A council member of the Manufacturers Association of Nigeria and Chairperson, Pulp, Paper & Paper Products, Printing & Publishing Sectoral Group of the association, Mrs. Layo Bakare-Okeowo , who is also the Chief Executive Officer and Managing Director of FAE Limited, in this interview speaks about the travails of the manufacturing business in Nigeria and the menace of ministries, departments and agencies, which she alleges frustrate government’s policy on the ease of doing business. Chris Uba provides the excerpts:
How will you describe the envelope manufacturing business in Nigeria when viewed against the prevailing environment in the country?
Our major problem is paper. Yes, we have papers mills in Nigeria, about three or four of them. But they are not able to produce good quality papers we need for envelopes because there is no long fibre in the country. So, we appeal to the government to help us establish a paper research institute because we are losing a lot of dollars. But if we have a paper institute that will guide and advice on the quality of paper produced in the country it will be good for us.
I know you will ask me what relation does paper institute have with raw materials? The paper institute will conduct researches that will enable paper mills to produce good quality papers that are needed for production of envelopes. Paper research institute will test whatever they (paper mills) have done, which investors will want to buy if there is this research institute and with good policy formulation to guide the industry. Because nobody can do everything. Somebody has to do cropping; somebody has to do foresting liking planting of the threes. So, that value chain is missing. But if the policy is there to guide the industry, which we are doing now, and we will still make our recommendation to the government as an association. We will do our presentation and pass it through the appropriate quarters and we pray that government listens to us. To be honest, the government is trying. We cannot condemn them totally. However, I think what government should do is that all the ministries, departments and agencies (MDAs) that are causing hiccups in the ease of doing business should be cautioned. There should be a section in the government circle that should be assigned to monitor and discipline the MDAs, so that when these MDAs are misbehaving, we should report them and expect a response within 24 hours because we want to avert losses.
There has been this issue of low patronage of local products by the MDAs and as a response the President issued two Executive Orders to that effect. Has there been any positive response from these MDAs?
Your guess is as good as mine. You, too, can answer that question. They said buy Nigeria; buy made-in-Nigeria products, but all these MDAs are not doing it. I think the best way is to have a sort of audit from them. Yes, I will always say it; let them buy made-in-Nigeria products. I am not even saying that they must buy everything from SMEs. What I am saying is that at the end of every year, whether they are buying envelopes or cut papers, let them mention the names of the companies. Let them audit each agency to see that are patronising local products. The audit will show that this agency bought at least so and so percentage of local products. If they can even try 70 per cent to be a local content, local manufacturers, we will be smiling. But because, there is no audit (they don’t want to buy made-in-Nigeria). They are just saying buy made-in-Nigeria. Are they really buying made-in-Nigeria? My President (MAN President) is trying but you know his hands are tied. Let them (government) audit all these MDAs. Let them present a report at the end of every year and let us see how many local manufacturers they have patronized. There was a time I heard that in India, government said nothing should be bought from abroad. And they kept to that directive.
From what you have just said, don’t you think that the government is not taking the issue serious?
To be honest, I don’t think it is necessary to criticise the government. It might look as if I am taking side with the government. The government is trying. But what I feel is that government should do additionally is to do the audit. Let them audit them to make sure that at least, 70 per cent of their purchases are made-in-Nigeria. Let them issue a release to daily newspapers like Thisday or Punch or anywhere and let us see. You know when they are doing audit and the reports are published, they will seat right. They will patronize made-in-Nigeria goods.
Is MAN not advocating any sanction to compel them to do the right thing?
Well, there might be sanctions, but I think before that, let the government experiment the audit option first. If they know that their level of patronage of locally made goods will be published they will do the right thing. For example, two years back, I would go and pay this bill (demurrage not due to my fault), and I will just swallow it, but, now, I am not swallowing it again. Everybody should be responsible for what they have done. Everybody should be responsible.
What is your expectation from the Nigerian economy?
I think it will be better if all these things are put in place; because Nigeria is not going down. Yes, there are problems here and there, but you still have a lot of foreigners, especially the Europeans wishing to come down to the country to have one contract or the other, or to do one thing or the other for Nigerian government. So, that means they still feel that Nigeria is good. Look at the African Continental Free Trade Agreement (AfCFTA) and the border closure. A lot of our brothers and sisters in the other countries are crying. This is because they see that Nigeria is good. And so, we should not kill our economy further. We should try and improve things for better.
What will you say about the border closure you just mentioned, do you think it is good for Nigeria?
I do not really want to comment a lot on border closure, because the government knows what they have seen and why they have chosen to close the borders. Locally, I understand that the rice mills are doing fantastically well. So, what the government is saying is that we don’t need rice importation.
You talked about expansion; are you saying that you want to go to the ECOWAS countries to establish your business?
We would not mind going there because AFCFTA is the best thing that has happened to Nigeria. So, it wouldn’t be a bad idea exporting to ECOWAS countries but the Nigerian government needs to address the problems of infrastructure. Look at the roads, electricity and others to make us competitive, because, if we are too expensive, they will not buy from us. Secondly, government needs to address the issue of logistic problem because it is too expensive. Transporting goods from Nigeria to Cotonou or Ghana is expensive. Number three, all these bottlenecks need to be addressed because they themselves know about the checkpoints. I believe that should be addressed and on the final note, the issue of external tariff has to be addressed .I am making this call here in Nigeria , of course, my production cost will be very high but somebody can sit down in China and makes the same cup and because their production cost is low, he can bring it into Nigeria or Ghana . If the tariff on the cup is low, he will bring it in conveniently into Nigeria and compete with the person making this cup locally. So, the external tariff has to be addressed.
But must the government do everything for you? Don’t you think on your part, you should do something to reduce cost and make your business more competitive?
In an industry that is just over half a century old, we have more than 40 years’ experience, way more than any of our competitor. We combine basic local knowledge and international expertise to produce a product that is second to none. Our first class equipment ensures that we are able to produce to the specification of our customers and satisfy our ever growing client base. We earned this right because of the quality, the type of paper we use, and how we serve our clients as a trusted ally and concerned friend. We provide them with the rare loyalty of a business partner and make sure they get what they need timely and also helping them secure more clients to make more money