It was not the setting expected of farmland harbouring a rare crop. About a plot of well-tended land enmeshed in other plantations was all Samuel Okoli needed to keep his passion of growing apples in Kaduna, the capital of Kaduna State.
The trees remain flourishing green – green amidst the blazing sun of a prolonged dry season that only gave way to wetness a few days ago. Ordinarily, apple trees are not expected of a tropical region as Kaduna’s.
Like many, Mr Okoli had heard the usual saying that apples cannot grow in Nigeria. But unlike those who took the ‘myth’ as part of knowledge, he was determined to try the impossible.
It was not by accident that the graduate of Electrical Engineering succeeded in growing two species of apples in his backyard farmland in Kaduna. The journey started a long time ago.
In the year 2000, Mr Okoli visited Jacaranda, a farm settlement owned by the Anglican Church – about 20 kilometres from Kaduna. The purpose of the tour was to have him introduced to foreign crops being cultivated in the country. More like a pre-determined decision, he picked interest in apple.
For the all-important determination of breaking the myth behind growing the fruit in Nigeria, Mr Okoli said he purchased two seeds of red apple at N8,000 each, transported and grew it in Kaduna.
“I picked particular interest in apple because it’s a major fruit in Nigeria which everybody likes to eat and the country is spending so much to import it,” Mr Okoli said, adding that he likes to “do the impossible.”
Today, the experimentation has grown into multiple trees of apples, nursery beds and seedlings.
How the apples survived
With an average annual temperature of 25.2 °C and a dry season climate that could shoot as high as 40 °C, one could easily dispel Kaduna as a potential location for the crop. World over, the average summer temperature to grow apple is 21-24 °C and the crop can tolerate winter temperatures as low as -40°C.
But how did the engineer manage to grow apples, bearing fruits yearly, for almost two decades?
“So, we brought them (seeds from Jacaranda), luckily, it grew and produced. I studied it (the first yield), they were not very good when it came out but I kept on absorbing it and tried to propagate it. Only for me to discover that they can grow as a complete tree. I thought that it would be just shrubs but I discovered that they are like every other tree.
“The only thing is that they are very sensitive; you have to take care of them, you have to treat them when they are sick, you have to give them water, you also have to prune them.”
Most of what he is praised for today as expertise came from trial and error. At one time, the tree grew wild and the stems, which could not support the fruits, fell off. At another, termites ate deep into one of the trees before its treatment was discovered. A particular specie germinated to give another kind of fruit entirely. Many seedlings even died before maturity.
However, what followed any period of shortfall became new knowledge for the apple farmer. The knowledge also extended to a curriculum of care-taking in different seasons.
“Dry season comes with a lot of diseases,” he said. “If I plant 100 seeds now, about 70 will germinate and like only 30 per cent of that will survive. You have to supply them water on regular basis, morning and evening. That’s because of severe heat. But the rainy season is very conducive. You have less job to do but you have to weed them because if there are many weeds, it attracts insects which attacks the apples. Sometimes you have to fumigate against termites.”
Initially, Mr Okoli started his plantation with Nigerian-sourced seed and it remained so until 2016 when he made a new attempt at experimentation.
Although no species of apple is indigenous to Nigeria, the apples grown by Mr Okoli were often regarded as Nigerian apple due to the source. The farmer was determined to change that narrative.
“About three years ago, I got interested in growing the foreign one and decided to experiment. We extracted the seed from the market. When we ate apple, we removed the seed, we treated them, it underwent processes and we planted them.”
Today, Mr Okoli’s effort has yielded over ten fruit-bearing trees, all red apples; budded green apples journeying to maturity and many seedlings of both.
Beyond this, the retired engineer has successfully grown a cross-pollinated version of the two, popularly called queen’s apple.
Plans for commercialisation
Mr Okoli’s exploit was first made public in early May when his daughter tweeted some pictures of the matured apple fruits. The tweet almost coincided with his plan to go commercial. But the demand ever since has outgrown his supply strength.
To interested farmers, he now sells a seedling between N10,000 and N25,000 depending on the stage of maturity.
“Initially, I didn’t have the mind of going commercial, it was just for family consumption. This year, my plan was to grow up to 2000 seedlings and maybe if I’m able to acquire small land, plant them and sell some to those interested. But our supply is limited now. We can’t meet the market request yet. Now, many people want to have the seedlings,” he said.
Now, he is projecting planting enough seeds not only for interested farmers but for the trees to bear fruits for consumers. To achieve this, he is looking towards acquiring large farmland, plant 2,000 seedlings, allow them to bear fruits and sell to consumers.
He is confident his effort, coupled with that of other interested farmers, would crash the price of the fruit in the market.
“The seed we use is just from the ones people throw away. If we are able to succeed in commercial farming, definitely it will be cheaper because the labour input is not too high. What will make it cheaper is when you get many people to develop an interest in it. Nigeria is a very large market. If this happens, the price will definitely come down. That’s what we are planning to do.
