When farmers met fortune at the 23rd GRP Farmers' Day Celebration

Across the road from the office complex called Plant Propagation Center (PPC), the normally serene fields were crowded with exhibition booths, showcasing different agricultural products – yams, ginger, crayfish, sugarcane, garden egg, cassava – from Farmers and Co-operative Societies, as well as agro-allied technology, research materials, and improved seed varieties from respected Agricultural Research Institutes, such as the National Root Crops Research Institute, the Michael Okpara University of Agriculture, and the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) Ibadan, amongst others.

The Farmers’ Day Celebration had returned to Obie, where the Green River Project was born in 1987. It was a project launched in response to a directive issued by the Nigerian Federal Government asking foreign oil companies to implement projects in support of local agricultural development. From these humble beginnings, the GRP today impacts thousands of agricultural households in the Niger Delta, to the extent that NAOC Managing Director, Lorenzo Fiorillo, in his opening remarks referred to the GRP as ‘the heartbeat of our company’.

The Green River Project, a flagship initiative of Eni under the operatorship of NAOC and its Joint Venture partners, held its 23rd Farmers’ Day Celebration on 23rd November 2019. It was a festive occasion with the flags of Nigeria, Italy and the NAOC JV - NNPC (60%), NAOC (20%), and Oando (20%) - fluttering high over the excited venue.

The impact of the project was evident in the faces of the GRP Farmers gathered for the occasion, as they danced around the arena in celebration chanting ‘GRP! Food for all!’ There were farmers from four NAOC operational States (Rivers, Bayelsa, Delta and Imo). But none could have been happier than Abaye Thomas, the winner of the coveted NAOC-GRP Farmer of the Year 2019, the highest of many prizes handed out by the company that day to reward performance in the last farming season.

Abaye Thomas, a native of Nembe in Bayelsa State, had joined the GRP in 2006, with no previous farming experience, but with training by the GRP, and an endowment of 10,000 fingerlings from the GRP, went into fish farming. Over the years, he not only grew his capacity to 100,000 fingerlings, but was also able to use proceeds from his Fish Farm business to send his daughters to school.

In his remarks, Executive Vice President and Chairman of Eni companies in Nigeria, Guido Brusco, appreciated the support of the President of Nigeria, the host states, the communities, the farmers and all other stakeholders. He described the GRP as a vehicle for positive engagement between the company, the community and the government. He also referred to it as a perfect example of oil and soil working together for the benefit of the nation. More importantly, he drew the attention of the audience to the fact that the GRP was strongly aligned with the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), particularly No. 1 (no poverty), No. 2 (no hunger) and No. 17 (public-private partnerships). As evidence of the level of importance attached to the GRP by Eni, Eni’s Chief Development, Operations and Technology Officer, Stefano Maione was present at the event.

The occasion repleted with highlights: from the impressive boat regatta in a man-made pond at one end of the grounds, to the colourful farm produce arranged in green fields under bright African skies on the other; from the energetic dance performances by some of the region’s best cultural troupes, to a guest appearance by one of the Country’s most beloved music icons.

However the words of the President of Nigeria, H.E Muhammadu Buhari, in a video presentation of a personal goodwill message to the farmers of the GRP, stood out and impressed all the participants. Speaking remotely, President Buhari commended the company for sustaining the GRP for over 30 years, and for empowering over 120 communities in the Niger Delta in the process. He urged others to emulate the example of the Company, expressing optimism in the future of agriculture in Nigeria.

Suffyan Koroma, the Country Representative of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and to the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), recognized NAOC JV’s efforts to ensure safe access to food, and announced the organization’s commitment to further partnerships with the Company.  The Permanent Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Dr. Mohammed Bello Umar, reinforced the importance of GRP by confirming that the Company is joining the government’s efforts to ensure development and food security in rural areas.

Also present at the event the representative of the Faculty of Agriculture, Rivers State University (RSU), who noted that the GRP stood tall amongst social intervention schemes aimed at stimulating agricultural development at the grassroots; the Deputy Ambassador of Italy to Nigeria, H.E. Tarek Chazli; representatives of the Governors of Bayelsa, Delta, Imo and Rivers State and other representatives of institutions.

All the attendants enjoyed the cultural festivities on offer, including the steps of the acclaimed Egbelegbele Dance Troupe of Amassoma, the drumming of the University of Port Harcourt Cultural Troupe, and the exaggerated movements of the traditional War Canoe Dancers.

The Farmers’ Day culminated in a guided tour through the exhibition grounds with sights and sounds for all purposes. If interested in the present, visitors could see, and buy, the plantains and perinwinkles, the dried fish and garri, the pineapples and pawpaws that the farmers of the GRP had produced in the last farming season. If interested in the past, visitors could see examples of how crops, like yam, were traditionally preserved in the old days.  If interested in the future, visitors could see different agro-allied technologies and techniques, and improved seed varieties being developed to boost agricultural productivity in rural areas.

And if interested only in the pressing need of satisfying tummies now hungry from a long afternoon of festivities, visitors could indulge themselves with the region’s famous delicacy – boli and fish – freshly roasted on open grills. It was a good way to end a colourful day.