Nigeria’s fledgling food export business was dealt a serious blow last year when the EU put a ban on beans imports - after over four times the acceptable amount of pesticide residue was detected. This comes after a previous ban on melon seeds for unacceptable levels of aflatoxin.
The EU placed this sanction because within two years, more than 50 shipments from Nigeria were rejected at the EU border. The temporary ban which was meant to be lifted in June 2016 was extended by an additional three years for failure by the Nigerian government to set up systems that will guarantee such problems do not reoccur.
The impact of this was not only huge revenue losses for the nation, but a ruined reputation internationally for other exported commodities. The story of Nigerian agriculture should serve as a lesson for African governments seeking to grow their agribusiness: they must not just focus on increasing their food production but on creating quality products that can compete globally.
Today, as major African economies struggle due to plummeting revenue from natural resources such as oil, gold and coal; the argument for a diversified economy and food security has incited an increased donor, government and private sector interest in investing into agri-business. Also, with agriculture currently employing more than half of the labour force in Africa and a projected global population growth to more than 10 billion by 2050, some investors talk of the potential for Africa to feed the world.
However, despite this increased investment, the food industry in most Africa nations has yet to maximise its potential. Like every other industry, to maximise our returns on investment, we must meet international standards. Until we do, we will be hobbled as a continent by trade bans and the low pricing of our food exports.
To build a competitive agricultural sector, lessons can be learned from countries in South America who have committed themselves to providing the world with quality food products. For example, Uruguay is known for premium beef exports which accounts for more than 1.6 of every 10 items exported from the country. They knocked their competition (Argentina and Brazil, which both have a larger capacity) out of the game, to gain the EU, US, and Chinese markets. This feat did not come cheap; it took decades of branding, food safety and quality reforms, and investment.
In fact, in 2014 Uruguay was the only country in the world with a fully computerised traceability system that allowed consumers to know precisely where their beef comes from and how it was raised. This system ensures cattle farmers are held accountable as unwholesome products can be traced back to their farms. Setting up this system cost their government over $70 million, but it gained them a reputation as the world's foremost producer of quality beef and revenues of over $1.6 billion annually.
What we must learn from Uruguay is that a critical step in scaling up investment in food production and making it more profitable is ‘branding’ Africa’s agriculture. To do that, we must integrate food safety management systems from the farm to table and we must make it seen by consumers. Until we do, with the current reputation for substandard products, the value of our produce will remain below market price.
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To be sure, beyond the economics, there is also a vital health rationale for food safety. It is the right of every citizen to have access to safe food, hence a moral duty of their government. It is especially important that we do not have double standards for the quality of the food that is exported and what is consumed within the continent.
Implementing food safety regulations in Africa will take time, and is further limited by the large informal sector. Therefore, as part of our strategy to increase food production, cultivation and processing practices must conform to global standards. This will involve controlling access to and enforcing appropriate use of pesticides, fertilisers, antibiotics and other farm inputs. It also requires a focus on proper postharvest handling to reduce contaminants and spoilage, and proper inspection at the point of export. Farmers and prospective exporters should also be adequately educated on international standards and the health and economic implications of poor practices.
For example, it might be necessary to provide small-scale farmers, agro-collection/storage centres and food inspectors with affordable handheld chemical detecting devices that allow rapid tests for pesticide residues without needing to send samples to a laboratory. Similar to Uruguay, these rapid tests will encourage accountability, where products from uncooperative farmers can be promptly rejected if they are unsafe.
This campaign to improve our food quality will need the help of agriculture extension workers and the private sector. As a lead consultant at a food system advisory firm, I am playing my part in building the quality control capacity of entrepreneurs in agriculture. I have learnt that we must equip food businesses with the right information; and that mentoring on standards improves their product quality. This sets an example of how the private sector can be involved in developing an agribusiness that consistently produces quality products. Further, lessons can be learnt from several initiatives introduced by the European Union to build the food safety capacity of developing countries. We must take advantage of all those who can help us to improve our agriculture.
Invariably, Africa’s potential to securely feed itself, the world and gain huge returns on its agribusiness will depend significantly on a commitment to improve food quality. Across Africa, we should seek to emulate Uruguay’s adherence to quality rather than the cautionary tale of Nigeria. The first step on this path is to focus on creating a brand that meets the trade conditions that govern global food export.