Nigeria’s agriculture potentials hang on quality assurance, value addition – Smith

The Foreign Agricultural Service (FAS) of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) recently marked 70 years of its existence and in Nigeria, it has been present for over 30 years. GERALD SMITH, counsellor for agricultural affairs at the US Consulate in Lagos, in this interview with CALEB OJEWALE, speaks about opportunities for both countries to collaborate. He also addressed food safety issues and restrictions on export of some Nigerian agricultural products, correcting the notion that Nigerian catfish was banned from the US. Excerpts:

Recently, the FAS marked seventy years of being in existence, which is quite a milestone. On a global level, what has that journey been like and the impact in countries you’re present?

In terms of impact over the years, we have a program called the food for education program, which is a school feeding program for primary school children worldwide but mostly developing countries are eligible for it.

We hear narratives in most developing countries where rural families can’t afford to send their kids to school. This program was set up to provide a daily meal, and lunch for school children, with emphasis on the girl child.

In this position, I have regional responsibilities for Cameroon and Benin. In Cameroon, for the school year 2022-2023, we are going to be feeding in excess of 116,000 primary school children, while in Benin, around 110,000 school children.

It is an all-inclusive project because we want local participation. So for example, the people who prepare the food for the kids are their parents, and this ensures buy-in from the community.

In addition to the program, we also build libraries, toilet facilities and others to encourage children to come to school.

Narrowing down to Nigeria; how long have you had a presence here and what has your impact been?

We have been in Nigeria since the early 90s and the focus of our work here is to build relationships with stakeholders. One of the programmes that we tend to do is fellowship oriented, whereby we engage with universities, the private sector and the government.

For example, with the private sector, we have a programme that is called the Cochran programme, which is a two-week programme where we take business individuals to the US in a particular sector. The one for 2022 was on consolidated shipping, which involved importers that want to import but don’t have the capacity to bring in huge containers of a particular product, because they are small businesses and usually have to consolidate. We took some of those importers to the US, and exposed them to what consolidated shipping is all about.

Another thing we do is on the food retail side, where we take people to the US, let them see how food retail works, from the raw form all the way to the table, and everything involved in food safety.

For Nigeria, there is also an emphasis on livestock production, especially dairy production. Last year, we devised a program to send participants to the University of Wisconsin, which is one of the major locations for dairy production in the US. Participants were drawn from different organisations to see and learn about how dairy production is done in the US, because sometimes, experiential learning is the best.

We also engage with universities because they train the upcoming professionals that will be going into agriculture.

How many Nigerians benefit from your fellowships?

On average, we try to do 10 fellows per program. So if we do two or three, we’re looking at 20 to 30 people a year and then it depends on the subject area.

For this year, 2023, I have already drafted three programs, whereby we’ll probably do something on SPS and Food Trade, and then we’ll do something on Seeds. We should have about 30 Nigerians participating this year.

Successive governments have their rhetoric about boosting agricultural productivity in Nigeria, but output remains low virtually in every crop. From your own experience and knowledge, what else needs to be done policy-wise in order to boost productivity in Nigeria?

Based on my discussions with stakeholders across the agricultural sector, from farmers to traders to organisations, the private sector, etc, I think fundamentally, what has to happen to get results is for agriculture to be modernised. And for it to be modernised, the land tenure system has to be the first thing, whereby you empower farmers to have ownership of their land. Many farmers still cannot use their land (however big) as collateral for bank loans. So there is a need to have that structure changed.

The next is input, particularly seeds. A couple of years ago, when computers and programming started coming out, we heard something like; garbage in, garbage out. If you have poor seeds, no matter what you do; water them 24 hours a day, put fertiliser on it for 365 days, if the seeds are poor, eventually productivity is going to be low.

However, seeds cost money and in most cases, they are going to be beyond the reach of an average farmer. So the government has to step in to help farmers. But not only that, in traditional farming, when a farmer produces a crop, they store seeds from the previous harvest from the next one, and that has to change. We need to educate farmers that what they store is not seed but grains.

