We must patronize ‘Made in Nigeria’ products to grow our economy
Chief Eric Umeofia, the Chief Executive Officer of Erisco Foods Limited, a wholly indigenous food products manufacturer has over the years contributed his quota positively to the development of this country and made a positive statement as ‘The King of Tomato’. The restless entrepreneur spoke on the Focus of a CEO and described as wicked and false the rumour that indigenous tomato manufacturers are responsible for the high cost and scarcity of fresh tomatoes in the country in this interview with Nnamdi Nwokolo.
WHAT is responsible for the current scarcity of fresh tomatoes in the market?
There is actually, scarcity of fresh tomatoes and a resultant high cost of the products in the market. Naturally, this is the off-season for fresh tomatoes harvest in Nigeria but most tomato farms were attacked by a parasitic moth known as “Tuta Absoluta” or heat waves in common parlance, which killed most of the fresh tomatoes across the tomato-producing belt in Northern Nigeria. The loss of over 75% of fresh tomatoes harvested last season by farmers also discouraged many tomato farmers this year as well as the refusal of the relevant Ministries to support local farmers and manufacturers. When something happens, I try to critically analyse the root cause. For example, five years ago, I notified the Manufacturers Association of Nigeria that there’s no justification for us to continue to allow the importation of tomato paste in the country giving the arable land God has blessed us with. I further advised that there’s need for us to pool resources together and invest in the bigger tomato refinery for the good of our country. Surprisingly, one of the representatives of the Indian company and the President of MAN at the time were of the opinion that nobody is interested in investing in boko-haram infested region as their interest is in continued importation of tomato paste in the country. What has brought us to this situation is the inability of officials in relevant Ministries to support local farmers to switch to high yield and heat resistant tomato seed variety. It is wicked and false to attribute the high cost and scarcity of fresh tomatoes in the country to indigenous tomato manufacturers.
Don’t you think the scarcity has shown that we are yet to attain self-sufficiency in tomato production?
I’ll ask you a question; will you drink acid because there’s shortage of water? The answer is simply no. The previous government failed to support tomato farmers and processors with inputs and high yield tomato seeds which would’ve survived the ravaging ‘tuta absoluta’. We have the capacity to produce raw materials for the products if government supports our efforts. It will interest you to know that China plants tomato once annually while we plant twice, so we have the potential of not just attaining self-sufficiency but the ability of exporting tomatoes to the whole world. The biggest challenge to attaining self-sufficiency in tomato production is the activities of unscrupulous importers who bring in different types of substandard products in the country. I discovered that India and China are the highest exporter of tomato to Nigeria, but what they ship to Nigeria is of lesser quality from what is consumed in their countries. I reported my findings to NAFDAC who in turn did their research and came with the finding that 91.2% of tomato pastes in the country are substandard.
What can be done to forestall future occurrence of the menace?
We have advocated and advised past administrations to out rightly ban the importation of tomato paste in the country so that we can attain self-sufficiency in tomato production and even export tomato paste from Nigeria, but none of them listened to what we were saying. Our entry into the industry was to change the face of tomato farming in Nigeria by introducing high-yield and heat-resistant seeds. This would enable us to have tomato in abundance and we can process, package and export to other countries to boost our economy. To forestall future occurrence, we need to support the farmers and the manufacturers with low-interest rate loans and access to foreign exchange to enable them import machineries and inputs. We have less than 90 days to respond to the issue of tomato scarcity in the country, if not, next year will be worse. This is because the next planting season will start in three months time, so we need to start making arrangements to get the high breed seedlings that can withstand the heat waves so as to prevent this scarcity next year. The government should engage indigenous Manufacturers of tomato paste to find out the best available option out of this tomato imbroglio. It is important to state here that no foreigner can love or develop this country more than us. The interest of these importers is to make profit whereas the interest of manufacturers is to contribute towards economic development. If we completely jettison the importation of tomato paste in the country, believe me, with government support, we can attain self sufficiency in tomato production and processing in the next couple of years.
On the role of regulatory agencies:
Regulatory agencies should be strengthened to be able to stand the pressure of these importers. Over the years we have been at the forefront of the protest against importation of substandard food products in the country until NAFDAC itself conducted a test on imported tomato paste which revealed that 91.2% of tomato paste products imported from China are substandard; the question to ask is; what has NAFDAC done about their findings? Rather than shutting them down, they opted for negotiations, do you negotiate with criminals who are hell bent on destroying our economy and killing our people. I urge the government to stop giving monetary targets to regulatory agencies to make them stronger in the fight against substandard products.
Is the craving for foreign products a result of having better quality?
Erisco Foods Tomato paste brands were developed, tested and proven to be of better quality than all the foreign products in the country; it is in the market for anyone who wants to check. Our products have been tested and confirmed of being of high quality and standards. Since the beginning of my call for the banning of importation of tomato paste in the country, many people have started investing in the industry. This is the right time to ban the importation of tomato paste so that we can look inwards and develop the industry for our good and the good of the country. China knows that if we get our tomato right, they are finished and they are doing everything to frustrate patriotic Nigerians who are canvassing for local production of tomato paste in the country. We spend over one billion dollars in importation of tomato paste in the country, think of what will be of the economy, if such money is injected into local farming and processing of tomatoes. The attendant benefits include more jobs will be created for the economy, the pressure on FOREX will reduce and our economy will be better for it. We have much potential to make this country great within two years using agriculture alone.
What are your projections in the next five years?
We revolutionised the tomato industry by using 100% tomato fresh to produce all our brands. We were elated to have Her Excellency, The wife of the President, Hajiya Aisha Muhammadu Buhari commission that project early this year. It will interest you to know that through research, we have developed high yielding tomato seeds and by next season all the tomatoes we will be using will come directly from our farms. To be honest with you and without sounding immodest, if government bans the importation of tomato paste into this country, Erisco Foods Limited has the capacity to absorb all the employees that might be affected. Our installed capacity is 450,000 metric tons per annum and with our expansion in Sokoto and other parts of the country, we will be hitting one million metric tons in the coming year.
What drives you?
The driving force is to contribute my quota to national development. I have thriving businesses globally and the profits are ploughed back to subsidise the operations of Erisco Foods Limited. This is because of my commitment to make Nigeria a better place for all. Why I’m on this war path with importers is that apart from the low quality and the health implications of their products, and the flooding of the market with cheap and deadly alternatives, they stifle indigenous manufacturers forcing them to stop production. The attendant implication is that thousands of Nigerians are thrown into unemployment. Meanwhile, the shortage of tomato being experienced in Nigeria currently is a welcome development as it will generate high demand of the commodity and encourage people to begin tomato farming. I urge the Federal government and relevant authorities to give their undivided support to indigenous manufacturers like Erisco Foods Limited and other farmers in order to bring the situation under control and help Nigeria achieve the change objective of the present administration.