The Chief Executive Officer of the National Sugar Development Council, Dr. Abdul-Latif Busari, says Nigeria’s large market should be explored to create more jobs for the people. He also explains how the Council achieved its five-point agenda under three years. He spoke with DAMILOLA ORIJA, in Abuja.
When you came on board as the Chief Executive Officer of the National Sugar Development Council a few years back, what did you set out to achieve?
Right from when I came on board, I set a five-point agenda for the institution - to get the National Sugar Master Plan approved; to restructure the organisation to give it the capacity to actually deliver on its mandate; to develop a financial independence strategy for the Council; to get our law amended to ensure that some of the provisions of the master plan are captured in the legislation for continuity; and to get the Council into what we planned to be the Sugar House. By the grace of God, to be specific, by May 25,2015, just at the eve of the last government, we were able to achieve all the five.
Wonderful! How did you go about this?
I came on board in March 2012. By September 2012, the Federal Executive Council approved the master plan. This was a huge miracle to many because of the challenges we had faced at the beginning. But we pulled it through because the masterplan was painstakingly put together to ensure that all t’s were crossed in the bid to have a vibrant sugar industry. For the restructuring, that was easy. I had been in the system. I knew we had to do the skills gap analysis; we had to come up with a new organogram; we had to see if we could retrain some members of staff and also employ new staff in areas we were found wanting.
On the issue of legislation, that was a very tough one. A lot of hard work went into it. In between, members of the National Assembly changed with elections and we had to start some processes afresh. But we were resolute, knowing the importance of the masterplan in the quest for sustainable growth. Fortunately, it was eventually signed into law. A lot of important provisions of the master plan are captured in the new law. For the Sugar House, we were lucky that we were able to secure this place. It was something we determined to have, having moved from one place to other since inception. Today, we say the eagle has finally landed. What is left now is how to implement the master plan itself because that was why we were set up. All the other points mentioned earlier were to empower us to be able to do that.
How would you describe your relationship with the private sector, especially in terms of getting their buyin for the National Sugar Master Plan?
When you are introducing a new policy, what it means is that you want to have people change from their normal ways of doing things. We introduced some sanctions that were worked into the master plan. We decided that the importation of raw sugar would be strictly under quota and would be approved by Mr. President. You get the quota if you are investing, which then means that if you do not invest, you don’t get a quota. Some stakeholders did not like some of those new things; they preferred the situation as it was. However, everybody agreed that we could produce what we consume and that importing sugar and exporting jobs could not be in Nigeria’s long-term interest. The only disagreement was how to go about achieving this goal. Even if the stakeholders wanted to go the Government way, they probably wanted it delayed. But we thought we needed to start because we had waited for too long already. But here we are now, having largely conquered those challenges.
In very simple terms, what will a vibrant sugar industry do for the nation’s economy?
A lot. So many industries depend on sugar as their critical raw material. Where the sugar industry is vibrant, therefore, many jobs are created. Pharmaceutical industries, bakeries, breweries, food and beverage companies, among others, need sugar as critical raw material, so where you don’t have it, it becomes a problem. Then, in sugar production, you have the agricultural and factory components. For agriculture, you need to have a farm, develop the cane field. This depends on the level of automation and mechanisation that you want to go for. You need a lot of people, so many jobs will be created. Now, sugarcane is seen as an energy crop, ultimately for the generation of electricity. Another product is ethanol, used as an industrial solvent, for beverages, because ethanol is like alcohol. It is also used with gasoline to provide automobile fuel. On the day the master plan was launched, for instance, the packet sugar producers promised the Honourable Minister and me, 3000 jobs before the end of the year. Those are some of the advantages, apart from food security, and you don’t have to depend on imports to get your own sugar. Prior to now, Nigeria imported 97 per cent of the sugar consumed in the country.
What has been your major challenge in the course of delivering on your mandate?
You would not believe this; the major challenge has been the attitude of other government agencies with respect to some of the core areas of the sugar council’s mandate. Take the issue of sugar importation, for instance. Under the new regime, only those who have Mr. President’s approval are allowed to import sugar, and it’s the work of Customs, not us, to enforce that. But you still find out that, somehow, people without the approval get sugar into the country and we won-der why? Assuming they somehow manage to get through the Customs, we have other agencies that could classify them as contraband and confiscate them, but this is not happening. It’s not only packet sugar that is banned. Nigerians can also package fruit juice, bag cement and create some jobs. If you leave the big manufacturers to produce them, they buy from them and then do these little ones. We were told in the beginning that the sugar policy would affect the St Louis brand, but we said, yes, is it not high time St louis thought of coming to set up a cubing plant in Nigeria. There is a particular place in France where that is what they do. Even when Nigeria came up with the policy of fortifying the sugar we consume, they went to invest in France to be able to supply. We are saying they should bring their plants here and be producing it here. They should create jobs for Nigerians. In all, the fact that we’ve not had the kind of collaboration that we believe we should get from other government agencies is a huge challenge.
What are you looking forward to seeing in the sugar sector in the next two years?
I want to see a sugar industry that the sugar council can be proud of. Apart from some of the sugar projects that we have, one way we think we could deepen the sugar industry is to also encourage stand-alone ethanol distilleries that will depend on sugarcane. Nigeria has the population advantage and should always explore this to create jobs for the masses. Those who want to explore the large Nigerian market should come here to produce.