Mr. Ofon Udofia is the President, Shippers’ Association Rivers State and Executive Secretary, Institute of Export Operations and Management. He visited Lagos on Monday where he had interactions with some journalists on issues bothering on the revitalization of the eastern ports, export, GAP Specifications and the Continental Free Trade Agreement among others. Below are the excerpts of the interactions as reported by our correspondent.
Sir, in view the advocacy from both the Nigerian Shippers’ Council and the Nigerian Ports Authority in recent time on the use of the eastern ports by importers, has anything changed in the area?
The Eastern ports are active and we are praying that more ships will come in spite of the propaganda that visited the issue. Why won’t somebody believe that because it is the same channel that they use in carrying the crude oil that gives us money? So, if government could take care of security there, they should also take care of the vessels that bring goods for the commoners.
So, I will say that the situation has started improving and they should do more even though people in INTEL are complaining. Yes, they should because their business has dropped. Before now, they were operating as if they own the whole nation. If you bring in any item to Onne, they will classify it as oil and gas cargo; that was why a lot of people diverted their goods to Lagos and creating a kind of artificial traffic here.
So, with what is happening with PTOL, which is the terminal operator in Area 1, I believe that if that tempo is increased and then the committee that was created by the Minister on the implementation of fact about the eastern ports, if they continue to work, now that Area 1 is working, by the time the Warri port and other ports in Delta State start working and Calabar port works, I will say that business will come back to the eastern part of the country, even youth restiveness will reduce because when they are busy working in the ports, nobody will want to carry arms. It is when the ports are closed and a lot of unemployment; they take to anything they see.
So, what has changed? Is it that they have declassified the port as oil and gas zone or what?
Since the inception of this government, they have started telling INTEL not to classify all goods as oil and gas and you know before now, it was only INTEL that had the exclusive right for the oil and gas services, but now any port can do that. So, that kind of cartel is broken, that is why you see that some of these ports are now coming up.
So, what are your expectations now that many things have changed in the zone?
We are expecting an increase in the number of vessel that call on eastern ports and we want that very fast and again, we are also encouraging people to do a lot of export. Like from the angle of the Institute of Export Operations and Management, when an inbound vessel comes and there is nothing for it to go back with, then there is issue of cost here because by the time they will leave their countries, they will be charging you in and out, invariably, you will see that the cost of items here will be very expensive. But if there is a lot of consolidated cargo for them to go back with, without going to bunker the vessel and paying money to pump water upstairs, you will see that the prices of commodities will come down.
That is why you can go to a place like Ghana and other places, you see that things are cheaper there because so many people consolidate cargo, instead of the vessel going empty; they will go back with some cargo. Like the last vessel that came last Saturday to MSC, it really went back with fifteen to twenty export containers and you know what that means. So, we are trying to encourage people from the east to consolidate cargo and do export and that will also help us bring down the prices of imported goods.
What is the prospect of exporting from the east anyway? Do you have anything to export?
Of course, yes! We have a lot to export. Apart from tangible items, we can also export services. If you look at the West Africa sub region, Ghana just discovered oil and so many other places. We have an advantage because when you talk of welders, scafolders, people within the oil industry, such hands are from that area. Then two, before the discovery of the so-called crude oil which is a mirage that has made us leave the object and chase the shadow, why I am saying so is that even if you give me an oil well today, it will be useless because I don’t have the money to invest in it.
There are lots of agricultural products like the palm oil, apart from the palm oil, the palm kernel oil and even the palm kernel shell is exportable. If you come to Area 1, you will see where it is stacked and people are taking that into the vessels. If you go to Calabar, you have cashew nuts, you have cocoa. If you go to Edo state and Delta, they also have oil, they have garri, they have the timber products even though it is prohibited but they are trying to do what is called furniture components.
If you get those cargoes within the Niger-Delta zone, we have a lot but unfortunately, the devil called crude oil came and made us look as if we are lazy, we are not lazy, we are hardworking. The strength we use in kidnapping people, if we channel it into export, we will do more than any other section of the country.
But a lot of export is going on in Lagos, why is the situation different over there? Is it that the environment is not conducive or what?
Before now, vessels were not coming to Area 1 and like I said, on account of having high charges as oil and gas zone, anything oil and gas is in Dollars, if you are cracking palm kernel or the shell, are you going to compete with them? So, that was why most of the people, even those who have something to export, they bring them all the way from Edo and Delta to Lagos because the tariff is cheap.
So, now that government is working on reducing the tariff and also to encourage export, people are doing something there now, though it is gradual, it has to take some time because it did not deteriorate in a day, so, you don’t expect it to get better in a day.
