This agency had remained relatively invisible due to its erstwhile status as a unit in the Federal Ministry of Agriculture until Nigeria began to export yams to Europe and America, last year.
The Bill establishing the Nigeria Agricultural Quarantine Services (NAQS), the agency responsible for certification of agricultural produce to meet international standards before they are exported, has been signed into law by President Muhammadu Buhari.
In an exclusive interview with Blueprint Weekend’s ELEOJO IDAHABA, the co-ordinating director of the agency, Dr Vincent Isegbe, speaks on the reasons certain agricultural produce are rejected by western countries and other issues.
At last, the Nigeria Agricultural Quarantine Services is autonomous following the signing of the Quarantine Services Bill into law.
Where do you go from there? Well, we will continue to do what we have been doing.
The good news, like you rightly pointed out, is that we now have a legal status; therefore, our activities would be faster, we can now focus more on quarantine services because we are re-organising the various units for effective service delivery and expand more areas that we need to.
Right now, as we are talking, our team is in Ibadan working on our laboratory that was just installed there so that we will be able to do pesticide analysis and environmental impact assessment analysis and other things.
In essence, there is an improvement now.
Also, our activities with pest surveillance will improve.
Why we are doing all of these is because we don’t want a situation whereby farmers will plant and when it gets to the time of our inspection for export; we will now exclude some products as not good enough for export.
That, of course, will serve as discouragement to them.
That is why from inception we get involved by advising which chemical should be used for planting and storage.
When also you want to export, we will need information about the date of harvesting, storage and place of storage so that it becomes easy for us to prepare the product for export and avoid the risk of being rejected abroad.
Is NAQS also involved in enforcement? Yes we are.
This is to ensure that only commodities that meet International standards are exported and also imported into the country.
That is why we are at all the border entries, major airports, seaports and major land borders.
What major benefit do you think this agency brings to bear on the country? Well, one of the benefits is that we can now sell our produce.
Without an agency such as this, no agricultural produce can leave the country and be accepted anywhere because it would be assumed that it has not gone through the process of certification.
We are, therefore, the gateway.
If it must also come into the country, we must certify it, even if you have the import and export permit.
If this agency discovers at any point that a particular produce is not safe, it cannot come into or leave the country.
With the porous nature of our borders, is that possible? Yes, it is possible.
In some cases, we detain where the need arises.
Remember that we work in collaboration with other security agencies.
Any commodity we feel can be treated for consumption before being exported, we will do that, but when it becomes obvious that it cannot be treated based on international requirements, we will restrict it.
As for the porous borders, we are trying our best, but all over the world, there is no border that is 100 per cent secure.
In many cases, we work with NDLEA, Immigration, NAFDAC, Customs and the Police to carry out surveillance.
So, when we are not even readily present anywhere and any of these agencies notice an infraction, they will draw our attention to it immediately.
It’s a collaborative effort.
Is there inter-agency rivalry between NAQS and other agencies like the Nigeria Export Promotion Council (NEPC)? For the two agencies, the mandates are distinct.
NEPC, for instance, is established to promote any finished product and not necessarily agricultural produce.
It could be fashion products, wines and other processed products.
Ours is primarily agricultural produce, but for anyone to export any agricultural produce, we encourage such person to first of all register with NEPC and if any exporter gets into any problem that concerns what to be done, they get back to us.
There is rather inter-agency collaboration.
We attend meetings together, I get in touch with their chief executive on any matter and he does same with me; so there is really no rivalry.
Our assignments are clearly spelt out.
Recently, it was reported that some vegetables and fruits from Nigeria were rejected in the UK.
What went wrong? Yes, surprisingly, those are old-time exporters.
One of them has been in export business for more than 25 years.
So, why that particular company chooses to bypass quarantine, I don’t know; but I can bet that the person carried consignments that were not certified by this agency.
I mean there were some concealed agricultural produce the company was carrying that led to this problem.
Our assignments are clearly spelt out We have put the company under suspension for now while we investigate.
By the time we finish our investigation and realise that it was done with impunity, the right sanction will certainly be applied.
What does it takes for one to get through your agency’s certification for exporting agricultural produce? Basically, all it takes is standard.
For example, if you want to export, we will want to know what you are exporting.
As a matter of fact, we will want to see your farm from where you got the produce because that is where the whole story starts from.
We will also require you to tell us your storage site and the facilities there.
This is because a lot of pests are harboured in warehouses.
We will also need to know the kind of materials you want to use for packaging for export.
This is for proper counselling to avoid the unpleasant stories of the produce being rejected.
We also look at the labelling, date of harvest and freshness or otherwise of the produce.
All these are to serve as guide towards good market for your produce.
We go the extent of requiring to know the botanical name of your produce for proper label even if you know the local name.
This is because there are some products with clearly identified local names that cannot sell in the international market when the buyers do not know its name because they cannot identify it by that local name.
That is why we insist on the proper mode of identifying the produce.
What agricultural produce very marketable in other countries? Any agricultural produce being produced in this country can be sold outside the country.
Be it sugarcane, vegetables, fruits, soup ingredients like egusi and ogbono, tubers, grains, they can all be exported.
The exception is locust bean which can only be sold after being processed and dried as food spice.
We have cinnamon, tiger nut and dabino.
All these are highly sought after outside the country.
All they require is proper packaging for export.
Should a farmer accompany his produce while being exported? He does not need to.
What the farmers does is simply to produce while the exporter buys them for export through the value chain.
Where a farmer has the wherewithal to ship his commodity, nothing stops him from doing that.
All he needs is the certification.
Is the agency planning against looming food crisis occasioned by the farmers, herders’ clashes? Quarantine services do not go directly into agriculture.
That is the area of the Department of Agriculture in the Ministry.
What we can do is to guide them to maintain standards.
Of course, we have noticed the clashes between farmers and herders thereby leading to some farmers abandoning their farms, but in all sincerity, I don’t think it can affect the food production of the country because we have good arable lands in this country and a lot of people are producing food.
The problem we have really is not even in production, but wastages and storage system.
This is where we are insisting on standards.
I don’t think we will get to the point of no food in the country.
Talking about wastage; is there anything the agency can do in terms of sensitisation about the level of cashew fruits and nuts being wasted in states like Kogi, Benue, Enugu, Niger and even the FCT? Yes, we can do sensitisation.
But that is also the mandate of the Nigeria Export Promotion Council.
The attention of juice manufacturing companies can be drawn to that aspect and extract the juice from the flesh while also marketing the nuts.
Do you see Nigeria attaining the status of food tourism for Africa in the next few years? In fact, we are already there.
Check out our cuisines, they are going internationally.
Egusi soup, for instance had already attained that status among global cuisines.
As we talk, onion, pepper and tomato are being processed into cubes to ease food preparation, so as a young unmarried person or even married person, it becomes easy for one to buy and store them in the refrigerator for use anytime the need arises.
I know you are aware of potato chips that have undergone serious transformation in terms of processing.
We are diversifying into all those areas.
We don’t need to talk about jollof rice from Nigeria which has become so popular now.
This is where we are now.
We encourage Nigerians to take agriculture seriously now because oil is already going out of use.
Since we have the comparative advantage in agriculture, let us take advantage of it through aggressive effort.