• Friday, September 29, 2023
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Niger Delta states will be selling forex if they move into non-oil export – Expert

Niger Delta states will be selling forex if they move into non-oil export – Expert

Every strategy seems to be on deployment to turn the oil region into an export hub for non-oil products. Experts say, this way, the region can become awash with foreign exchange as if it has swamps full of Dollars, according to a UD writer.

Should the states in the region discover the goldmine in the export market, they could take huge advantage and groom their young entrepreneurs into a new army of exporters that would earn foreign exchange enough for their states and surplus for sale to other states.

Enter the Institute of Export Operations and Management (IEOM)

Every other day, there is a training and workshop to groom budding exporters from the South-south geopolitical zone of Nigeria. This surge seems to be led by two top organisations; the Nigerian Export Promotions Council (NEPC) led in the South-south by Joe Itah, and the Institute of Export Operations and Management (IEOM) led by its Executive Director, Ofon Udofia.

While the NEPC is a deliberate FG agency created, seemingly neglected, but suddenly reactivated to lead the charge and transition from oil to non-oil export, the IEOM seems to be a child of happenstance. It shows that the FG once gathered export-related experts from both the public and private sectors decades ago, put them under foreign experts to learn how to manage export from start to finish so export can help boost Nigeria’s foreign earning needed to balance her import in the intricate mechanisms of balance of trade and balance payment of accounts of government’s fiscal management strategies.

It was gathered that toward the end of the months of training that cost the international community huge sums, one of the foreign trainers smelt a rat and told few of the biggest enthusiasts that he foresaw the abandonment of the scheme after the training.

What to do? He advised them to find a way of creating a private sector platform such as an institute to deploy the huge learning and skills they had just acquired. It turned out to be prophetic as the scheme was abandoned and the huge knowledge asset remained in the brains of the Nigerian learners.

One of them, Ofon Udofia, who was then the chairman of the Export/Import Trade Group of the Port Harcourt Chamber of Commerce, Industry, Mines and Agriculture (PHCCIMA), and was sent from there to the training, decided to apply the tip from foreign experts.

Today, the IEOM has emerged as the strongest powerhouse of export training and grooming in the search for the next gold after the black gold, crude oil.

In an exclusive interview with BusinessDay at the Ndoni Street headquarters of the Institute, Udofia gave insights into the burning intentions behind the institute and their drive to make almost everyone an exporter as it is in places such as China and Japan.

The Executive Director said IEOM is a trade and management institution that supports import and export but dwells on export as a cardinal objective for setting it up. He said the objective is to prepare Nigerians for export practice and business by acting as trade facilitators to companies and individuals.

Origin and the journey on a lonely dark road

The journey began around 1996, he said, but the institute was born in 2014. Udofia said he was previously involved in helping and assisting exporters. “We had conducted a cashew nut research for the USAID in 2007. Eventually, when Nigeria intended to diversify its economy and needed export strategy, a consultant from Ghana paid by the Commonwealth Secretariat in the UK and International Trade Centre was contracted to do the strategy. I was then the head of export trade group committee in the PHCCIMA. I was assigned to work as the chairman of that group in the PHCCIMA as the South-south chairman,” he said.

He went on: “After we had done the strategy research and the outsider gave us that hint, I started going about to see how I could register an institute to handle it. We started the journey, went to Corporate Affairs Commission (CAC), we were interviewed by the Federal Ministry of Education since it was going to be a training centre basically.

“The FG had even set a timetable for the implementation of the export drive scheme but like things conceived or created in Nigeria, abandonment greeted the idea. It was to run as a government agency and in fact, the Federal Ministry of Trade and investment as well as the NEPC were to drive it. The hint from the foreigners made them to rather give it a private sector push and seek to collaborate with the government. At the end, it was registered in 2014 and they were given approval by the Federal Ministry of Education to operate as an institute limited by guarantee. That was how they started.”

Milestones so far

When the institute started, according to Udofia, it was like a task that would not be done, but many years down the line, he says he can see a lot of partnerships and many trained experts especially on traceability. He says many products are now being exported while some are sold in the local market.

