• Saturday, June 15, 2024
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Nigeria will feed Africa if we put our acts together- Usman

Nigeria will feed Africa if we put our acts together- Usman

Ibrahim Usman, the president and CEO of the Nigerian-Saudi Chamber of Commerce, Industry, Mines, and Agriculture, speaks in this exclusive interview with Ruth Tene about the huge potential of the Nigeria-Saudi Chamber for the development, processing, and exports of solid minerals and agricultural produce.

What is the Chamber of Industry, Mines, Commerce, and Agriculture all about?

The Chamber is an association of business entities between Nigeria and Saudi Arabia. It’s a collaboration of Nigerian businessmen who want to do business with not only the Saudi private sector but also its public sector, and vice versa. So, it is a platform that will encourage the establishment of businesses between Nigeria and Saudi Arabia. Traditionally, Nigerian and Saudi businesses have basically been run by women; when they go to Hajj and Umrah, they carry kola nuts or yams. Now it’s going to go beyond that, because Nigeria has huge arable land that can be used for agriculture. It also has several valuable mineral resources that could be exploited, so we could develop our agriculture in such a manner that we could be exporting to Saudi Arabia, which imports all its food. Similarly, Nigeria needs a lot of funding, technical support, skills, and equipment to be able to develop our agriculture, and Saudi Arabia has the funds and equipment, so it’s a symbiotic relationship. Take the case of mining and mineral processing, for example. Saudi Arabia has been trying to compete with the US, China, and Europe in terms of energy storage, which cannot be done without batteries, and batteries cannot be made without lithium, a strategic mineral that Nigeria has in abundance. Just recently, a factory was established in Nasarawa State. One or two other initiatives are in the pipeline for the processing of lithium. Otherwise, our lithium goes out raw to China and other Western countries. We need to process our lithium locally and add value; in fact, we should go the whole hog by starting to produce batteries. And this is why the Saudis come in handy because they have the resources and we have the minerals. I am talking about lithium now, but we can go to lead and zinc, gold, copper, and so on; all these are very valuable minerals available in Nigeria.

“To have a vibrant agri-commercial sector, you must have what they call “the out-grower scheme.”

Besides generating revenue for the government, how does this partnership benefit the common man?

Yes, part of it will obviously go to the government in terms of taxes, but the bulk of it will go to the private sector, which is actually driven by employment. Companies do not run themselves; people run them. To have a vibrant agri-commercial sector, you must have what they call the “out-grower scheme”, whereby the big company prepares the farm, creates plots that are to be given to different farmers, and afterwards, if it’s irrigation, for example, the pipelines and whatever are laid out so that the farmers really have something to do. We are going to export ginger, cashew nuts, cocoa, rice, wheat, and maize, and all those will be paid for in foreign exchange, so it will trickle down to everybody. We will put machinery on the farm, making it 100 percent mechanised, and create employment for our teaming youth and women who are used to working on the farms. Let me repeat by saying that this is something for everybody, not just the government. The government will get taxes and foreign exchange.

What has been the response of the Nigerian government to this partnership?

We are very happy with the government. Do not forget that sometime last year, there was the Saudi African Roundtable Conference in Riyadh, initiated by the Saudi government. And I recall that over 30 or 40 African heads of state were in attendance. A lot of them signed agreements and actually got funding. I remember very well that Nigeria also signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU. Our Nigerian Export and Import Bank, NEXIM, signed an MOU with the Saudi EXIM bank to the tune of about $500 million, which will come in tranches. So definitely, it is a good initiative. If the government wasn’t responsive, they wouldn’t have gone, but the president himself went. We also had a Nigeria-Saudi Roundtable Conference where there were four ministers and four governors, and there were lots of discussions between Nigerian businessmen and government functionaries with their Saudi counterparts. So, the recent visit by the Saudi delegation to Nigeria was a follow-up to that visit. If our president hadn’t gone, this wouldn’t have happened. Not only that, at the World Economic Forum in Riyadh, there was a follow-up to the Davos meeting. Again, the Nigerian president was there, as was a delegation of private businessmen. In both cases, I was there, yes.

How would you rate the support of NEXIM Bank and the Solid Minerals Development Fund for the development of agriculture and solid minerals in Nigeria?

For Nexim Bank, alhamdulillah, I think they are doing very well. As for the Solid Mineral Development Fund, I would rate them very poor because, for two consecutive years, we have requested the sponsorship of the Future Minerals Forum, in which world-class consultants and mining companies go to Saudi Arabia every year. We would expect that the Nigerian government should have a stand because we are boasting that we want to develop our mineral sector and want to be number one in Africa in mining and mineral processing. There is nothing better than to actually showcase what we have. We cannot showcase things by sitting in conferences; we showcase by having stands with our flag and desk and creating meeting rooms. We also create deal rooms. These were things that could have been funded; the last one cost about $50,000 or $70,000, which is nothing compared to what will come in eventually. We’ve seen smaller and poorer countries support their countries by having desks, not Nigeria. That was very sad. So, I will tell you clearly that the Solid Mineral Development Fund did not perform at all. It has not been performed.

Back to the Nigerian-Saudi Forum again, what are your short-term, mid-term, and long-term plans?

Our immediate short-term plan is to have the Saudi-Nigerian Business Council inaugurated. The Business Council is a council of 15 top Saudi and 15 top Nigerian businessmen, and they are supposed to oversee our chamber to make sure that the chamber functions well and businesses move and work. Luckily enough, the secretariat of the council is actually the chamber, and as the president of the Nigerian-Saudi chamber, I am not only a member of the council but also the secretary of the council, so we hold the secretariat for the council in the immediate short-term; we want the inauguration of that council, and then we will have B2B meetings. Our businessmen will meet with the Saudi businessmen, but the first thing is to create a delegation of businessmen, led by some government officials from both sides. We could start with the Nigerians going to the Saudis or have the Saudis come to Nigeria.

