Can FG’s Ban On Tomato Paste Import Avert Crisis?

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The tomato industry, like many others in Nigeria, faces a lot of challenges that threaten the viability and sustainability of various businesses and entrepreneurships in the value chain.

Reports have it that tomato farms have been ravaged by diseases across the tomato producing states – majorly Kaduna, Kano and Katsina -in the North while tomato processors have either shut down or suspended production over what they referred to as unfavourable government policies and lack of enabling environment for their business to thrive.

Apparently worried by the ugly development, which has lingered since late last year, the Minister of Agriculture, Chief Audu Ogbeh, disclosed last week that the federal government will soon ban tomato paste importation.

tomato1He said the ban became necessary following a report by National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control (NAFDAC) that imported tomato pastes are not good for consumption, adding that the ban was based on health grounds, among others.

But stakeholders, while describing the planned ban as a panic measure, have also raised concerns on whether it can avert the crisis in the Nigerian tomato industry and how soon the policy will be implemented.

Raising alarm on the crisis in an open letter to President Muhammadu Buhari, tomato farmers under the aegis of Tomato Growers in the country, recently decried lack of support on procurement of pesticide despite the fact that the agriculture minister had been informedof Tuta Absoluta attack sometime last year.

The tomato growers, in their letter, claimed that the pest, referred to as ‘Tomato Ebola’ in the local parlance, affected the farms of over 200,000 of their members thereby losing a lot of money with neither compensation nor support given to them by the government.

Due to the devastating impact of the disease, they are imploring the federal government to assist them with the appropriate pesticide, assuring that members of the various associations are willing to buy the input when it ismade available.

One of the tomato farmers, Malam Haruna Shehu, said when Tuta Absoluta struck, he did not know what to do and ended up losing about 3ha of his tomato farm to the devastating disease, without any assistance from the government.

Reacting to the development, a source at the Agriculture Ministry, who would not want to be named, said they have been creating awareness on the management and containment of Tuta Absoluta as it cannot be totally eradicated.

He advised farmers to take preventive measures against the pest, adding that government was training field officers and working on how to find better solution to it and also make subsidized inputs, including pesticides, available to the farmers.

On compensation, the source said it was a difficult issue to handle due to lack of funds presently.

The tomato growers also in the open letter to the President attributed a statement to the Minister of Trade and Investment, Dr. Okechukwu Enelama, where he was quoted as saying “Nigeria will not stop importation of tomato paste and concentrate for some years to come.”

The statement is said to be contrary to the yearnings of tomato growers and processors, who are earnestly calling for ban on importation of tomato paste and concentrate, so as to protect the farmers and local tomato factories.

Effort to get the reaction of the Ministry of Industry, Trade and Investment was not fruitful as the official authorized to speak on the issue was not available at the time of filing this report.

Meanwhile, Alhaji Sani Dangote, Group Vice President, Dangote Industries Limited,while speaking to Daily Trust in Abuja, faulted the government on lack of clear-cut policy direction as far as local tomato paste production and importation were concerned thereby making it difficult for producers to operate in the country.

Dangote tomato factory in Kano State
Dangote tomato factory in Kano State

Dangote Tomato Company, located in Kadawa, Kano State has since shut down production.

In the same vein, Erisco Foods Limited, which suspended operations for one month and threatened to sack 1,500 workers, disclosed recently that it will finally shut down and relocate to China to produce and import to Nigeria.

In a letter addressed to the Vice President, Prof. Yemi Osinbajo, by the Managing Director (MD) of Erisco Foods Ltd, Chief Eric Umeofia, the company has since accused the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN), NAFDAC and the Federal Ministry of Industry, Trade and Investment of sabotaging their investment.

Chief Umeofia alleged that the CBN declined their request for forex to import spare parts and raw materials to be used for production, but approved intervention loan and forex to companies mostly owned by foreigners to import tomato paste.

When contacted, the Acting Director, Corporate Communications Department, Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN), Isaac Okorafor, declined comments on the allegations made by Umeofia. He, however, said the CBN does not allocate foreign exchange to anyone.

According to him, “By practice, we do not join issues with individuals on matters of this nature. All I can tell you is that the CBN does not allocate foreign exchange. All business persons, manufacturers, traders, etc are expected to approach their respective banks to bid for and obtain foreign exchange. Whether they succeed or not is their business.”

Sources at one of the Participating Financial Institutions (PFIs), through which the CBN disbursed the intervention funds to ERISCO and other beneficiaries, disclosed that the company, between June 2014 and April 2016, received various sums of money for the importation and installation of tomato processing lines and the stockpiling of raw materials for operational efficiency.

Commenting on the alleged sabotage of tomato processors investments, Mr. Abubakar Jimoh, Director, Special Duties, NAFDAC told our reporter: “This issue of allegations by ERISCO has been on for over one year, but the stance we have maintained here in NAFDAC is not to join issues on the pages of newspaper with any of our stakeholders because we are a regulatory agency.

“We have made our case known to the top levels, to the presidency and everybody who cares to know that we don’t have any axe to grind with ERISCO.It will be in our own interest that the company thrives, employs labour and also gives us foreign exchange earnings that will have a multiplier effect on the economy of the country,” the spokesperson of NAFDAC stressed.

According to him, government has put in place policies to stimulate growth of local industries, noting that as soon as “we have the competence to produce the concentrate here, we can ban importation, but for now, we can’t drive away those importers, there will be scarcity in the market.”

On the alleged substandard nature of imported tomato paste and concentrate, he said: “Right now, we are carrying out another national survey to determine where we are in terms of the allegations he has raised on the issue of substandard tomato concentrate and paste.”

He stated that if NAFDAC discovers any infraction after a company has been registered, it gives corrective measures called ‘compliance directive’ and any company that fails to comply will be sanctioned.

Efforts to get the reaction of the Standards Organisation of Nigeria (SON) with respect to the alleged sub-standard nature of imported tomato paste and concentrate yielded no fruit as the spokesperson, Mr. Matthias Bassey, could not be reached.

Proffering solution to the looming crisis in the tomato industry, Architect Kabir Ibrahim, president of the All Farmers Association of Nigeria (AFAN), said government should give incentives to farmers, provide seeds with long shelf life alongside other inputs at the right time and at less cost.

Another solution, he pointed out, is that government should create enabling environment for tomato production and value addition to avoid waste.

“Farmers now sell to who they want at the price they want. The idea of farming as a business is now rearing its head. So, the government should discourage importation of food items including tomato paste and concentrate through relevant policies to protect local producers,” he noted.

Also proffering solution, Alhaji Lawal Batagarawa, a farmer, who was Minister of State for Education and Minister of Defence during the Obasanjo administration, said government should give farmers the necessary support to produce the kind of tomato that can be processed to make money at low cost so that the farmers and processors can remain in business.

“The greatest support you can give to a farmer is extension services.You need somebody to look at this and say this is what is wrong and say do this, if you do it and you see a change, next year you will look for the person on your own,” the farmer and former top government official noted.

He said the extension agents should be trained every year so that they can be updated in terms of innovations.

Batagarawafurther said that good quality seeds, among others, should be given to the farmers while the entire tomato value chain must be overhauled.

However, Nigerian tomato growers and processing companies have continued to express fears over imminent crisis in the tomato sub-sector of agriculture, urging urgent government intervention so as to save the value chain from total collapse.