From MAGNUS EZE, Abuja
Dr. Paul Angya is a consumate standards practitioner, promoting the harmonisation of standards in Africa. He recently spoke to Daily Sun on standardisation efforts in Nigeria, challenges facing the sector and how influence peddlers flood the country with fake products, among other issues.
Our efforts in economic diversification
The foundation for economic growth this time and going forward is standardisation and we must understand that it is only through the application of standards that industry can grow. Standards are the engine room for industrial development and when industry grows, it produces to standard. The products of the industry can be attractive and when attractive, they can compete and sell in the international market and thus attract revenue to the nation. So the foundation for that is standards but much more importantly now that we are looking at the non-oil sector, especially the agro-allied sector because right now, we are near zero in manufacturing. I tell you that until you appreciate the role of standards in improving agricultural products, you haven’t started because the export market you want to get to has stringent standard requirements for agricultural products more than even the processed products. For them, it’s not just issues of consumption and quality but issues of health and safety of their populations.
So as I speak with you, SON is ahead of the government in the business of preparing our country to taking advantage and improving agricultural products for exports. SON has developed standards for identified priority products that are cash earners for the country – about 15 priority agricultural products. We are looking at cocoa, beans, rice, honey, melon, soybeans, among others. These priority agricultural products are very attractive to the export market and we have developed standards value addition chain for all these products; we call it from farm to the table. So from the process of preparing the soil for planting through the process of controlling weeds on the farm, through the process of harvesting, through the process of processing, packaging, labelling, storage, transportation and exportation, especially for agricultural products, each step of the way is very important. At the end of the day, the most critical factor for export of agricultural products is what we call the quality infrastructure. The quality infrastructure comprises the leverages that can test these products, this cassava, this cocoa and show that they comply with the export requirements of the country to which they are going.
Do we have such laboratories?
Yes, we have them, now we have only two in the country; one is with SON and the other is with NAFDAC.
Rejection of Nigerian products by foreign markets
The problem of the rejection of beans by the European market did not start from the laboratories. Where was it planted, what kind of chemicals and fertilisers were used, what kind of pesticides were used to control the pests and where was it stored, what kind of chemicals were used to fumigate the storage and preserve the beans before shipping? Were they tested? These are some of the most frequently asked questions by the market.
Or did the beans find its way through other means to Europe?
Exactly! Because we have no record that the beans went through the existing accredited laboratories in Nigeria because it’s not just any laboratory. That’s another issue with exportation of agriculture products or even any material at all; it’s not just enough for you to be able to manufacture or grow, you ought to have a laboratory that has international accreditation, which has the competence to test any of the products you want to sell outside and to say that these products meet the standards and quality requirement of the people buying them from you. And that laboratory is supposed to be accredited to standard, that standard is ISO 17025; it’s a global standard. So if any laboratory not accredited to that standard tests your product and it gets to Europe or anywhere, they will reject it.
Are these conditions achievable?
Of course! What we are saying is, first of all, now we have a standard, we also have the code of practice that says look, if you want to dry, if you want to harvest beans, this is the way you do it. First, if you want to plant beans, don’t use so and so because you need to have knowledge of the kind of herbicides you can use. For instance, my parents or my relations in the village call me, please can you send us money to buy chemicals for clearing weeds for farming and they just go and buy those things; I think it is about N800 a can; they go and spray it. They don’t know the name of the chemical, they don’t know the type, they don’t know the chemical composition, they don’t know how long the chemical is going to remain in the soil and whether it is going to get into the seed you are going to plant and it is going to grow with the seeds and become a residue in the products you send. And so, over time when our people eat these things, they develop diseases you can find these days that were not there before when our people were doing organic farming, when we had no problem with chemical residues in our products.
So it’s a matter of first of all, these standards and codes now exist. Now that they exist, the next thing is bringing them to the knowledge and attention of the people who are doing these activities – the farmers. These standards have to be brought to the attention of the ministries of agriculture across the country. We are advocating that extension workers should be reintroduced into the Nigerian agricultural sector. You know, before we had agriculture extension workers who were going round villages, teaching farmers farming methods and practices.
Engaging extension workers on farms
Good, so when these agriculture extension workers are on stream, we have the knowledge, the skills and the information to teach them. These are the standards, this is how you can improve seedling; this is how you can improve agricultural yield and product and this is how you can prepare process for export. These are the kinds of herbicides and pesticides you can use and not use, and then they will go, as part of their job, reaching the nooks and crannies of the country to teach the people good cultivation practices and knowledge of chemicals and pesticides they can use to produce that are not harmful, that are acceptable to those markets where we want to reach and also, not just those markets, even for ourselves and for the health of our people.
People have all kinds of diseases today because it is coming out of the application of all kinds of chemicals, sometimes fake chemicals that shouldn’t get into what a human being is eating. So this is the problem but we have defined a concept paper for the ministry where we are saying this is the role of standardisation – improving agricultural products for export value addition chain from farm to table, which we have presented to government.