How receptive has the banking sector been to the chamber?

So far, so good. I must confess, we haven’t made specific requests yet, but my discussions with a lot of the banks I have engaged with and opened accounts with are very exciting. Do not forget that the Saudis have the Saudi EXIM Bank, which is flushed with money; they also have the Saudi Agricultural Livestock Investment Company, which is also flushed with money; and money cannot be given directly from Saudi EXIM or SALIK to the private businessmen; they have to go through the banks, so I think for the banks, it will be in their interest to cooperate with us. And we hope things will happen very fast.

What is your membership strength, and what would be the benefits to your members?

We have just taken off. In fact, our portal for registering for membership is not yet up. We are in the process, and now is the sensitization process. You don’t just go into the market without the proper sensitization. We also must thank the Nigerian Nexim Bank, as they have promised to support us. In fact, very soon, there will be a sensitization meeting where all Nigerians who are interested in the export of goods to Saudi Arabia will come and meet with them, and then they will tell them the procedure on how to access the facilities of NEXIM Bank for exports to Saudi Arabia or for imports from Saudi Arabia, which I think is an excellent initiative, and this is a way that Nigerians will benefit from the process, which is almost immediate.

This is, for me, a personal opinion. Considering the current high costs of food commodities, won’t you agree that your exports could be beneficial to Nigerians?

Nigeria has more than enough, even to feed the whole of Africa. It is just that we are not utilising it to the optimum. What is required is for Nigeria to get its acts together, for the Nigerian government, the federal government, the private sector, and the farmers to get our acts together. We have huge arable land that is very fertile, and we have water bodies to irrigate when necessary. In fact, Nigeria has no business being poor when it comes to food; all we need is to go back to the drawing board and prepare a master plan for agriculture. Not the master plans, which are political, because there is no reason if you put experts together to prepare a plan just because the party changes from party A to party B in our leadership and you ignore what party A has done. Nigeria has to change this attitude. And once we’re able to have plans properly executed, particularly in agriculture, I can tell you we have more than enough to feed Africa, not to mention Nigeria. So, I think we can simultaneously work on developing the agricultural sector to export and keep some. Take the case of our cows. We are told they produce 10 litres per week, but when they are given the right feed and medical treatment, they can produce 50 litres, which means they can produce five times more. This could be the same thing when it comes to even output from our land. I know that the insecurity is there, and we cannot go to the farms, even though there are political reasons for the insecurity. I can tell you that because I happen to come from Borno State and I know what is happening there. But I tell you clearly, we have the potential to not only feed Nigeria but also many other countries in the world.

There has been some media hype about the federal government’s efforts to promote ease of doing business generally. Would you say some of these policies have been impactful in your partnership with Saudi Arabia? And if not, what do you expect to be done to make Nigeria investment-friendly?

In theory, the government is doing well, except clearly there are some areas that are conflicting. You don’t start talking about the ease of doing business and then introduce new rules, new regulations, and new taxes that will impede. It’s wrong because it’s counterproductive. It’s like taking 10 steps forward and eight steps backward; you don’t make it. So I think it is important for the government to ensure that once they want to make decisions with respect to ease of doing business, all government agencies that are responsible for anything related to business come together for coordination. It must be a symbiotic relationship. I’ll give you a very good example. I happen to be the board chairman of a company that produces towers, steel towers, and in the steel towers, they tell us, for example, to pay so much duty on our imports and then allow the Indian and Chinese companies to bring fully made-up towers. It is counterproductive to allow them to bring fully made-up towers and expect us, the local company, to compete with them when we have to pay high duty on the raw materials—steel, zinc, and other materials—that produce those towers. It’s wrong. If you want to give them zero duty when they are bringing this, then you must also give us zero duty for importing the raw materials.

What do we expect to see in the next five years?

In the next five years, I expect to see at least 100 companies that are Saudi-based in Nigeria producing, not just trading but manufacturing, because the Saudis have partnered very well with world-class Japanese, Italian, American, Chinese, and German companies, producing a lot of things in Saudi Arabia, and I want those replicated in Nigeria so that we can be exporting. Don’t forget, we want to take advantage of the African Conjunctive Free Trade Agreement. Nigeria will now be a hub for production, producing items that will go to other African countries. So in the next five years, we want to see at least 100 Saudi-Nigeria-based companies operating and producing items in Nigeria.

What can the Nigerian government do to ensure the success of the project you have started?

We want the government to support the Nigerian-Saudi Business Council to facilitate the movement of goods and services. We expect a total change in the way we do business with respect to the movements of goods and services, especially goods in ports. Both air and sea freight. If we do not attack those ones, then we are going to fail, unless the government gives us full support. You cannot export food items when you expect your cargo to stay for over a week in the port. Certain cargoes stay for three months in the ports, waiting for processing, which will kill the business.

It will soon be one year of the Tinubu administration; how would you rate his performance?

So far, so good. What I like about President Bola Ahmed Tinubu and his government is that he’s business-like and he’s hands-on. For any success, you must be hands-on. You cannot have leadership that is not responsive to things that are happening in the economy. But most importantly, Tinubu is a businessman and would run the country like a business, and in that case, we are going to succeed. The only thing is for him and members of the cabinet to remember that there are people they are leading behind, and they should not leave them hungry.

Thank you so much for your time.

You are most welcome.