The perishable agro-cargo airport project launched in 2013 as part of efforts to diversify the Nigerian economy, grow national earnings and boost GDP contributions from the aviation and agricultural sectors has suddenly been confined to the dustbin of history.
Although, the target was for Nigeria to leverage the over N250 billion annual air freight export market out of Africa where the country was recording zero participation policy discourse around the project since after its launch have gradually gone down. But while countries like Kenya, South Africa, Benin, Cote d’Ivoire, Ghana, Senegal, Ethiopia, Tanzania and Egypt are heavily participating in trading in commodities like fruits, fresh fish, vegetables and flowers and earning millions of dollars annually from the trade, Nigeria, which also produces these produce in abundance lacks the requisite infrastructure to compete. So far, Nigeria has watched helplessly as European, Asian and American cargo aircraft continue to freight into country daily huge tonnes of cargo, but fly out empty with no cargo from Nigeria.
It was in a bid to stem this imbalance in trade, that the Federal Government designated 13 cities including Abuja, Akure, Calabar, Ilorin, Jalingo, Jos, Kano, Lagos, Makurdi, Minna, Owerri, Port Harcourt and Uyo as pilot schemes for perishable cargo airports. The airports in these cities which are in close proximity to communities considered as food baskets of Nigeria were to be developed with international standard perishable cargo storage and export facilities to enhance their operations.
Of the 13 airports initially earmarked for the pilot scheme, only the Muhammed International Airport in Lagos was given the nod to go ahead with the perishable cargo project with the Nigerian Aviation Handling Company (Nahco) and Skyway Aviation Handling Company (SAHCO) allowed to make the necessary infrastructural investments to support the storage and export of perishable goods.
For the remaining 12 airports, there are strong indications to suggest that the policy pronouncement by the Jonathan administration has now been confined to history as the Federal Government has so far shown no commitment towards pursuing the initiative thus sounding a death knell on the multi-billion dollar agro-cargo airport project.
According to an industry source who was involved in the conceptualisation of the project, the government of President Muhammadu Buhari, which inherited the project has refused to make any financial commitment towards the continuation of the project.
The source explain that “the perishable cargo project suffered severe neglect because of the initial decision of the incumbent government to jettison the project,” said the source.”
“Buhari was made to believe that everything about the airport remodelling projects of former President Jonathan was immersed in fraud, and this thinking extended to the perishable cargo terminal projects,” the source added.
Outside Lagos, the government abandoned the perishable cargo projects in the other designated cities that showed strong business prospects like Owerri, Benue, Akure, Uyo, Jos, Jalingo among others. But despite the inherent benefits to Nigeria and its huge farming population, the government did not consider it necessary to speed up the review or redesign of the project to suit it’s taste if only for the inherent benefits as emphasis was instead placed on the flaws of the project and disregarding its advantages. It was like throwing away the baby with the bath water.
Daily Sun learnt that even the consultant hired to work out a new cargo/agro-allied airports for Nigeria by the Buhari government by middle of 2017 was not properly funded to execute the contract to the end.
“The philosophy of the government was more on safety in the airline operating sector; they have been more interested in not recording any air crash,” said analyst Mike Obokhale. “The cargo and agro-allied terminal project was therefore left at the developmental phase by government consultants. There was nothing in the will of the government to show that it wanted it to move into the procurement and construction phase,” Obokhale added.
Indeed, the Minister of State for Aviation, Mr. Hadi Sirika, who took over from Mr. Osita Chidoka, has remained focused on providing critical infrastructure at the airside (the apron, runways, taxiways, ramps, and aircraft manoeuvring sides) of airports and has refused to revisit the perishable cargo terminal projects. In fact, in the words of Siriki, the government was seeking for a total concession of the terminal buildings of the airports to private firms.
Ironically, in the last four years, a look at the state of the Nigerian airports would reveal that nothing substantial has been done even on the airside of the airports to justify the decision to abandon the perishable cargo projects.
It is an ugly trend acknowledged by the Director General and CEO of IATA, Mr. Alexandre de Juniac, who disclosed at the 2018 Global Media Day held in Geneva, Switzerland that IATA was working with the Nigeria government to put in place the right infrastructure and tax incentives that can grow the industry and allow local airlines make profits.
The lost benefits
Without doubt, the perishable cargo export industry can be likened to an untapped goldmine given the financial benefits it could offer to investors. Nigeria is richly endowed with lots of fresh goods currently in demand in Europe, which investors in the business can easily export and make money from. Products like pumpkin leaves, fresh ginger and garlic, white and red sweet potatoes, washed bitter leaf, water leaf, plantain, okra are in demand outside Nigeria. The market has been created by Nigerians in the diaspora who continually yearn for these home grown foods delivered to them fresh and healthy. And in recent years, more Nigerian restaurants have sprung up in various countries across the globe, and Nigerian dishes and cuisines have become much more appreciated by foreigners. And airfreight appears to be the safest means of exporting these perishable goods to these markets. The successful implementation of the perishable cargo project would therefore have greatly boosted the government economic diversification policy.
Experts say Nigeria could be raking in an estimated $52 billion annually from the United Kingdom (UK) alone, if the full potential of the perishable cargo export industry is harnessed. “Assuming one million out of over three million Nigerians living in the UK alone make purchases of food items exported from Nigeria at the cost of $100 weekly, even with the current exchange rate, Nigeria cannot make less than $52 billion from this sub-sector annually,” says Managing Director and Chief Executive Officer of ABX World Nigeria, Captain John Okakpu. “That is the projection,” he added.
If $52billion is lost to the UK market alone from the inability to effectively unlock the country’s perishable cargo potential, then over $100billion could be lost to the American and Asian markets.
The country has also lost the opportunity to makes states like Benue, Kano, Sokoto, Akwa Ibom, Ekiti, Cross Rivers, Ebonyi the hub of agro exports through the cargo airports located within the proximity of these states. At the same time, Nigeria has lost the opportunity to develop vibrant Economic Free Trade and Export Processing Zones that would have naturally evolved over time alongside the cargo airports as well as other agro-allied industrial clusters.
But the greatest losses appear to be borne more by local farmers, especially those who commit massive funds into the cultivation of crops only to experience wastages and gluts in the sale of their produce as the local market that often becomes saturated, and they would have certainly needed the off-takers in the perishable cargo chain to link them up with the offshore market in Europe and America to maximise their investments.
According to the Managing Director/CEO of FAAN, Mr. Saleh Dunoma, today’s Nigeria’s aviation industry contributes over $1billion to the Nigerian economy annually while supporting more than 150, 000 jobs in the country. If this is true, then there is every reason to believe that effort by the government to create the right infrastructure and investment climate for perishable cargo airports could yield the projected $100billion annually for the industry with about 300,000 jobs generated for citizens.