By Omoh Gabriel
Last week, Director General Standard Organization of Nigeria (SON) Dr Joseph Odomodu had an interactive session with journalists in Lagos. He spoke on issues of substandard products being dumped into the country which are gradually killing manufacturing industries in Nigeria.
How long have you been in the saddle at SON?
I am now one year and two weeks on this job. In the last one year, we have started the process of putting SON in the minds of every Nigerian. SON is a very important government agency. Its hands are almost in every pie that you can think of. So it is actually imperative that everybody should know it, but people will know it only for things it has done that have affected their lives positively.
That is why it is important that we perform in SON, but it is even more important that people like you are able to let people know what we are doing. That is why I spend this time to talk about the image that we are trying to create for the organisation.
What was your impression of SON when you came on board?
I must say that what I saw when I came was not too palatable because I saw a system that was in disarray in terms of the level of substandard products in Nigeria. And I can tell you, I like to measure what I do so that it will be easy for us to also measure whether we are making progress or we are going backwards. So far, I can tell you that we have achieved a number of successes. The journey is still a long one, but at least we have started on a very positive note.
What are these positive notes?
We started with what we call a six point agenda and in that agenda we determined those issues out of the challenges we believe were genuine to transforming SON into the number one facilitative government agency in Nigeria. The first thing we established was that, we needed to have what we called global relevance which as at today the SON does not have. For example, we do not have internationally accredited laboratories, because if you don’t have those kind of laboratories, you really do not have the right to pick up a product that is coming from either China or India and say this product is substandard because those scientist who work with standard bodies will tell you that if you test a product in a laboratory and you test it in another laboratory, and another, you must continue to get the same results, and I think that is what they call traceability.
But the points is that if a laboratory is not accredited to certain ISO standards, there is what they call ISO17025, then that laboratory does not have a basis, especially in international trade facilitation to say that this product does not meet standards, because they can challenge you and say this laboratory that you use to test does not even meet the minimum standards of a testing laboratory.
That is one area that we are working very hard to ensure that we quickly accredit our laboratories, and I can tell you that this year, we will be able to accredit some of our laboratories.
What does it take?
It takes determining your processes, documenting them, ensuring that the equipments are the right one and that the personnel are trained to the right standards.
We have quite a number of personnel in SON, who are experts and they have shown it internationally and nationally. Indeed in Africa, apart from Southern Africa, there is no standard body that can boast of the level of expertise that is housed within SON. Of course, in terms of the fact that these are the people who have been trained very well and very well certified.
How are you handling the accreditation?
We have auditors up to the highest level that you can attain. But if you put such auditors in an environment that does not meet the minimum standards, then they are as well substandard auditors, so to say, because they are made to work with tools and process that do not meet international standards. This year, we will ensure that some of our laboratories meet those minimum standards and it also will help us to begin to connect to the rest of the world. This morning I was reading about one of the banks that is receiving some or have received some certification from the British Standards Institute. There is no reason why if we are certified that those banks will go abroad to seek those types of certification and that also will help us to earn some income that we are currently losing to other international bodies.
The second one is that we realise that we need a vigorous conformity assessment programme and so far we have not been very vigorous about it. Unfortunately for us Nigeria is an import dependent economy and as a result of that, we are besieged with products that are coming from abroad a lot more than what we can produce as Nigerians and that is a major challenge. More challenging, when you compare that with may be people from other parts of the world who, for example if you look at the European economy, the level of imports may be less than 20 per cent, if you look at American economy the same. But here we are inundated with over 80 per cent imports, may be because of our taste, may be because we are lazy or whatever. What this has also done to us as a country is that we have ended up killing our own industries. Yesterday somebody said something about buying two batteries and within a few weeks, they were already dripping off some acids and he mentioned Berec and I looked up and said oh! When did I see Berec last? We knew about the likes of Dunlop, we knew about the likes of Michelin, they have all left Nigeria. I know that bulbs used to be made in Nigeria, Phillips and all that. But today, none of these factories are in place. And if you don’t think clearly you would not even remember when they disappeared from Nigeria,
So where did we get it wrong?
