The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development, Chief Audu Ogbeh, speaks on the alleged rejection of Nigerian yams by the United States as well as other industry concerns in this interview with Newsmen.
Were Nigerian yams rejected by the United States or United Kingdom?
The report in which a man in the US was quoted to have said Ogbeh was wrong because Nigerian yams were not rejected is somehow funny. I never said the yams were rejected; it was a broadcast television station that said so. I didn’t say so. I was pushing for yam export and so why would I be the one to go and announce that they were rejected? They were not. The broadcast television station followed the gentleman (yam exporter) to his warehouse in London, if the yams were rejected why were they in his warehouse? When they got to the ports, the yams stayed too long there and so some got spoilt. The spoilt ones were taken away and the good ones were sold from the man’s warehouse, but the broadcast television station preferred to tell the whole world that the programme was a failure. The annoying part is that they think they’re getting at me but that was stupid. From the very beginning, when people said how are we going to export yams, I asked them, what do they propose Nigeria is exporting? Oil and gas is on its way out, do they want us to sit here and be dirtying away with politics?
Are you saying the yam export’s rejection broadcast was political?
Of course, it is politics. First of all, they lied. Ade, the guy in London, said the yams were not rejected; rather, the bad ones were taken out. Each time you send yams out, some will always spoil, unless they are in a refrigerated container. But as long as they are not, a few will spoil and they will remove these ones and take the rest. That’s all! Secondly, I am not an exporter; we are only a ministry of agriculture helping those who want to export as we should because Nigeria needs to export something else other than oil and gas. Three, even if something went wrong with one consignment, that doesn’t mean we will stop, we won’t. Since the issue was raised, containers of yams have been leaving Nigeria to Canada and some to Europe. From Enugu, they even flew a consignment of yams. This happened recently and the guy was in my office the other day. They flew the yams, using a cargo plane. So it is wrong to say Europe and US rejected Nigerian yams. The man from the US, who took the yams to America, said nothing of such ever happened. He was in my office and he stated that the Americans only wanted just one certificate, which he showed them and took the yams to his store.
You recently announced that the British government will be visiting Nigeria on matters regarding commodity export. Can you expatiate on this?
We are inviting them, their Department of Trade. We are inviting them because Nigerian exporters need to hear from them what their standards are. This is because we too are not always very disciplined. If you tell somebody to do it this way, he will refuse on the grounds that people will not see his shortcomings. Then, he does one pack and fill up the other pack with junk. When it gets there, they reject it and the whole country gets embarrassed. So, let the exporters hear from the United Kingdom government officials; they will tell our exporters what the UK wants and if you meet their standard, there is no quarrel. When we talk, people always think they can do otherwise because we are Nigerians and don’t follow rules. This is why you hear about corruption because we don’t follow rules. Haven’t you been in traffic before and seen people turn and drive in the opposite direction and many times some of them even get angry that the cars on the right lane are not stopping for them. Now, whose fault is that, the fault of government?
Has Nigeria been embarrassed in any way as a result of the rejection of any of its exported commodities?
In fact, why publish or broadcast the story of yam rejection when it is a lie? Secondly, you are spoiling the Nigerian market, people will now start to think that Nigerian yams are rotten. So, the story embarrassed Nigeria, not just the exporter of the product, who, of course, faulted the report. It embarrassed Nigeria and it is like when they arrest a Nigerian and jail him for drugs, Nigeria is embarrassed. This is because they will carry his passport, which is his identity, and make it public. In that case, he has succeeded in bringing shame to his people. On the yam export issue, the rejection story was not true because our yams were not rejected. The reporter, who travelled to London, saw the yams and reported about them in the exporter’s warehouse. So, if they were rejected, how did they get to the warehouse? I sat down with the exporter, by name Ade, and he was very angry. He told me he didn’t know the journalist was at his warehouse to play politics and that he will never talk to the media crew again. He (the exporter) now says he can’t trust any media person again because what they did to him was wrong. Sometimes, people carry politics too far and I think they must learn to stop playing politics with our yam export programme.
Is government going to pause a little to, perhaps, review the yam export policy before allowing Nigerians to continue with exports?
