In an exclusive interview with Nume Ekeghe, the chief executive officer of Erisco Foods Ltd, Mr. Eric Umeofia expressed the view that the tomato disease, which destroyed 80 per cent of the country’s tomato produce and led to its scarcity, was an act of sabotage by tomato paste importers. Excerpts:
What is the cause of tomato scarcity plaguing Nigeria?
This is off season, though we expect scarcity of tomatoes yearly; but this year is different because a lot of farmers didn’t farm the previous year because they lost 75percent of their goods and money. This discouraged farmers this year. Also, there were challenges with the plant such as diseases and other problems associated with them.
This leads to the rise in price. But we are hopeful that things will normalise in two months during tomato season.
The scarcity generally is caused by human error. It is not by government per say because the administration is highly determined to ensure that things work out well.
But for the fact that people don’t want give him the chance to prove himself, and put the economy back in shape. Public servants and the ministries pretend that they know what they are doing, but in reality they are not doing anything for Nigerians. If government encourages farmers and manufacturers, tomatoes will not only be for local consumption but also for export.
Therefore it is simply a task President Buhari gave them; produce what we eat and eat what we have. It is a good thing for any nation. I don’t know why our people are supporting portfolio and camouflage investors, who come to this country with the aim of cheating us. For the fact that Nigeria is not an industrialised nation they easily believe them.
Still on the shortage of tomato, what can be done to support farmers, off takers and manufacturers?
In terms of support, I have asked the banks to give us support to build tomatoes refineries. This would help to gather up the excess tomatoes in the system when the tomatoes are being harvested. They don’t listen to us, because there is always ready-made money for them to make profit from importers and government funds which they use in getting treasury bills. This is one of the challenges we are facing.
As simple as tomato is, it should be able to be processed and exported.
In this country, we have two good harvesting weathers. But until now nothing has been done. The Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) or the government needs to put the banks in line to help build their customers for tomorrow. It is not about the issue of three months that they will continue to have problems. This is because import will continue to have problems in this country.
Nigeria must try to diversify her economy through manufacturing; the manufacturers should be supported. If you give me money, I will process and reserve it for the next two years. This will make the country a shining example amongst other nations. As an individual, I’m helping my country to grow. I am not greedy; I don’t need anybody’s help. I am helping our economy to grow bigger. If any minister is coming to help me, the person is waiting time. I am not wishing to be a Minister or hold any public office. I want to ensure that there is good practice in the manufacturing of tomatoes in the country.
What can be done to avert Tuta Absoluta disease in the future?
Actually, this Tuta Absoluta disease I suspect it was brought into the country by the tomatoes import cabal, because since we started the campaign of banning imported food items, especially tomatoes paste that was when it started. They could have brought it through a concealed paper bag from other countries to Nigeria in order for it to multiply faster and cause havoc in this country. Our own farm was not affected. Because we have applied the system but for the fact that government say they know better. We leave it to them.
What we are looking at achieving is progress for Nigeria. If the ministry decides to bring foreign expatriates to help them. That is fine. We have developed our own system to against the Tuta Absoluta. We have disease resistant seeds, chemicals and fertilisers, and farming methods. But we have kept these innovations to ourselves, because when we discussed with government they showed no interest.
So you are saying you offered solution to the government and it refused to listen?
When the Minister is not interested in listening to us, it is a big issue.
Which minister did you approach?
I have written to the Minister of Trade and Industry, but no answer. We also spoke to the Minister of Agriculture who told us that whatever idea we have they will put it together and make it work. The Minister of Trade is not listening to us properly. Therefore I call on the President to give us the Minister for Industry.
There is no economy that will diversify without industry standing alone. Industry as a ministry is bigger than five, six industries put together. How can you merge industry with the trade industry that is mainly concerned with sales only? The manufacturing industry is helping the nation.
As a business man, before I cared about profit, today I care about my nation. Because of my age, religion and where I come from. I have no choice than to help humanity. This is what I’m working towards. Anybody who thinks that can prevent me from helping my nation is joking. I feel so sad when people say Nigeria cannot meet the demand of tomatoes in this country and they are sitting in Abuja. We in the manufacturing sector know that it is the easy task. They are relying on what the expatriate told them and I continue to challenge them.
We have called them for public debate, whoever knows the best methods to produce tomatoes let him come to industry to manufacture. We have done a lot of things in this country which nobody living or dead has done. Some of the things we have done here China, America said it is not possible. But because I am a Nigerian, they don’t regard what I have done. I don’t have dollars to give them to bribe my way through. What I want to give is my wealth of experience for Nigeria to enjoy.
What you are saying sir, is that the ministry of trade is not doing its job properly?
The ministry of trade is frustrating us. The ministry of trade and health are working against the economic progress of this nation. NAFDAC told me that importers are better investors than me. So they encourage importers more. I don’t want to import because I realised that what they are importing are bad products. I have decided to help my people, yet they are fighting me. President Buhari is straight forward and he knows what he wants to move the country forward. This is why we are supporting him to achieve that target. I don’t need anything from them. America was saved by five people. I want to be among the 10 people that will save Nigeria. I don’t want them to deceive this country anymore.
Recently, there was a public hearing at the National Assembly on ‘killer tomato paste’, what was the outcome of that meeting?
For the National Assembly issue, I have already told them the right thing to do. However the report NAFDAC released was read out by Dr. Paul Orhii, in the NAFDAC conference room on the same date we stayed there. They actually started mopping the product from the markets. Paul Orhii stopped them after compromising himself.
