Director-General Standards Organisation of Nigeria (SON) Dr. Joseph Ikemefuna Odumodu, in this interview with Festus Akanbiand Olaolu Olusina, blames the prevalence of substandard products in Nigeria on either a failed or a non-existent National Quality Policy
Having spent two years in the saddle, what will you describe as your achievements as DG of the Standards Organisation of Nigeria?
Generally, when I got into the job, the first thing we did was to create a baseline so that when you have interventions you will have to measure them and I can recall that the survey we did showed that on the average, about 80 to 85 percent of products in Nigeria were substandard at that time.
As far as I’m concerned, that was an epidemic level when compared with other countries. The statistics was clearly out of place. I recall, for example, in Egypt, the percentage of substandard products was 40, same in Kenya; South Africa was less than 30 percent, but here we are in that big bracket. We needed to bring down that number and within two years, we have been able to at least almost half the level of prevalence across the major segments of the market.
Apart from the baseline study, we also accessed some of the existing programmes that were in place such as MANCAP, and SONCAP. SONCAP is an offshoot of some quality assessment programmes which came in 2005 as a result of government’s concern about the influx of substandard products. So, government appointed three agencies abroad to test products coming into the country and that the certificate that is issued was to be used in clearing the products. But in Nigeria, you don’t make rule and go to sleep; if you do so, within one year, it will be turned upside down and people may even use it as an incentive to break the law.
At that time, we also found out that SONCAP was no longer very effective, of course the big companies were complying, testing their products before bringing them in and they were bringing in the same batches that were tested. But the small players were always playing games, taking small samples to the agencies for testing but they now go ahead and import different batches from the ones they tested. Definitely, there was a disconnection between what was tested and what was brought in. So, we also studied other programmes such as MANCAP.
MANCAP was basically looking at the end products. But we believe that what is more sustainable and acceptable is to look at the entire gamut of the processes involved in bringing about the final products. So, we looked at the processes, the personnel, and the equipment before the final product. We believed that if we get all these right, the end products would most likely meet all the required standards. There were other enforcement regimes but in addressing these issues, what we did was to look at three levels. The first one was how to ensure that only goods that are good would leave any country and come to Nigeria.
Second was that at the ports and borders, we made sure that the products were intercepted where they do not meet the required specifications and at the third level, we looked at the in-markets where we created market desks. In the markets, we now have SON staff that sit and give information to buyers in some of these markets because we are not yet in all the markets. Then they provide intelligent information to us regarding some of the products that are coming in and moving out of the markets and then provide feedback to management. Unfortunately, as we were doing this, half way, the federal government took a decision and moved us out of the ports, meaning that the intervention had to be shifted.
So, from October last year, we shifted that intervention and increased our activities at the warehouses and of course in the markets with improved emphasis on the consumers.
Why did you choose to focus on consumers, did you think you could stop importers of substandard products from reaching the end consumers?
This is because ultimately, if the consumers don’t take the products that are coming into Nigeria, it would have been a bad investment for whoever is bringing it because what we are doing is to protect the consumers. We also felt that educating the consumers and increasing awareness was also an issue, so these were some of the major interventions we have put in place which have given us some of the reports we have so far. Of course, there were some few specific market segments that we focus on; for example, today, the average Nigerian knows how long it takes a tyre to expire, and people are more informed on what to look out for to establish whether a tyre has expired or not. We even checked the level of awareness and we got almost 40 percent in the area of tyres even though it is still a problem with Nigerians taking action.
But on the average, we have succeeded in registering SON in the mind of average Nigerians; they now know what we stand for and what we do. And people are now aware that quality is paramount in ensuring that the environment and safety of lives is protected.
After initial activities in the past two years, what is going to be your focus going forward?
What we have done is like, in the treatment of malaria, we didn’t just treat but actually looked at the symptoms and the reason why we did that was because we were at an epidemic situation. We didn’t just want to apply the drugs but we had to tackle the cause of the malaria.
Now, that we are almost at par with other African countries, we are now about to do what we are supposed to do and it is important to stress that the prevalence of substandard products is a sign of either a failed or a non-existent National Quality Policy. Every country, normally, should have a National Quality Policy and a quality policy is about defining government’s role in ensuring that enterprise or industry is supported in ensuring that standards are the right ones. For example, if you set standards that are beyond the industries, you don’t expect that people would be able to buy those products because they would be too expensive.
