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Agric ministry frustrating our export businesses, say fish farmers

By Femi Ibirogba
04 February 2019   |   3:37 am
The Catfish and Allied Fish Farmers Association of Nigeria (CAFFAN) has alleged that the Fisheries Department of the Federal Ministry of Agriculture has been frustrating its efforts to export smoked fish to the United States of America. The National President of the Catfish and Allied Fish Farmers Association of Nigeria (CAFFAN), Mr Rotimi Oloye, said…

Rotimi Oloye

The Catfish and Allied Fish Farmers Association of Nigeria (CAFFAN) has alleged that the Fisheries Department of the Federal Ministry of Agriculture has been frustrating its efforts to export smoked fish to the United States of America.

The National President of the Catfish and Allied Fish Farmers Association of Nigeria (CAFFAN), Mr Rotimi Oloye, said the USA had banned Nigerian smoked fish from February 18, 2018 following the failure of the department to respond to no fewer than six letters written by the US Department of Agriculture to regularise export to the US.

While giving account of the genesis of the crisis, the CAFFAN boss said, “Between November 2017 and February 18, 2018, US Department of Agriculture wrote six letters to the Federal Department of Fisheries, Nigeria, calling their attention to inflows of substandard products to their country and improper documentation of the imported fish.

“They wanted to know details of the production of the fish. So, they got no response to the six letters to the Federal Government. That was why the door was shut against us.”

The cause of the crisis was that some exporters of various varieties of smoked fish, including catfish and tilapia, from Nigeria, Kenya, The Gambia and countries supplied low quality products to the international markets, breaching the standards.

All the countries involved but Nigeria had been re-certified following their quick responses to the letter by the US department, CAFFAN disclosed to The Guardian.

However, the Director of the Department of Fisheries, Mr John Babatunde, while responding to enquiries by The Guardian, said the ministry was making efforts to get the crisis resolved, but the US department would do its things at its own space.

Effects on local production, farmers and processors’ income
“It is so sad that farmers and processors are suffering,” said the CAFFAN president, regretting that the government had not responded to call the stakeholders into a discussion to move forward.

He explained: “Fish farming has been developed and it got a boost during the administration of former President Olusegun Obasanjo. We were fortunate to have Chief Bamidele Dada as the Minister of State for Agriculture then, and fisheries fell under his portfolio. Being an aqua culturist who had worked with the Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO), Mr Dada impacted positively on the aquaculture sector.

“A lot of farmers went into fish production with a lot of investments. So, fish production increased with investments, but at a point, there was excess supply of fish. So, value addition came in, and I must give the credit to the Department of Fisheries in the Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) and US Agency for International Development (USAID) for they trained us about value addition and we started processing.”

With the ban one year ago, investments have been wasting away; many processing plants have been shut or producing below capacities; many small-scale farmers have either scaled down production of fish or closed operations entirely, leading to frustration and erosion of capitals in the sector.

“With the population of the black outside the African continent, there is a huge market for our products. And our people started exploring this opportunity. So, it was more profitable for us selling the processed fish abroad. I paid a visit to some outlets in America, I processed fish we sell for about N1000 here was sold at $18. If you multiply that with the current exchange rate, you will see reason people want to export smoked fish,” Oloye added.

Many farmers, he said, are now indebted, because repayment of loans from thrift cooperative groups and micro-finance institutions has been hampered for low demand in the industry.

“We have lost almost everything. So many investors came into the industry to set up fish processing plants worth millions of naira. Some people brought processing equipment from China. I know of two processing lines that can handle 10 tonnes of fish in two days.

“What they are doing now is below capacity because of the ban. Some small-scale farmers having one or two smoking kilns cannot do much now because the demand is not there.

“You can imagine the quantity of smoked fish that will fill a 30-foot container to Europe or the US. But it is banned now,” the association said.

Efforts to move forward
The association said it had made several efforts. The efforts included paying a visit to the US Department of Agriculture at the consulate in Lagos and writing two save-our-soul letters to the Vice President Yemi Osinbajo, who, in turn, forwarded same to the Federal Ministry of Agriculture and the Fisheries Department for actions. Unfortunately, the US department said the government had not responded.

“We have made several efforts. We have even gone beyond the primary constituency so that the problem can be resolved. We have paid a visit to the US Department of Agriculture at the Consulate in Lagos. Eve as of yesterday, I received information that nothing had been done by the government.

“We were in the office of the Director of Fisheries in the Federal Ministry of Agriculture for about three times. They kept assuring us of a resolution.

“We wrote a letter to Vice President Yemi Osinbajo in April 2018, and in July, we wrote a reminder, and as of now, nothing positive has come out of it,” the association said.

The president of the association, Mr Oloye, said the only result their efforts “is that the Fisheries Department has declared me a persona non grata, that they would have nothing to do with me for writing a letter to the vice president. It amuses me, because that is not addressing the issue.

“Instead of addressing the issue, they started attacking the messenger.”

The way forward
Looking inward, CAFFAN tries to penetrate, expand and develop the local market, which Oloye describes as slow but responding.

He said: “It is good to export because of the exchange rates. But satisfying our local market is a big task. And the problem is that infrastructures are not available. If I should move my live fish to Sokoto, I would have to change water along the road. Who does this for me? The government should provide the facilities and I should pay for the service.

“But here you are on your own. The farmer in Nigeria is all in one. He is the farmer, the marketer, the accountant and the veterinary doctor. It is not supposed to be.”

As a self-help, Oloye said the association had been educating most farmers to add value by smoking their fishes to elongate shelf life, and avoid flooding the market with fresh fish, which, most of the times, creates gluts.

“What we are doing as a group is to build the association to a formidable level. Most of the farmers are not educated. But we are getting there because more educated farmers are getting involved in the business now,” he said.

The Director Babatunde acknowledged that many farmers have been affected, and that the industry is going through a demand and supply-induced stress.

He added that staff members of the ministry who are equally fish farmers and processors are affected too, and that very soon, the crisis would be resolved.

He disclosed that as of Friday morning, the department had sent a letter of reminder to the US department so that the business door could be re-opened.