The Nigerian economy for a long time has been grappling with issues of products quality, arising from influx of inferior goods which has negatively impacted on the economy, leaving the citizens with no better choice. There are also unnerving concerns over the quality of agricultural produce exported from Nigeria that has reduced the country’s estimation within the comity of nations.
In this interview with SAMSON ECHENIM, the acting director-general of the Standards Organisation of Nigeria (SON), Dr Paul Angya speaks on why SON should have permanent presence at ports; how the agency is working to stop infiltration of substandard products into the country; plans to upscale agro-allied exports and challenges faced by the agency in discharging its roles.
QUOTES—–But the consequences of the removal of SON from the port, what we are seeing now, where Nigeria is actually over flooded like a sea overrunning a country, with substandard products and consequently industries have shut down
—–We expect that when the farmers fully imbibe the training and understand the handling of these products from farm to the table, it will reduce incidences of rejection to boost agricultural produce and exportation and therefore it will be able to attract for us, sufficient substantial foreign exchange as alternatives to oil
SON is one of the parastatals under the Ministry of trade, industry and investment. How is the organization contributing to the ministry’s goals?
The point has been made by people that standards are also key to all commercial agreements and transactions relating to trade and services. So, the Standards Organisation of Nigeria becomes very important to the ministry’s vision of improving Nigerian products for export and revenue derivation as alternative to oil because everybody who wants to trade or deal in products of standard and quality, the agency becomes key in the trade relations between individuals, between corporations and between nations. Standards are important; therefore standards institutions become very relevant.
Talking about standards, what new programmes are SON coming up with to promote quality standards in the importation of products?
Of course, standards have been there, but recently we have been faced with some kind of peculiarchallenges, especially in the drive for finding alternatives to oil. The country is looking at agriculture and agro-allied products in other to diversify the economy. As we all know, manufacturing is at its lowest ebb in the country and it has been on the decline in the past …resulting from the influx of substandard and cheap products which have killed local manufacturing. But then, now, the situation is more severe because of the issues of foreign exchange, manufacturing is low. So when we talk about alternatives to oil, we are not looking only at manufacturing, we are looking at agriculture and that is where we have our biggest strength.But then, recently we have had issues of rejection of our beans that were exported, rejected by the EU; and sundry other agro-allied products. So what we have done to make …has been to develop standards.
First of all, we identify priority products. Agric and agroallied products for export, such as cocoa, rice beans melon, about 10 of them and then we develop standards and codes of practice for these products from farm to table—soil composition, soil preparation, kind of pesticides to use, seed improvement, harvesting, packaging labelling, storage…all thesewe developedin terms of codes of practice, because sometimes, these products are rejected not so much of the product quality, as in this pesticides and additives that are used and how they store them. And they have issues of rotten …the food chain from farm to table. So, we develop the codes of practice to guide the producers, farmers of these selected products that are of high priority from Nigerians so that we can deliver safe and affordable agro-allied products to the international community.
We have also strengthened our capacity for laboratory testing and certification of these products because it is key that these products don’t have issues. The situation we have now is that these products are tested only in the countries of export. It is only when they get over there that they are tested, so we don’t 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. So when you have accredited laboratories, you can have these products tested in those labs and certified to those parameters, standards of importing countries. There are only two of such laboratories in Nigeria. SON has one and NAFDAC has one for testing food products. We are also currently developing a large laboratory complex in Ogba, Lagos which is over 85 per cent completed. When it is completed and furnished, we should be able to test all standards parameters for foods and food products, so that the facilities will become available andmuch of the products coming to Nigeria will access to this …we have also conducted trainings. Our staffs have been trained over the last few months in these codes of practice and agricultural practices. Our staff are trained…growers and farmers in this standards and codes of practice and so we expect to continually train farmers and produce dealers in additives, soil composition, soil testing, and traders in storage, warehousing, fumigation, preservation of these food products so that they don’t deteriorate.
We expect that when the farmers fully imbibe the training and understand the handling of these products from farm to the table, it will reduce incidences of rejection to boost agricultural produce and exportation and therefore it will be able to attract for us, sufficient substantial foreign exchange as alternatives to oil. So, that is what we have been doing in that area. We also have issues of e-waste in agriculture, because some of these chemicals and pesticides destroy the soil. Sometimes, we have unacceptable quotient of lead and mercury in the soil, such that when you plant, the mercury and lead level in the plant becomes unacceptable to the importing countries. So these are all issues that our codes of practice and standards are meant to check. Then we are also advising government and recommending that government develop agricultural policy that will account for these challenges that we identified through our standards review and all that.