So, you need to create a connection between government, industries and the consumers. Secondly, that we have a good level of metrology which is the science of measurement and there are three levels of metrology. The first level of metrology is what we call research metrology. We have standardised measures; when we look at the time and we say it’s 4pm, sometimes it is not 4pm but 3.59pm. This is not the exact time. But metrology is more exact, if they say the time is 3.59, it is 3.59 everywhere in the world. So metrology and research level ensures that the required standards are in place.
Then at the industrial level, it ensures that all the equipment that are used in the industry are calibrated using those standards to ensure that, for example, in the pharmaceuticals, when you say it’s one milligram, it’s actually one milligram. So that is the role that metrology plays but unfortunately, metrology is not yet well developed in Nigeria. So a National Quality Policy would ensure that metrology is in place.
The third level, of course, is called the legal or trade metrology where the measurement in the market, may be a cup or mudu, will actually be the same everywhere. But the challenge we have, in practical examples, is that most times when you go to the filling stations, and they dispense 20 litres of fuel, it’s not always 20 litres. And we keep challenging our colleagues who are in that industry that every time we checked, we discovered that the consumers are being short-changed. The legal or trade metrology also ensures that there is fair treatment and value for money for consumers. So, the other aspect is that government has a responsibility to ensure that the safety of health and the environment is protected through regulations and a National Quality Policy ensures that that should happen.
What about the issue of accreditation to ISO standards, can you talk on this?
There is also another level, which is accreditation using a particular type of judgment to ensure that people possess competence in a particular area. If for example, I accredit a laboratory to some ISO standards; it actually means that the laboratory can get the same result that any other laboratory in the world which is accredited to those same ISO standards will get when it does the same test. What that means also is that we connect to the world. Today, if you take a tuber of yam from Nigeria and want to export to Europe, they will reject it because of lack of a National Quality Policy infrastructure in Nigeria.
But if you take the same yam to a neighbouring country, like Ghana, they would take it because they already have a National Quality Policy infrastructure in place. So if you have that policy in place and you want to export yam to the United Kingdom for example, it is not every time that they have to test the pesticide level acceptable for human consumption, the herbicide level and so on.
I must also say that the fact that we don’t have a National Quality Policy does not remove the elements of that policy that we are already implementing. For example, the Hon. Minister of Trade and Investment has approved the setting up of a Nigerian National Accreditation Service (NINAS), which will now create an umbrella body for all laboratories in Nigeria.
NINAS would be in place and it would go and accredit all laboratories in the country whatever they are set up to test. And when such accredited laboratories issue any certificate of conformity, that certificate can stand anywhere in the world.
Are you saying we have accredited laboratories in Nigeria already?
Unfortunately, we do not have accredited laboratories in Nigeria today. And that is what we want to do in the next two years or so, to set up a national quality infrastructure and be sure that Nigeria can play at the international level in terms of ensuring that manufactured goods are exported and imported.
What then has been delaying the formulation of the National Quality Policy if it is that important as you have explained?
Relatively, we should have done it before now but we didn’t and now we want to do it because Nigeria wants to make progress in its manufactured exports. What the government is looking at is to address whatever could challenge us or act as impediments to us in achieving this aim as the level of manufactured exports in this country is almost zero. When people look at our manufactured goods outside, they say it’s inferior but actually, they may not be inferior. Even those goods that we take through the laboratories, it doesn’t mean that the laboratories can’t bring out the right results but our situation is like that of a smart student who has not taken the exams. Yes, you are smart, but you need to prove it by writing the exams. Yes, may be the National Quality Policy is a bit late in coming, but now we have embarked on the journey and within the next two years, that journey would have been a thing of the past. And I can tell you that it would change the whole quality infrastructure in Nigeria. This will surely reflect in changing the way people outside of this country perceive the goods produced here and the quality of goods imported into the country. The reason why some of these countries export substandard products here is because of our weak import regulatory frameworks but by the time we have accredited laboratories in Nigeria, people would not just dump substandard goods on us because they know that there is also competence in Nigeria to check the quality of the products that are coming in.
