The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development, Chief Audu Ogbeh, is crest-fallen. Amid fanfare, his ministry flagged off the exportation of yam to Europe and the United States (U.S) on June 29. The first consignment of 72 metric tonnes of yam left Nigeria through the Apapa Port to U.S. And with the shipment, Ogbeh was euphoric.
It couldn’t have been otherwise. To him, and indeed, other operators and stakeholders in the non-oil export business, it was an indication that Nigeria’s efforts at stimulating non-oil export to earn foreign exchange and also facilitate economic diversification was gaining traction.
Encouraged by the feat, the Minister announced that the Federal Government targeted about $8 billion annually from yam export to other countries.
In all, the government, under its Zero Oil Plan, which targets to replace oil as a major foreign exchange earner by boosting non-oil export, targeted the realisation of $100 billion revenue from non-oil export yearly.
Working through the Nigerian Export Promotion Council (NEPC), the government identified 22 countries as markets for Nigeria’s 11 products with high financial value to replace oil under the plan. It targets about 20 per cent of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) from a repositioned non-oil sector.
However, both the realisation of the $8 billion from yam and the $100 billion from non-oil export annually have come under threat. Three months after the widely-celebrated June 29 yam shipment to the U.S, the authorities there rejected the yam, citing poor quality of the consignment.
A livid Ogbeh has vowed to investigate the exporting company and officials of the ministry’s Department of Quarantine for allowing such sub-standard good to leave the country.
“Some consignment of yams was exported from Nigeria to the U.S and according to reports we have, they were found to be of poor quality. We will be investigating both the company that exported it and our quarantine department to check and find out why such a consignment left here,” the minister fumed.
Ogbeh, in what was seen by not a few stakeholders as unnecessary blame game, sought to exonerate his ministry from the embarrassment when he said the ministry was not an exporter; the exporters are private people.
There were also off-takers including Messrs ADES African Foods and Drinks, United Kingdom, Horizon Beeps Associates Ltd., Texas, US, Glorious Expression, Georgia, US, Vine Global Import & Export, Georgia, US, Zuka Trading and Distribution Co Inc., California, US.
Although the minister said investigations had begun, the authorities in the U.S have clarified that the rejection was due to poor transportation facilities.
According to the Consultant to United States Agency for International Development (USAID/Nigeria,) NEXTT Project, Mr. Aderemi Osijo, biodegradation of perishable foods takes place naturally unless strategies are adopted to prevent, or delay the process.
He said yam, being a perishable good, needed to be placed in controlled-atmosphere, at a temperature significant biodegradation could not take place. Osijo is the managing director, RBS Consulting Limited.
He explained that when product temperature rises above the threshold for carriage, the risk of biodeterioration becomes greater, and biodeterioration can begin with eventual detectable effects. According to him, the yams may have spent a long time on the road and at the container terminal, which eventually affected the quality of the cargo.
Osijo said transporting yams entailed expensive logistical operations, transport and Customs clearance expenses which represent a significant cost of the exports. To protect the food, he said the packaging has to be suitable for the purpose, the duration and the complexity of the storage and journey.
He was emphatic that said if the government and the industry were serious about boosting agro exports, they needed to pay greater attention to the role of transportation and logistics to mitigate the impact of climate change on cargo for exports.
National Cashew Association of Nigeria President Mr. Tola Fateru agrees with him. He said many agro export commodities were perishable, and failure to ship them on time would cause them to perish, resulting in huge loss of income, livelihood and export revenue for exporters and the nation.
Fateru, who spoke at a press conference on non-oil export with the theme: “Nigeria’s economic diversification under threat,” warned that if Apapa Road linking export terminals at the port were not fixed on time, exporters may stop buying agric produce from farmers.
He said export warehouses were filled with commodities which should have been promptly shipped; and that they were rotting way.
While suggesting that priority should be given to exportable commodities, in line with the Federal Government’s economic diversification agenda, Fateru said all roads dedicated for export should be made absolutely for export only and nothing more.
However, last week’s rejection of Nigeria’s yam by the U.S over poor quality was not the first time rejection of export-bound agro-allied products would rob Nigeria of the benefits of a vibrant non-oil export-based economy.
In fact, this has been the case since Nigeria started its strategic refocus on the non-oil sector, following the crisis in the international oil market where the price of crude oil has been crashing.
For instance, the European Union (EU) ban on Nigeria’s beans is yet to be lifted. The EU had banned the beans because they contained high level of pesticides which are unhealthy.
