The executive secretary of the National Sugar Development Council (NSDC), Dr. Latif Busari, in this interview with Juliana Agbo, reviewed the challenges and the progress made so far in the sugar industry.
The NSMP which is the roadmap for the sugar industry is in its 7th year of implementation, how has the journey been so far in terms of achieving the stated goals?
The journey has been rough, but we have recorded some modest achievements, in retrospect, the target we set for ourselves way back in 2013, when the implementation took off, it relatively appeared too ambitious. We wanted to within the next ten years be able to produce 1.7 million metric tons of sugar per annum, generate over 400 mega watts electricity; these are the various deliverables you get from thriving sugar industry that creates thousands of jobs. I believe you know we have three refineries which are by Dangote, BUA and Golden Sugar, and between the three of them they have about three hundred million metric tons refining capacity. We knew success will come from getting them operational so what we did was what we call backward integration, so they were made to sign commitments with the government and how they will be able to begin to substitute the sugar they import gradually to the sugar they produce locally, they signed commitment and we were following up and I think we were doing quite well until 2016, when the economy almost collapsed, a lot of business was affected and many of our big promoters lost lots of money during that time, they couldn’t even continue with the pace at the development that we had, all the momentum we gained earlier just collapsed, and again in 2016, I left here, my tenure ended before I was reappointed, by the time I came back we spent the entire 2017 trying to revive the place, and one of the things we did then was to quickly bring back what we call the mid -term review which was supposed to take place November 2017.
We have done it for five years to see how far we have gone, one needs to rejig here and there, so we have to bring it back, we had it in June and it didn’t do as well as we thought, we were expecting by then it will be able to produce according to the master plan itself about 37 thousand tons of sugar per annum, then we were doing just 15 thousand tons, about 19 thousand hectares of land should have been brought under cane, and just 11 thousand, so we have to roll out new guidelines and ask them to resubmit new commitments and that’s what we are now following through.
I am glad to say that since that time, we have seen a new renewed commitment. Last year President Muhammadu Buhari commissioned the golden sugar that will bring in about 16 thousand tons per annum, right now the Dangote PIP in Savanna are undergoing two expansions, there is one we call the upgrade to 3500 hundred then 6000 thousand TCB expansion, there is one that will be about 9500 thousand that will bring in about 140 thousand of sugar per annum, it is supposed to be commissioned this September but I doubt if that will be possible now again because they have some challenges about bringing some of their equipment they imported from the ports, if it is not by the end of this year then may be early next year they should be commissioned.
The Lafia sugar project is a 10 thousand district land in Lafia by BUA, again that project should have been commissioned by the end of this year but again they ran into this problem for a whole three months they couldn’t clear about 58 containers of their equipment from the ports, so those are some of the challenges that affected them, again we are hoping that by the second quarter of next year that may come in, that will bring in about 1000 thousand tons of sugar.
Dangote has a new project in a place called Tunga in Nasarawa State,a 12 thousand hectares of land that should bring about 180 thousand tons of sugar. There is a new player in the industry called the Great Nigeria Agribusiness Limited, a subsidiary of the Lee Group which is popular in Kano in terms of investment in other sectors. We got some land in Jigawa State to establish the first phase, that should bring about a 100 thousand tons of sugar, when you aggregate all these, we are hoping that by 2022 and 2023, when this 10 – year master plan that we set for ourselves must have been reached, it should be around 700 thousand metric tons, far from the 1.7 that we started with, but if you observe the trajectory of development of such packaged plan, we had the same thing for cement in 2002, when they started. Nigeria was producing about 2.4 million metric tons that time and they had this 10 – year programme , by the end of the 10 years, Nigeria was producing about 12 million metric tons and that was in 2012, by last year, Nigeria is now producing 34 to 35 million metric tons, now exporting cement. The thing for that kind of situation is to start, once you start, most of the industries that are mentioned are at their first stage. Dangote planned to do a second stage in Tunga under 12 thousand tons, TNEF want to put another 10,500, BUA want to finish that at Lafia but they already gave them another five at a place called Oguma in Kogi State. In all of these, we are hoping that core investors will come in and pick interest . If we are able to do that between now and 2023, we should be able to revive that plan because everything is in place.
There have been cases of clashes between sugar companies and their host communities, what are some of the steps taken by the NSDC to resolve the issues?
From our end, specifically we are sponsoring jingles on the TV, radio about the need to communicate information to allow peace to reign, you can’t have development when you don’t have peace, unfortunately for most of our communities, a lot of the things they require the investors to do are things that ordinarily government should have provided, they want better health facility, schools, for their children good roads and light, so when they now see an investor they now want to hold them to ransom but an investor is there to do business and why he would do all those things in his own interest at least he would provide for his staff and hospital for the staff children but that is not his priority. So we are sensitising them, we also conduct what we call town hall meetings, we had one last year and I must say it has been very effective and since that time, nothing has happened and we are also talking to the investors themselves to invest more in the corporate social responsibility to get to communicate and particularly also engage them in our out grower schemes. Most of the people in the community are farmers so they should also participate in it, they see their own livelihood tied to the livelihood of the factory, these are some of the things we are doing so they are not lacking.
The NSDC now has two sugarcane bio-factories at the moment; in Zaria and Ilorin. Do they have the capacity to supply large and disease-free cane seedlings to clients?
