Sunday, February 25, 2024

(BACKPAGE) The other paperless policy

BY LEKAN SOTE

It’s no more news that the Central Bank of Nigeria Governor, Godwin Emefiele, put the noses of all Nigerians through a grind with the introduction of a cashless policy that nearly ruined the Nigerian economy and impoverished many Nigerians.

There’s another paperless policy, whereby Nigeria’s policy makers, by sheer negligence and inability to look into the future, failed to implement appropriate policies to increase the availability of papers needed to feed the publishing and educational sectors of the Nigerian economy.

According to reports from the National Bureau of Statistics, Nigeria imported paper of all types in the following respective years, 2018; 2019; 2020, the year of Covid-19 pandemic; 2021; and 2023, up the following value: N214.3 billion; N491 billion; N188.6 billion; N328.9 billion; and N412 billion.

These figures provide a rough idea of how much Nigeria’s domestic paper manufacturing sub-sector fails to meet the paper needs of Nigerians. Imagine if these figures were added to Nigeria’s Gross Domestic Product, instead of being added to the import bill of Nigeria.

The Federal Government of Nigeria has tried by investing in three primary paper producing companies, namely, Nigeria Paper Mill, Jebba, Kogi State, Nigeria Newsprint Manufacturing Company, Oku Iboku, Cross River State, and Iwopin Pulp and Paper Company, in Ijebu Waterside, Ogun State. They are all now practically moribund.

So far, NPM, Jebba, with 65,000 metric tonnes annual production capacity, has the best performance of the three. In 1986, it hit its highest production capacity of 42.960 metric tonnes, or 66.1 per cent of its capacity. It is however, the only one, of the three primary paper producing companies, that has any semblance of continued operations.

NNMC, Oku Iboku, is worse. In 1990, it recorded its highest production of 37,580 or 37.6 per cent of its annual 100,000 metric tonnes of installed production capacity. IPPC, Iwopin, is the worst of the three. Out of annual 60,000 metric tonnes installed capacity, it hit a very poor 7.9 per cent or only 4,750 metric tonnes in 1996.

Before this disaster, the NNMC, Oku Iboku, had been able to reduce importation of newsprint, used by newspapers, by 17.5 per cent in 1986, further shaved it to 12.5 per cent in the following year, 1987, and down to an embarrassing zero in 1990.

“Poor government policies, inadequate research into the input and low manpower capacity are some of the elements that are working against the growth and development of the paper industry in Nigeria”

If NNMC had been working as planned, Nigeria could have joined Canada, Russia, Germany, France and Sweden as the biggest exporters of newsprint to the rest of the newspaper producing world.

The failure of NNMC has certainly compromised the capacity of the Nigerian media to fulfill its constitutional responsibility of holding the government accountable to the people of Nigeria.

That failure is a major weakness and the cause of the inability of the print sub-sector of the media industry to effectively contribute to the Gross Domestic Product and to employment of youths in the Nigerian economy.

The significance of the paper industry in Nigeria is that it is allied to the book publishing, printing, packaging, the educational sector and the print sub-sector of the media industry. Think of the quantum of school textbooks, literature texts and newspapers that have to be produced for Nigeria’s more than 200 million people.

When you have to import paper for the huge volume of the printing industry for the country with the largest population in Africa, you will also have to import the domestic inflation of the exporting country.

Add to that the landing or freight cost. It’s the same way you have to always have to add the landing cost of imported petroleum products which should have been refined in Nigeria’s moribund refineries.

Also, add the cost of acquiring the foreign currency which you must use to pay for the commodity, which, like other agricultural produce or manufactures, are traded in hard currencies. As everyone knows, Nigeria’s foreign exchange regime is probably the most toxic in the world.

Then you can begin to imagine the irresponsible behaviour of state actors, who established the paper mills at exceedingly huge costs, only to turn around and irresponsibly allow the investments to go to waste, to go to rot actually.

By the end of 1986, more than 100,000 hectares of gmelina economic trees had been planted in Nigeria, with the intention of producing plywood, particle board, light construction materials, accessories for home interiors, household furniture, even crafts, sculptures and souvenirs.

While all these are still available from gmelina as a derivative of the agro-allied sector of the economy, paper products are in terribly short supply in the country. Primary paper products that the three paper mills should make available now come from foreign economies.

How none of Nigeria’s state actors begins to understand that the situation could, should, be reversed, so that Nigeria exports, not only primary paper products, but also final paper products, is baffling and disappointing.

Poor government policies, inadequate research into the input and low manpower capacity are some of the elements that are working against the growth and development of the paper industry in Nigeria.

And, talking about manpower capacity building for the paper industry, it appears that only Lagos State University School of Communication trains high level publishing professionals in the tertiary education sector of the country.

Though some polytechnics, led by Yaba College of Technology, still produce printers and graphics professionals, the dearth of high level personnel who will drive and manage the publishing industry will not allow that sub-sector of the economy to grow as it should.

This lack of critical personnel to think for the growth and expansion of the paper industry will certainly have direct impact on the availability and cost of newsprint used to print the newspaper that you are holding in your hands right now

And you get no price for correctly guessing that a huge chunk of employment for the youths has been washed away by the lack of impetus to grow the paper industry in Nigeria. In the first, second, third and fourth quarters of 2022, the pulp, paper and paper products industry only managed to contribute N13.8 billion, N9.7 billion, N12.21 billion and N12.73 billion.

In 2021, China and America were the two biggest manufacturers of paper and paper products. While China produced as much as 125 million metric tonnes, America, a distant second, produced 67.5 million metric tonnes.

To revive its practically moribund primary paper industry, with basic raw materials coming from wood, Nigerian governments –at all levels– must think through a grand book and publishing industry, decide on the scope and volume of the industry to be built, ground up, look for a funding model and get to work in earnest.

Now, those who argue for a paperless society, where people read and store information virtually, quite forgot all kinds of packaging, greeting cards, tissue paper, toilet rolls, even computer printouts, that even the most inventive mind of man has found no alternative.

It’s almost the same hype that is built around the imminent dumping of fossil fuels because of the lobby for a cleaner environment and the availability of electric cars that Elon Musk’s Tesla motors is already producing.

Paper will be around for a long time. Weyerhaeuser, that is replanting new trees, will see to that. Like Big Pharma, the tree planting industry and the allied paper industry will continue to be for some time.

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