Specifically, what are the effects of your ejection from the ports given the successful campaign you have carried out in some sectors such as the tyre market and others? How has it affected your work?
What I will say is that it has given us more jobs and what we are able to do is to focus on warehouses and the consumers. This is because, at the end of the day, there are substandard products everywhere in the world. In US, in Britain and in all other parts of Europe, there are substandard products. The difference is the fact that the consumer over there is more aware and he is also ready to take action. The challenge we have here is that for most of the time, our consumers are not aware, they don’t care, and they don’t know they have the responsibility for their own health. For example, we were on an awareness campaign on used tyres. Although we were not arresting anybody but we stopped vehicles, to check their tyres and I remember a bus that was just loading with an old woman at the front seat. We discovered the front tyre of the bus had expired three years’ back and when I told the old woman that the tyre of the vehicle was not good and that it may cause an accident, she said to me, “My son don’t worry, we will pray and we will get to our destinations. So for her, it is about prayer and it doesn’t matter. The question is where do these substandard tyres come from? They come from Europe and America, where there are standards in place. Consumers are aware of the rules, even if you have not covered 4,000 kilometres, once you go for service, your mechanic will tell you your tyre has expired then you have to replace them. But all over the world, there is the challenge of how to dispose off used tyres. In Nigeria, we also have the challenge. For example, when I started this job, we seized over five million tyres at one haul in Ladipo market but what happened? I kept those tyres for six to eight months, thinking about what to do with them. Some people told me to throw them in the Atlantic Ocean, some said I should burn them; others said I should use a barge and throw them so that they become habitat for aquatic life. We couldn’t burn them because we know the environmental issue involved. But the point was because of the sheer size, I had to rent additional warehouse spaces and we were paying. So, at a time, we had to dispose them somehow and that is also why if you observe, I have not taken more action on that for now and the reason is if you get the tyres, what do you do with them? Where do you dispose them? I have been to some countries including Taiwan, South Korea, South Africa and others and we were trying to attract investment into tyre shredding. There are companies that shred tyres. The machine, which they demonstrated to us, separates the tyre into several components, the metal and the rubber. Everything is done in a neat manner. The metal goes into the steel industry and the rubber ones are used either for road construction or in the cement industry. I have also gone to cement factories and they have expressed their interest in buying the rubber component to generate energy in their plants.
If you want to set up a plant, there must be market. We also have to make projections for people who want to invest. We assured them that we will give them regular supply of tyres and that there are markets for bye products of the shredding.
Why is it that in spite of your activities, and those of the Nigerian Customs, Nigerian market is still replete with fake products smuggled across the border?
I think the point must be made that we have very weak regulatory framework coupled with the fact that we have extensive borders. Not all the borders are manned, so products will definitely come in and of course there is corruption. We can’t run away from the fact that there is corruption in Nigeria, sometimes; a camel can still pass through the eye of the needle. So, those are some of the issues.
That’s why the most effective intervention is at the level of the consumer. This year for instance, there will be a lot of activities in consumer engagement which is one of the six-point agenda that we have. And we have continued to stress that the agenda does not change. The six-point agenda still stands in terms of global relevance. National policy quality is a further step into globalising our relevance and the issue of capacity building, consumer engagement, media engagement, improving the competitiveness of Nigeria. Everything is tied together as a whole; it’s going to be an aggressive assessment regime.
You recently started another campaign, this time on lubricant sector, what are the challenges?
There is a multiplicity of problems within lubricant market but soon, we are holding a technical committee meeting and we are going to look at some of the standards. Some of the standards are no longer current. One of the challenges is the fact that people are bringing in processed lubricants. They were lubricants used before and cleaned up. The fact is that they do not have the same ability to withstand the pressure with genuine ones. One major challenge is how we can stop the road side people from selling base oil as lubricants. Most of these oil are base oil and some of them unprocessed. Unfortunately, an average Nigerian does not know the difference. Once they see what they call engine oil or lubricant, they use them. The job has started but I can tell you it can only work effectively when we collaborate with each of the players.
