A statement recently credited to President Muhammadu Buhari that the nation’s food and dairy products’ imports are too high has restated the danger Nigeria continually faces in over-reliance on foreign goods to feed its growing population.
The Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) had last year stopped the sale of dollars for a list of 40 items, including rice, cement, margarine, eggs, turkey and tomato paste, in order to conserve foreign exchange reserves, as well as facilitate the resuscitation of domestic industries and improve employment generation in the country.
Some stakeholders had argued that denying importers of the prohibited items foreign exchange was a death-knell on the nation’s gross domestic product (GDP), as well as on the drive to create jobs.
Others justified the forex squeeze on the importers on the premise that Nigeria actually has the capacity to produce some of the products being imported through a quantum of foreign exchange sourced from the CBN.
One of the products affected by the forex squeeze is tomato paste. Nigeria is said to be importing 65,809 tonnes per year of processed tomato worth over N11.7 billion pdespite its massive production in-country.
Nigeria is also ranked the second largest producer of tomatoes in Africa and 13th in the world with total production estimated at one million hectares of land producing 1.701 million tonnes per annum and average of 20-30 tonnes per hectare.
But the country is the largest importer of tomato paste from China and Italy, with potential health implications to Nigerians.
Dangote Group has started building a 2,500 tonne capacity tomato paste processing plant in Kano to narrow this inherent deficiency.
But Nigeria’s porous borders and the poor capacity of Nigerian consumers to distinguish between quality and non-quality tomato paste products are the biggest factors hindering the success of indigenous tomato paste industry.
Investigations revealed that there are warehouses in Seme and Cotonou in neighbouring Benin Republic packed with imported tomato paste brands like Super Mum, Leya, Toma, Gino, Bonjour, Fam Stew and others which are ready to serve then Nigerian market at the expense of indigenous brands like Vitali, Ric-Giko and Sonia.
It was also gathered that the measure used by most consumers to pick their preferred tomato brand is the degree of thickness and redness of the paste.
The National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control (NAFDAC) recently did a survey of 85 tomato paste brands sold in the country which revealed that those imported from China were clearly below international and Nigerian standards and specifications
The agency said its officials recently visited 27 main markets and four major supermarkets around Lagos and picked 330 samples of tomato pastes for laboratory analysis.
It said the results showed that of the 314 released, 286 of the pastes originating from China, representing 91.1 percent, were found unsatisfactory in terms of tomato content, adding that only 28 returned satisfactory, though both satisfactory and unsatisfactory tomato pastes had the same red colour.
“The red colour in most of the tomato pastes imported into Nigeria indicates an addition of colorant, which is prohibited, is dangerous to health and shows that Chinese companies are merely adding colour, rather than the raw material called concentrates, into tomato paste imported into Nigeria. The colouring sticks to veins, arteries and vital organs and accumulates to cause cancer, hypertension and other diseases,” the agency said.
Another survey revealed that most of the imported tomato pastes do not contain lycopene, radical-fighting antioxidants, an action that exposes Nigerians to cancer and other deadly diseases.
NAFDAC has, therefore, advocated the need for aggressive education of Nigerians against the patronage of sub-standard imported tomato pastes.
At the recent unveiling of Erisco Foods Ltd’s tomato processing plant in Lagos, the wife of the president, Aisha Buhari, said it was imperative that regulatory agencies should protect local manufacturers of tomato pastes.
“I think we have imported enough. We have to change the culture of importing things that we can produce locally. This is part of the change we are talking about that must happen in this country. Local food manufacturers have to be encouraged to grow, as that is the only way to create employment for the young people and help farmers to benefit more from their labour. Nigerians must also patronise local companies and their products,” she said.
The Chief Executive Officer of Erisco Foods, Chief Eric Umeofia, also said consumers must support local manufacturers to grow, as well as ward off importers whose interest is not genuine enough.
“We have huge stocks of finished products worth billions of naira in our warehouses which we are not selling due to dumping of these dangerous and substandard brands of tomato pastes from China, which are cheap and filled with starch and colours,” he said.
Umeofia added that the 45,000 metric tonnes per year capacity plant the company unveiled in Lagos recently was in line with Erisco Foods’ revolution in tomato paste production, which he said would stop the annual wastage of tomatoes across Nigeria.
Already, Senate president Bukola Saraki has said the upper chamber has urged the government to employ legislative actions and policy initiatives to protect local industries as a deliberate way of reviving the nation’s economy.
The Senate, Saraki said, was determined to amend the procurement law to ensure that government agencies patronise made-in-Nigeria products.
Stakeholders in the sector believe that the growth of local production on tomato pastes would improve the nation’s economy, reduce the incidence of high health risk due to the consumption of uncertified imported paste, save the nation huge foreign exchange expended on importation of tomato pastes and create more job opportunities for Nigerians.
They also said indigenous manufacturers of tomato paste should up their game by giving Nigerians quality products that can stand the test of time and discourage the consumption of foreign-made ones.
Besides, the incumbent government, they advised, has a crucial role to play in creating an enabling environment for indigenous manufacturers to thrive.