At a time that a national policy on local rice production is on the front burner, the director general of Nigeria Agricultural Quarantine Service (NAQS) Dr Vincent Isegbe in an interview with ELEOJO IDACHABA says the agency would ensure that only qualitative rice leaves the shores of Nigeria.
How far is the campaign for quality assurance of the nation’s agricultural produce?
Thank you for the question. Let me say that is the core mandate of Nigeria Agricultural Quarantine Service (NAQS). It is the duty we owe all importers of agricultural produce in the country in order to ensure wholesome products. We are working on that and we have also built a new laboratory in Lagos and moving new equipment into the place. More so, with the new EU regulation that has been in place since December last year, we have been on top of our game because it has been tightened with many regulations coming on board. So, we are really working round the clock to meet international standard. As I talk to you, there is a letter on my table concerning three chemicals that have been banned from use in the country. That is also part of the extended EU regulations. Also, within the West African sub region, there are certain chemicals that our neighbours have banned which they need our compliance in the area of collaboration and we are doing that. So far, that is it.
To what extent has the campaign on quality assurance impacted on the image of Nigeria?
Quality assurance is not a destination but a process which requires continuation to meet international standard; therefore for us, in order to be allowed to sell one grain, it means you must be up and doing. The original blocs around the world have their own standard apart from CODEX and WTO standard that must be complied with. If for any reason any regional block has any issue with standard enforcement, it is usually discussed for continuous improvement; that is why I said it is a continuous process. I know that by next year, there would be new regulations which we have to meet. Let me however say here that the best way for a country is not to work to meet any minimum standard but to live above any laid down standard in case of any sudden adjustment.
Just recently, the minister of agriculture announced that in a shortwhile from now, Nigeria would be exporting rice. Considering quality assurance, do you think Nigeria is ready?
Yes, we are. I may not have the exact figure right now, but I know that in Kano, for instance, we have over a thousand rice mills. So also in Benue, Kebbi and Ebonyi states if we are to talk in terms of quantity. Also, we have seen video of some sophisticated machines that de-stone, clean and polish the rice to ensure that they meet the quality standard. My answer is that we have the capacity and we can do it. We heard the Customs Service saying that some smugglers are printing some bags with foreign brand in order to package local rice in them. If our rice is not good enough, that desperation would not be there. So I think we are ready.
What about the general complain concerning sands in the local rice?
(Cuts in)…That is why we have de-stoning machines to ensure that all those issues are resolved.
I recall that there was general complain last December about sands in the local rice like RIFAN product given as complimentary gifts to many people. If there is no quarantine service and this type leaves Nigeria, does that portends a good image for the country?
Thank God you said, ‘If there is no quarantine service’. Today, we have Quarantine Service. But honestly, such products should be quarantined and certified wholly before being allowed out of the country. Now that you have drawn our attention to this, we would get in touch with the organisation you mentioned in order to know what their challenges are. Firstly, because the minister has announced the readiness of the country in that regard and secondly because that organisation should be at the forefront of quality rice production in the country, therefore we don’t envisage such from them. Those are however isolated cases, but any product to leave Nigeria must pass through our inspection.
Is there inter agency collaboration between your men and other security agency to ensure that foreign rice and foreign drinks are not allowed in the country?
We work in close supervision with the Nigeria Customs Service but we don’t have staff strength like them, but wherever we find ourselves, we work together. Since the issue of rice, for example, is a national policy, any agency of the government can impound it when it enters the country. As for drinks, it does not fall within the mandate of NAQS. Agencies like SON, NAFDAC and others are responsible for them but if it’s agricultural product like frozen chicken, frozen fish, beef and milk product, we have jurisdiction over them because some of them come in bulk for further processing into something else just to make sure they do not contain chemicals injurious to human health.
You have check points in some locations within the country. Have you received complains about their conduct in those places?
Just before Lokoja from Abuja, we have what we call inter state control post. We have such all over the country like Makurdi, Jebba, Katsina Ala and somewhere in Nasarawa state. Under the quarantine map, you must pass through such places before you can enter the next part of the country. Any hazzardous product must pass through those places. In those places, my men only stop vehicles carrying goods like cattle and any other agricultural product. I have not heard where they stopped private cars or engage in anything outside our mandate.
Are you saying that those cattle in trailers from the north going down south are being checked before they get to their destinations?
Yes, we check them because that was how bird flu spread from Kano through Zaria to Jos and eventually spread to all other parts of the country. Generally, let me advise Nigerians that we can actually live better lives if we learn to obey simple rules. One way or the other, everyone is involved in agricultural value chain. In the country today, there are many diseases from animals to man that we have not been able to curtail their spread completely. Such diseases like Ebola, Lassa fever and co can spread beyond. Even the Corona virus we hear about is said to have its origin from the way certain animals are eaten. therefore, everyone needs to be careful.