You suggested for a policy that will allow people to sample their goods on the international supermarkets. Can you talk more about that?
That is what is called global GAP specifications. They have their headquarters in Germany. What global GAP does is that; by the way, the word GAP means, Good Agricultural Practices, supermarkets want to be sure of what they are selling to people that buy from them because in oversea, if somebody buys something from you and it is not good, he will sue you. So, in order for them not to have issues, they now come up with a GAP and said, for us to buy from you, you must have our specifications.
So, of recent, the Institute of Export Operations and Management of which I am the Executive Secretary, had been able to train somebody who wrote their exams and then he serves as their auditor in Nigeria to audit and prepare farmers, just like you are preparing somebody for JAMB, they will prepare you so that you will be able to pass their exams. The moment that is done and your farm has that specifications, you won’t look for market, Embassies will buy from you, in short before a vessel leaves Europe or anywhere, they will always tell them, if you want to stock, buy from this farm, we are sure of what they are doing and there is also traceability.
You know the other time, our beans was banned, why? It is not possible that all the beans from Nigeria were bad but they were not able to trace which particular farm that these bad beans came from. So, global GAP helps in traceability. You remember the other time that Toyota had issues with their cars; they were able to recall those cars because they had a traceability system. So, the global GAP thrives with traceability, it gives people confidence to buy.
Like l told you, Kenya has one thousand, eight hundred and something farms that have the specification, you could imagine what that means, South Africa has one thousand, seven and something, Ghana has three hundred and something, Cameroun and other countries whereas we don’t have even one. So, that is where we are looking at because if you are asking people to go into agriculture and do export, well except they want our yams to be returned and other products as usual because if you look at it, that was part of the factor, we didn’t do it right. If you don’t do it right, it will be very difficult except if you want to sell it to Africa shops, you know we don’t have premium prices for these products.
So, we are working on that now and trying to talk to the farmers and some state governments like we just recently did in Edo State to enable them have those specifications.
So, now, if farmers have those specifications, they will be able to export?
Of course, if farmers have it, in every value chain, everybody should mind his own business, the farmer is in the value chain, he is farming for export, we have the processors who buy from them to process, he is in the value chain, then we have now the broker who will start telling people, I have the knowledge where you can go and buy this, he makes his commission from that. Look at the employment generation now. Then, you have the merchant who has the money to go and pack all this things in one warehouse and wait for an exporter to come. You see that the jobs that the agriculture/export value chain can create, no other industry in the world can create them.
You talked about the Continental Free Trade Agreement which President Buhari refused to sign. What does this portend for Nigeria?
I am sad about it because in November/December 2017, we were in Tanzania on training on packaging organized by FAO and the International partners and the United Nations, after doing that, an association was set up called Intra Africa Trade Association and I was asked to be the President. So, how can I be a President of something that my President did not sign? We are about registering the organization in Kenya; I am trying to see how we can set them up.
The percentage of trade among African countries is less than 20%, about 14% to 16%. It is not supposed to be so. If Ghana is looking for something to buy and Nigeria has the same thing, it is cheaper for a Ghanaian because the trading period between Nigeria and Ghana is shorter. So, we need to trade among ourselves.
That was a mistake on the part of the government even though the Manufacturers’ Association was saying that they want to make Nigeria a dumping ground, it is not true. How many things are we actually manufacturing? Yes, some people also said because we don’t have an airline and we don’t have a shipping line, the fact that somebody fall from the palm tree does not mean he won’t eat the palm oil. So, what we need to do is to put ourselves in order, to say, okay, we are signing this thing, what do we need to put in place? Maybe have a development plan for the next two or three years to enable us meet up.
Sir, don’t you agree with them that all we need to do is to actually put infrastructure in place so that we will be able to compete with other African countries?
Well, if you know that you were not going to sign the agreement, why did you start the journey in the first place? Professor Osakwe was there to represent us, we did not just start yesterday, we have been going for the meeting since 2012 and this is 2018. So, if we have not build the infrastructure since then, what makes you believe that we have the plans for that?
And again, when you are signing, the implementation will be different; you pick the areas that suit you. You have what is called the ECOWAS Trade Liberalization Scheme, is movement really free? But we signed it. You can sign and pick the areas you want to implement so that one, we are the giant in Africa, what is the world saying about us? It is like we are becoming a clog in the wheel of trade worldwide. There is what we call long barrier to trade, you can still have the tariff and also block people from coming. Even though you sign it, you put a barrier and say if this thing must enter here, it must meet this standard or if it must come here, it must be produced in Nigeria.
On the side of the government, between 2012 and today, before that document was signed, you should have been able to put the entire infrastructure in place in preparation for that.
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