The truth of the matter is that what we said is correct. The document is also correct. In that House, I think what they are trying to do is to make safe landing for the people. Otherwise NAFDAC was authorised by the constitution to take care of food, drugs and make recommendations. The House doesn’t have capacity to investigate this product. The more they stay there, more killings are happenings.
This fight you decided to take on, some suggest that it is for your own selfish interest and you want monopoly. How true is this?
A criminal cannot agree to his evil deeds until he is cut red handed. This is what is happening in this case. There is nothing wrong for me to produce goods and sell it in Nigeria. However Monopoly is far from it. If there is anybody that can do it better than me let him come into this business.
I want more manufacturers to emerge as men of the major. A lot of people have money which they have carried oversees, and they use it to do illegal things in the country instead of helping the economy. We have operated for six years and we lost about N3billion, therefore why can’t I recover my investment? I’m not the only industrialists; we have Dangote, and others companies are there. Therefore, monopoly is far from it unless Nigerians don’t know the meaning. Nigerians prefer that their monies are stolen outside than being invested here. If I happen to benefit here it is my right. I am not talking about selling in China or India. I am talking about selling in Nigeria. It is my right to sell here to benefit farmers. We are trying to change the farming system in this country. I want all the farmers to be millionaires. If the system favours me, I don’t think anything is wrong. I strongly believe we should not be importing what we can do better here.
If Nigeria should ban importation, do we have the capacity to meet our demands?
We have excess capacity here but if I am not producing up to my capacity people will assert that Nigeria cannot meet up to excess capacity. Where would the capacity get until we close down because of these importation. I want to state here that the ministry of trade should be left out of manufacturing. Capacity is nonsense in terms of their thinking, if you actually support your own, capacity will be excess. People will compete to invest. But if you don’t do it people will run. Maybe I will close down and join import so that Nigerians will be happy. The capacity is in excess. For me, I have 450,000 metric tonnes and after nine months we will be talking about 1million metric tonnes.
Nigeria’s consumption is less than 800,000 metric tonnes and Dangote and others are there. So why are we thinking it is a big deal, when it is a matter of determination.
It may interest you to know that I have not imported any finished products into the country since I started. Count my loyalty since 1994, when I gave every state government vehicle for fire service. I am loyal to my country and I don’t mind if Nigeria stops the importation of tomatoes in the country to sell the company to people who are interested in Monopoly.
This business is not good for me because people are out there to frustrate you for importers to come. Unless, the federal government warns NAFDAC and Ministry of Trade and Industry, otherwise there will not be improvement in the tomatoes sector. I stand to be corrected. For over 50 years, our tomatoes continue to waste in the market. How can you justify that? Yet we are talking of how to produce cars and going into space, but the smallest thing like tomato where we should be investing in, we are not investing in. The international community is watching and their observation will be that if this man cannot do this little one how can he do the bigger ones.
These foreigners continue to deceive our people to believe them. If not that I have been able to practice it they will not believe us. They assert that Nigerian environment is not good enough to make tomatoes; this is wrong and not correct. I have written to the Minister of Trade, but he has not listened to me. The minister doesn’t want progress of the manufacturing industry. I have not seen a minister as careless as the Minister of Trade and Industry.
The expatriates and importers go to the Minister in private, but he has refused to see me in private. It is not that I am not interested in profit. I need profit. But I maintain my reasonable profit. I don’t want monopoly. What I want is that people should come and diversify the economy. I wish I have the capacity to do more than President Buhari, I will do it, because I want to support him in every means and areas. If we don’t support him in our various ways, how can he move forward? I want to ensure that my sector grows to a reasonable height.
The most pressing issue remains the tomato disease, after this season do you foresee further inflated pricking of tomato in the future?
If by next year Tuta Absoluta is still there, it would cause more havoc. I am sure of my farmers and out-growers. We have what it takes to avoid this disease and I have offered to consult the government to help. But they think I am asking for their audience for my selfish gains. I want to help.
It is only in Nigeria where you can sell your idea to government thinking that they want to help you. I am the only one that is different. I am going to government to help them. They are not interested in asking me what the disease is all about, so I work on my own.
I am getting ready to shame them when I start my farm in Katsina. I want to force them to believe in Nigeria because the foreigners are deceiving them. If President Buhari doesn’t believe in Nigeria like them, he would have appointed foreign ministers there. He believes in them, but they have refused to believe in Nigeria. It is sad. We have what it takes to develop this country; if we are dedicated and our people are straight forward; if the people support the APC led government, we will have no reason to complain.
I have 22 products, which I have developed already. I want to develop them more and employ more people. I want to employ more than 53,000 people in two to three years but no way.
When you come to my factory, Masters degree holders are packing tomatoes and this must stop. We support Buhari; I am supporting this government because he is committed.
We should think of building Nigeria first. I heard the Minister of Budget say recently that the programme they run is diversification, where do you diversify. Investment is done on the land of the states. The government should send the money for investment to states and local governments to build. State governments should encourage people to come and invest. Instead of charging them billions of naira, they should think of generating money from the impact of the investment, instead of land, otherwise people will run away. In the developed world, they give you land and encourage you. Don’t even pay tax, by the time you are producing, you pay from those tax, this helps to boost the economy. But here, the economy is different. Most state governments are thinking of billions of dollars, whereas most of them don’t know how to convince people to come and do business in Nigeria.