If you ask me, Nigeria is pursing what I called a rapid process of de-industrialisation and on the one hand government is saying we want to create jobs but on the other hand, the ones we have are closing up. So we need to start reversing that, but it will be difficult because there are challenges. The first is the challenge of dumping from Asia. The Asian countries are interested in exports, so if you are able to produce anything, they will give you as much as 20 per cent export grant, so you can actually sell at your cost price.
But Nigeria has an anti-dumping policy, but has never applied it, because we do not have any institution that protects a particular policy, then it is no body’s business and no body thinks about it, as a result of those things just keep happening.
Is that why we still have used tires in Nigeria when they have been long banned?
I recall also the issue of tires; Nigeria banned the use of used tires several years ago, in fact over ten years ago. But I can tell you, in Nigeria today, we may have well over 20 or more million used tires, I remember that when we went to that Fatai Atere, we removed as much as 5 million tires from one location, so that tells you clearly that we are under siege as a people. But the major challenge we have as a people is that we have not realised that we are under siege. And if we don’t realise it, then people will continue to die slowly.
You talk about used tires what about the so called energy saving bulbs?
Today for example, we have what we call energy saving bulbs, they are all over the place. The point is most of them do not even save any energy, but nobody is measuring,
Because once it says energy saving, Nigerians will pick it and go and use it because it is supposed to save energy. They write nine wax instead of the conventional bulbs that are 40, 60 and sometimes 100, and they give you nine, but it’s not really nine. What is even more critical is that these bulbs contain mercury. In the process of using them and because they are substandard, there is a high frequency of use and we dump them; some in the gutters, some wherever, but they all end up, after rain, they flow into our gutters and we know that sometimes we get in contact with these gutters somehow, through the scavengers who go there.
They even get into our water because we all have sunk boreholes in our home. So you begin to ask if Nigerians think well and look well. If they do, they will found out these bad products in the market. This is why if you noticed, our advert is about looking. It says “look well well” because we need to engage the consumers. I say this because every time a product comes into Nigeria and that product is substandard, I really am not too worried about it because sometimes we really can not stop these products from coming because most times some of them come through the land borders, and our borders are so porous, so they must reach our markets whether we like it or not.
But one thing we can do is to stop our people from having contacts with these products and that is why one of our key strategy is to engage the consumer, very actively through sensitisation, through messages, through warnings that we want the consumer to take action, every time the consumer comes in contact with substandard products, we should not keep quite like we normally do, the consumer should take action.
I advise, for example, you walk into a shop, you want to buy a bulb, for God sake, buy it, but ask the man who sells it, how long will this bulb last for me. He could say one month, two months, or whatever. Whatever he says, demand a receipt and make a note of it, if it does not last for that length of time, go back and replace it, if he refuses then it becomes a case between us and those sellers because we will now trace back to know who brought those, and we will make sure that we deal with them accordingly and that is one thing that we preach that the consumer must begin to take action.
The difference between a Nigerian consumer and people abroad is that a typical Nigerian consumer does not ask questions. Sometimes he just says ok, may be that is the way God wanted it. But that is not the way God wanted it. We need to ask questions, but more importantly we need to take action. So that is about consumer protection and engagement.
What then is the function of Consumer Protection agency?
We are working very closely with other government agencies, so when I say consumer protection and engagement, we are actually working in league with the Consumer Protection Council (CPC). Most of the time in my outing you will see that I have been with the DG of CPC, because really if you look at it, we are doing essentially the same thing, consumer protection. It is just that we are in charge of the supply side and CPC is responsible for the demand side, but ultimately we meet at the point where we need to safeguard the interest of the consumer, either in term of health, or safety, or in terms of even economic value for the pocket of the consumer. That is about consumer protection.
Do you have capacity in-house to do all you plan to do?
The other area is that we also need to build capacity. A lot of people in SON are very, very skilled, but I found out that down the line, those skills disappeared. So those other people that are down the line do not get the opportunity and we need to build capacity because we are expanding the scope of our activities. We need to build capacity. This year for example, we are dedicating over 60 per cent of our training budget on building capacity among the middle level management staff.
The other area is the Nigerian environment. We want to ensure that we improve the competitiveness of the Nigerian manufacturers’ products. We have seen situations where for reasons of, may be low profit, people tend to cut corners and at the end of the day, products come out either substandard or don’t look well, even in terms of packaging. SON is committed to ensuring that Nigerian manufactured products receive as much opportunity in international market as their foreign counterparts.
