Oni: Penalties in New Seed Act Will Deter Fraudsters

Director General, National Agriculture Seeds Council, Dr. Philip Olusegun Oni,

The Director General, National Agriculture Seeds Council, Dr. Philip Olusegun Oni, in this interview speaks about efforts by the council to enhance the quality of seeds in the country. He also says Nigeria currently produces about 70 per cent of the seeds in West Africa. Obinna Chima brings the excerpts:

Can you take us through an overview of the performance of the Council under your leadership?

In 2015, I was made the Director General by the President and for four years we were able to take the council of the woods as we became the champion of West Africa. Nigeria now produces between 60 and 70 per cent of the seeds we used in West Africa and we are leveraging on technology so as to ensure that farmers have adequate access to quality seeds. I have a governing board that is very supportive and cooperative and we have been working together in order to move the industry forward. We have been able to accomplish a lot; although funding has been a challenge for the industry. But we have been able to tackle these problems instead of waiting for the federal government’s annual budget which may not fit into our plan. So, we are partnering with a lot of stakeholders both nationally and international. These partnerships and collaborations have actually assisted us in achieving some of the things we have done and also building the capacity of some of our staff as they have been trained in the United Kingdom and today they are champions in their various areas. We went to Ibadan recently, to launch the National Seed Tracker (NST) which started as a cassava seed tracker and yam seed tracker. But, what we have now is not only a tracker that is specifically tailored to a particular crop, but a national seed crop. It is an app whereby a lot of operators can operate and you see what is happening in the seed value chain from the beginning to the end. It was done at the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) because IITA is a major partner to us. Under the IITA umbrella, there are other programmes which are sponsored by the BMGF. One of them is called building sustainable and integrated seed system for cassava. The other programme is Yam Improvement for Food Security in West Africa, which are funded by BMGF and we are partners to ensure that whatever gaps that are along the value chain are actually blocked whilst information along the value chain become available. Also, the seed law which was repealed and re-enacted in 2019, took us a long time to be able to get where we are today as far as the Seed Act is concerned. But in 2019, after almost 12 years, the eight Assembly concluded the works on it and it was passed to Mr. President and he has approved the Bill and it is now an Act. It is important to have a new Act because there are changing trends in the global trade industry and Nigeria cannot afford to be left behind. There are also other things that were not in the old Act which has been added. One major issue is that of penalties for doing the wrong thing in the seed industry. It is very important because in any other professional business, there are also fraudulent and deceitful people as well as regulations that should not be broken. The penalties in the previous Seed Act was very minimal. For example, if anybody runs fowl of the law in the old Act, he or she was just to pay a fine of N50,000 for a first time offender, N100,000 for a repeat offender as well as a jail term of six months.

But in this new Act, if the first time offender is found guilty, he or she is to pay N1 million and a jail term of one year, while a repeat offender would pay N2 million and a jail term of two years. Due to the fact that governmental funding was dwindling, a third party certification was introduced into the law because it is believed that government is not as efficient in terms of doing business. Therefore, most of the business transactions are given to the private sector to do. Some days ago, we were in Makurdi to inaugurate the third party seed system. With this, the responsibility of our certification officers would be to oversee what those people are doing which is also another way of creating employment, because this assists the private sector. I mentioned the issue of technology earlier, we are doing a lot to introduce technology to the seed business to make it very seamless. Also, because in every business there are unscrupulous agents and like what is happening in the drug industry, we have introduced something into our seed packaging materials. So every package is supposed to carry two labels. The first one is our conventional seed tag and the second one is the seed codex. The seed codex naturally will have aluminum foil where you can remove it and get a number which is sent to a code. And you will be given an answer immediately on what is contained in the container – whether it is actually genuine or not. So that is one of the technologies we are introducing. Also, because of the fact that the yields are low, particularly today and we want to ensure that farmers have adequate access to good quality seeds, we are joining an international organisation called the UPOV. It is an international organisation for the protection of new varieties. There are breeders in Nigeria and elsewhere, but the varieties here are not protected. And it is very important to protect varieties so that whoever has created it will be given international property and he is going to earn a lot of remuneration as a result of that. But varieties must be protected, and that is what that organisation called UPOV stands for. So these are some of those things that we are actually doing. Like I mentioned, we are leaders in West Africa, a lot of countries have been coming to us to see what is making the industry in Nigeria strong. Ghana has been here, Gambia came, particularly when they wanted to start their own seed council. And because of the relative position that we have, we are doing a lot of things. Two years ago, we started what we call Seed Connect Africa Conference and Expo. Which is actually a convergence of stakeholders not only in Nigeria, but across Africa, whereby we look at issues of the seed industry, we look at the gaps, and look at the way forward. We started in 2018, and in 2018 we had about 300 delegates that came from many countries in Africa, Ghana, and other places and somebody from Switzerland. This year 2019, we had the second edition and we had more than 500 stakeholders that came from all over Africa, from Kenya and from outside Nigeria. And I want to put it on record, that 10 heads of international seed agencies attended the conference. The Secretary General of International Seed testing Federal was there, the President of International Seed Federation came, also the manager of the seed scheme of OECD, the Organisation Economic, Corporation and Development came. I must also say as part of efforts to move the sector forward, today, we have what we call a strategy plan. It a 50-year plan and it is very important to monitor the growth and development of the seed industry. So the strategic plan was actually crafted for us by Sahel Consulting group to actually guide our organisation between 2020 and 2024. And that plan actually revealed a lot of strength, weakness and opportunities for improvement naturally. And so many things are actually in the plan. And from what I have, I think we will be requiring about N1.1 billion as additional financing in addition to our budgetary provisions to prosecute the plan over a period of five years.

You talked about the feedback mechanism to detect genuine seed bag, what is it all about?

The seed codex is actually a very simple thing. It has a unique label which we have to stick onto seed containers. And like I mentioned, like what happened in the drug industry, there is an actual place where aluminum code is actually put and you peel and send the number there to a dedicated number and they will tell you exactly what is contained in that container, is either fake or adulterated or genuine. It usually has the name of the company, the variety, the number and the class.

Since the new Act what was introduced, can you give us the number of prosecutions and convictions that you have been able to secure?
I want to state that in the council, we have a responsibility to ensure that seeds along the value chain meet all the standards. And like I mentioned earlier there are always unscrupulous people who are out there to shortchange farmers and ensure that they don’t get exactly what they want, in terms of the quality seed we are talking about. So we always organise market raids. But before we raid, we do a lot of sensitisation and educational enlightenment to educate all stakeholders on what to look for and the rest of it. But despite that you still see that a lot of people are out there to shortchange farmers. And when we go out, we do it in conjunction with the Nigeria Security and Civil Defense because we don’t carry arms.
So, we go to the market to raid and seize adulterated and fake seeds. Recently, the totality of what was seized was about five tons and in the last seed fair that we had in Abuja, these seeds were burnt publicly to serve as a deterrent. They were burnt public by the Minister. Let me say that some years ago these seeds companies were delisted from participating in our programme for either supplying adulterated seed or supplying fake seed to farmers. Also, two of them that were taken to court, were convicted and were sentenced. But one thing that is very important is that the old law that we were using wasn’t actually strong enough, but the new law that we have now has given the council very strong teeth to bite.

What is the seed council doing to help revamp the cotton and textile industry in Nigeria?
There are two transgenic varieties of cotton that have been released today and what we are doing in the council is to demonstrate the potential of this for all stakeholders to see. Because the textile industry is a very, big industry, it is a $30 billion industry which has gone under. And we in the council are doing a lot to revive the industry by ensuring that good quality cotton varieties are available.