Africa’s trade growth lies in harmonised standards, integrated economic blocs



Preparatory to the President’s forum of the African Organization for Standardization (ARSO) tagged “Africa Rises for Standards” in Abuja, the Director-General of the Standards Organisation of Nigeria (SON) and President of ARSO, Dr. Joseph Odumodu, in this interview with FEMI ADEKOYA, explains efforts by ARSO to drive regional integration and Intra-African trade through harmonisation and adoption of common standards while using its advocacy machinery to increase its membership structure in a bid to tackle standardisation challenges as well as dumping of sub-standard goods in the continent. Excerpts.

Africa has been described as the next frontier for investment opportunities. As the President of one of the trade facilitation bodies in the continent, how prepared is the continent for the opportunities?
Yes, Africa has been rightly described as the next frontier and in fact, in some places they say the whole world is waiting for Africa and the challenge is, is Africa responding to the rest of the world? Actually, if you look at the rest of the world, you look at Asia, America; you actually can see that we are the only ones who have not had the rapid developments that translate to growth. I would say the Asian continent has been the latest one and today, everybody is looking towards Africa because these are where the opportunities are. I think Africa may have been burdened with huge population, governments that may not be properly focused on delivering dividends to its people and of course the challenges of converting agriculture to an economic power as well as poverty. But, if you look at Africa in the last ten years, a lot seem to be happening in Nigeria, in South Africa, in Egypt and others and I think the more democracy gets strengthened, the more the institution of states are being built around certain kinds of development that can ensure sustainable growth in quality of life index and all that. So, Africa is getting ready, that is what I would say and under the auspices of the African Organization for Standardization (ARSO) we have a major role to play in defining that new Africa that we all seek.

The continent is also described as most commodity dependent region. How do you identify which commodity to give priority to in order to make sure that there is a lot of investment coming in to the continent and is also beneficial to African countries?
I think there is a huge disconnection between Africans and the rest of the world because Africa is still the only continent that is dependent a lot on agriculture for sustenance. I have heard it said so many times that no economy can develop if it focuses only on supplying crude raw materials to the rest of the world and basically that is what we have being doing. We grow cocoa in Africa, we send to Europe and then we go to Europe and buy chocolates at maybe twenty times more. We bring crude oil from the grounds and we sell them abroad and then we go abroad and buy petroleum products in the process. But now there is development coming into Africa, for me there is technology coming into Africa, to the extent that now we know what to do and I think knowing what to do is the basic. In Nigeria, we have a Nigerian Industrial Revolution Plan which clearly designs areas where we have competitive and comparative advantage. The plan also focuses on critical industries where we know we can achieve immense growth and transform Africa or Nigeria into one of the twenty largest economies within a few years.

So we are already aware of these gaps and we are closing those gaps. But I think, that the whole world is in a hurry to see us transform into an Asia or an America. Africa is coming. What I think also pulls Africa back is that there are too many countries if you single out Nigeria, South Africa, Egypt, Tunisia and a few other countries like Angola. These few countries can actually define the kind of growth Africa can have but we also know that there are huge populations that are in so many countries that are still struggling and we need to ensure that using the regional economic communities and luckily I think nature has actually helped enough in Africa, you have an Egypt that can carry the whole of north Africa, you have Nigeria in west Africa, today in terms of the size of our economy we are almost seventy percent of the economy of west Africa and we have south Africa in southern Africa and Kenya so we have already the capacity to make the transition that we seek.

Latest statistics shows that there is a gradual shift in economic gravity from the West to the East African coasts and that is largely due to the two reasons; one is as a result of less dependence on commodities within the East African region, then two there is a more integrated union within the region, especially in terms of the common market economic growth. What do you think is the fate of West Africa and other regional economic blocs? What are the challenges and how do you think things could be done to make these blocs more viable?
You are right, the East African communities and the South African communities already have some clear understanding through some of the regional blocs they formed. But I must also say that the effect of the southern African economy is also rubbing off on some of the East and Central African countries. If you look at countries like Kenya, the kind of commodities that they are trading in; tea, flours, cocoa, and amazingly there are some textile companies. Some of these countries have taken full advantage of AGOA. There are some textile factories in places like Kenya that are leaders within certain classes within Europe. Maybe not the top rates textiles that they use but at last they are already involved in the American economy and I think that is what we also need to do in West Africa but West Africa has some historical challenges.

