The Country Cluster Head, West Africa, BASF, Jean Marc Ricca, in this interview with speaks on the need for government to address infrastructural challenges and improve Ease of Doing Business in the country in order to stimulate economic growth. Ugo Aliogo presents the excerpts:
Food insecurity is a key challenge for Africa and for Nigeria. You have been able to penetrate the African market and gradually you are entering into the Nigerian market. What are the opportunities for investments that you have seen in this market?
We have a large number of touch points with the food value chain so to speak almost from cargo to cargo all the way from seeds and the challenge of improving productivity upstream on crops. Then you have to check how you reduce the amount of post-harvest losses. Take tomato as a prime example, 46 per cent is just wasted during transportation.
Then you have everything related to transformation and the food industry all the way down to biodegradable plastics. This is the theme for today; we are trying to bring all those stakeholders together on one single approach towards food security. This is typically what an event like this one is all about. Here you have construction chemical partners, you have insulation, you have packaging, laundry, they all get together because this not something that we would solve, nobody can actually solve the problem. We need to team up, bring together all those stakeholders whether they be regulators, I mean National Administration Food Drug Control (NAFDAC) and others, but also the entrepreneurs, non-governmental organisations (NGO), everybody who can have a valuable contribution to solving these problems. Does it translate into business opportunities for us? Of course, because we need to make money as a group so that the solution is sustainable. It is not about using money to try to solve it that would not bring us anywhere because the day there’s no money, nothing happens. So we need to create models and value at a very local level.
It has been 53 years in Nigeria. How would you describe the investment climate here?
If you sow negative energy, it usually comes back to you as very negative. It’s not just lip service but we really look at challenges as possibilities. So if you have a very negative look at Nigeria, you would only see problems. If you look at it positively, there are many opportunities. Look at plastic waste, there are 750,000 tonnes in the streets of Lagos every year that’s a massive challenge. But it could be a business opportunity for people who see this as the opportunity to start a circular economy. It is a tough business environment, its complex sometimes it is even hostile but this is what we have. Every one of us have to overcome these challenges, we need to try avoiding creating new ones because as a country, we are very good in shooting ourselves in the foot. But the outlook is positive. So this year was a bit tougher, next year nobody knows the result but it doesn’t change our commitment. I mean, you can’t be in Nigeria and you’re here just for one year our experience for all those years shows that you may have a couple of years which are tough, but don’t stop, invest. I would give you a very practical example despite the difficult economic circumstances we would open in February the first ethnic hair care laboratory in Africa.
The people from the cosmetic division said, if you want to understand the needs of the African woman in terms of hair care, don’t do that from Europe, come in Africa and we went to Lagos. We have to continue investing and we have to continue being focused on enabling value creation for Nigeria in Nigeria.
What has been the key driver for you in business that has helped you deepen market penetration in Nigeria?
People. In an environment like this, you need to have the best people in the industry. You need to find them, you need to grow them and you need to keep them. That again is not lip service, it’s real. My problem is not about finding customers and markets; they are here everybody has needs. The problem is to bring something from there to here and that’s a massive undertaking for us. Yes, we are driving our local production forward, but we still as a country still heavily rely on import and moving products across border is an absolute nightmare. I am not blaming anyone because we are all part of the problem, but going to Lagos port is a real challenge and there is a lot more that we could do if we didn’t have to spend so much time, energy and money in just crossing what is in many countries a no brainer.
It is not easy doing business; it’s really all the infrastructure on business which is to be probably to be improved. It takes everyone, we always put the blame on government, government has to do this no, they may help a lot, but everyone has to do this, private sectors, regulators, customs, everyone has to start pushing in the right direction.
During the presentation a while ago, you talked about food fortification. In food you also talked about business case, food innovation cluster and the social case. I will like you to explain on those areas especially the food fortification aspect?
First of all, we measure our successes in total value to the society. When we put forward a business case which is a project and that project we would assess it to see if it is worth the money that we are going to spend driving it. So you are going to get the number if we get $1 in and get $1.5 out, for us that are not good enough. We also measure what our contribution to society is, here in Nigeria it is very straight forward it is how many jobs you create. It is not necessarily the job that I create but the job that I could create upstream. In the recycling space, you can create a large number of jobs you may think that they are low tech jobs but yes, they are jobs in some communities that is really helpful. Or you can create jobs downstream by enabling your customers to run his own business.
