Why we cannot stop supply of onions to the south —Maitasamu Isah, National President of onion producers
The president of the National Onion Producers, Processors and Marketers Association of Nigeria, Mallam Aliyu Maitasamu Isah, speaks with OLAKUNLE MARUF on the recent crises over trade blockage with the south and other issues.
Your association is said to be causing farmers to lose money due to its blockade of foodstuffs to the Southern part of Nigeria?
Let me make it clear once again: We never blocked onion from going to the South. We are National Onion Producers, Processors and Marketers Association of Nigeria with members from across the country. The six geopolitical zones of the country are ably represented in the association. We held our election in December in Abuja where I emerged as the president.
My vice president, Mr Bolu Akinkunle, is from Lagos State. The publicity secretary, Mr Ademola, is from Osun State. I also have a vice president from the South South in person of Mr Jackson, another one from the South East whose name is Mr Kingsley Opara. The national treasurer of the association is also from Anambra. With all these executive members, there is no way we could block onion from getting to the South. We are business people and every producer or marketer’s destination is the market and the South is the major onion market in Nigeria.
Mile 12 International Market in Lagos happens to be one of the biggest onion markets in the South West, while Port Harcourt is one of the biggest markets in the South South, talking of Eleme Wazobia Market. There are also big onion markets in Warri and Asaba market as well as Anambra. So, please tell me, how do we block our goods from going to all these places I mentioned in the South? We did not block our goods from getting to the South. The blockage is being done by a parent union, the Almagamated Union of Foodstuff and Cattle Dealers, a registered union under the Federal Ministry of Labour and Productivity, while we are under the Federal Ministry of Industry, Trade and Investment.
So, you can see that they are a union, while we are a commodity association, business-oriented people; we are not a union.
A week after the start of exportation of onions to foreign countries, are you satisfied with the outcome you are getting and is it better than what you obtained in Nigeria?
You see, we have a slogan in the production line which says ‘know your market before you even go into production’. For instance, in Nigeria, we produce about 1.4 million metric tonnes of onions across the rainy season and dry season. The rainy season onion variety is such that is not suitable for storage for a long time, while the dry season onion, which we are harvesting now, can be stored in a local storage facility.
The problem we are facing as farmers is lack of improved modern processing and storage facilities. So, when we produce these onions, about 50 per cent of them go to waste. If you get a storage facility in Sokoto here to store your onions, I can tell you that about 50 per cent of what you stored will be lost post-harvest due to lack of storage facilities and other factors. So, for the fact that our farmers don’t have reliable storage facilities, they are left with no option but to sell their produce straightaway.
Onion has one of the highest costs of production. The seeds to plant one hectare of land alone cost about N120,000. What I am trying to say is that before onions get to maturity stage, farmers have suffered a lot. Some might have sold personal properties as a form of investment on the farm. So, immediately after harvest, what comes to mind is to sell the onions to pay back their debts and do one or two things for their families.
All these problems do not encourage farmers to store the commodity. Immediately after harvesting, a lot of people are already waiting for them to sell. So, they don’t even have any chance for storage, let alone keeping some for themselves. And if they cannot keep this produce for long, the next thing is that they need market and let me tell you, the market of Nigeria is saturated. Before this crisis, onions sold for between N8,000 and N9,000 per bag in the South but with the crisis, the price jumped to about N22,000, based on the information I got from Lagos, and between N23,000 and N25,000 in the South East.
But onions have started flowing to every part of the country and I can assure you that any moment from now, the price will come down to between N10,000 and N12,000 in the market. So, if we did not exploit this avenue of taking some of the excess to other West African countries, onion, rather than sell for N10,000 or N12,000, will crash to about N2,000 per bag or get sold at giveaway prices. So, if we find ourselves in that situation, we are telling people not to go into production of onions, which is totally against our mandate and mission in the association.
How much cooperation do you enjoy from the Customs?
I will say the cooperation is excellent. You see, there is this statement that God’s time is the best. We have been working on this project for a long time and luckily for us, around December last year, a new Customs controller covering Sokoto and Zamfara was appointed in person of Abdulhameed Ma’aji. Upon assumption of office in the state, he convened a stakeholders meeting, where I made it known to him that Sokoto is the leading state in the production of onions in Nigeria and that between 60 and 70 per cent of the country’s onions are produced in Sokoto and Kebbi states.