He mentioned the likes of Achi Green in Kaduna who he said is into ginger oil production, and Bincaf into spices. There is Shea Origin who is into Shea Butter hair, and also the one that owns Lekota Soap who he said is doing very good black soap named in Igbo language to make it have a Nigerian brand. These persons are doing very well.

“We also helped a lot of persons in food processing and packaging because we have a packaging section. We have done a lot in the ecosystem.”

Training candidates from green horns to export

If someone should join IEOM as a novice, it would be interesting what would happen to the fellow from start to export. The Executive Director said thus: “That is why we are a knowledge-based institution and our core mandate is training. When you come in as a novice (either novice in export trade or novice in entrepreneurship), we will take you on for a period of six months for fresh graduates that do not know anything about business. We will train you till you are export-ready. But if you already have indebt knowledge about business but just want to diversify into export, we put you into the Master Class and take you in the nine modules of our training from introduction to export, shipping and logistics, and INCOTEMS scheme which you must know if you must do export business. You will know the meaning of terms such as CIM, FOB, C&R, etc. We build you and give you the capacity to go into the market without fear.”

Most difficult: Helping exporters find buyers

Udofia admitted that the budding exporters’ nightmare is finding buyers. But, he says, “We train them and give them a platform because we are partners to the international centre called Market Map. We take them to that platform and they show them the product ranges we have close to 150,000 products and countries that need them and produce them. You will know the highest importer of each product and the exporter. So, you choose the country that suits you. That is the last topic we teach. We take you to the product map where you meet authentic buyers.

“The challenge most exporters have is that they do not have the financial capacity to match the orders. They can however look for smaller buyers.”

Partnerships, both local and international, are said to be very crucial in managing export business.

Read also: How sesame tumbled as Nigeria’s top non-oil export product

“We collaborate with the International Trade Centre of the WTS and the UN. We also collaborate with the African Import/Export Bank, we also collaborate with the Lincoln University in the UK. They are partners in areas of knowledge and research.

“Locally, we have the NEXIM Bank, the NEPC whose core mandate is to promote export as one of our right hand partners. We have partnerships with a university in Calabar, Michael Okpara University in Umudike, and Federal Ministry of Trade and Investment. We also have with the Shippers Council. More are on the way.”

Taming the lions for exporters

Most intending exporters seem to habour fear of some government agencies especially Customs and the National Agency for Food and Drugs Administration (NAFDAC), but Udofia showed how they train exporters to handle such fearsome agencies by leveraging the IEOM to smooth relationship.

“During our course, we either bring in the agencies to our classes to talk to our participants and make them understand the processes or take the participants to such places. “It is when you do what you are not supposed to do that you have issues with them. Last time, we were in Onne with the Customs Area 2 and the Area Controller spoke with them. The deputy controller gave them documents to study and lectured them. Even the Deputy Controller in charge of Export Desk told them never to be deceived by anybody, that the Customs are rather friendly. Some of the students also confessed that they never knew that the Customs were that friendly.

“The Shippers Council also do lecture the class. They try to them to feel free to come and meet them if they had issues. They show them what the Shippers Council does in the international trade.

“We also bring in persons from NAFDAC, and all the agencies that have to do with export trade. We have links with them. When we have programmes, we invite them. We also partner with the presidency of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) led by Francis Anatogwu. He was in one of our programmes to teach on the benefits of AfCFTA and how the SMEs can fit into it. When we have programmes, we invite them.”

BusinessDay Sunday investigations reveal that the IEOM has many departments and units to give confidence to trainees. These include a department dedicated to training; and one department for Women in Export.

“We are gender-friendly. This department deals with women issues and enlightens them and enables them to see that there is a platform by the UN International Trade Centre called She-Trades where women can sell to the entire world. There are benefits in that sector for women. We have a department for Sustainability and Agric because sustaining your business is a major issue. We show you how to sustain your business. We have a department for packaging and laboratory analysis. Very soon, our lab will be ready.

“For every product produced supposed to be tested to be fit for human consumption. Because of high cost of testing, SMEs stay away. So, we have taken up the responsibility so the cost will reduce. Here, we call for support and collaboration.”