To make it also specific, when we sell 1 to one of our customers, they usually sell 10. It’s a kind of a multiplying impact and food fortification is a prime example. Without vitamin A, you have no food fortification, so we enable this and after that there is a subsequent impact that you measure in terms of money, in terms of impact on society and the least impact on environment as possible.
How do you contribute to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in terms of food sustainability?
This is driven in group level, direct contribution and when we talk about total value to the society, if you go on our website there is an index where we mention everything from an environmental, social and economic standpoint. The SDGs in a project like this one you create jobs and many impacts on SDGs that you have. We try to consider that it’s not to look from a total company standpoint; we track all the projects according to the certain structures.
Nigeria’s population is expected to rise sharply by the year 2030, what’s the way out of food insecurity?
There are several ways. One, we need to grow the agricultural sector and we need to ensure that farmers have the right tools, technologies and products to maximise their yields. There is a massive improvement that we can do upstream. I have seen the post-harvest losses; it is a key area where we are already very involved but it is a multi-stakeholder project.
We need to build cold room capacities. We are talking about millions of cubic meters which us to be put on the ground so that from the transportation storage upstream the farmers have access directly to cool storage. The food processing area also needs to be developed, retail is not yet developed.
What other measures do you advise as a stakeholder in this industry that we can tap into as a country to fully achieve self-sufficiency in food production in Nigeria?
I think we need to bring together all those stakeholders, private sectors, regulators, government. My experience shows that going micro on small pilot projects, teaming up with one community one crop is the right thing to do because I don’t see food security as a kind of one size fits all solution. It starts really by enabling the farmers in between we can put trains from Kano to Lagos. But I think the first man and the last are the areas we need to focus on.
How much success have you recorded in the area of corporate social responsibility as a company?
It depends on what you mean by CSR. We are very active and there’s one big space for us which is education particularly science education and particularly women in science. This is really business driven this is not CSR. We will need leaders in twenty years from now. We want to support children particularly young girls at the age of 8-12 trying to open their eyes to what science is.
As far as I now when you go to some if the local schools, they’re far away from having access to even science awareness, if we accompany them as they grow by tapping the primary, secondary schools and universities then we may or may not have a chance to have our future leaders in 10 to 15 years or more.
We are engaged much in Lagos and the most prominent one we had very recently at the national conference of pharmaceutical society of Nigeria we had our first young female pharmacist of the year award.
Specifically supporting young pharmacists in science is absolutely critical. So that’s what CSR is, CSR is not just about giving an award or giving a grant, it needs to be sustainable from a business standpoint.
We have a program with an NGO called AD Africa purely linked to employability and we have the third round where we take very young graduates straight from school and we embed them with this for a minimum of 6 months up to one year. The idea is to equip them, giving them a chance to operate in a multination such as ours.
What kind of partnerships are you creating with the local farmers to improve food sufficiency and what’s your assessment on the agriculture sector in Nigeria are we growing at the pace at which we are supposed to grow?
We are highly collaborative and we know that success will come on the condition that everyone having something to bring to the party should team up. Today is a prime example, so we are very active in bringing people together on agriculture alliance and this type of initiatives.
One of the particularities which is not unique to Nigeria, same in many countries in Africa and Asia is that we are dealing with a large number of small farmers so they don’t have the scale, the financial ability to buy proper products to support them, they don’t even have the knowledge on how to use whatever product they would buy. We are training thousands of farmers everyday just to step up safety and maximizing the use of the product.
The other area where I see there is a massive gap is coaching. Today farmers can produce a large number of tomatoes but if they don’t reach the consumers then what’s the point? I think there is a huge effort for everyone of us starting from retail to company like us who make insulation foams who can be helping in building your cold room to operators to farmers upstream getting all together. I am a very strong believer that we need to do that at local level as the problem of the farmer in Zaria is different from the one in Gombe State.
Can you give an insight on the focus of this event?
The event brings together multiple stakeholders so that they don’t take connectivity for granted. NAFDAC talking to us, talking to maybe operators and I think when brainstorming together what they could do could actually be having an impact. I would expect concrete measures or proposal in the cold chain space particularly for Lagos state because we have big needs here. I would look at the area of food fortification, gladly NAFDAC is here and how do we work together to ensure compliance, how do we raise the standards in terms of harmonizing the quality of the products out there. The beauty is that it brings together all our businesses; we have people from all over the place.