Economic Case for Exporting Nigerian Food

I would like to crave the readers’ indulgence to introduce upfront the three motivating factors for this article which are: the recent ban on export of some Nigerian food items to Europe by the European Union (EU) which has negative implications for non oil export earnings; the fact that Nigeria has refrained from signing off on the slavish European Economic Pact (EPA) which our former slave masters consider offensive; and the dramatic crash in the international price of oil/gas which has put Nigerian economy on the verge of descending into recession and the need for Nigeria to expand her foreign exchange base to agriculture and food export trade from Nigeria.

Having stated the premise of this presentation, let me quickly focus our minds on some interesting statistics about the potentials of food export entrepreneurship.

Records have it that about 45 million African Americans live in the United States of America. That is about 14 percent of the population of the biggest economy in the world and with African American purchasing power of about one trillion dollars ($1,000,000,000,000), the market for yams, fufu, cassava, garri and palm oil plus African soup condiments like pepper, okra, melon seed etc can not be over emphasized .
If you add the equally burgeoning size of Africans in Canada to the number in the USA, then you see a potential ‘gold mine’ in food export business  waiting to be tapped.

Beyond the Americas, Africans also abound in reasonable population size in the Caribbean and therefore a veritable market for Nigerian food export too.

Europe is another remarkable home to a large chunk of African population due to colonial affinity and therefore a vital market .
The European market’s attractiveness  is reflected particularly in the UK where Nigerians of mixed parentage have risen to the top echelon of the political architecture. Amongst many others, George Ummuna, a member of the shadow parliament who recently narrowly missed being elected chairman of the Labour Party.

The critical mass of Africans present in Europe estimated by the BBC to be about 4.6 million in 2007 (Immigration Policy Institute actually believes they are about 7-8 million) is in part due to the close proximity of the two continents and of course owing to the fact that Europe colonized Africa over a long period of time after the deal to partition Africa amongst European countries was sealed during the Berlin, Germany conference of 1822.

At that time, Europe and the rest of the advanced societies needed Africa’s natural resources and manpower to grow their economies and they had to devise a hook or crook method of having their way.

Some pundits would argue that the slave traders connived with willing African chiefs to ignite inter tribal wars that led to capturing of our progenitors for enslavement and conversion into forced laborers in plantations in Europe and then new found land, now USA.

Over the years and with the advent of industrial revolution in Europe which entails less reliance on man and more on machine in the 1930s, the Africans who had been drawn by forces of demand and supply into the labor force remained in Europe, having been assimilated and thus began raising families which boosted African  population over there.

Although, these Africans in diasporas have broadly imbibed western cultures such as European and American lifestyles, their craving for African identity as reflected in African food has been undying.

That demand has remained largely unmet as there has not been any conscious efforts by Nigerian authorities or the private sector to promote Nigerian food abroad.

The Chinese introduced Chinese food restaurants and the rest of Asia presented noodles to the world; the Italians made pizza popular globally and the English are famous for fish and chips while the French are renown for the French toast and cheese just as nobody can ignore American burgers.

Apart from the Western world, the Indians have put their curry on the global stage and Lebanese food especially humus and sharwarma from the Arab stable are widely accepted as snacks internationally.

For lack of a better nomenclature, l would like to refer to the introduction of foods from the different countries and races catalogued above into the global palette as the Food Race- mimicking human race. At this juncture,the question that would agitate the mind of any keen reader is: where is Africa in the Food Race and indeed, where is Nigeria?

According to HORIZON 2020,(a European Union Framework Programme for Research and Innovation) Benin Republic, Cameroun,Egypt,Madagascar, Senegal, Ghana and South Africa  are collaborating with AFTER  which is acronym for African Food Tradition Revisited by Research-to improve 10 foods and drinks from Africa based on local knowledge in Europe.

Unlike the aforementioned countries, Nigeria, the acclaimed giant of Africa has not officially done much to extend some of her exciting food and drinks ensemble to her diaspora population.

Yes, there has been private sector efforts in trying to extend Nigerian cuisine overseas, which can’t be discountenanced because l’m aware of efforts made by some local food retailers like Sweet Sensation, Mama Cass and Tastee to establish restaurants in London, UK but the concept has not flourished.

Nevertheless , when you visit most cities in the world, you would almost certainly find a Nigerian kitchen(as opposed to high brow restaurants) serving piping hot fufu, amala,tuwo with bitter leaf, ewedu and Mia kuka soups.

In Washington DC, for instance, there is an area called Adams Morgan featuring a long array of restaurants serving African cuisines, including Nigerian. From Maryland, Atlanta, Houston to Miami and Los Angeles, Nigerian restaurants abound but usually not in organized fashion like the Chinese, English or Indian.

On one occasion when l was staying in Beverly Hills hotel in Los Angeles, my friends and l ordered Nigerian meals from one of the many ‘bukaterias’ in the city. Jollof rice, semovita, okra soup, dodo(fried plantain) and moi-moi (bean pudding) were on the menu that was brought to us by a Nigerian food entrepreneur.

