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‘Italy needs Nigerian agro exporters that can supply quality products’

ALESSANDRO GERBINO, director of the Italian Trade Agency (ITA), West Africa, in this interview with CALEB OJEWALE, speaks about opportunities for Nigerian entrepreneurs in the agribusiness value chain, desirous of exporting to Italy especially as well as other European countries. He also highlighted a recent training to enable Nigerian companies to take advantage of this opportunity. Excerpts:

What informed this initiative to promote Nigerian exports, particularly of agricultural goods, to Italy?

It is common knowledge that Nigeria has great potential in the area of agricultural production and in value addition. Of course, the local production can be directed to either the local market or foreign markets and it is a priority for the Nigerian government to help the local industry to perform in terms of quantity and quality of the products.

Today Nigeria is importing lots of food products from abroad and it has to rebalance that by either substituting imports with local options and at the same time, boosting exports. European markets are high-level destinations for agricultural products because we have very demanding markets in terms of quality and high value products. Where we come in is exactly in this area because Italy is an important importer of agric products to service our industry. We have a strong food industry as you probably know.

Italy imports roughly 40 billion euro worth of agricultural goods to service its local food industry. To sustain our food industry, we are constantly seeking to establish long-term relationships with foreign suppliers where we can source high quality products for our industry.

With this project (in Nigeria), we are targeting companies that can offer their products to a quality market such as the European ones. The project is a mentoring and training initiative that encompasses all aspects of exporting agricultural products to a market like the Italian one. We touched technological aspects of production and transformation sides of the value chain. Also, managerial aspects when it comes to issues such as needed certifications to market products in Italy or the logistics chain or packaging and labelling issues.

Nigerian exports have suffered setbacks in the past, particularly in terms of quality and Beans of Nigerian origin remain banned in the EU. From information at your disposal, what factors have been largely responsible for these quality issues in Nigerian agro exports?

From feedback we got, much relies on the fact there is little shared information about what the requirements of the EU market are. This is a very important aspect because if you don’t know what is required from your buyer you will not be able to match his requirements with the products you offer.

This also ties to the ability to be consistent in the production process, to be able to maintain required quality levels and accompany with the right certification. The food industry is very sensitive to quality; certification and tracing, therefore all products come with a passport of sorts that tells all about where and how it was produced from pesticides to machinery involved. These are important to Italian companies in ensuring such products can be inserted in our market and value chain. These aspects were specifically addressed in the training.

How will your intervention address these quality issues?

To allow our training to be effective, we cared much about a couple of factors. First, due to the training offered to a restricted number of participants, we formed groups of companies that were somehow homogenous. They share the same problems and this allowed us to speak precisely about things of interest to them. In all the training, we had one-on-one discussions with participants in order to profile carefully and to make sure that we put a strong emphasis on topics they needed to improve their performance.

Are there specific agricultural goods that will be a focus of your intervention?

We are focusing on tropical fruits and nuts. Bananas, pineapple, mango, cashew, groundnut were the crops we targeted in the first place.

Why is Italy interested in these particular commodities and what is the market size for them?

These specific crops were decided together with our partners in Nigeria. We worked with the Nigeria Export Promotion Council (NEPC) that supported us in defining the target areas, evaluating the potential for the producer of these crops and these are all crops that are used in our own (Italian) food industry and in Italy for the consumer market.

Of course there are others and we had to make choices because we were aware that we couldn’t treat with the degree of specification we wanted so we had to prioritise some of them and I am confident with the response we have received. Our intention is to repeat the training, extending or changing the mix of the targeted crops so that other companies can also benefit from this project.

What makes Italy stand out as a potential market?

With this project, we want to send two messages to our Nigerian partners. The first is that Italy is a final market for Nigerian exports because we have a food industry that needs imports from abroad and we want to find partners to help us source. The second is that we are there to also help our partners to allow them to be in a position to source for us. Italy is also a top producer of technology and machinery for the entire agribusiness and food industry.

What quality requirements should the average Nigerian exporter be aware of, if they want to export to Italy/Europe?

One thing we had during the training was the participation of Italian companies that are looking for suppliers from Nigeria and this way, we established contact between potential exporters and the Italian importers. This way, each Italian importer could say specifically, what kind of product they were looking for and indicate specifications in terms of quality.

Speaking of this training, how many sessions have you had?

The training was organised in nine meetings of 2 and half hours each, so nearly 20 hours of training. We had one day for meetings with Italian companies and the Nigerian companies also had the opportunity of meeting Italian suppliers of technology for production and processing. Another interesting part is that now that the training sessions are over, we are bringing the companies that have participated to Italy to participate in a trade fair as exhibitors.

The trade fair is called Macfrut and is one of the most important trade fairs focused on the agribusiness value chain where you have suppliers of technology and final products with buyers from different parts of Europe and the world. We are giving the Nigerian exporters an opportunity to be in this market, in one of the finest platforms available at the global level and also to participate in this platform where you have the possibility to really feel the market, learning about new products, innovations and processes.

How many Nigerian businesses have participated so far?

Forty companies have participated in two groups of 20 companies.

Apart from quality requirement, how can a prospective agripreneur desirous of exporting to Italy or elsewhere in the EU go about it?

The first is to evaluate demand in Italy for the crop they are interested in, which is something we can help to do and I would strongly recommend at least paying a visit to Macfrut because it really is the platform where agricultural trading takes place. It gives a very complete vision of what products are available on the market, where they come from, how they are sourced, the costs and processing they go through. The best thing is to watch all the possibilities on the market and Macfrut is a good platform in this regard.

What types of value addition should agro exporters do to maximise returns on their agro exports?

Today, there is a very big loss when you see the (primary) production that happens and the final value that the farmers can get out of the product, due to lack of mechanisation, the loss during collection process, loss in terms of quality and quantity during transport, and the kind of packaging that is used.

Every one of these steps can if handled correctly, add value to your products. As things are happening today, in most of these stages there are margins to gain productivity. Of course, you might not be able to do all at once because it requires investment and training, but I think every farmer or entrepreneur in this industry should take a look at his value chain and estimate where he should start from introducing new technology and processes in his value chain. That will help to start upgrading the quality and output of the company.

Any other thoughts you’d like to share?

This project is the first we have been able to put in place since our Nigerian office was established last year. For us, interacting with the agribusiness value chain in Nigeria is a top priority. We see a lot of potential for Italy-Nigeria trade to develop because of the structure of the companies in both countries, and also because Italy is well positioned to address Nigeria’s needs in terms of technological support. Also, we are working with the Italian federation of suppliers of agricultural machinery, to come to Nigeria with other activities in order to connect increasingly with local companies.

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