But to be able to achieve this, the first thing that we are doing now is to remove substandard products from our system. Nigerian products have three major disadvantages. One, they are operating in a disadvantaged infrastructural environment, so naturally their costs are higher than those of their colleagues abroad, but even more importantly is that they are competing with substandard products and also they are competing with dumping. Every time like I said, every nation must protect its industries such that others will not come and bring products and sell below the normal price that such a product should go for in terms of looking at all the cost element.
Is there any legislation in place to enforce this?
It is important that we move to that level of competition. You know like I said, it is bad enough that infrastructure is bad but it is better that we move all those factors that will make them to be weak and really if we want to create jobs, if we want economic growth, the best way to do it is to improve competitiveness of our own products.
The honourable Minister of Trade and Investment is currently pursuing a new bill at the National Assembly called the Local Patronage Bill. That bill when passed will make it mandatory for every government, State, Local, and Federal; every time there is a purchase decision, to make sure that the first consideration is a Nigeria-made product. It’s only when that product is not available or does not meet the standards that anybody should go elsewhere to buy. If you also listen to the president recently at the Ibese launching of Dangote cement, you will observe that he said something about self sufficiency in cement production, self sufficiency in rice production.
There are other areas that government is considering, indeed am going for a program today, you will find out that is steel production, we recognize that if all the steel plants in Nigeria produce to capacity and of the right minimum quality, then we actually will ensure that we don’t need to import any reinforcement bars into Nigeria again, so that is the way the government is going, because if you want to create jobs, you must find companies that must employ people.
It is not really government that create jobs, it is the private sector, but what government needs to do, is to create an environment that is positive enough for private enterprise to flourish. For example, I already discussed with the likes of Dunlop and Michelin. I told them, if we are able to remove all the substandard tires in our system, would you come back? And they said yes they would, so we are working on our own side of the bargain to remove these products.
Who knows, for one factory, you would be talking about 2,000 jobs, but these are not 2,000 thousand ordinary jobs, they are 2,000 skilled and technical jobs, and you know that there are multiplier effect. The point is, nobody will touch them and that is the advantage that when the consumer does not touch a substandard product, it remains on the shelf; if it remains on the shelf, it does not motivate more to be bought. People mention Dubai, I can tell you a lot of the things we call Dubai are not made in Dubai, they come from elsewhere, it is just a transit zone for bringing those things. So we need to really say no to those products that are harming our people that are killing our industries and are harming the economy.
SON is no longer going to be at the port, one of the agencies that has been asked out of the port, how is it going to affect your operation, given the fact that some of these products come through the ports ?
The point is we were in a crisis situation and it was so easy even based on the fact that we are saying we want to do this, it actually scared a lot of people and it affected all the products that are coming in. I cannot tell you what is happening at this time. But I can assure you that we already have put in measures to ensure that our work goes on. However, it is a lot more expensive by not being at the port to achieve the same result.
Looking back how do you feel being DG of SON?
I used to be Chairman of PMG MAN, and even before then I was in the Executives.
This world is about whom you know, honestly. I have seen that happen to me in all spheres of life and it always repeated itself, that sometimes it is that person you know that could affect your position or opportunity. It is that person that will then help you to take that next step. I also remember when I entered for this job, I entered one of the Minister’s office at that time and I met somebody that I knew. I knew him in May and Baker. At that time, he said he was looking for business, he had a printing press some where, a young man, and that I should help him. I took him to the procurement people and said help this man to get jobs. Of course, I did not recognise him, that was all I remembered, and then I entered the Minister’s office and the man greeted me very well, so warmly, but I did not recognise him.
Later he was telling the Minister that this man is a nice man. How would I have known that was where I would see him, those things happen. It also made it easy for me to feel at home because he works with the Minister. That is also why it is good when you meet people, be good to them, because you do not know where you will meet again. There are also situations where sometimes, you treated somebody shabbily; I am really talking about a personal experience, only for the person’s to be your boss several years later, it happens and it will continue to happen and so that is why my principle is, every time you meet somebody, make that person feel good that is one thing that you will leave in his mind for a long time.
What will you consider as your achievement thus far?