Yes, our factory supply pure disease free seedlings, you know the alternative to the bio factories is to maintain nursery on the field, you plant cane, you know the seed for sugar cane is the stalk itself so you allow it to grow six to eight months before you go and cut, it means if you are raising cane as seeds you need to wait about six to eight months with this bio factories, you cut down the length at least for four months rapidly using legit agricultural techniques each of them have the capacity to produce about one million seedlings, one million endowed type of seedlings but it will only capture about 70 to 80 hectares, here we are going for 250 thousand hectares, so what they would do is that people would get estate, farmers would get their original seed from them which they will now put in their own nursery and any material coming from the nursery before they will now put on their farm, is not that those seeds they get from the biofactories are the seeds that will be planted directly that would lead to cane you need to process, no, they would go into the nursery, whatever you raise from them you need to start with 10 hectares 20 hectares then begin to expand gradually, then from there, you go to 100, 1000, that’s how you expand your field.
We still see different brands of foreign packaged sugar in our market despite the ban on them what are you doing to address that?
Unfortunately, a lot of the locally – produced sugar in terms of quality is much better than the foreign sugar an average Nigerian is used to. They are also fortified with vitamins, what we are doing again are mainly jingles to sensitise them. We are trying to collaborate with the agencies whose mandates are to control things because many land borders which are supposed to be manned by Customs are not. We collaborate with National Food Drug and Administration Control (NAFDAC) and with Standard Organization of Nigeria (SON) who occasionally go out and seize these contrabands. On a lighter note, it is not as if they are not trying, but they don’t do it as often as it should be to stop those who still engage in it and is really dangerous.
Last year, we saw in the market in Abuja some sugar labelled Industrial Sugar. You can see the label on it and people are still buying and the way they did it was probably even pour into bowls and were measuring in mudu and an average Nigerian will just go and buy. We need to sell our products and not only sugar, let’s try and consume what we produce because it also have an impact on job creation, if you want to start an import or export business, you need three people, but if you want to produce a quarter of what you are selling you will create a lot of jobs.
What efforts are you making to check flooding in the sugar estates?
That has been a major challenge particularly for the Golden Sugar. It was actually completed in 2016, and for four straight years, every time we plant this cane hoping that by next month we would harvest, flood will come, we have been meeting severally with the Federal Ministry of Power, Works, and Housing who supervise the hydro dams where the floods are released from Jeba and Kainji, we have had meetings with the minister and our own minister then, they set up a committee comprising the concessionaires called the mainstream engineering. They have invested a little bit in early warning system that would tell them that this is coming soon so they need to charge the water, we are monitoring almost every month, our team will be there in one to two weeks to do that, then the Golden Sugar is also expanding and increasing the height and they are also installing drainage pumps, if they are able to treat water that are coming in, what of the rain water that comes in, so they also need to drain that one out, so these are the some of the approaches, we are looking forward to what will happen with the flood this year, if all these work.
We’ve observed that expatriates still hold key positions in most of the sugar companies in Nigeria. What is the NSDC doing to address the shortage of skilled local manpower in the sugar industry?
I am sure you know why that situation subsists. The golden sugar industry was doing well all of a sudden it collapsed, but most of the experts that we had and the man power are old now, no new people came into the sector and that has been the challenge. When you have new project on ground to run them, they need to bring in people from where they could get, so what we are doing now is to establish what we call the Nigerian Sugar Institute, our own idea was to set up a Sugar Industry Apprenticeship skill where we could just get people to go for few industrial courses and go back into working but when we presented it to the council headed by the Vice President, they supported the idea, they selected the sugar sector and the maintenance sector, carpenters because they say we have needs for many man power right now, you get your plumbers and tillers from Ghana and Togo and others, so they selected the sugar industry and maintenance sector to see what they can do to fit in, we are setting it up and we are hoping that it will take off in the second quarter of 2020, it is going to based in the site of our second bio factory in Ilorin, we are putting some physical infrastructure in it, we are going to train some of the people that would manage where they will quickly train the trainers before they take off, so that’s the long term solution.
What is the amount of foreign exchange Nigeria loses to sugar importation annually?
That exchange rate is fairly stable, you hardly get it for 305 which is official, some people go for 353, 355 and 365 which can be calculated easily, why i said it is easy to calculate is that we know the amount of sugar that comes in, we recommend and Mr. President approves because it is based on quotas, last year was 1.29 million metric tons and the CI value also varies, so anything between 500 hundred to 550 million dollars, and it goes back to the idea of us ramping up the PIP, getting the latest production going, because there are industries that require this commodity in their own processes, industries which do not produce sugar might as well collapse, if you don’t want them to collapse,you have to allow importation our sector is not a particularly investor – friendly sector because you need huge amount of money and the gestation is very long, you start putting money, four, five years before you see anything come out of it and we are not talking of profit to start coming in as revenue then you have to pay back loans, so you have Nigerian investors who want to put in money today and tomorrow, but it doesn’t really attract them. With these challenges, I don’t blame people but we still need to get our investors to look at the long – term benefit in the country.
The focus is clear, I think the machinery is also in place, all we need to do is to address the challenges as they come, that’s what I think and we are treating the basic issue which is trying to resolve forex problem. We can talk to the CBN governor and issues of funding the plan is simply to get 25 million from CBN. Any investor that want can get, of course, the interest is high but at least you have gotten money and you sell also in the rate you know you can sell, so I think we are on point and I hope that by 2023, we should see how far we have come, we should be more than half way and that will be very good because we would have laid a solid foundation for the rest of the things.