to her new space, however, she lost all her plants due to shocks and absence of water in the area.
“I was having over a million naira in my account as at when they (AEBP) asked me to pack. I spent all this money to pack out and transport my plant to where I was given. When I got there, I lost all my plants because there was no water,” Mrs Osadolo said.
In a similar manner, Anna Emeka, 29, who runs a garden business alongside her husband in Maitama recalled how she lost her plants when she was asked to pack out of her initial garden ”by this same authority, making her start all over again.”
Mr Okafor said horticulture holds great economic potential with high prospect of dividends ”if subscribed to by vibrant youth in the country.”
“Horticulture is a branch of agriculture with great economic potential, it has a 100 per cent assurance of profit if properly maintained,” he said.
The researcher urged Nigerian youth to tap into the opportunities in the value chains, reiterating that it does not need a huge capital to kick-start.
Mr Chukwunta also called on the government to open a ”green area” for gardeners in the city. He said this would solve the problem of eviction from spaces given to them initially.
“If we are given, we would have one part of it for recreation and another part for what we are doing here,” he said. ”If the government can listen to us and hear our cry to meet up this particular request, it will help to encourage others in this business,” Mrs Omoh appealed.