My Visit To An African Food Store In Atlanta BY PRINCEWILL ODIDI

In Breaking News, Columnists, National News, Opinion, Politics
Princewill Odidi
Princewill Odidi

Most times when I visit Nigeria my relatives run around to prepare local delicacies on the assumption that living in America we miss out of these delicacies. They believe we only eat the White man’s food. This is far from the truth, as virtually everything you have in a local market in Calabar is also in African stores scattered virtually in every American cities.

Metropolitan Atlanta alone has over 40 African stores. These stores carry everything from corn, pounded yam, dawa dawa, mfi, bitter leaf, stock fish, goat head, and even 404 delicacies. So living in America as an African, in terms of food, you are as good as living in a Nigerian village.

There big question: How do all these African food items get to America? Are they smuggled or legally shipped from Africa? Who are the major suppliers and what is the profit involved? Most importantly, can this be a job creation avenue and how can Cross River State key into this industry.

Before, I proceed, let me hint you about the profit involved in this business so that you have an idea what we are talking about.

During corn season in the streets of four corners in Ikom, you can comfortably buy two cobs of roasted corn for twenty naira, and a few pear for ten Naira.

In an Atlanta African store, two cobs of corn sell for three dollar and ninety cents which is equivalent to eight hundred naira. Similarly, a sack of ten pears sell for about one hundred naira in Ikom, while it sells for five dollar, ninety nine cents which is equivalent of one thousand, two hundred naira in Nigeria. Do the maths and tell me the difference.

In another development, I visited an African store and the store attendant alerted me that Nigerian corn was in stock. I walked down the corn section, picked up a well wrapped corn, looked at the packet, it was labelled made in Ghana. Why are Nigerian corn packed in Ghana I questioned? She laughed and said virtually all West African foods are shipped from Ghana, and while here in the United States, they are distributed by Chinese companies. Why, I asked? Read on for further explanation.

If our unemployed youths get to realize that if they can procure micro credit loans, and serve as middle men, buying food items and shipping same to foreign countries through a state sponsored cooperative outlet, invest in farming and reaping such great profits if their products can be imported to overseas markets, then to a large extent unemployment will be a thing of the past, as farming would pay more than oil company jobs in Nigeria.

The question therefore is: With such huge profits and opportunities, why haven’t we taken the advantage to ship our cash crops, and clothing to US African store markets which is becoming a multibillion dollar industry? The answer is simple: corruption and visionless leadership.

Come with me, let me take you down memory lane, and show what is the problem, how it can be solved, and how Cross River State can take advantage of this loophole and advance her agricultural development and unemployment crises.

Sensing the need to open a market for African products in the United States, The U.S. Government established African Growth Opportunity Act (AGOA) in 2000 to provide duty and quota free markets for goods from sub-Saharan African countries exported into the U.S. This project has the capacity to drastically create massive employment in Nigeria if properly implemented; however, like every other project in Nigeria, it is rapidly becoming a failed project.

Director-General, Nigerian Association of Chambers of Commerce, Industries, Mines and Agriculture (NACCIMA) Dr. John Osemede recently opined, in the Guardian Newspaper 2014, that “During the era of Cocoa cooperatives, Cocoa laboratory was in Lagos, cocoa laboratory was in Akure, but today those things are not there, even the labs and all that we have here are only certified for import; that is why we are now working for other people.” Osemede continues,

“We are the number one producer of cassava in the world, why are we importing starch? We were producing 27 per cent of the world’s total palm oil requirement in the first republic, today we produce 1 per cent of the world requirement.” Osemede said that Nigeria would benefit more from AGOA if the program was expanded to include more agricultural products for which Nigeria had comparative advantage”.

So this is where we have a problem. When we had the state cooperatives where the government buys cocoa and sells, we had government laboratories that took care of standardization and compliance of export ready products. What this actually means is that there are organizations and laboratories assigned the responsibilities to perform this function for the government and the local exporter before goods are shipped overseas.

