‘Nigeria yet to recognise importance of having standards in agricultural products’
Vincent Isegbe, director general, Nigerian Agricultural Quarantine Service (NAQS) in this interview with Caleb Ojewale, highlights some of the issues bedevilling agricultural exports from Nigeria, and what needs to be done to secure more confidence in the international markets. He touched on issues ranging from fake export certificates, to the ban on Nigerian beans by the EU.
How would you describe the state of Nigeria’s agriculture export?
We are generally doing well but we can do much better because there are so many commodities that are available in the country and for one reason or the other, we are unable to export them. Some of them could be issues of quality, packaging and different conditions that the exporters are not able to meet.
We are having some challenges with certification, in the sense that a lot of people fake the certificate and take commodities outside the country. I will be fair to some of the owners of the commodities; they do not know their commodities did not pass through quarantine. When that happens, that is when the exporter, now, in pains, approaches quarantine- “The certificate you issued, they have rejected my commodity. What is happening?” When they bring the certificate, we find out it did not pass through quarantine at all.
We are not at the dispatch ports because there are two government circulars that say quarantine should not be in certain areas. Because of that, a lot of export leaves the country and quarantine is not aware. So, it’s a big challenge for us. If we recall, the European Union (EU) talks about export control and the major part of export control is that we are able to see and approve whatever leaves this country and we are able to be there to receive whatever is coming into the country.
We have addressed that to government severally because the government set up quarantine for a particular purpose, but the executive order one is being misinterpreted in the sense that the agencies that have domiciliary supervision over the ports of entry (either air or sea) are saying that the executive order will be implemented the way they want to interpret it. In that case, what happens to export control? I don’t think that is the intention of the executive order 001. We have made several complaints about it and the situation has not improved.
You mentioned those that use fake certificates to export. Who are those that apply for those fake certificates if the exporters don’t know?
Some exporters just print the certificates (on their own) in order to avoid quarantine. The owners of the consignment don’t usually know what has been done. We have seen situations where the owner will come and say, “My consignments are on the sea and we need certificates.” How do we give certificate to something we did not even see? For such, we reject. In other circumstances, you find the owner coming to say he has this certificate and we are not aware of that certificate, letting them know the certificate is fake. We have continued to receive emails from the National Plant Protection Organizations (NPPOs) of the importing countries asking us to verify the phytosanitary certificate for consignment sent to their country. Where those goods did not pass through quarantine, we say we don’t know about it. Once the quarantine is not aware, the exporter is left on his own. By implication either the commodities are sent back to the country or destroyed at the point of import and that does not augur well for Nigeria and the person who has suffered to package these things for export.
There is something that was said that NAQS was not totally banned that they can be invited by customs to inspect. Does that happen?
Yes. That is the subsisting government circular.
Has that been efficient so far?
Quarantine is supposed to ensure that only certified products leave the country and come in too. Custom is supposed to take revenue for whatever is going out and coming in. What would you say to that?
If I am the chief of customs, I will ensure that I collect revenue for whatever goes out. The question is, those items that get to their table, are they all certified by quarantine? The answer as we know is No. As good and laudable as the program may be, it does not benefit the country because the implementation definitely will be faulty.
Conflict of interest?
Yes. That is where the problem is. Customs has a target revenue figure to be me, so nobody blames them. The issue is that, what is going out, have we certified it. That is why there has to be that complete harmony. Let quarantine be able to say, “Customs, this one we are sure of it, let it go.” But where that is not there, people are faking certificates because quarantine is not there and custom will not know which certificate is genuine or not. If custom sees any certificate, they will assume it is a genuine certificate from quarantine and they are bound to honour it. So that linkage will have to be corrected.
What has been done to address indiscriminate chemical use in beans, bearing in mind the EU ban?
Concerning the beans, we are doing a lot of sensitization across the country. We have been doing sample analysis of beans. In fact, right now, the results of the latest samples will be out which we are collating. The fact still remains that as a nation, we have not come to accept the full importance of having standards put in place. It is what we have that we export. So, if you find the local farmer or the person selling the commodity not minding the sanitary conditions in which those commodities are in the local market, it will have an effect at the export market. You see the way our meat is carried, would you want to export meat that is carried like that? As a vet, I would not even certify it. So we are having challenges. But why do people still buy the meat in the local market? The business thrives only because the sellers find a ready market to sell those commodities. Once collectively as a nation, we say we don’t want this, then we can finally resolve food quality issues. If you present your meat on a table without covering it, and we decide we will not buy, then the person who is selling will have to adjust because nobody will buy from him. It has to be a collective national consciousness that we have come to the end (of unsafe food practices).
Some people may say considering economic inequality, they want to buy cheap. If you buy cheap you will go to the hospital. The same money you do not want to pay for a standard product, you are likely to pay five times more in hospital bills. If you bring something and nobody buys, you will not bring the same commodity to the market. Invariably, if things are done right in the local market, we will have less issues at the export desk. That is why quarantine goes out of its own way to do the export improvement initiative and the export certification value chain.
We go back through the value chain and inform the person transporting that he has to do this and that for this thing to reach us properly. We meet the warehouse people and tell them “if you want this thing to pass through the export market, these are the things that have to be done”. What we are doing through this process is to inform farmers that the level of pesticide they are applying is not helping anybody. If you want to apply pesticides, these are the recommended people that we know sell genuine pesticides, not those selling unlabelled pesticides.
When should we expect resolution on the ban of beans export by EU?
We expect to go back to the EU soon. We are preparing our last report because the last lab sample has been completed, and we will do a detailed report of what we have done so far and submit to the EU. They have to see what we have done so far, so that they can appreciate the efforts that we have put in place, lift the ban and then we can set a working road map henceforth.
We are not looking at the beans issue alone because we don’t want the beans issue to be resolved and then the next day comes another commodity. We are just using beans as the stepping-stone to jump-start other value chains.
Apart from beans, which other commodity is facing this ban challenge?
No other commodity has any ban on it. What we are having is where there are cases such as the certificate not properly written or the certificate is fake. So it’s just that particular commodity (shipment) that will have an issue.