Influx of fake and substandard products
Frankly speaking, Nigeria has not done what it needs to do to prevent dumping. It’s not the role of SON to prevent dumping because we are not in control of the import policy, we are not in control of factors of importation; we are not in control of import points for Nigeria. So, we have the standards; we have all the rules that say before you bring any goods into Nigeria, it must conform to these standards, but we can’t go a step further and say this product cannot come into Nigeria because it’s coming in at a point where we are not there. They are coming in through the seaports so we have devised so many measures.
Right now, I am trying to do a paper to the government to see how we can take measures to prevent the Chinese government from exporting these products to Nigeria. I had a long conversation with the Special Adviser to the Vice President on Trade and Industry and I am trying to put together a position that perhaps if the government takes pro-active and aggressive steps against this trade on substandard products from the Chinese, it will stem the inflow of substandard products in Nigeria. But until the government does that, it’s not going to work.
The government is trying to attract foreign investments into Nigeria for manufacturing but unfortunately, no matter the number of investors you bring into Nigeria, the factors that killed the previous investments, the factors that destroyed manufacturing in Nigeria because there was a lot of manufacturing; they all ran away because they were overrun by some substandard, cheap products. Today, the President is going all over the world selling Nigeria, attracting investments but if we don’t clean up substandard products, cheap products, they are like weeds, if you allow weeds in your farm they will choke the plant and kill it no matter the beauty of the seed. That is what these people dealing on substandard products are doing in Nigeria; they are choking legitimate investments, manufacturing and killing industries; choking the air out of the economic environment.
So until the government takes pro-active steps and, if it gets to a head, ban some of these products in Nigeria, criminalise them, otherwise SON is not at the seaports and these products are coming in through seaports. SON does not have armed police and the whole population of SON staff is 1500. How can we cover Nigeria? So, all we are doing is preaching and talking. We need a lot of staff. First, we need to be at the seaports. I have made the case to the government and they are reviewing it. We need to stop the importation and circulation of substandard products because they are the investment killers; they are the ones that chase away investors. Instead of investment to grow exponentially, it has dropped in this country because when it attempts to grow, the weed will choke it up like the parable of the sower who sowed and when they were going to harvest, the weed grew and choked them. But SON has the standards and skill, even with the limited manpower we have. If we are at the point of entry, we will be able to make bigger impact. If you are strategically positioned, 100 people can defeat an army of one million.
Fake and substandard tomato paste in the country
Of course, all these are imported; they import all forms of chemical compositions that are not even tomato; not natural, they look like tomato and they start canning them here. This is being done by Nigerians; big names who don’t even have a single tomato farm anywhere. These things have been coming in and are being detected. So, jointly with NAFDAC and the Federal Ministry of Agriculture, we carried out the survey. Even the Federal Ministry of Industry is looking into it. Some of the promoters of these fake products are identifiable and government is doing something about it. I’ve had a meeting with the Minister of Agriculture; government is very concerned about that.
Enforcing standards to curtail spate of building collapse
I have been engaging the steel sector since I became the Acting Director General. I have had meetings with them. To some reasonable extent, the steel sector has been responding to our attempts to ensure that quality steel is being produced but I received report of circulation of substandard steel in several markets recently, I deployed my officers to all the building construction markets in Nigeria and we seized steel products that did not comply with the standard requirements across Nigeria. We subjected them to test and realised they were not of good quality. Fortunately for us, we have given identification marks to steel companies, so it is easy for us to trace where the steel is coming from and we are investigating why they rolled out substandard steel materials and compelling them to withdraw those products from the market.
Fortunately, steel can be recycled. We have done the enforcement and called them to a convention. We have sealed the places that are not producing good steel. Enforcement is used as a last resort. We will have a national conference on the building sector, which would be done this August. All the stakeholders in the building sector – manufacturers, brick moulders, architects, urban development authorities, building approvers and others – would come together to look at building collapse, the factors that will help. Building collapse is not just about the iron and steel we see, it is the man factor, the personnel that is the major problem. When there are honest people, they wouldn’t use substandard products to build. These are the efforts we are making to bring some sanity into the country. It is challenging, the country is big. The people to do the job are few. If the government can help in stopping some products from coming into the country, then it will be a better place.
SON’s operations in the last six months
Like I told you, we worked with the steel sector, we engaged the building sector and the tyre sector; we also engaged school children. We initiated standards clubs in primary and secondary schools, the knowledge of substandard products were instilled in the kids. It started in March, this year. It is running in primary and secondary schools and also in other sectors. We have done so much; the standards in the energy sector are there; we are reviewing all standards that are more than four years. We have engaged in standards harmonisation so that products of Nigeria can have easy access to other countries in Africa. We have harmonised over 78 standards at West African and African regional level within the last five months. We have defined the national quality policy, which defines the national quality infrastructure; we are trying to get the government to apply the policy. I have also initiated a project for product validation and security where you can identify standard and quality products when you see them. There is also a scheme for identification of genuine dealers.