Today, everybody is having a challenge, so we need to create and evolve a new West African solution devoid of language or some historical antecedents. And I think we have made some progress, but in terms of progress of regional economic growth, West Africa has not done as well as we have seen in Northern Africa or Eastern or Southern Africa. But like I said, it may also be an advantage for us in the long run.

PriceWaterCooper’s latest report showed that there is an infrastructure gap of about $93 million and as an agency that strives to promote and increase access to the export market for Nigerian goods, how can infrastructural challenges be addressed in this sector?
We have just started a process today. For example, we have accredited labs and I can tell you our lab has got scope in almost 22 areas and to that extent, it is also important to say that our lab has a capacity to actually cope with the export of products that fall within that scope today, secondly we are building a bigger capacity multi-functional lab. That project will have almost 20 labs which also will receive accreditation. What we are doing today is to build capacity within Nigeria to ensure that we expand our ability to cope with the kind of challenges that increased exports will earn us. We have a new team that is already focused on building on most of the gains we have achieved within last four to six years and ensuring that that momentum is maintained. So, like I said, if I look ahead, I have confidence that Nigeria can play comfortably form today within the world infrastructure community. When I saw a map that showed the African quality infrastructure status, Nigeria was somewhere at the bottom. If that same map is shown today, we actually will be somewhere near the top and like I said, in the next one and a half years, we actually will hit the bar where you find countries like south Africa and a few other leading countries in Africa.

At the last general meeting of ARSO in June 2014, the need to foster a relationship between the African Union and ARSO was emphasized. What is the state of relationship between the two bodies?
What we are doing now is to create a forum for everybody to be part of ARSO in preparation and for realization of the 2017 CFTA agreement. One of the things I must say or two things we must take out of what we will be doing by June 22-25 in Abuja is to aid membership growth of ARSO. If you look at Africa, Africa remains the major dumping ground for sub-standard products and the reason is obvious. Technology is not advanced and the people are fairly ignorant, there is a high level of poverty and of course, we have a very fairly weak regulatory framework and we make products to enter and leave even when we know they do not meet the criteria. So with all these firm criteria, we need to under the auspices of ARSO support other countries to build capacity to be able to understand and appreciate what sub-standard products do and how they harm us but even more importantly, to ensure that under the African forum and using ourselves as a pressure group to AU, begin to challenge dumping on African soil. Like I said, most of the sub-standard products in Africa come from outside of Africa, over eighty percent.

U stands taller rather than a single Nigeria or a single South Africa or a single Kenya to fight those who are oppressing us with sub-standard products because they are building their economies and they are also suppressing our economies. The fact also remains that for African economy to be built and for employment to be generated for Africans, we need to trade with each other but we are not trading enough with each other. That is also one of the major targets that we seek to address at this forum. We need to be able to and the only way we can do it together is a common standard so that when I have a standard for Garri we all understand what the standard is and once we have the LCM of the standard being agreed in Africa, then trade can actually be facilitated a lot easier. We need to break down the barriers. The barriers for me are technical and making trade not to happen as seamlessly as it should happen between countries. So, we need to work with each other and the more we do that, we build a stronger economy. If Africa can improve on its own manufacturing we can even stop some of those products that will not meet these standards from coming into Africa.

The present level of sub-standard products in the country stands at about 40 per cent. What is your target by the end of the year?
Let me say something because I have travelled widely in Africa and I have seen that there are various levels of substandard products. I have also studied the marine systems that these countries run in Kenya for example, no product can enter Kenya without the Kenyan bureau of standards having access to check the quality of that product. The situation is different in other countries as well as in Nigeria. So one of the targets I have set for myself is that going forward, we must ensure that we employ best practices in the process of allowing goods to come into Nigeria. It is a lot easier to stop a product from coming into Nigeria than to go chasing that product in the markets. Our new approach will be to ensure that those products don’t come in or that we also are available at the point where these products come in. Going forward, we are building some collaboration with other government agencies.

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