We are going full blast ahead and we will go on until we become number one in the world because we are the biggest producers of yams. We can satisfy the world market and satisfy ours as well. Secondly, Nigerians out there have a right to eat the food that they are familiar with. How many Nigerians are in London, maybe a million or two million? Do you know the number of Nigerians in Texas, New York, Canada? They are many. Also, the export of yams will earn us some foreign exchange as a country.
There are concerns that exporters are cutting corners with respect to what they send out of Nigeria. Is this true?
No, they didn’t cut corners. There were delays in shipment as of when we started the export. There were not enough cold room facilities and that was what we discussed with exporters. We will continue doing the business and will push for its adequate expansion. This is another reason why I told you earlier that we have a team coming from the UK to sit down with us and discuss export possibilities. I was there some days ago and they said their food market is £30bn and Nigeria is taking just £15m and they were wondering what we are doing. There is no reason why we can’t take 10 per cent. If they need things from us and we can produce these things according to their standard, what are we waiting for? We are still waiting on oil and gas, whereas the world has given us enough notice. If, like typical blacks, we refuse to look at the future, then we shouldn’t blame God by excessive prayers because God is very busy.
Also, I’ll like to state that the UK team that is coming to Nigeria is not specifically coming as a result of yams, but it’s to hold discussions on all exports. They are going to come here; spend like a week or more, until we sit down with Nigerian exporters and they hear from the UK authorities how they want these things brought into their country. Then, whoever fails to meet the standards shouldn’t blame anybody. But we also don’t want Nigeria being embarrassed out there by people who are in a hurry to send things without meeting standards. Those are serious issues which I alone can’t check.
What are you doing to address the cold storage facilities for the yams that are to be exported?
We are talking; there is a manufacturer now, we have seen his papers. He may be installing air conditioned rooms both at the ports and at the farms and in many centres where these things are produced to keep them fresh and to have them packaged properly according to the demand standards in Europe. Once that is done, the Europeans will have no quarrel. The Americans, Canadians and others are looking for yams, at least the large Nigerian population abroad. So we are absolutely not regretting the yam export exercise, and please, pass on the news to those who live on the social media, that the harder they try, the stronger I get.
What would you say about concerns that once Nigeria begins full export of yams, there might be shortfall in domestic supply?
My response to that is grow more yams. There is a market, satisfy it. But expressing fear that if you export, you will run out of yams is not real, after all, 30 per cent of the yams we grow in Nigeria rot away at the end of every year because we don’t have storage for yams. So, why don’t we sell them by exporting the commodities and make income in foreign exchange? Besides, we have just developed a ploughing machine that makes yam heaps. When I came onboard as minister, I asked them to design it because the idea has been in my head since 1981. Now, we’ve made a machine, pull it with a tractor in order to make yam heaps. The world market for yam is about $12bn, so why are we ashamed of getting involved? Later, people, who have money, can now go into yam flour business using improved technology, but that will come later. There is a huge market for yam and if we earn $2bn or $3bn as the largest yam producer in the world, won’t it impact our reserves positively?
There is also market for cassava, sesame seeds, banana, pineapple, avocado, pear, shea butter, mango, coconut oil, goat meat and many more. The market for agric commodities is huge but we are not taking advantage of it. However, the answer is not for us to satisfy some local politics to destroy our efforts just because we want to score a point. This is a message we want you to pass across to Nigerians.
Aside from the yam issue, what are some of your plans for agriculture in Nigeria?
Two clear plans: first is to stabilise ourselves in our staples like rice, wheat, millet, sorghum, maize and perhaps, cassava. The next stage is to process and add value to their commodities, cut down the cost of production and then export. The export process will also help in job creation. India and China are waiting for Nigerian producers of sesame seeds, lentils, pulses, bananas, pineapples, avocado, pears; they are looking for them. The problem is not with them but with us and if we have that chance, we must export, because the question is that in 10 years time, where will the foreign exchange that we will use for our imports come from? As you and I know, we love importation of foreign goods, but if we can’t export enough, the naira will fall to about N800 or N1,000 to one dollar.