Tuesday, 26 January 2016

WE WILL USE 100% FRESH TOMATOES TO PRODUCE ERISCO TOMATO PASTE, SAYS ERISCO FOODS BOSS

Chief Eric Umeofia, CEO, Erisco Foods Limited
Erisco Foods Limited, a wholly indigenous food products manufacturer has consistently provided good quality products in the country despite the challenge posed by importers.

Chief Eric Umeofia, the Chief Executive Officer of the organization is a quintessential industrialist of global repute. His exceptional level of intelligence, diligence, passion and commitment to excellence always shone like a million stars anywhere he went, and everything he touched simply turned to gold, a case of the man with the Midas touch. He has over the years contributed his quota positively to the development of this country and made a positive statement as the King of tomato. The restless entrepreneur who has been a senior advocate of Made in Nigeria goods spoke on the Focus of a CEO in this interview. Sit back and enjoy it.

Your organization was synonymous with Erisco Bonpet, what influenced your choice of going into food products processing?
I started as a spare parts trader in Sokoto over three decades ago and over the years we were able to mature and develop other lines of business. The idea to go into fire safety products was a result of a fire incident that ravaged my house in Lagos at the time. We went into research and developed pressure type fire extinguisher which became an instant hit in the market. I can proudly say that we raised the standard of fire safety from zero to what it is today in the country.

Our intention to bring the production plant to Nigeria was frustrated because there were no standards at the time and the people who have the responsibility of setting the standards, out of greed, refused to standardize the product and that was how we left the project. The idea to start food processing was borne out of my desire to contribute meaningfully to the development of the country especially in ensuring food security. We began operations about seven years ago and today we have one of the biggest plants in the world and still expanding. We can proudly be referred as the King of tomato in the country.

What has been the biggest challenge of running an organisation of that magnitude?
The biggest challenge is the activities of unscrupulous importers who bring in different types of substandard products into the country. I discovered that India and China are the highest exporter of tomato to Nigeria, but what they ship to Nigeria is substandard from what is consumed in their countries. I reported my findings to NAFDAC who in turn did their research and came with the result that 91.9% of tomato pastes in the country are substandard.

According to the World Trade Organisation (WTO), which Nigeria is a signatory, if over 70% of products imported from a particular country falls below standard, the regulatory agency has the right to stop forthwith the importation of such products from the country in question. We have not really enforced the principles of the charter. Rather than containing the required percentage of raw tomato in addition to other approved ingredients, a large quantity of the imported products were found to be stuffed with starch, corn flour and a generous dosage of unhygienic colour additive and preservatives. For example, a tomato paste should have at least 40% real tomato with 60% of water and salt and to produce a tank of tomatoes, we use six to eight drums of concentrates whereas most of the imported products use only one drum, the rest is starch and colour. Their activities is stifling indigenous manufacturers in the industry.

What can government do differently to protect indigenous manufacturers?
It is quite disheartening that successive governments allowed importation to flourish at the detriment of local manufacturing. They were more interested in making more money than paying attention to quality. The foreign exchange policy of the CBN was a step in the right direction as it has helped us to still remain in business. What I think government should do differently is to stop forthwith further importation of tomato paste into the country to help indigenous manufacturers to stabilize thereby creating jobs for our teeming unemployed youths. For example, in food processing, if you import the raw materials, you can only add 15% of labour whereas 85% comes from the country of origin; what this means is that if there’s no backward integration in the sector, we are losing 85% in terms employment for our people.

Do we have the capacity to produce enough for the country?
We have the capacity to produce raw materials for the products. It will interest you to know that China plants tomato once annually while we plant twice, so we have the potential of not just attaining self-sufficiency but the ability of exporting tomatoes to the whole world. To be honest with you and without sounding immodest, if government shuts down all these importers in the country, Erisco Foods Limited has the capacity to absorb all the employees that might be affected. Our capacity is more than 50,000 metric tons per annum and with our expansion in Sokoto, we will be hitting one million metric tons in the coming year. Back to your question, we have the capacity to produce enough for the country and even for export.

On the role of regulatory agencies:
Regulatory agencies should be strengthened to be able to stand the pressure of these importers. Over the years we have been at the forefront of the protest against importation of substandard food products in the country until NAFDAC itself conducted a test on imported tomato paste which revealed that 91.9% of tomato paste products imported from China are substandard; the question to ask is; what has NAFDAC done about their findings? Rather than shutting them down, they opted for negotiations, do you negotiate with criminals who are hell bent on destroying our economy and killing our people. I urge the government to stop giving monetary targets to regulatory agencies to make them more formidable in the fight against substandard products.

How much of local content do you have in your operations?
Erisco Foods Limited is an indigenous company. We have over a thousand five hundred and sixty Nigerians on our payroll. We ought to have about six thousand people if not for the activities of unscrupulous importers whose only intention is to kill local manufcturers. On the technical and engineering side, we have expatriates who are installing machines and transferring the technical know-how to our people. Beyond that we are constantly exposing our personnel to trainings that are essential to our operations.

What are your projections in the next five years?
We are not talking about five years; in the next couple of days we will be using 100% tomato fresh to produce our brands. We have concluded research and precisely on January 29, 2016 we are going 100% tomato fresh in production. Infact, I use this opportunity to invite you to the programme, so that you can see with your eyes and not what you are told.

From next season, all the tomatoes we will be using will come directly from our farms and most importantly, we will be reducing tomato wastage by 30% this year and by next year, the wastage will be reduced to up to 80%. Is it not surprising that whereas we grow tomato twice a year here in Nigeria, China grows just once a year yet we are importing from the same China. This is why I made up my mind to produce tomato here. When we started producing tomato in cans here, they said it was not possible, but today we are doing it. Some people are still deceiving Nigerians that it is still not possible all in a bid to continue importing.

What drives you?
The driving force is to contribute my quota to national development. I have thriving businesses globally and the profits are ploughed back to subsidise the operations of Erisco Foods Limited. This is because of my commitment to make Nigeria a better place for all. I keep wondering how Dubai makes so much money without tax, yet we are subjected to all forms of taxation in this country with little or nothing to show for it. Why I’m on this war path with importers is that apart from the low quality and the health implications of their products, and the flooding of the market with cheap and deadly alternatives, they stifle indigenous manufacturers forcing them to stop production. The attendant implication is that thousands of Nigerians are thrown into unemployment.

How do you relax?
To be sincere with you, there is no relaxation for me until all the importers of fake and substandard tomato products are chased out of the country. Unfortunately, Nigerians don’t understand that importers of substandard tomato products, or any other product for that matter, don’t mean well for the country. We should realize that if we are able to stop importation of tomato products and start patronising Erisco brands, it will lead to production capacity expansion and creating multiple jobs for the youths. (Source: Guardian)