“I am interested in apple commercialisation because the government is spending so much money on the importation. Shipping from South Africa is enormous. If we get many Nigerians, first to convince them that it can grow here and get them to develop interest and start planting, it will save a lot of money for Nigeria.”
Apple import in Nigeria
As of May 2019, a carton of small apples, with 198 fruits, goes for N11,000 while the big one is sold for N12,000. The large size has 110 apples in a carton.
At the retail level, one apple sells for a minimum of N50 and could be N70, N100, N200 or even higher depending on the size and location of purchase.
As stated by Mr Okoli, Nigeria has a good share of apple import.
According to World’s Top Export, an export statistics agency, international purchases of imported apples cost a total $8.2 billion in 2018. Of this amount, Nigeria accounted for $29.7 million to rank 47th largest importer in the world.
According to the United States Department of Agriculture, which takes the record of apple import yearly, in 2014, Nigeria imported 51,200 metric tonnes of apples. The number grew to 57,500 in 2015 but dropped significantly to 35, 400 the following year.
From a fall in 2016, the import increased slightly to 35,900 metric tonnes in 2017 and 40,000 in 2018.
Even though Mr Okoli would like to account for a percentage of apple supply to consumers, one expert says his daring exploit is not economically viable.
Oluwatosin Olomide, a plant breeder, said Nigeria currently does not have the economies of scale to produce apples.
“You’ll rather produce in an area where the plant has physiological advantage of growing and yielding very well or in a place where there is a large market for the product. In Nigeria, there is the market but our environment is harsh for the growth of apple.
“When you look at the economies (of scale) you find out that, except these farmers have other that can augment for shortfalls in that area, they have a higher chance of not breaking even. Their input will be so much more than their output. When you look at the benefit-cost ratio of that, it’s not economically favourable.”
Bernard Okafor, a researcher at the National Horticultural Research Institute, is surprised that apples grow in Kaduna but thinks a cluster of farmers could break into the market with cheaper fruits.
“Of course we do (have economies of scale for production). If we go close to the Ogudu and all these other highlands, the trees can be grown. With the vast area of land Nigeria has, I’m sure we can break into the market.
“We can have it cheaper. The cost of importation, the tariff, the tax and the rest makes imported materials more expensive than local materials.”
The researcher however warned that success can only be achieved if there are more farmers producing the fruit.
“Before the cost will match what we import, there must be large production. For now, we are talking about two or three farmers. By the time they come into the market, they will be looking at the cost of labour, weeding and the rest. If care is not taken, theirs will be more expensive than the ones imported. The more they are, the cheaper it is,” he said.
Jos farmer wants to grow own specie
About 200 kilometres from Kaduna, the greenness of seedlings of various species whirls to the tune of the early morning wind. It’s the Jamil Farm and Garden located in Jos North Local Government of Plateau State.
With a lower temperature compared to Kaduna’s, Jos presents itself as a good location for Sadis Abbas to experiment.
Mr Abbas, who holds a diploma in Arabic Studies, started his plantation in 2010.
Like Mr Okoli, he was determined to prove wrong “those who believe that apples could not be grown in Nigeria.” He succeeded after a series of trials and failures. He started with the green apple.
Today, he has several species of apples in his 18-year-old garden. But how does Mr Abbas source his seeds?
“I usually source the seeds from overripe apple bought from apple vendors because it is cheaper to buy the overripe ones than the fresh in the market. What I do in most cases is to cut the overripe ones into two and remove the seeds and sow them.
“The size of the apple doesn’t determine the quantity of seeds to get. For example, smaller apple may give you six to ten seeds while a bigger apple may give one or two seeds,” he said.
Beyond growing the impossible fruit, Mr Abbas wants to cast his name in the stone of agricultural inventions world over. His dream is to develop his own specie but rather than name it after him, the farmer has other ideas.
“As at now, I am planning to come up with my own species which will be named Manzalia apple, meaning homegrown. Although this is not the first time I am producing personal specie. The first one I produced was sold to someone who was undergoing PhD. Programme and his supervisor accepted it,” he said.
Mr Okafor said the farmer’s dream ‘is very possible’ and that he only has to make the seeds ‘go through a breeding process.’
Jamil Farm has not yet gone commercial, apart from domestic consumption, Mr Abbas makes money from selling the seedlings. The bigger seedlings are sold for as high as N10,000 while those just sprouting can be given out at N1,500.
Like his Kaduna counterpart, he also nurses the idea of producing in large quantity to cushion market supply.
To achieve this, Mr Abbas wants the government to assist him in raising capital for large scale farming and to provide security to in the troubled Plateau State.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Oluwatosin Olomide was initially described as a worker of the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA). That part was corrected after Mr Olomide notified Premium Times he had left the agriculture institute.