Of course, other areas include where we are combating the influx of substandard products in Nigeria. And you know the consequences of substandard products on the economy, on the nation and on the people. And the attendant problems such as factory closures, unemployment resulting from closure of industries, capital flight arising from importation of products that do not have any value. We exchange hard earned currency for valueless products and some of them are generating a major problem in terms of e-waste, electronics electrical products, some of them discharge harmful chemicals into the environment. All these used electronics and electricals, used fridges, whatever they are; once you can’t use them …we are doing our best. We have major challenges.
You are collaborating with major trade associations to combat some of these challenges. How much progress has the Organization recorded with this approach?
We have a philosophy that when the person most affected understands the problem buys into the issue at hand and accepts it as his own, then the battle is half won. He appreciates the situation and can help you solve the problem. Wielding the big stick alone does not always work. Even if we had the whole of the Nigerian Army working for us, you know, it would not be a piece of cake having to compel people to do the right thing, let alone a situation where we are handicapped with the issue of personnel. So, as a first step, we have decided to engage the different interest groups, critical sectors which are identified by way of market associations for particular products, line of trade. You have those in steel sector, cement associations, electricals and electronics, telephone handsets sector, tyres dealers associations, block moulders associations, you have architects, medical equipment dealers and medicine dealers. So we have engaged all of them. We sat down and explain the implications of dealing in substandard products. Like you know we also critically engaged in the maritime sector, which are those people who actually are engaged in the practice of importation; and because we come to an understanding that more than 90 per cent of these substandard products are imported. The maritime sector also has the people who supervise the inspection regime. They are the agents who facilitate import and export and so in trying to tackle the problem from an all-inclusive perspective, it was important to engage them, even before getting to the end users of these imported products.
So we have engaged them and I am glad to say that the results have been very positive. In all the engagements we have had, we haven’t had any cases of recalcitrance. They have all appeared to understand and support the gospel we have been preaching. We have seen cooperation and we have seen some difference in attitude and I believe that God willing, the nation should begin to feel the impact in the next few months. We actually encourage them to self-regulate their own sector because self-regulation is one important for quality assurance in standards enforcement.
You said you have received a marching order from the Minister to clamp down on importers that do not comply with the July 25 deadline on closure of the EPC. How well, so far?
The signs are very encouraging within few months. We are supposed to shut down July 25, being three months given to them. But I’m glad to say that within one month, there is an appreciable level of engagement with us. They are engaging with us consistently on the EPC platform by which they have been avoiding the quality assurance regime of SON. So, we are on track. We are engaging them by way of meetings, interactions, sensitisations, seminars and trainings. When it is time for the deadline we gave we will shut down that platform and anybody who is not in line we would isolate them and deal with them. We are not going back on the deadline. They still have two months. But I see we are not going to have difficulties, because there is a level of acceptance of our guidelines and structures.
Before now, there are plans to designate some ports for some cargoes, such as iron rod for certain port. Has that worked; what is the level of compliance?
The new SON law Act No 14 2015 gives SON the power through the Minister to designate certain seaports or land borders as entry point for some specified products. This is with a view to assisting us to be able to regulate certain products that are identified as life threatening and given our personnel capacity or capacity of our spread across the whole country, it will be a lot easier if we designate that this product should come through this port. So it serves three purposes: one, any such products designated coming from another port, there is a presumption that it is not good. From the beginning whether it is good or not, once it is not coming through the designated source, there’s a presumption for wrong doing.
So, it is easier to deal with the importer. Two, if such products are coming through the designated ports, then it is easier to treat at the point of entry and to verify the quality status to deal with it there given our personnel challenges and also in terms of paying appropriate government charges. So the law permits us to do that but it has not been implemented. Mind you, this law has just come up and the government is also new and presently we are grappling with the challenges of trying to bring these issues of substandard products under control and implementation of that provision is one of the strategies which we are requesting government…of course we must seek government approval before we implement it, even though the law empowers us to do. So we are also discussing with the ministry and the relevant authorities on the possibility of implementing that provision of the law. It is of course one of the strategies through which we hope to check importation of substandard products.
You spoke about standards in agric and I am sure that fits into government’s diversification plan and I am sure government is also talking about solid minerals in this direction for export. We are also going to have issues as well with exportation of solid minerals. Are you also looking at that direction?
