How to package vegetables for export

GLOBALLY, there is a huge demand for Nigeria’s fresh fruits and vegetables and the supply seems short, thus, there is the need for more involvement in agri-food exports from Nigeria, experts in the business have said.

Nigeria’s non-oil export volume has recorded an impressive growth from $260 million in 2012 and $310 million in 2013, to $612.73 million in the first three-quarters of 2015, according to available data from the Nigerian Export Promotion Council (NEPC).

And, as the council targets $30 billion earning from non-oil export from the $2.7 billion it currently stands, an opportunity presents itself in a global demand for Nigerian foods such as vegetables, fruits and other commodities.

Babatunde Ogunyemi, CEO, Thelma Farms Ltd, in Ijebu Ode, Ogun State, speaking with Nigerian Tribune, said “there is a huge demand for local, indigenous vegetables around the world, but there is no adequate supply to meet this demand.

“This, therefore, presents an opportunity for business among Nigerians interested in agri-food export.”

Ogunyemi’s farm sits on a 350-acre piece of land in Ijebu Ode, producing vegetables like ewedu, tete, soko, okra exclusively for exports into Europe.

“I do freshly cut vegetables; we grow and process for exports. We only produce for export,” he says.


First things first – research

To export, however, a prospective farmer must first do his/her home work and must be ready to commit to the rules of engagement in the business.

“Export business is a commitment for a long, long term. Know your strengths and go for it,” the NEPC counsels on its website.

“Your starting point is: ‘where I am going to sell, what am I going to sell, and what are people going to buy?’ There’s an American farming adage that says ‘if you can sell it, you will sell it.’ And that is where agribusiness starts from – who will buy? Once you’ve sorted out who will buy, you need to sort out how to produce – your production mechanism. Once this is sorted out, then you will have to sort out your logistics. Don’t forget, the export I do is perishables, so you need to understand the production techniques. If you don’t understand the technique of production, then you’re going to run into problem,” Ogunyemi said.


Globally acceptable practices

From the production point to the market, a set of requirements must be met which assures the quality of produce to be exported. Some of those requirements, according to Ogunyemi, include crop management, harvest and post-harvest practices. For fresh vegetables, the crucial part of it is harvesting and processing.

International communities are very keen on the standardisation process, which is very important, not only because it “addresses the quality and homogeneity of products, but also because it determines the types of presentation, packaging and labelling which facilitate marketing and guarantee quality for consumers,” Jose Alvarez Ramos, Agricultural Counsellor at the Spanish Embassy in the Netherlands, wrote in Marketing and distribution of food products: A priority for developing countries, in CTA Bulletin.


Documentations for export

“You need to register with NEPC and Nigerian Agriculture Quarantine Services. You could do a membership of three years or five years, same with the Nigerian Agriculture Quarantine Services,” Ogunyemi says. Of course there are rules guiding an exporter’s registration processes and they are available on agencies’ websites.


Packaging to prevent perishing

You need to understand the plants formation and how they live, Ogunyemi counsels, saying “the moment you harvest, they start dying – if you can rehydrate, then you can probably help them live longer and then don’t forget they expire and what that means is that they can easily start cooking themselves, so you have to work out the best technique.

“Transport to the destination centres (wholesale markets, superstores) must be organised in such a way that the quality of the products remains unchanged. This is one of the ‘bottlenecks’ in the chain which also impedes trade between the less-developed countries. For the transport of fresh fish, the use of refrigerated facilities is essential,” Ramos also notes.

To ensure proper preservation and distribution of these products, Ogunyemi says an exporter must take the perishable nature of fresh products into consideration to determine their handling, transportation, preservation and consumption.


Current and possible challenges would-be exporter may face

Lack of proper and internationally acceptable infrastructure within export terminals presents major challenge exporters of perishable food products face on a daily basis. According to Ogunyemi, “lack of temperature controlled areas at the airport is a big minus for the country. Ghana and Ivory Coast have temperature control areas, but Nigeria doesn’t.”

In an effort to preserve the freshness of his farm produce, Ogunyemi says he loads the products into temperature-controlled trucks from his farms to the airport, but loses control over the processes when the products get into the airport. According to him, if care is not taken 35 degree heat at the airport terminals could cook the vegetables before they get to their destinations.

Another challenge is that there are only two airlines that provide early airlifting services in Nigeria. Add to that is exponentially high cost of air cargo and fuel prices to produce the said vegetables.

“If we want to be serious about exports in this country, we must get our infrastructure right. Cost of aviation is very high. The cost of air cargo is very high – a cargo from Costa Rica which is in South America to UK costs an equivalent of 30 cents, in Nigeria, we pay over a dollar for a shorter distance. From Costa Rica to the UK is about 14 hours, while from Nigeria to UK is six hours and we are paying over a dollar per kilo,” he says.