Govt to blame for suspension of Nigeria’s beans by EU — Aiyegbusi

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The Chairman/Chief Executive Officer, Olu Olu Group of Companies, a company operating in four continents, Mr. Olumuyiwa Aiyegbusi, in this interview with SUCCESS NWOGU, speaks on how to achieve national food security


H
ow do you react to the extension of ban on Nigerian beans in the EU market?

It is very unfortunate. I remember that when the one year initial suspension was about to expire, the Executive Director/Chief Executive Officer of NEPC, Mr. Segun Awolowo, called to ask for my view and input having been a corn grower and established in the UK for over 30 years, putting my products on the shelf in the UK, the United States and Ireland. I told him that I would phone around and get back to him. It was when I called that I learnt that they had extended the ban for another three years. The reason they gave was not out of place. They said we had not done the needful in that one year to show them that we are serious that we are tackling the problem and therefore, they had to extend the suspension.

It was a sad development because I know how much beans I sell. You cannot blame the people. The government over there cares about its people because healthcare delivery in the UK is free. They call it social service. The position of their government is that if it can prevent people from being sick, that is cheaper than curing for sick people. So, their health and quarantine officers at the ports are very stringent in scrutinising containers and analysing them. Some beans from Nigerian contain very high milligrams of preservatives.  They will not accept that because it will kill their citizens. Therefore, I will not blame them. We can play with our healthcare here but the EU will not. Some people may say, ‘it does not matter; we have been eating it all the time and we have not died.’ Do you know so many people are dying and you do not know what is causing their deaths? There are many young people now having high blood pressure or diabetes.

 What is the way out?

Let us do the needful; let us call a stakeholders’ meeting. Let all concerned know about all these things. If some experts in Nigeria come in, let them teach farmers. There are ways we can preserve beans without using too much pesticide. It is being practised in Kenya and South Africa. It seems we do not borrow knowledge into our system.

 What is the quality of Nigerian food in the international market?

I can only talk about the quality of the products that I operate. We have durability and reliability. So, quality is just the starting point. If you want to enter the international market, you cannot joke with quality. You cannot joke with traceability, where you can trace the product back to the source.

 You operate in four continents; what is it doing business in Nigeria?

It is not easy doing business in Nigeria. Should we start from the fact that a young person cannot get a start-up capital from banks if he does not have a history or collateral? Finance anywhere is always difficult for a starter, even if you are well-established. There are some infrastructural facilities that are not in place. Electricity is taken for granted in Europe, China, South America and the United States. So, a competitor there doing the same thing you are doing here has an edge over you.

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Here you look for generator. So, you are spending a big amount of money for diesel or petrol, between N5m and N15m; and they may say you need your own transformer. I have never heard anybody in my industrial estate in London talk about a transformer. Here, people will say you need a transformer, which may cost about N1.5m. Then, you need to drill your own borehole; provide your security; God help you if you are bringing your raw materials from Lagos to Kwara or Benue, with the number of police checkpoints on the road. This is where costs increase. It is not easy to be a manufacturer in Nigeria. In fact, we should give kudos to the manufacturers because it is easier to be a seller in Nigeria.

 How is the economic recession affecting business in Nigeria?

It is three or four times more difficult doing business in Nigeria than in other (developed) countries. First, the banks do not have enough liquidity anymore to give out loans as they used to give. In other words, they are stringent in the evaluation of loan application.

I know that the Bank of Industry is trying to encourage entrepreneurs to take up loans but I am sure there are other grants in place (like for women and others) that could be made easily accessible to the applicants. They could be channelled through the banks. If a bank wants to give you a loan, you may have to have some big persons to influence it. Secondly, the purchasing power of an average Nigerian is twice poorer compared to two years ago. So, if you produce something that is too expensive, you will just be looking at it on your shelf. People are looking for things that they can manage to buy and eat; you have to be smarter in what you are producing. So, it is three or four times more difficult surviving in business in Nigeria than in other places.

You find some airlines folding up and some reducing their flight schedules or even some foreign airlines not coming to Nigeria. But smart people will know that there are still some opportunities now. When things look bad, some people make more money. It may not be immediate. Some take advantage of this time to start something; and in few years when the economy becomes good, they are already established and they go ahead of their competitors.

 Also, the fluctuation in the foreign exchange rate is affecting business. It has made things to become more expensive and the workers have little purchasing power from their income. The recession is biting hard but with ingenuity, manoeuvring and adjustment, people should position themselves and sooner or later, there will be light at the end of the tunnel.

 So, what are the opportunities?

The opportunities are in the agriculture sector. People should now take advantage of this time to invest in agriculture-value chain. We are number two in fresh fruit production in the world but most of the produce is wasted. For instance, when Nigerians want to go to harvest vegetable, it is in the afternoon. This is the wrong time to harvest because when you are harvesting in the afternoon, in the heat of the sun, the sun is already taking water from the vegetable and you carry it on your head. They do not do that in Kenya or Uganda. They go to the farm around 4pm, harvest around 6pm and by 8pm, the produce is at the processing centre where they will process it, wash and package it. And by 11pm, it is at the airport and you see it landing in London at about 5.30am. So at 6am, it is in the market and still fresh. But here, we insist on doing it the old way. We can never grow like that. We are cheating ourselves.

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 Is it true that Nigeria’s post-harvest losses have negatively impacted on its quest for food security and increased exports?

It is very true. This area of agricultural value has been of great concern for me for the last 10 years. I am passionate about the need to minimise these losses. The food import of Nigeria annually is estimated to be close to N9tn. These food items include those things we grow such as rice and palm oil, which we were the major producers in the 1960s. Malaysia bought palm seedlings from Nigeria and grew them. Now, they are exporting palm oil to us. Can you imagine that places like Shoprite and other spa would not buy Nigerian-grown pawpaw, mango or even banana? They prefer to buy banana from Cameroun or import pawpaw from Uganda or South Africa; but we grow all these things.

Nigeria is number one in terms of ranking in cassava production in the world; Nigeria is number one producer of yam in the world. Nigeria is number four in production of fresh vegetables. In fruits, we are number two. So, why do we have to import banana, mango to Nigeria? The reason is: even though we produce so much and expect that there should be sufficiency and excess to process for export, our post-harvest practices are old fashioned. There is no way a nation can grow like that. It pains me so much. You hear every government department or agency talks on the need to produce more food but we are wasting the ones that we are producing. It is high time we addressed the losses. I have nothing against production but if we are wasting so much of the things we are producing now, then if we produce more, chances are that we will waste more.

My estimate of our post-harvest losses of the six items that I have mentioned, which we are major global leader, will be over N1tn annually. This does not even include other items. I can say that the post-harvest losses in Nigeria are over N2tn.

 What is the way out?

We need to address the fact that the farmer’s primary assignment is to grow. It is not their duty to preserve. There should be off-takers. The farmer that produces yam in Zaki-Biam, for instance, should not be the one that brings it from Zaki-Biam to Lagos or from Paiko in Niger to Lagos. There should be off-takers.

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