Lack of continuity in project execution, a hallmark of successive political leaderships in Africa’s largest economy has again robbed farmers and exporters of farm produce (notably vegetables and fruits), another golden opportunity to earn more foreign exchange, selling more fresh produce in the international market.
Already the farmers are reporting financial losses following Nigeria’s failed third-time bid to establish perishable cargo airports in some select cities across the country.
Head of Research at Zenith Travel Limited and spokesman for the Aviation Round Table (ART), Mr. Olu Ohunayo, who spoke with Daily Sun, described the failure by successive Ministers of Aviation to complete and inaugurate the project after it was first initiated by Mrs. Stella Odua in 2013 as causing incalculable losses” not just to farmers and exporters of perishable goods, but also to the Nigerian economy.”
“The Nigerian economy has been recording huge losses running into millions of dollars in foreign exchange that should have been earned by farmers and exporters, just as the aviation sector’s contribution to the GDP has been drastically reduced due to the non-availability of perishable cargo airports,” Ohunayo told Daily Sun.
A top industry official who spoke on condition of anonymity attributed the development to “severe funding constraints” that had constrained the Federal Government from continuing with the implementation of the 13 perishable goods cargo export terminals proposed for Abuja, Akure, Calabar, Ilorin, Jalingo, Jos, Kano, Lagos, Makurdi, Minna, Owerri, Port Harcourt, and Uyo airports. The terminals were selected in line with their regional agricultural comparative advantage and private sector expression of interest in them. Agricultural produce such as oranges, mangoes, yams, cassavas, rice, vegetables, sesame seeds, millet, maize, guinea corn, which are considered grossly under-priced as a result of lack of local capacity to absorb the huge harvests annually were to be exported massively out of the country, even if it would target the huge Nigerian diaspora population in Europe, America, Africa and Asia countries.
Without a doubt, the target of the perishable cargo airports was for Nigeria to key into the over N250 billion annual air freight export market out of Africa in which it is currently recording zero participation. Other countries like Kenya, South Africa, Benin, Cote d’Ivoire, Ghana, Senegal, Ethiopia, Tanzania and Egypt are heavily participating in trading of commodities like fruits, fresh fish, vegetables and flowers and earning millions of dollars annually in this huge market, while Nigeria, which also produces these produce in abundance lacked the requisite infrastructure to participate.
Said Ohunayo, “we have left this project in the drawing board for too long; I think this (Hadi Sirika) is the third Aviation Minister after Stella Odua and Osita Chidoka that has told Nigerians he has this project as part of the aviation sector master plan, but none of these minister have been able to realise the plan.
“It is not good news that Kenya has put up a perishable cargo airport that has enabled their farmers to move out produce speedily overseas and is making millions of dollars annually from this. In fact, the failure to establish these perishable cargo airports is one of the factors that is adversely affecting the effort to diversify our economy from crude oil revenue,” Ohunayo said.
Over the years, Nigeria has watched helplessly as European, Asian and American cargo aircraft continue to fly into country daily with huge tonnes of cargo, but fly out empty from Nigeria with no cargo to freight.
According to farmer and exporter, Mike Efre, the initial excitement raised by the government’s plan to float perishable cargo terminals in 2013 had since faded into disillusionment for farmers and exporters with no such project achieved six years after it was conceived.
“Annually farmers in Nigeria commit millions of naira into their work, and once there is glut in the local market with no off-takers and no perishable cargo terminals for exports outside Lagos, you find farmers that have borrowed money to produce recording huge losses.
This is one of the disincentive to taking farming as a profession and business.It is indeed killing many farming business,” Efre said.
Efre explained that of the 13 airports initially earmarked for the pilot scheme, only the Muhammed International Airport in Lagos has kick-started the perishable cargo project with the Nigerian Aviation Handling Company (Nahco) and Skyway Aviation Handling Company (SAHCO) making infrastructural investments to support the storage and export of perishable goods. Sadly, the bulk of Nigeria’s perishable goods that require the storage and export facilities are cultivated by farmers in the hinterlands outside Lagos state.
“Most of the projects, even the ones that had advanced by 60 per cent, were halted; at present nothing is happening as work on all the terminals have been grounded and contractors have left the sites,” he said.
An haulage expert said Nigeria could be raking in an estimated $52 billion annually from the United Kingdom (UK) alone, if the full potential of its 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 at the current exchange rate, Nigeria cant earn 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 due to government’s inability to effectively unlock the country’s perishable cargo potential, then over $100billion could be lost to American and Asian markets.
According to Ohunayo, spokesman of the Aviation Round Table, President Muhamadu Buhari should accord top priority to the project in his second term. He also suggested that the way forward could be found in the government handing over the project to private sector investors under a Public Private Participation (PPP) arrangement.
“Maybe we should re-work the concept of the perishable cargo airports so that the private sector can take it up and run it,” said Ohunayo.
“It is something that can be made to work very quickly given the huge loss to the country. We must not start building the terminals all afresh; we can take up the non-viable airports for commercial passengers in the country and convert them into perishable cargo airports,” he added.
Not making the project to work translates to Nigeria’s continuous loss of opportunity to make states like Benue, Kano, Sokoto, Akwa Ibom, Ekiti, Cross Rivers, or Ebonyi, the hub of agro exports through the cargo airports located within the proximity of these states. Nigeria also continues to lose the opportunity to develop a 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.