Dr. Vincent Isegbe, the Director General of Nigeria Agricultural Quarantine Service (NAQS), in this exclusive interview with CHIBUZOR EMEJOR, spoke on his new initiatives to promote and expand Nigeria’s agricultural commodities in the international market, among other germane issues in the sector. Excerpts:
Sir, congratulations on your recent appointment as the first Director General of Nigeria Agricultural Quarantine Service. You have over the years served as the Coordinating Director of NAQS? What do Nigerians expect from you with this new appointment?
Thank you. I just want to say that to whom much is given, much is expected. I will just say more work. More work and more work. There are a lot of things that we need to do in the Nigeria Agricultural Quarantine Service because of the exigencies of our time.
There is a lot of agricultural produce we need to export. There is a lot of sensitisation that we need to carry out, for people to know that this is the standard procedure of doing things.
Farmers need to be properly informed of what they need to do. They need to imbibe the processes and procedures involved in each of the value chains as the case may be. They should be able to do things differently from what they have been doing before. That is the only way we can make impact.
If we keep doing what we have been doing before, we will get the same result. But if we do extra-ordinary things, we will get extra-ordinary results. We are going to involve many experts who will come in and we will push this agro export forward.
One, there are a lot of commodities to be exported. The beauty of it all, is that we don’t have winter. Our weather is warm. Even in the cold season, we are harvesting beans, hibiscus, sesame, all year round, we can produce food and we can harvest.
We are to feed those in the winter or Mediterranean regions. We have a lot of crops that grow here, from vegetables, fruits, and even fruit like apple people think that cannot grow well in Nigeria. But apples can grow well on the Plateau Mambilla, Ogbudu.
All that we need to do is to focus more on the technology that is used in growing them, because the weather in those places are good. We have to start from somewhere. There was a time that one of the British shops said they wanted to bring in Irish potatoes to Nigeria. I asked them , why do you have to bring potatoes into Nigeria, we have a lot of them in Nigeria? We have them in Plateau.
I gave them the contact and later he brought me three potatoes and said I should taste them. They are sweet. These things are there, some people may not know them. Since it is our duty and profession, we know where they are. We can organise the farmers, exporters’ association, farmers association so that they can begin to self-regulate themselves in a way that we will go there to supervise what they do and improve their activities, so that they can export their agricultural produce. So, we have a lot of work to do.
Specifically, what agricultural products are you looking at? I know that Nigeria has been doing well in the export of hibiscus, locally called ‘Zobo ’
We are working on improving of sesame and other commodities we call unconventional ones, cinnamon, sun flower, ginger.
Yes, Nigeria has been exporting ginger for quite some time now.
We want to draw the attention to the better way of doing it. You will be surprised that the tonnage of ginger grown in Kaduna State and other parts of the country like Gombe, Bauchi, is quite huge. We have challenges. Some of them are exported raw.
So, their market value is very low. Some of them have not been cleaned and processed. So, we want to draw the attention of farmers by letting them to know that we can export the same quantity by doubling the prices if we are able to add value to it and the market value will be higher.
Cashew is another product. We can improve the price between a 100-200 per cent, just by cleaning, closing and packaging well. But when we sell raw, we don’t really have value for that commodity. That has been our challenge. We need to process.
Part of our export improvement initiative, which started two years ago, is to highlight these agricultural commodities and draw the attention of investors.
We are to draw the attention of the investors that these are the potentials, opportunities for sale. Some people have money and they want to go into agricultural export and they don’t know how to go about it.
The literature that has been provided for them is so bulky. They need professional guide. We want to champion that. So, if two or three persons can set up industry, either at the place of production, a lot of youth will be employed.
The whole value chain will be engaged, from those who are transporting the goods, warehousing, shipping, everybody will have something to do, just because somebody or few individuals decided to invest.
These are things we are looking at. We have graduates who would like to set up companies, but they don’t know what to do. So, export improvement initiative is an opportunity for them.
We will meet them and discuss in details. Because they are educated, they can verify things we have said. There are so many financial institutions that will be willing to help them, if such companies are well structured in such a way, that once they access the loans, they will be able to pay back.
We are going to serve as linkages, we are going to serve as people who are sensitising others and we will do our core job, that is, export improvement certification to ensure that when agricultural commodities leave this country, they are safe and not rejected.
Do you have the statistics of how many containers of hibiscus Nigerian farmers were able to export in 2018? What are we looking at in 2019 in terms of volume of trade?
We were not able to export hibiscus in 2018 because there were some storage pests that destroy the commodity.
We had to suspend export to enable us to investigate and find out how the pests got there.
We are obliged to ensure safety of whatever we are exporting. In the same vein, importers should ensure safety before they bring in any product into Nigeria.
We have just done work plan agreement with them. We are about starting the export of hibiscus. We will soon start.
What is your target for 2019? How much are you looking at?
In 2017, we had 1,879 containers of hibiscus exported. I am sure that with this enthusiasm that we are not able to export for the whole one year, we are having a lot of pressures now. I am sure that this year, we will hit over 2000 containers of hibiscus exported.