While we’re busy dishing for ourselves, one of our white guests unknowingly dished some Jollop rice, a bit of semovita, moi-moi and dodo into his plate. Before we knew it, he had a mouth full of a combination of the food he picked and commented that it was delicious before l promptly informed him that the combination was wrong. Perhaps he was being gratuitous or polite hence his complimentary comment, but the point is that a white foreigner was willing to give Nigerian food a try and he seemed to have liked it.

In this period of paucity of foreign exchange earning for Nigeria, owing to about 60 percent crash in international oil/gas price, is this not a wake up call for Nigerians to stretch their business acumen beyond oil/ gas trade to exportation of a vast array of Nigerian foods to a burgeoning African diasporas population?

Kenya with a similar climate to Jos in Plateau state, exports freshly cut flowers to Europe on a daily basis and generates huge FX from the trade. On a trip abroad on Virgin Nigeria (before its demise) a couple of years ago, the peanuts served on board was made in Ghana, not Nigeria. Most countries in Africa including those earlier listed are collaborators with the EU, (AFTER project-aimed at packaging African food and drinks for Europe) invest time and energy to export agricultural products but not so for Nigeria. Our policy makers probably don’t realize that, in international trade, according to World Trade Organization ,WTO, agriculture is the only sector that Africa and indeed Nigeria has comparative advantage, not oil/gas as most of us are wont to believe.

Michael Adeyeye, mayor of Brent, London and one of the three councillors in London, in company of the former Lord Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, on a visit to the immediate past governor of Lagos state, Babatunde Fashola, remarked that more than one million Nigerians live in London. Is that market size not huge enough for our food entrepreneurs to target?

With a population in excess of  170 million, one of every five Africans is believed to be a Nigerian, so we should be leading the pack in the export of African food to the diasporas.

More strikingly, five of the 250 banks in London are owned by Nigerians, so funding food export ventures between Nigeria and the UK should not be such a daunting funding challenge. It even gets better as Gatwick airport, the second most critically important airport in the UK, after Heathrow is partly owned by a Nigerian-former investment banker, Bayo Ogunlesi.

Apart from lack of posh African restaurants abroad, there are very paltry number of firms dedicated to African food supplies in Europe and the Americas. Amaka in Australia, Unidex in Holland and Yadco in Middlesex, England are the few that readily come to mind. Unsurprisingly, it is unlikely that any of these companies, except Amaka, which sounds like Igbo name, has roots in Nigeria.

Obfuscated by the stupendous wealth from oil/gas trade, agriculture and export of food overseas, in the past, were not considered viable by Nigerian merchants.

In the wake of the current economic dire straits that Nigerians are facing ,in terms of sourcing foreign exchange as the CBN restricts allocation to priority areas, and federal government renewed interest in the agricultural sector, there have been concerted efforts to export for survival.
However, as fascinating as the prospect of food export is, the recent European Food Safety Authority ban on export of certain food items from Nigeria (beans, sesame seed, melon seed, dried fish, peanut, palm oil and meat) due to the presence of the pesticide, Dichlorvos in excess of 00.1mg/kg which is the maximum level tolerable in Europe ,the chances of food export business booming soon has become bleak.

The pertinent question now would be: has the high rate of the offending chemical(00.3mg/kg been consistent or just a one off incident? If consistent, to which agency was the infraction reported, Nigeria Food and Drugs Administration and Control, NAFDAC, Standard Organization of Nigeria, SON or Nigeria Export Processing Council, NIPC? Given that Nigeria did not sign the Economic Partnership Agreement, EPA with Europe which is considered slavish, could there be any conspiracy to punish Nigerian food exporters as reprisal?

The answer to the foregoing questions are germane and would have significant bearing on how quickly the food export quagmire is resolved.
Paul Orhii, DG of NAFDAC, has reportedly blamed exporters for not complying with standards set but he did not disclose what sanctions he meted out to enforce the rules. Also, was the contravention brought to the attention of SON and did the DG, Joseph Odumodu, intervene? In the aftermath of the EU ban, Segun Awolowo, the CEO of NIPC, drew attention to the World Bank report indicating that the ban could result in a loss of about $6 billion exportable goods from Africa, so how can Nigeria prevent such a colossal loss at a time that we should be gathering income as opposed to scattering?

Can the policy of farm extension services by the Ministry of Agriculture not be extended to today’s farmers as it was done for cocoa, cotton, groundnut and palm oil in the good old days? Is it not about time that the relevant government agencies earlier mentioned collaborate to establish high tech laboratories and other quality control facilities that would enable self-management to ensure that optimum standards are maintained for products that are export bound?

Answers and solutions to these and many more such questions and issues are what Nigerians expect our legislative and executive arms of government to provide to enable Africans and indeed Nigerians in diaspora enjoy home food and feel like they are home-away-from-home. Taking advantage of the potential food market abroad will also enhance generation of foreign exchange  for Nigerian farmer entrepreneurs at home and in the process reduce dependence on oil/gas and CBN as source of foreign exchange.

Clearly, agriculture venture is the lowest hanging fruit for Africa and indeed Nigeria, so let’s get right.

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