Some importers have called on the Federal Government to review the Central Bank of Nigeria forex policy banning them from accessing foreign exchange from the official window just as indigenous producers are saying that the restriction is a welcome development in restoring agriculture as the main stay of the economy.
Labour union officials in some of the local tomato processing companies have called on the presidency to prevail on CBN to review the forex policy listing of triple concentrate tomato paste among the 41 items banned from accessing foreign exchange from the official window by the Central Bank of Nigeria as the inability of the firms to import tomato concentrate which is the main raw materials used in their production process had drastically affected them.
According to the President, National Union of Food, Beverage and Tobacco Employees, Lateef Oyelekan, the companies involved should be given the latitude to plan for backward integration as one of the downside of the policy is that it could lead to massive job losses, as an estimated 1000 jobs are likelyto be lost in the tomato process manufacturing sector.
"The jobs of the workers are at stake unless the ban is reversed, and that the opportunity for backward integration would be lost by the affected companies."
According to him, the quantity of the produce being cultivated presently in the country is not enough for local consumption and the quality is not good enough to be processed into paste. However, Mr. Felix Aigoro, an Agricultural Expert with over 20 years experience in tomato farming, pointed out that Nigeria produces high quality tomato and is ranked the 2nd largest producer of tomato in Africa and 13th in the world with a total production estimated at 1million hectares of land producing 1.701 million tonnes per annum with average of 20-30 tons/hectare yet Nigeria remains the largest importer of tomato from China.
In an interview with The Nation, the Agricultural expert on tomato adviced those clamoring for the review of the CBN forex policy to rather ask Government for greater aid and support towards granting low interest loans, infrastructures, steady energy and creating enough tomato processing plants.
"It is estimated that between 35 per cent and 40 per cent of the total agricultural produce in the country is lost due to absence of non- provision of processing facilities. This has resulted in cycles of scarcity and plenty of fluctuations in prices", regretted the tomato farmer.
Decrying the unfortunate situation, the tomato farmer said that Nigeria imports 65,809 tonnes of processed tomato annually worth over N11.7 billion despite its massive local production adding that the trend may continue if adequate processing and storage mechanism is not developed and put in place.
"Take for instance, a recent survey has revealed that most of the brands in the market are imported and the presence of local brands is scarcely noticeable'', he said
Speaking further, he said that although more than 200,000 Nigerian farmers grow tomato, not one of the more than 50 tomato paste brands for sale is made from their produce resulting in half rotting in the fields before reaching the market.
"The market is assured for any entrepreneur who comes out with good quality brands because tomato products are in daily use, have high repeat sales tendency and a long cycle therefor establishing more tomato fruit processing plants in the country will go a long way towards utilizing the enormous quantities of fresh tomato that go waste for lack of processing and preservation especially during post harvest periods of plenty.
Reacting to the statement that local production may not be enough to meet demand and the quality of the locally grown tomato may not be good enough to be processed into paste, Mr. Aigoro who has a 1st and 2nd degree in Agricultural science said that "Nigeria has the capacity to meet local demand and even for exportation and the quality of our tomato especially from the northern part of the country is top quality".
"We have seen a lot of improvement in the demand for our products especially our Life vegetable oil since the new CBN forex policy restricting importers of Vegetable oil from accessing foreign exchange through the official way" enthused Chris Chigbo, Executive Director of Chicason Group an indigenous company.
Speaking, he noted that the restriction of imported finished products will greatly encourage local manufacturers who hitherto were finding it difficult competing in terms of price with most of the importers who were not even paying full duty on their products.
"We are also happy with the increased tariff on imported lubricants. Before now, the market was filled with all brands of adulterated and substandard lubricants but with the increased tariff we now have some semblance of sanity in the lubricant market" said the Chicason, Director,manufacturers of A-Z oil.
However he stated the need for a little review of the CBN forex policy on some raw materials which Nigerians are not yet producing enough to meet demand adding that restrictions on those materials will only make the manufacturers to source from parallel market which will increase the price of the finished products.
Also speaking on the policy, President of the Lagos Chamber of Commerce and Industry (LCCI), Remi Bello, while criticizing the policy, warned that most manufacturers might be forced to shut down and move their operations to neighbouring countries due to their inability to access foreign exchange for raw materials and other critical inputs.
According to him, the government needs to first address the issue of post-harvest wastage emanating from inadequate storage and the absence of processing facilities and the development of agro-allied industry. "No matter how bounteous the nation's harvest is, such productivity will count for little if the produce cannot be stored." he said.
However the CBN Governor, Godwin Emefiele noted that as a result of the policy, the bank has been able to conserve some foreign currencies with a lot of progress made on local production of the 41 listed items.
According to reports, Nigeria imports 65,809 tonnes of processed tomato annually worth over N11.7billion.
The CBN Governor clarified that "the Apex bank did not ban total importation of the said items but only restricted access of foreign exchange from official markets to the importers of those items that we think we can produce competitively locally so as to improve our local industries due to the challenges we have, due to the fall in crude oil revenue."
Appealing for more patience and understanding, from Nigerians and the people affected, he said that the Government and some other stakeholders are convinced that these items can be produced locally adding that forex can only be made available to those importing essential raw materials and goods that cannot be produced within the country.