Are you not worried about the nagging issue of the rejection of Nigerian agricultural produce? Some time ago, our tubers of yam being exported to the United Kingdom was rejected.
Our beans and vegetables being exported to the United States of America were also rejected. How does your agency intend to resolve what I will call national embarrassment?
This issue of rejection is a very serious matter of concern to us. If one consignment of goods is rejected, we are worried. As for the yams, it was only once that it was rejected. The exporter had issues and that exporter did not go through NAQS. He decided to do it on his own. He took the consignment over night. We have resolved that issue long time ago. So, since that one happened, nothing of such had happened again. The other exporter that took his yams to the United States had no issues.
Does it mean that Nigerian farmers have been exporting yams since then?
Yes, they have been exporting yams. That incident was during the flag-off of the export of yams. There was a media hype concerning the one that went to USA and the one that went to UK. It was only the one that went to UK that had challenges. In addition to the fact that he did not go through quarantine, shipping line disappointed him. The shipping line was not able to deliver until about a month or so. That affected the storage quality of the yams. For beans, we have always insisted that quarantine should be where they are supposed to be, at the ports, airports, sea ports, so that we can inspect whatever that is coming in or going out. Incidentally, the two consignments that led to the initial ban in 2015, 2016 and the extension of the ban to 2019, neither of them passed through quarantine. Government circular says quarantine should not be at close points. We are trying to draw government’s attention to this, because if we are not there, and consignments leave the country, without quarantine inspection and certification, the countries of destination will still return those consignments back to quarantine, and the quarantine will be held liable to say why did you allow these goods to leave Nigeria? Meanwhile, we did not inspect it. There is this government circular since 2011 that streamlines government agencies that are supposed to be at the Ports. So, we are in discussions with Federal Ministry of Aviation and the Federal Ministry of Transportation that supervises Nigerian Ports Authority. We want them to interpret properly the Executive Order Number One, because that is where the contention is. We are still working. I am sure that we will resolve the matter. Now that is the part that government has to play. The part that exporters have to play is that exporters have continuously concealed their items. It was not that the vegetable consignment was infested, no, it was because the exporter put something in that consignment that was not declared. That is what is called concealment. If an exporter does that, the entire consignment will be affected. The concealed item must have contaminated or infested the other ones which were declared and inspected. On getting to their countries of destination, they will ship them back to Nigeria. It was exactly what happened.
In the light of this ugly development, are there sanctions for exporters who boycott NAQS or conceal their goods while exporting them?
Of course, the exporter that did that is put under five months suspension. We consider him as the first offender. If he commits the offence again, then we expel the person from exporting. And whenever there is any infraction like that, we call a general meeting of all the exporters and we tell them this is what has gone wrong. we asked them to put an eye on what has gone wrong. So it was not on the quality of the vegetable being exported, no, rather there was a concealed item in the declared commodity.
Looking at your enormous responsibility, do you work with sister agencies to carry out your statutory duty?
You have just said that your personnel are not in the sea ports or airports.
We are there. They don’t allow us to be at the strategic places we are supposed to be.
Is there any synergy between your Agency and other relevant government agencies?
Of course, Nigerian Ports Authority is the custodian of the sea port. We work with them. The Nigerian Shippers Council is in charge of maritime rules and regulations. We work with them. We also work with other government agencies such as the Nigeria Customs Service, National Drug Law Enforcement Agency (NDLEA) . We collaborate with them. If we see any consignment that is drug related, we refer to it to them. If they see any agricultural commodity, they refer them to us. We have been working alongside all the relevant government agencies.
Recently, when the issue of the storage of beans with the deadly sniper was brought to the fore at the stakeholders meeting held at the headquarters of the Federal Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development, you promised to embark on sensitisation and awareness creation, about the adverse effect of the use of the substance. How far have you gone? Have you started the sensitisation campaign? How many States have you covered?
Yes, we have begun. The last two weeks in December, we went on air. We are also going to start jingle on a national radio network, specifically on the use of sniper to preserve beans and other activities. In Lagos, Kano, we have been sensitising farmers, exporters, on the dangers of the use of sniper, in public health and quality of the grain. It is something that we do regularly.
Beyond media announcement, is there any other method you would like to adopt in carrying out the sensitisation to the grassroots. For instance, if you visit the nearby markets in Abuja, you will see traders using sniper to spread on their beans. How do you intend to reach them to desist from this dangerous act?
Well strictly speaking, it is not our mandate. That is not to say that in an emergency situation, we cannot do it. We have what is called Public Health Authority in the Federal Ministry of Health that should do the sensitisation at the market level. Like we have always done, backward integration, anywhere we find out for one reason or the other, if the information is not being passed, since those commodities will still get back to us at the export desk, we make efforts to do that. It is not a regular thing that we do because it does not fall within our mandate. We cannot be going to markets. There are other government agencies that should do that, so that we can remain within our own core mandate.
Sometime ago, you issued a press statement saying that the collection of levies on the Federal Highways on agricultural produce by agents contracted by state governments is illegal. You went further to say that the Inspector General of Police had direct that such checkpoints on the Federal Highways should be dismantled forthwith. What is the situation now?
