• Wednesday, June 12, 2024
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‘We want to make Nigeria tomato processing giant through innovation’

 Eric Umeofia is the chairman of Erisco Foods Limited, leader in Nigeria’s tomato processing industry. In this interview, Umeofia tells BusinessDay’s ODINAKA ANUDU that Nigeria must ban all forms of food importation to enable local manufacturers to grow.
Nigerian tomato farms are ravaged by a disease called Tuta Absoluta or ‘Tomato Ebola’. In the midst of this crisis, you are being accused of hoarding tomatoes. How true is this allegation?
Anybody that is accusing us of hoarding tomato does not know anything about the commodity. It is not possible for anybody to buy and hoard tomato, because it is perishable. If tomato is ripe and you fail to harvest it within seven days, it’s all goodbye. The problem is that we failed to do the right thing, and those that were supposed to do that are now shifting blame. The disease is not new; we had it three years ago. But the problem is that we failed to farm tomatoes. Those who farm tomatoes are few, so when Tuta Absoluta came, the problem became clear.  The point is that if the government supports farmers and guarantees off-taking, things will be different.
If not for the efforts of the new Minister of Agriculture, things would have been worse. The people that are supposed to help the situation are busy supporting foreigners to import, for their selfish gain. My heart bleeds when I hear that N25 billion is spent every day on import of food items, while $1 billion is wasted importing tomatoes each year.
But how have you managed to get fresh tomato supply to your factory amid this crisis?
We improved on our own seeds, because we knew we needed hybrid and heat-resistant seeds as well as good farm inputs like fertilizer.
We managed to stop tomato from being wasted. The Central Bank called us recently and told us to look inwards to produce what we eat. Currently, we are putting more than N4 billion back to farmers. Three years ago we were affected by the disease and we lost money in the first year. But we took the right measures, because we are the King of Tomato.
The issue of saying that the disease reduced supply is not true, because if we had enough tomatoes, we would not have been severely affected. We still have no capacity to store tomatoes in this country. That is why farmers need government support. They need good and sophisticated machinery. It may surprise you to know that farmers themselves subsidise most of the foods we eat here. That is why they are often poor. The richest men in America in the 1970s were farmers. If we mechanise farming and guarantee off-taking, more people will go into farming, and rural-urban migration will be reduced. We want farmers to ply their trade with their cars parked by their side. That is what will guarantee food security in Nigeria. That is why we need to support President Buhari to revamp the economy. The question is, why are we strangulating indigenous manufacturers in a bid to allow foreign investors to come in?  The foreign investor who says he wants to help you is busy dumping his products in the country, yet you say he should be allowed to do business. Six years ago they told us that it was impossible to make Nigeria tomato self-sufficient.  At a meeting held by the Manufacturers Association of Nigeria (MAN), they said it was impossible, but I told them it was possible. Today I have 22 production lines and a virile tomato firm. I have 22 lines, and employs thousands of people.
You bring fresh tomato from the north. How do you cope with logistics cost?
To say the truth, only few people can do what I am doing.  I make a lot of sacrifices for this country. From the outset we designed our plant to suit foreign concentrates. Then I was importing concentrates. But the CBN called us and said, ‘look inward to reduce $1 billion import bill’. We then designed a converter to use fresh Nigerian tomato via our system to produce paste. So we go to the north, buy tomatoes at N300,000  per truck to come here. This is a serious sacrifice, because we have lost 12 trailers of tomatoes in the process. Our intention is to challenge foreigners who say it is impossible to have a strong tomato processing industry here.  Here we can crack eight to 20 trucks of tomatoes every day, depending on the supply. Now calculate N300,000 times ten, on the average, and you get N3 million. But the authorities are not doing anything to support us. The NAFDAC confirmed that 91 percent of tomatoes here are substandard, but nothing has been done about this. Come next season, we will be setting up a technical outfit in Katsina State, something nobody has ever achieved in Nigeria. This is why some agencies and one relevant ministry do not support us. They feel that if they support us, we will shut them out here.
Why are you not interested in having your own trucks that can ferry fresh tomatoes from the north?
I want to have my own trucks, but where is the money with which to buy them? Banks do not support. I need a minimum of 50 trucks, and 125 buses for marketing. It may surprise you to hear that an army commander in Borno is not doing more work than we do here. We are saving this country from having more insurgents, kidnappers, and armed robbers.
 So it is cheaper and safer for government to support us.  People say I am monopolising and I ask, do I have a right to buy and sell in my own country?
So you no longer import concentrates?
Like I told you, we have a technology that enables us to end any type of tomato import. If the government is interested in it, we will take it to a greater height.  It is easy to stop tomato importation in any form –be it paste, concentrates, or anything else. We have imported enough.  Investors should not come here to bend rules. I have investments in Angola and the United Arab Emirates. There are principles guiding investments there. Why is ours different?
So what specifically do you want government to do?
I trust President Buhari, but I do not trust civil servants that are there before him. I do not trust some of his appointed officials.  When I was importing I was richer, but now that I am manufacturing I am poorer, all because of civil servants’ act of sabotage.  The Indians and the Chinese create more problems for our economy. When they say they want to invest in this country, government will give them incentives, yet they go and bring in their people as marketers, instead of employing Nigerians.
Go into the market, you will see over 800 Indian nationals marketing different products. The Minister of Labour should ensure that any foreigner who is here is technically gifted. We have arable land and our tomato is nutritious. Why are we still importing?
Are you aware that people are smuggling in tomato paste through Cotonou border?
Yes, I am. If you go there, you will see over 200 trucks they want to bring in.
What are the implications of this situation?
Talk of loss of revenue. What about health hazards?
 How can we truly diversify if people are allowed to smuggle in goods into the country? Government should leave the advice of Indians and take our own advice to grow the economy. If government is serious with us, I alone will employ 50,000 workers and make Nigeria a tomato hub. But should the President tell NAFDAC to do its job?
So are you saying that smugglers and importers work hand in hand with government agencies?
They are all together. You remember the president promised to ban rice during his campaign. Why has he not done so? It is simply because they keep saying that rice will be scarce if it is banned.         But that is not true. If I employ 1650 when I am on 20 percent capacity, imagine what happens when I operate at full capacity.
I was here few months ago. Then you had 16 lines. But now you have 22 lines. How did you do the magic?
We are confident in Nigeria. All the 22 lines are big businesses that can bring millions to the economy. We have packaged garri, milk, sugar and more. Many more others are coming. I want people to join manufacturing.