How can we ensure that more of what we produce gets from farm to fork, and reduce post-harvest losses?

Basically, it is to set the system straight in terms of handling the challenges of post-harvest losses. Storage is very important, from the on-farm storage all the way to the consumer.

Yearly, there is always a tomato shortage in Nigeria, or an Onion shortage, but if you have an efficient warehouse system across the country, those things can be stored and then you are able to go back and source during periods of low supply.

When we talk about storage and warehousing, it is not just the one-side hall, or you just have a cold room where you dump fish, rather you have to look at climate control. For instance, what is needed to extend the shelf life of tomatoes is different from that of egg, onions, etc. If you have a system that is integrated, or connected around the country, you prevent those issues of post-harvest losses, where you have an effective storage system that is linked into a cold-chain system.

Even after production and some go for exports, we often hear of rejections. What things need to be done to make Nigerian produce more acceptable in the international market?

It’s a responsibility for everybody; government, regulators and farmers. Farmers should avoid using agrochemicals (pesticide or even fertiliser) unless they are trained. You shouldn’t just dump it on your crop or add it several times to that particular weed. There are certain quantities that have to be used and so regulators and extension workers are the ones that have the responsibility to train farmers in that.

The next group for responsibility will be any government agency that is responsible for promoting exports. Let’s say Nigeria wants to export mangoes to the US or to the EU, it would first have to provide that particular country with a list of pests that affect mangoes in Nigeria because no country wants another country to export pests to them through products. Identifying that pest list is a very huge task that no single private individual or single company can do. It has to come from the government, and the ministry of Agriculture can definitely dedicate resources to that.

Once you identify the pests that affect a particular product, then you have to show the importing countries the mitigation; what are you doing to prevent those pests. When I worked in India, which is a big exporter of mangoes to the US, what the Indians do to ensure that the quality of mangoes meets US standards is to get rid of all pests.

They have an irrigation unit that the government has provided mango producers, so all the exports of mangoes go through that, and they’re more than 100% guaranteed that pests are basically killed before export.

Importing countries need assurances and confidence that the country that is sending products to them is doing all that it can to ensure consumers and also the environment are safe from pests and diseases.

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Are there agricultural goods from Nigeria that are currently restricted from the US?

Currently, there are no Nigerian products that are banned from the US. However, there is always a mix-up in terms of one particular commodity, which is smoked catfish. Nigerian catfish was not banned from the US.

What happened was that the US informed all catfish exporters both fresh and smoked, that from 2018 – which was the deadline – in order for them to continue to export to the US, they must present the regulatory agency within the US called the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), with a roadmap of requirements and regulation of catfish safety in each country. This is for the US to have confidence that you as a regulator will do everything to show that Nigerian consumers have safe catfish or safe smoked catfish for consumption.

In the case of Nigeria, they didn’t provide the information in time and the deadline elapsed so they couldn’t export. It wasn’t that the US banned Nigerian catfish, it’s just that they did not do the paperwork to continue the export. However, this is something that we have been working with the Federal Department of Fisheries and Aquaculture, particularly the quality assurance and fish disease management unit, to bring them up to par.

It has taken them a while to get all the information required because it was a very extensive questionnaire and survey that they had to do. So they put everything together last year 2022 and sent it back to FSIS, which has reviewed it. I know they’ve come back with a couple of more questions but once that process is done, and they establish that the Nigerian system is taking care of consumers here – in terms of quality – the export will continue.

Just to be clear, the requirement was to show the fish being exported is good enough for Nigerian consumers before being exported to the US?

Basically, it’s called an equivalent system, meaning that, the way catfish is regulated – both fresh and smoked – in Nigeria, it will also meet US standards so that when it is exported, the US consumers won’t get sick and all that.

You can use any science-based standard to ensure that what you’re providing for Nigerian consumers is safe, provide it to the US, and it will be accepted as equivalent. That is why it is called an equivalent system.

Additional insights

There are many Nigerian-Americans wanting to come back to invest in some of the Nigerian states where they grew up, mainly because they may have an interest in doing that. This is going to be another driver in terms of agricultural productivity.

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