The players are divided, for example, there is a stakeholders meeting that is coming up in February but the one we held earlier, people were talking in different directions. Everyone wants to protect the business he is doing. I think the point I must make is that the supply chain must be cleaned out and this must involve every group, either those who bring in base oil or those who deal in lubricants because there are people who blend base oil and there are people who are distributing along the line. We must ensure that only a special kind of people is the ones bringing the base oil. We must ensure that those who are blending have the DPR licences to blend. In Kotangora, for example, we had to close some of the illegal blenders. What they do is to copy the major brands so when you see a product, for example with the name Mobil, you will think it is a Mobil product but it is not.
During a raid at a jetty on the island, we met one illegal blender faking Conoil. We stopped them and arrested everybody. We invited the original company to confirm whether the jetty was their plant and they confirmed it wasn’t their plant. There is only 1,500 staff in SON and so we also have our limitations in terms of reach because we are covering quite a wide mandate but luckily, there are other regulatory bodies in some areas like NAFDAC and NESREA. However, I think, now there is a structural approach to the job, we can only get better and improve the environment.
Can you give a progress report on product registration you flagged off recently?
We will launch it in one and a half weeks. It’s already in place, people can register but we are holding a stakeholders meeting in Lagos and all the major groups are invited. The reason why we are doing that is that we will need to create a data base.
We want to have a data base of all products that are offered for sale to average Nigerian in any market. We are doing that because I feel we are shortchanging the consumers. There is what they call product liability issue. Every product we manufacture must have been manufactured by somebody and somebody is selling it. If for any reason, that product causes harm, somebody must be liable either through insurance or whatever. But sometimes, we have challenges with even products that meet specifications, so it’s not just about substandard products. The fact is that every product must have somebody who made it and who is liable for any untoward effect on the consumers so the e- product registration makes life easier for everybody to be able to access so many websites and register his product and the process is such that when you get there, it asks you to provide, for instance your CAC registration, if you have bought a product it asks you to provide manufacturer agreement or a trademark and everything to show that either you are the owner or that you have a link as an agent to the manufacturers no matter where they are in the world and we will like to provide and collate all the details so that anytime there is a challenge, we will be able to determine who should be liable for any action. If we find a product that is bad in the market, we will be able to take the agent who is in Nigeria. We will also able to blacklist the manufacturer whenever he is and pass on the information to the country. We have signed some bilateral agreements with some countries now such that they have accepted that they will deal with their own manufacturers where they are seen to have sent articles that violate rights into our territory. By May ending, every product in the market that has not been registered and that does not have a code will be removed and destroyed. I said this because it is important to emphasise that even if one product is within specification and standard but has not been registered, by law, it has become substandard and it will be removed and destroyed.
What percentage of Nigerian manufactured goods is exported?
When we did a survey on the quality of products in Nigeria, we found out that only five percent of products made in Nigeria did not meet specifications. Most of the statistics of substandard products was contributed by imported products. We discovered that the five percent mark was not a result of deliberate adulteration. Some of them were as a result of mistakes in the manufacturing process which you can control over time. But why are Nigerian products not receiving ready markets abroad. One, there is the issue of lack of accreditation in Nigeria but more importantly also there is the issue of infrastructure in Nigeria. The issue of power, roads and others. Nigeria, at the last count is about 40 percent at a disadvantage. I’m actually quoting the Manufacturers Association of Nigeria’s numbers which says that if you want to manufacture a product in Nigeria and manufacture the same products in places like India, the cost in Nigeria will be about 50 percent higher. So how are you going to compete in international market when you have, one, a higher cost structure, and at the end of the day, those people also enjoy export incentives? This is what gave rise to dumping and it is an issue from countries to countries and at the end of the day, how can a Nigerian manufacturer compete in international market? That’s where the dilemma is and that is why we are working hard to ensure things are done well. Even the president is focusing on power and by the end of this year; we are looking at 10,000 megawatts that clearly will ensure that industry develops. The 10,000 will not be for everybody but there will be preferential allocation of light to industry. Once we begin to address the infrastructure issue, once we begin to address the quality issue then Nigeria can actually get the market abroad and compete like every other person. I want to say we have paid too much of the salary of the foreign workers and the only way to grow this economy is to change that statistics. People abroad should also pay the salary of Nigerian workers. If that doesn’t happen, we are all wasting our time.