Before I answer your question, let me mention the internally generated status for revenue at various states. We have been having running battles with some state governments. Some have even taken us to court. They said by the joint tax boards laws, that they are entitled to collect revenues on the roads. We don’t have any problem with that. But they should not be on the Federal Highways, because they don’t have jurisdictions on the Federal Highways. They have jurisdiction on state roads. We don’t border to go to state roads. As long as it is a Federal Highway, as long as there is what we call inter-state control post of quarantine, where this people who carry animals and crops across the country, wherever they see them, they don’t have the right to go there and collect revenue. They have been told previously that revenue collection is at the point of production, loading, and at the points of off-loading that is for state governments. For instance, if you are loading animals from Maiduiguri, you pay loading and off-loading fees there. Wherever you are discharging finally, you pay at that point. In between the quarantine control post, they pay fees called users fees, for the services rendered to them. Of course, we are improving the status by reaching out to cattle owners. There is cattle identification project to avoid cattle rustling, as well as identifying diseases and health status of those animals. If they can map those cattle, and insert micro chips on them, we will be able to trace the details of the animals. Passing through our control post, we will check the micro chip reader of each of those cattle, and know that cattle number 1-5, we registered in the name of somebody, passed through our control post on this day and in this vehicle driven by this driver. If anybody has a challenge with that and he reports, we will be able to say these animals passed through our control post on this day, as driver and the vehicle would be identified also. That is the additional service we are offering to them. There are a lot of things they would benefit from associating with Nigeria Agricultural Quarantine Service. So, to answer your question directly, yes, we are always in touch with the office of the Inspector General of Police. He has step up Squad to help monitor situations across the States, to ensure that there is free flow of agricultural produce. Imagine that somebody is carrying animals on the road, and he is unduly delayed and he gets to Lagos or Port Harcourt where he needs to deliver, of whose interest is he being delayed? If we continue to allow that to happen, we will be discouraging people from moving their agricultural produce from the point of production to where it would be maximally consumed. If the value chain is destroyed, it will negatively impact on the economy. The cost of transportation will be high. If the exporter knows that the cost of transporting his commodity is N600.000. He will transfer it to the consumers. So we need to play an effective role. One of our mandates is to facilitate international trade. Whatever we can do to facilitate trade of agricultural produce in the country, the Quarantine Service will lend a helping hand. We have an interest to ensure that there is good agricultural practice from loading, up to the time the produce is brought to the export desk.
What are your major roles to ensure that plant and animal diseases are curtailed in Nigeria?
That is why we have 65 sections. We just created one new zone last two weeks in the South- South Zone. It used to be called South East Zone covering South East and South -South, but we have separated it. In South East, we have office in Enugu, South- South in Port Harcourt. This is created to improve reach across the country. In the 65 Stations, we have and we are still building, we have them along the periphery of the borders. We have them at the Airports and Sea ports. If you look at the River Niger, if you are coming from the North, you will pass through one of the bridges either through Lokoja or Jebba, so in each of those places, we have inter-State Control posts. If you come to the South, we have the Sea Port, Lagos-Apapa , Port Harcourt, Onne MP 1, we have in Calabar, Sapele, and Ikom. In the up North, we have various control posts. If there is any outbreak of disease, they will identify it and report to the zonal headquarters. In addition, in 2018, we established seven plant health clinics.
We have in human medicine, Primary Healthcare. We have them in six geo-political zones in the country. This year, 2019, we are going to establish another seven plant health clinics in each of the geo-political zones. The Plant Health Clinic is like small, micro hospitals for plants. Facilities such as telephone, internet, demonstration hall, tables and chairs are found in these clinics. God willing in 2020, we will establish another seven. By 2020, each of the geo-political zones will have three plant Health Clinics. The Plant Health Clinics help us to educate the farmers in the identification of the plant diseases. Once they are better informed, they can protect their agricultural produce in the farm.
In the view enormity of your responsibility, what is your staff strength? Do have enough hands or personnel to man various stations you have enumerated. Are there plans to recruit more people now that your organisation has been upgraded to an Agency?
Being a Federal agency, anybody can work anywhere within the country. The first thing to do is to rationalise. It means we are going to look at the critical areas and move people probably from there is excess more to where there is deficiency. We will do that. After that, we will look at the gaps. We can now begin to plug those gaps. For now, we have quite number of professionals who have been on the field for a very long time. We have many Ph.D holders and Master’s degree holders who have been undergoing trainings both at home and abroad. We are doing well. But that is not to say that we are doing well, where there are those critical needs, we will identify them and plug them. So, there is going to be massive movement of staff from one place to another, re-aligning them for better use. If there are two professionals in a place, we will move one to where there is none at all. And where there is none, we will look at how we can improve and fill up the gap there.
Are there plans to recruit more hands?
Definitely, there will be. By the time, we sit down to look at it and with the increasing challenge of what we intend to do, I think we will recruit more hands. And the normal process of doing that in government will be followed.
Source: The Independent Nigeria