June 22, 2009

NAFDAC’S blanket approval for supermarket imports

By Les Leba
The National Agency for Food and  Drug Administration and Control  (NAFDAC) woke up to its responsibility to ensure the wholesomeness and integrity of what we consume about six years ago.  Over the years, the Agency carried the battle to the nooks and crannies of this country to apprehend the manufacturers as well as the distributors of fake and substandard foods, beverages, drugs and cosmetics.  In the process, factories were shut down; local as well as imported unregistered products were seized from markets all over the country and publicly set ablaze.

The sustained and concerted efforts of NAFDAC, without doubt, saved a lot of lives and reduced the operating landscape for these ‘pirates’ who grew fat from the corpses of those they sent to early graves with their poisonous offerings.  Although the masses were the main beneficiaries of NAFDAC’s crusade, but the surviving brigade of the endangered species of our nation’s small and medium industries were also full of praise for the work of this Agency.

Anyone who has ever been involved in the tedious and uncertain journey of conceiving and bringing a consumer product to birth successfully in the market place, particularly in this country will have a story replete with never say die endurance, family deprivation, inaccessible funding, local and state government extortion, etc, etc, to tell to anyone who cares to listen.

There are few things, therefore, which are as destabilising as the sudden appearance of clones and look-alike versions of your product in the market to confuse consumers and diminish the steady return you have begun to expect as a result of your toil and sacrifice!  They say that ‘failure is an orphan and success, of course, has multiple heritage.’

I recall the lamentations of a close acquaintance whose Hair Pomade quickly gained wide market acceptance sometime ago! The success of the product soon came to the attention of the vultures of the faking business, who wasted no time in putting into the market over 20 clones of this popular hair conditioner.

The damage would not have been so grave if the adulterators copied the packaging as well as the correct material ingredients of the original to ensure that there was no health hazard attached to the use of the fake product by unsuspecting consumers!

But unfortunately, this was not the case, and all kinds of mixtures including the inclusion of kerosene and prohibited colours were adopted by the adulterators to increase their profit margins from this heinous crime.  The widespread activities of adulterators posed a serious threat to the existence and growth of industrial entrepreneurship in the country as the cost of product protection, monitoring, serial litigations and distracting interaction with the security agencies took a heavy toll on the wealth and fortunes of genuine owners of the successful brand!

However, this ugly scenario changed drastically when NAFDAC partnered with associations and genuine manufacturers in the food and drug subsectors in the fight against adulterators and fakers.  There is no doubt that NAFDAC’s engagement sanitised the field and reduced the cost of litigation for genuine manufacturers.

These local manufacturers reciprocated NAFDAC’s gesture by submitting themselves to NAFDAC registration and adopted best manufacturing practices in their operations.  The general welfare of Nigerians became enhanced by the healthy synergy in the relationship between NAFDAC and the local companies, especially since NAFDAC ensured a level playing field by demanding that imported food, drugs and cosmetics have also to be similarly registered by NAFDAC and must go through the same process of inspection and certification for good manufacturing practices and qualities that NAFDAC demanded from local companies.

This arrangement, of course, as it should, favoured local manufacturers, as the cost of annual inspection, registration and regular renewal of approval was obviously less for local companies.  Thus, in spite of the burden of the local inadequacy of infrastructure and high cost of funds, a good number of SMEs thrived and in the process provided employment and income for hundreds of thousands of Nigerians, either as factory and administrative staff or in the product distribution and marketing chain with the beneficent linkage effects on the advertising, printing, packaging and plastics industries!  In other words, NAFDAC’s principled position on equal treatment for both local and imported products actually engendered a healthier economy as well as people!

However, a cursory stroll through any of our major supermarkets and indeed, traditional markets today, would reveal a whole legion of imported products, particularly in the food and cosmetics subsector, which have no NAFDAC certification!  In fact, the supermarkets now discriminate against local products on their shelves.  Indeed, for every 10 imported unregistered products you will probably observe one local equivalent!

In other words, these supermarkets are now more inclined to support the economies of the countries from which these imports come than their host nation, Nigeria.  Thus, while increasing number of Nigerians are losing their jobs, the patronage of these supermarkets for imports is creating employment in other countries.  But the much more fundamental question is, how did this huge array of products enter into the country to be openly displayed and sold without NAFDAC approval and registration?

Investigations by some of the local sectoral associations of manufacturers have revealed that NAFDAC appears to have been arm-twisted by ‘powerful’ Nigerians and government agencies including the Nigerian Investment Promotion Council (NIPC) to grant potential so-called foreign investors who wish to establish supermarkets or shopping malls with a blanket approval for the products they needed to import to stock up their shelves!

In other words, while the small and humble Nigerian manufacturer is kept under the rigid gaze of NAFDAC, with regular inspections and the payment of annual fees for product revalidation, and changes in labeling or packaging sizes and strict compliance with good manufacturing practices, the supermarket investor only needs a single general approval without NAFDAC’s physical inspection or validation of product content, and no additional payment of  fees for modifications to size or packaging at any time.

Not surprisingly, it has since become obvious that these supermarkets do not serve only retail customers who come through their doors as expected, but also sell to wholesalers from Oke Arin, Idumota, Onitsha, Kano, Port Harcourt and Aba!  Nigerian manufacturers are certainly now under siege as more of these imported products are also smuggled in and merchandised on the shelves with those covered under the blanket approval from the global listing of cosmetic products by NAFDAC!

So, the once harmonious relationship between NAFDAC and associations of industrial subsectors have gradually become tested by what these local industrialists see as the uneven handedness of NAFDAC, which now threatens their businesses, their livelihood and employment creation in the country.  It cannot be justifiable for government agencies and policies to create obstacles to local industrial growth while facilitating the enhanced welfare of the people in other countries with concessions which are not reciprocated to the export of Nigerian products abroad!  It appears that NAFDAC’s approval for the global listing of supermarket products is a silent killer of Nigerian entrepreneurship and our quest for reduction of unemployment and promotion of industrial growth in this country!

If the federal executive is happy to standby and idly watch this ugly scenario unfold, it behooves the Nigerian Labour Council and the Federal Legislature to step in and call NAFDAC to order!  It does not require knowledge of rocket science to run a supermarket or shopping mall, to warrant a policy of open borders as concession for such investments which not only jeopardizes industrial growth, employment, and social welfare, but also serves as a big conduit for the outflow of valuable foreign exchange for consumer goods which can easily be produced by local businesses!  Indeed, if imported food and drugs are also subjected to the rigorous discipline of NAFDAC as is the case with local industries, the recent exposure of over six years importation of a sub-standard quality of ‘Maloxine’ would have been averted and a good number of innocent Nigerian lives saved in the process.