Although relevant export regulatory agencies said they were working to get the EU to lift the ban, the European body said it was not impressed by measures taken by the Nigerian authorities to resolve the issue. Accordingly, it extended the ban by another three years, citing the continued presence of dichlorvos (pesticide) in dried beans imported from Nigeria.
“The continued presence of dichlorvos (pesticide) in dried beans imported from Nigeria and maximum residue levels of pesticides shows that compliance with food law requirement as regards pesticide residual cannot be achieved in the short term.
“The duration of the importation prohibition should therefore be extended for an additional period of three years to allow Nigeria implement the appropriate risk-management measure and provide required guarantees,” the EU had said.
About 67 processed and semi-processed food products of Nigeria origin exported to the EU were said to have been rejected in 2015 and last year. The rejected food items included brown and white beans, melon seeds, palm oil, mushrooms, bitter leaf, ugu leaves, shelled groundnut, smoked catfish and crayfish, among others.
The Republic of Ireland also rejected and returned five containers of beans from Nigeria. The products were said to have been received with heaps of weevils. The U.S also recently banned the importation of Nigeria’s cocoa into its market.
The U.S authorities were said to have taken the action because Nigeria’s cocoa did not satisfy the standard required for exports into the country.
Lack of quality assurance remains a sore point
While Ogbeh, and, indeed, other authorities in the Nigerian non-oil export sector are obviously embarrassed by the barrage of rejection of agro-allied commodities, the preponderance of opinion is that the rejections were, to a large extent, self-inflicted.
Those who hold this position argue that Nigeria consistently shoots itself in the foot by refusing to put in place appropriate and adequate measures to guarantee the quality of her agric products.
They argue that Nigeria put the wrong foot forward when it moved to leverage on the sector to grow the economy without first putting in place functional laboratories for testing and certifying products before export.
For instance, the founder, Centre for Cocoa Development Initiative, a Non-governmental Organisation (NGO), Mr. Robo Adhuze, noted that lack of seriousness by the Federal Produce Inspection Service (FPIS), the agency responsible for checking and certifying agro-allied products leaving the country, was hurting Nigeria’s non-oil export economy.
Adhuze said: “Quality standards have moved from physical standards to biological standards, but FPIS appears not be up to speed with this reality.”
He recalled that for about five years, Ghana suffered the same fate as Nigeria’s when over 2,000 metric tonnes of her cocoa beans were rejected by Japan.
He said following appeals by the Chocolate and Cocoa Association of Japan to the Ghanaian authorities to take immediate steps to reverse the excessive agro-chemical residues found in cocoa beans, Ghana, a country famous for its very high quality cocoa beans, rose to the challenge by putting in place measures to guarantee the quality of her cocoa products for export.
He expressed disappointment that while Ghana’s standards regulatory authorities took steps to reverse the excessive agro-chemical residues found in their cocoa beans, Nigeria was unable to do so. The result, he said, was the harvest of export ban now threatening the non-oil sector, especially on agro-allied products.
Curiously, the threat is coming despite assurances by the Standards Organisation of Nigeria (SON) that it had come out with strategies to stimulate export of agric products by ensuring that they met international standards, and would not be rejected by the importing country.
The agency had announced that it was developing standards for select priority produce from farm to storage, cutting across soil composition, soil preparation, kind of pesticides to use, seed improvement, harvesting, packaging labelling and storage.
SON said it had developed codes to guide producers and farmers of the selected products that are of high priority so that Nigeria could deliver safe and affordable agro allied products to the international community.
The agency also said it had strengthened capacity for lab testing and certification of produce eant for export. It added that the products were tested only in the countries of export.
According to the former Acting Director-General of SON, Dr. Paul Angya, Nigeria does not have control over the results, “because we don’t have much of the facilities for testing in Nigeria. The facilities are what we call quality infrastructure. The testing laboratories are one of the major components of the National Quality Infrastructure (NQI).”
He said there were only two of such laboratories in Nigeria, with SON and National Agency for Food, Drug Administration and Control (NAFDAC) having one each for testing food products. Angya, however, said SON was developing a large lab complex in Ogba, Lagos, which is over 85 per cent completed, noting that when completed, Nigeria should be able to test all standards and parametres for food products.
Apart from SON and NAFDAC, other agencies charged with ensuring that export products are properly checked and certified include Nigerian Ports Authority (NPA), Nigerian Customs Service (NCS), and Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria (FAAN).
Others agencies that will come under the minister’s searchlight in the course of the investigation include NEPC, Nigerian Agricultural Quarantine Service (NAQS), Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN), National Agricultural Seed Council (NASC).