About 40 per cent of our onions are going to neighbouring countries like Cameroon and Burkina Faso but this was never documented. Before, if you checked statistics of the export products in the country, you would not find onion and that situation really touched me. Upon my assumption of office in December last year, I took it upon myself as one of the major assignments to formalise our international trade of exporting onions to other countries. It was just a formalisation that we did; the export had been going on for a long time.
The new Customs controller here gave us the necessary support to make it work perfectly. Before now, there were some banks that approached the Customs that they wanted to export this product. And now together with First Bank of Nigeria, we are able to commence the business after signing all the necessary documents.
I believe the cordial relationship we have with the media who have been coming to get accurate information and going to the border for investigation to get accurate information will also help to strengthen the process and put every stakeholder in check.
Nigerians need to work together to achieve our goals. It doesn’t make sense that when something happens to Maruf from the South, it doesn’t concern me in the North. Anything that affects a Yoruba man from the South should also affect a Hausa man from Sokoto. If we come together to stop whatever is disturbing Maruf from the Southern part of Nigeria, it will prevent whatever that will get to me in the Northern part of the country here. I believe that what brings us together is greater than what is trying to divide us.
Onions and tomatoes are rotting and the prices are falling, especially at this time in the North. Are you not worried?
We are worried and that is why we are partnering with a company which is trying to build a storage facility in Sokoto State. Our prayer to the government and the company is to make sure that they wrap up whatever is causing delay in the take-off of the construction of this onion company.
We want it to become a reality which will help us to reduce the post-harvest losses we currently encounter to the minimum. There is another company which is also working on onion processing facility in Sokoto. We are also calling on the company and the government to do everything to make sure that the company comes up within the year. Once we have a company that processes onion into powder, indirectly, we are going to reduce the post-harvest losses and increase the value of onion. Let me also call on our brothers from the South to come and invest in this business. It is a very profitable business if you understand how to go about it. We call on more people to come. They can have small-scale storage facilities, small-scale processing facilities so that they can add value to this product. It is not compulsory that we consume onion bulbs, why not onion paste, onion flakes and onion spice?
We want more people to come in and add value to the business and from there we can start exporting these products as well. I know that when this crisis started, more people were complaining of onion more than tomato, simply because we have tin tomatoes, sachet tomato, which gives alternatives to people. But as for onion, there is no alternative and that is why we are calling on our people from the South, East, West and North to look at this value chain, invest in the sector and make good money.
With the recent documentation of exportation of onion, what assurances does your association have for Nigerians that it has enough produce to satisfy the local market?
We don’t have any problem in satisfying the onion market in Nigeria year in, year out. We have never failed in that regard. There has been no particular year that we failed to meet the demand for onions. Let me use this medium to say that we have for long been engaging with the Central Bank of Nigeria to assist us with some credit facilities to help our farmers to expand their production. Now that we have explored the avenue of export, there is the need for increased production to take care of domestic and international demands. We want the government to step up. We have the banks and the CBN. They are doing well in rice farming. Let them show interest in onion as well by supporting farmers. Let me also say this: It is not only in the North that one can farm onion, I have received information that Osun, Lagos, Anambra, Imo and some other states have started producing onion. The government should come to the aid of Nigerian onion farmers and marketers so that we can boost our production. When people have something doing, it will directly or indirectly reduce insecurity in the land.
If you had the opportunity to meet the president today, what would be your advice to him on the state of the nation?
The state of the nation is scary. Just on Monday, you heard of the killings in the Amarawa part of Illeila. They are our people who are into the onion business. All this is as a result of lack of education and unemployment. The government should look at the potential, which I know we have a lot of, in the country, our natural resources, and look into this value chain. I would tell the president that I would take care of the North for him. In Sokoto, our people farm onion a lot and when you can engage them to produce more onions and make more money, then who will be thinking of banditry? When people are jobless, coupled with lack of education, then what do you get? They will get recruited for illegal activities.
When someone is educated, it will be hard to convince such a person to become a bandit or a terrorist. When someone is educated, he will be useful to himself and the society.
What is your educational background?
I studied at the Usmanu Danfodiyo University, Sokoto (UDUS) for my first and second degrees. I hold a Master of Science in Agronomy from the university.
Why are you into onion farming and not doing a paid job?
I ventured into this job because of my love for it and for the fact that I love to do my own thing my way. This job has offered me the opportunity to do things the way I want, as I don’t need to be answerable to anyone. I love the job and that is why I am into it. I have nothing else in mind to do for a living.
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