Definitely. As I speak with you, we have standards on virtually every product in this country. We have challenges with the quality of the products that we rolling out and so we needed to review existing standards and bring them down for our local producers to understand. And of course, we have standards for solid minerals and all mineral exportation and even in petroleum. There are available standards and when we get into solid mineral issues, if it becomes an issue, then we will also get into that sector and offer training and sensitization for that sector. But so far, it is still the issues of exploitation and processing, packaging and branding.
We have almost the same problems we have with agricultural products. Of course, cement for instance is already at an advanced stage of production, processing and packaging, so cement is not an issue anymore, but these other minerals, the stones generally…how you exploit them, clean them up and package them for exportation are also issues. And we have standards for processing and storage and sometimes, we need to preserve granites and other stones and we have standards and capacity to develop more codes should the need arise.
How is SON developing capacity in view of shortage of personnel and permanent absence at the port?
You know after much effort on this job, after much evaluation of the situation, trying to drastically change the conversation, I found that yes, we have several challenges but these can be broadly classified into two: the first is the one of strategic positioning of SON and that is the issue of the port. Because the seaports are the biggest entry points of products into Nigeria, they are also the most strategic points which you can check the quality of products that are coming into Nigeria. And SON by law is also authorized to operate at the seaport, but the last government of President GoodluckJonatahan in its wisdom decided to expel SON from the port. At that time the reasons they gave were that the processes of clearing cargo from the port were being hampered by the presence of regulatory agencies and so the need for quick turnaround of ships and fast clearance was seen to override issues of quality at that time.
But the consequences of the removal of SON from the port, what we are seeing now, where Nigeria is actually over flooded like a sea overrunning a country, with substandard products and consequently industries have shut down…job losses and unemployment have gone up; capital flight arising from the insistence of importation of substandard products that have no value and so many other things.
In view of these attendant consequences of the removal of SON from the port, I think those reasons are no longer tenable. And then additionally, by 2016, the operational environment has changed. Processing of clearance has gone digital. So there’s no reason SON will hamper clearance of products, apart from the point where the Customs Service physically evaluate the product for tariffs when can also equally examine those products and if on examination, the products appear not to be good, it is a matter of lifting them out of the port to a storage area where the quality would undergo verification and every other thing is done offsite. The argument that SON will slow down the process of clearing the products is no longer tenable. Even if it were, the economic and other social issues, including health and environmental issues that have attended …expulsion of SON from the port far outweigh the trade consideration. What is the purpose of trade in the first place? Trade is not an end in itself; trade is for the benefit and edification of the society and the people. So if your trade ultimately kills the people, then it is a bad trade.
Trade should bring satisfaction, prosperity and comfort. But the kind of trade we are doing now is bringing death. It is killing us physically and metaphorically. So those reason are no longer germane and I think its high time the present government review that policy and allow SON back into the port so that we can reverse the trend….the harm to human health, harm to our environment and even the agriculture that we are pursuing may be hampered by the environmental degradation by the poor quality of the products we are importing.
The second one is insufficient manpower. After you shut us out of the port and you expect us to go round the country trying to control quality, what is the number of personnel we have to do these jobs? The whole of SON staff as I speak with is numbered just about 1,600 people and we are expected to deliver quality to at least 170 million Nigerians and still counting, in a geographical area of over 5,000sq kilometres.
Now officially, the Customs have identified close to 400 land borders and both for security and efficiency reasons, you cannot have one man or two or three only manning a border post. We need at least five people on a border post. We are everything normal and digitalized but we need at least five people at a border post, so if you time 400 by five, you find out we need at least 2000 people just to man the land borders alone. Then for the seaports and airports, and then we have 36 offices in 36 states of the federation and we need between 20 and 30 people in a state to man the various sections of the office. So, you are looking a staff strength that is grossly inadequate. When I tell you that we have two major challenges, these include strategic positioning of the agency to do its job and the deficiency in personnel.
So how many workers will be adequate for SON and how is SON adopting technology to bridge staff shortage?
I think we need about 10,000 workers. This number can give us the basic platform on which we can leverage on. As for technology, you see, anywhere, any time all is a game changer, but unfortunately for us in Nigeria, the …but first of all, technology can never replace human capacity. Even in the context of West with all their technology, it is still need a man to operate the systems and even to check that the systems are doing what they are supposed to do. But what they do is that they make it easier for the human beings to do the job and perhaps, where you should have a hundred people to do a job, you could have 20 people with computers completing. So technology is a game changer but again you are hampered by issues of relevant infrastructure to sustain the technology because you can’t run technology without electricity and electricity is not available. Some of those land borders have never seen electricity and even in the cities here, most offices run on generators. That technology will require more resources to run them.
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