The first one is actually that we have brought SON into the mind of the Nigerian consumer, and I can tell you it makes a lot of difference if you start on that basis. The second of cause is that we have created a lot of awareness, one of the challenges we have as a people is that we have very unscrupulous importers, in fact they are the worst people I have ever seen, because they would never want to do the right things. So when I started, one of things I did was hold meetings with them and I can tell you what came out clearly.
When I started and I said gentle men, this is no longer acceptable, I was accused of making new policies. Meanwhile, all I care to do was implement things that were already on ground. I remember that anytime we go into closed door meetings they say ok oga since you have come to keep what the law says, you have to give us time to sell all the substandard products we have.
That is exactly what happened in cables, in iron rods, every sector of the economy. Indeed it got to a point where I had to accept that because some of them said they have already ordered some, they were already coming on the high sea, we have to calculate how long it will take for them to come and be cleared and be sold, but that is Nigeria and these are not people like you and me, if you know what I mean.
They are not people I will say to hell with you and I will walk away, because they are also very important people within our society. But I can tell you actually that it is those people that are important, that are also killing Nigerians unfortunately.
Let me give you example with steel because you mentioned something about it. What we did was every sector we faced, we took samples in the market and found out that over 70 per cent of those products that were made in Nigeria, were substandard. Let me give you another example, somebody goes to market and buys automatic voltage regulator and it works, or may be is selling for N50,000 so he brings about four container loads. The point is his neighbour who is not selling goes somewhere outside of Nigeria ask them to make something that looks like that one, but less effective and package it accordingly, and comes back with fifty containers and within two to three weeks he sold off and then he goes again and ask for more. What does the man who has the original that is not selling do?
He takes a sample of the one that copied him, goes back to the same place that all of them go to and in the process we get to a point where, I can tell you as at today there is no voltage regulator in Nigerian market that works, as at today. The ones that could work have all been sent off the market because they could not compete, because we all buying low prices.
We found out that it is actually cheaper for you to buy a standard bulb that is meant to last for 1000 hour than the one that will last you few hours. There are bulbs that go for N20, there are some that are N50 but there are also bulbs that go for N500. It is cheaper for Nigerians to buy N500 bulbs than to be buying the N50 ones and I was able to prove it. I don’t have the full details here, but I can actually show you that Nigeria can save N500 million on bulbs alone. And I have promised Nigerians that by June this year, if you buy a substandard bulb, we will give you reparation, because we will make sure there are no substandard bulbs in Nigeria by then. It is one measure that you will use to know whether we mean what we are saying or not.
What about building collapse? Nobody has ever been prosecuted
Talking about buildings, every time buildings collapse, my people go there, they take samples. Two areas they take samples of – the bricks, the block wall and they take sample of the iron rods. But we also look at the concrete, and I can tell you what we found out was that most times the failure is with the concrete and we are not there when the concrete is being mixed. I even on my own have taken it up. I said any building that is beyond two floors, SON must be going there to check the type of concrete mixture because you can have the best structural drawings approved and all that, you can have the right rod, the right blocks, but if they say 124, and you use 126 the building will come down that is the fact.
Now for example, somebody was saying what we have done, what are the achievements.
We now ensure that every rod we see in the market, because they have identification mark, we can now say it is made by Fonix or whoever, even imported rods we now insist must have identity marks. We need to know who brought it in, because spirits do not bring substandard goods, they are brought by human being. And what I can tell you regarding prosecution? I cannot tell you we have sent anybody to jail, not one person, and you know why? We don’t have prosecutorial powers.
SON cannot take anybody to court; we can handover to the police or to the Attorney General. That is what the law says, what we have done now is that we have a new bill that is in the National Assembly and we are already asking for deterring penalties but we are also asking for prosecutorial powers. We have lawyers, because the police may not handle cases the way we want to handle them because they may not have the right motivation.
Let me even give you example, we are not suppose to seal premises, when we see something wrong in a premise, we go to the court to procure a court order before we seal a premise. And I said no, I wouldn’t do that, since I came, I say I will seal the place and let them take us to court that we did the wrong thing and that is exactly what we have been doing. People cannot put you in chains and ask you to catch giants, you can’t do that, these are some of the practical challenges that we are going through.