Over the years, the remaining laboratories are so underfunded by the government, and in the event government funds these laboratories, the monies end up in private pockets, resulting to the loss of international accreditation and recognition, so much that presently, most products exported from Nigeria go through Ghana.

In some cases, due to poor standards practiced in Nigeria, most products from Nigeria are subject to double inspection and a request for second test upon arrival overseas. Over the years, this has discouraged local exporters and creates artificial cost increase for Nigerian products overseas. This explains why Nigerian goods are exported now from Ghana.

Please, note, it is the exclusive responsibility of the federal government to build standards organizations and to ensure that they meet international inspections accreditation. But since the federal government does not really see the link between agricultural export promotion and job creation, they have failed to invest in this sector. Different experts have complained and written extensively on this topic including the Nigerian Chambers of Commerce, well, government is no man’s business, it only falls on deaf ears.

Now, how will this affect Cross River State and all her proposed development drive? As we plan to enter the garment industry, all exported fabrics must undergo standardization and compliance. Compliance relates to meeting certain environmental and other production requirements before export. Presently in all West Africa, Ghana has one of the only internationally recognized compliance and standardization facilities recognized worldwide for exports.

If Ben Ayade administration must embark on her garment factory and agricultural products investments as a means to create employment, we have to build state of the art compliance and standardization facilities in Calabar and hand same over to the federal government. This facility, if built in Calabar would attract a lot of export business routed through Calabar for standardization test and eventual shipment.

If we have to expect the federal government to put in place these facilities required to make our investments meet all global challenges, then we may be chasing the cart before the horse. In terms of export promotion, Nigeria is far behind and it greatly affects our balance of trade.

This is not the case in terms of imports. Standards organization of Nigeria and other import oriented laboratories in Nigeria are fully functional. Their equipment’s and testing standards are up to date. Our Compliance and Standardization laboratories can match some of the best in the world.

You may ask how? The reason is that most foreign countries and international trade organizations willing to sell their products in Nigeria, considered Africa’s largest economy have no option but to privately fund this facilities. Nigeria’s imports standardization and compliance laboratories are up to date while exports is lacking and underfunded.

However, what the government has failed to realize over the years is that, it is export standardization and compliance that would create production related jobs in the local economy and not import standardization which creates just a few service oriented jobs. With our population demography, we cannot build and depend on a service economy to meet our job creation challenges.

The service economy is at its peak in Nigeria, what we really need is the reactivation of the production economy and production related jobs to boost domestic job creation. Sometimes it bothers me why our policy makers cannot understand this reality.

In my previous article, I had pointed out that, when a state government decides to embark on projects that in other countries it is performed by national governments, it behooves the state government to also play some of the roles of the national government or carry the national governments along if the capital investments must be successful.

I would advocate that the new administration in Cross River State should invest in Agricultural Cooperatives for export purposes. Our young unemployed people, with the provision of micro credit facilities, can work as middle men, buying food stuff from the local villages, supplying them to a state sponsored and state owned cooperatives in Calabar that will process and package same at the EPZ for the export markets overseas after undergoing standardization and compliance requirements in state built laboratories but federally operated.

This single policy initiative if properly implemented can turn around our local economy in Cross River state and reduce unemployment to the single digit. By the time other Nigerian states get to realize that this is the new job industry and all decide to flood the agricultural export industry of staple foods, by then the laboratories in Calabar are fully functional, and Calabar becomes the new Agricultural export hub of Nigeria.

With a well thought out plan like this, then the need for a Seaport in Calabar, apart from serving the needs of timber export, will serve the local needs of Agricultural export and create a viral economy saddled with new ventures and job creation opportunities.

Development is no magic, development is smart thinking, and as a people, if we decide to get it right, change is possible!

Princewill Odidi is a development consultant who resides in Atlanta USA.

(princewillodidi@yahoo.com)

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