Labelling and packaging seem to be a crucial aspect of export. Udofia threw some light, sayng: “In your labeling and packaging, you must speak the language of export trade so the buyer will have confidence. Your product must be traceable. That is why we work with technical wing (GS One) of the UN to give exporters the barcode. This is like opening an account in a bank with all details and information about you. They need your Corporate Affairs Commission (CAC) documents to make sure you are a legal entity.”

Traceability: Why Nigerian beans were banned

“Traceability means requirements that would make anybody to trace the source of a commodity. We need to trace you to where the product is produced. That was why Nigerian bean was banned, not because all beans in Nigeria were bad but we could not trace the particular farms from where the beans were produced. It is not a crime to have a bad product but Toyota withdrew a series last time. This was because they were able to trace that set. The Nigerian beans needed to be traced. Traceability also brings customers to you.

On whether government agencies are worried about the ban on beans, the Executive Director said the FG has recently set up a committee on how to reduce reject of Nigerian commodities. “They are equally interested in this. We are partnering with them to see what can be done.

“Beyond the agencies, it is necessary for the consumers to know. So, it is a general concern. People also know what they are allergic to. It will guide consumers. So, it is not only the IEOM that is driving traceability policy. Many agencies are now interested.”

Niger Delta and export enthusiasm crisis

Notions have remained real that there are no high enthusiasm about export trade in the Niger Delta and training in the export business. Udofia said this is not far from the truth.

His testament: “Oil in the Niger Delta ought to be a blessing but it seems to have turned into a curse. This is so because it has made most of our people to say oh, I am into oil and gas. To worsen the matter, they tell you I am into politics. None of them is a profession. So, what we are doing is to ask them to come and be trained. Unfortunately, they do not seem to be keen or to pay and be trained. Training is expensive. You cannot do what you do not know.

Initially, he said, oil companies were giving everything to the youths. They ended up giving them fish instead of nets to fish. Some international oil corporations (IOCs) put up to N100m into a farm project but the farms are not sustainable. This is time to teach them export business and it is the way to go. If we must survive, we must go into export.

Cashew economy can list Abia State

He said there is much the governments in the Niger Delta region can do to boost non-oil export. “In one occasion, I was in an SME forum in Abia State and I told the government that the cashew in the state alone can give them a new economy; from the nuts to the shell, etc.

“I was in Edo State and told their secretary to the state government (SSG) that Edo has the largest population of people in the Diaspora. That was why the First Bank did the Igwebe Festival after seeing the size of remittances from abroad.”

Oil states can sell forex from non-oil export

Udofia said the state government can encourage the young people to possibly put up a centre for export trade. “We have a centre by one of our fathers in Edo State, the dry port. The man has fantastic space which can serve Edo State for packaging products for export. This is same with Akwa Ibom. The entire Niger Delta has these possibilities. This zone was the palm oil zone. It can be repeated. There is huge opportunity here. It is for the governments to look inward and possibly own a Niger Delta Export Marketing company or the states can decide to set one up in each state. If they go this route, they will be selling dollars to others.”

Making intending exporters see how goods depart

BusinessDay found that part of the training is field trips whereby the institute takes the trainees to some of the field facilities such as the Customs, terminal operators, and the Domestic Export Warehouse (DEW).

On the experience, the Executive Director described it as fantastic. “The notion of the students about the Customs has been changed. They participants even confessed that they never knew the officers were human beings who had hearts. They shook hands and got contacts for interaction such that they can interact. They were made to get the forms that they need to know the actual tariffs. They were given the list of prohibited commodities. They now know very well what not to export. It was a very fantastic trip and we hope to do it more.”

Message to the oil region

Udofia told his people: “We should join hands with the NEPC with the initiative that their current Executive Director, Ezra Yakusak PhD, has brought, which indicates that export is for survival. We should latch on that message. People should join hands with the IEOM and ask how to train people. Export is a knowledge-based business. We should take it to schools and to the NYSC. The moment they finish their service, they should hit the ground running in the export market. We do not train you and push you away, we keep you on mentorship until when you carry out your first export you then become our member.