Amidst COVID 19, Nigeria still exported agric produce – NAQS DG

The Director General, Nigeria Agricultural Quarantine Service (NAQS), Dr. Vincent Isegbe, in this interview with JOHN OBA, said despite the COVID-19, pandemic and its attendant restriction the country was still able to export its agricultural produce.

How has your agency been coping with the COVID-19 pandemic? 

I don’t think anybody will say he is having the best of times during this ‘COVID-19, because it has changed the way we normally do things.  There is a new normal like some people would say. It has made us think outside the box, because of its consequences, how we need to take advantage of COVID-19, those are the things that are in the minds of every management in order to address the effects and consequences of COVID-19 as it affects the organisation. So, I will say yes, COVID-19 has affected us for good and it has affected us for bad. For good in the sense that it has made us think further than we were thinking because new challenges cropped up and we have to find ways of addressing it as quickly as possible. So that the effects on Nigeria exporters, farmers, sanitary and phyto-sanitory consequences does not affect public health as the case may be. So these are some of the challenges that we have.

Secondly, we take advantage of the fact that, even if there is COVID-19, people will still have to eat. Some of the farms in Europe don’t have labour to go and harvest, plant or maintain. You saw recently on online platforms how most of the farms there have ready, flowers, crops, but nobody to harvest them and some were just running their tractors over these farms to turn what they have produced to manure. But here, we can still plan, because the effect of COVID-19 is not as devastating as it is in Europe and in the US. People could still go to their farms, so it’s an opportunity for us to see how we can export some of our fresh produce. But again, which airline would carry it? And if you arrive at the border of those countries, would they allow you in?

Those were the challenges we had at the first week, and thank God, that we got the express approval of the government to resume export. During the first week of the lockdown, we had to discuss all these challenges. We met with airlines, those that brought in medical equipment and those coming to evacuate their nationals to begin to assist in carrying the cargos. We took advantage of that, amidst the lockdown, we were able to export some goods. At the same time too, it taught us farmers, exporters and regulators that should there be a breakdown like it has happened now, what would be our plans? So those are things we are reviewing as management. And to see that we are able to do that, we need to look at our warehouses, how many cool chains do we have? How do we stock pile so that we can be exporting from the stockpile? So that if this type of situation comes again, we know that we have enough stock that we can export either for the next one month, a week or two weeks. But to do that too, we need to look at the energy supply, and the cost of energy supply to maintain the cool chains. So these are situations we are starting to envisage as a management. Though it may not be like the COVID-19, it may just be a disruption in the supply chains. We are working with other agencies because all does not end with us. After we inspect and certified, the cargo handlers will complete the process before it goes into the aircrafts. So we are discussing the critical stakeholders, so that in the event of any emergency like this, we will have emergency plans.

Since the government gave the order for your men to go back to their duty post, how much has been exported so far?

Ok, that is part of the challenges too. How many airlines are operating now? You can hardly find any designated cargo airlines coming in, except the ones that we have pre-arranged. What we have done in collaboration with other exporters is that the exporters are beginning to group themselves to know what quantity on daily or weekly bases so that they can get a chartered flight that would come and carry them. But don’t forget the charted flight coming may likely come empty, this will double the cost. This too has to be considered in whatever we do. But we are ensuring that we take full advantage of the regular flights that come into the country. Also because of the bulk, we are using the seas. Now there are lots of activities going on in the shipping lines. But because of the delicate nature of products like yam, the airlines are preferred.

Recently, minister of Agriculture and Rural Development, Sabo Nanono announced the government will  provide N13 billion for the control of pests, while the Nigeria National Accreditation System is calling for quality food control. As an agency that is in the middle of all these, what’s your role in all this?

Our agency is in charge of certification of export and import goods, now for the pest you mentioned is strictly for grasshoppers and quala birds, it is not to be applied directly on agricultural goods, and from what I read from the papers, it will go for the use of aerial spraying and going to where those quala birds host, so that they would die off, so they are not likely to affects the food chains. And where they are to be sprayed on the crops directly, we have specific chemicals with short residual life shelves that would not affect the food chains. It is not all chemicals that can be sprayed aerially. Even if the chemical is the best that can kill those pests, how it affects the public health or the veterinary sector is considered in the choice of the chemical that is used. The aerial spray is done by the ministry, that is outside the scope of our agency.

Recently, the Vice President commissioned a 200,000 capacity yam storage facility in Benue state. What part is your agency playing to ensure that the yams are safe for export?

Generally for the export of yams, we certify and inspect, unfortunately we were not invited to the commissioning, infact, we saw the notice, a day before the commissioning. But our officers are on ground in Makurdi, so anytime inspections and certification for the exportation of the yams is to be done, Quarantine will be involved. Remember, we have a zonal office in Makurdi, so naturally, they wouldn’t do any export without the involvement of the Service. The facility may be built to store the yams, but you know NAQS is in the teams of the taskforce on yam export. But I don’t know much about the structure of the facility.

But there are ways yams are stored if they are to be exported?

Yes, like I said, we have a zonal office in Makurdi, if and when they want to do the export, they would involve us. And at one stage or the other, my people will be invited to handle this.

Is your agency doing anything to sensitise farmers on the Conservation Biological Control ways of fighting pests?

Yes, we discussed with two Universities two years ago about finding an alternative to chemical pesticides, and what we were looking at then is biodegradable agro pesticides. This one is made from agro extracts, which is not harmful to man in the event of consumption of the preserved commodity. The use of bio control is not new, it has been on for the past 40 years, some even used aphids, as part of an agent of biological control and some used other species of insects, but in doing that, there is a lot we need to understand. One is the introduction of a foreign body into an environment, one way or the other, it would affect the ecosystem.

Aside from eating the pest, it may have effects on the environment. So bio study would have to be done in that environment, not what has been done overseas and you are now trying to transport the technology here because there may be other varieties here that may be suitable for the pest. If care is not taken the pest control may even grow from being a pest killer it may end up creating more challenges because of temperature, etc. So that pest control may grow to become a bigger challenge. So it is something that is very expensive and we have to do within the country. It is not an easy thing to be done, but it is an option that will be considered.

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