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New Tomato Policy: Enforcement as litmus test

 
Nigerian News Update » Nigerian Newspapers
Punch Newspaper
 
 
 
In the spirit of giving honour to whom honour is due, I hereby congratulate President Muhammadu Buhari and his economic team for the recent announcement of what we now know as the New Tomato Policy.

While declaring it as part of this administration’s National Industrial Revolution Plan, the Minister of Industry, Trade and Investment, Dr Okechukwu Enelama, said it was in line with its objective of boosting tomato production, improving the value chain and attracting investment. The policy is to be implemented in collaboration with the Federal Ministries of Agriculture and Rural Development, Finance, and Water Resources; and the Central Bank of Nigeria, Bank of Industry and the National Food and Drugs Administration and Control.

In a nutshell, the new policy will encourage local production of tomato vegetable and tomato concentrate for tomato paste-manufacturing and discourage the importation of tomato concentrate into the country as tariff is increased by 50 per cent. This is targeted at increasing local production of fresh tomato fruit required for fresh fruit consumption and processing; increase local production of tomato concentrate and reduce post-harvest losses. When properly implemented, the policy is expected to curb 40 per cent wastage and create 60,000 direct jobs.

Considering that this particular tomato brouhaha has plagued Nigeria in recent times, I concur that the Nigerian government is on the right track. Last year, Nigerians woke up to a new phrase in our national lexicon: Tomato Ebola. This plague nearly wiped out the vegetable from the kitchens of most citizens. It made tomato so scarce that what was usually considered a must-see in the stew pot of the poor (meat or no meat), became an elite menu feature.

The interesting – and ironical – aspect of the tomato disease and scarcity was that it was actually caused by tomato glut. What happened was that tomato farmers experienced a very bountiful harvest the previous year, and because neither the government nor the farmers had any strategy to mop up excess harvest from the mostly rural areas, tomato wasted in their thousands of tonnes. The hapless farmers watched as their sweat and investments wasted away. Baskets of tomatoes were sold for peanuts; while others were left to perish along the roads, in the barns and in the farms.

Farmers, being who they are, moved away from tomato farming in droves, when they became convinced that it was no longer profitable. Therefore, during the next harvest, there was perceptibly small harvest made by the few farmers still in the business. And, because the harvest was small, when the tomato plague came upon the vegetables, the whole nation noticed. We must note that this was not the first time that farmers had witnessed the tomato disease.

The point I am trying to make is that local production of fresh tomato needed a concrete government policy for its growth. This is what I hope the new tomato policy will do.

To further explain, the producers of fresh tomato, who are almost always rural farmers, cannot solely depend on retailers and family users to grow their agro business. Just like in other industrialised countries, they would need agro-based processing and manufacturing industries to buy up their produce in large quantities so that they would be able to have not only capital, but also incentives for scale up of their production.

For instance, last year, a particular indigenous tomato paste manufacturer threatened to take his business out of the country. He said that the policy environment in Nigeria was not conducive to local tomato paste makers; but only encouraged importers of the products.

Now, this local manufacturer depended on rural farmers to supply him with his raw materials for tomato paste production. They sold him fresh tomato, and in turn they got cash to continue their farming. They would never bother whether their harvest was excess, or that they lacked modern storage equipment; because they already have a ready off-taker in the person of Erisco.

So, with the government’s new Tomato Policy, local tomato paste makers shall remain in the country to produce. They would in turn employ Nigerians to work in their factories and marketing firms, thereby taking the unemployed off the streets. This is how the government hopes to create the much touted 60,000 direct jobs through this new policy.

However, before we are carried away by the yet-to-be-materialised plans of the Federal Government, let us tell ourselves the hard truth. Nigeria is not lacking in good ideas, policies and master plans; the problem lies in their effective and efficient implementation. The New Tomato Policy has all the potential to be the first policy-driven arrow to hit “recession and underdevelopment” at its head and set the pace for liberating Nigeria from the shackles of dependency and food insecurity.

On the other hand, if the policy fails to hit its target, it will open the floodgates of a new kind of corruption and decadence, while attracting global ridicule to the government and its people. The good thing is that Nigerians can easily know when the policy is going off-the-path. The litmus test of the policy is in its enforcement. I choose not to use the word, implementation.

This new policy needs to be enforced at an inter-ministerial level, supervised by the Presidency, because there is an aspect of economic sabotage involved in the problem which gave rise to the crafting of the policy in the first place.

We should never assume that because of the new policy, the international businessmen and their local collaborators who had been making billions from tomato paste importation shall clap for the government and pull out from the country. No. They shall do either of, or both things: Try to scuttle the policy, or try to weaken its implementation.

In other words, a new level of sabotage begins from now!

This is why the Federal Government, in my view, should go beyond its already laid down scope of implementation. It should raise a Task Force for the Enforcement of the New Tomato Policy. The task force shall include the Ministry of the Interior, the customs, immigration, police, and proven indigenous private sector players in the tomato concentrate and paste manufacturing industry. They shall join the already existing implementing entities – Ministries of Agriculture, Water Resources, Industry, Trade and Investment, and Finance; and BOI and NAFDAC.

Secondly, and most importantly, the Federal Government must stay true to its idea of the National Industrial Revolution Plan by ensuring that the tomato paste industries in Nigeria are supported. They should be helped with foreign exchange for procuring machinery for their factories. This is because if they are left without access to forex, there is no way they would be competitive in the global market. Their cost of production would still be as high as ever, thereby making it possible for importers to still have an edge over them in the Nigerian market.

Furthermore, our country has the potential to be a regional leader in tomato farming and processing, if only a strong linkage is made not only between the government and the private sector players, but also between the crop and seed research institutes and the tomato industries. Therefore, the policy is not enough until it also involves the research sector – both privately driven and government owned.
 
 
 
 
 
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