Barrister (Mrs) Vera Ndanusa is the Director, Nigerian Association of Women Entrepreneurs (NAWE) in Niger State and the President of the Female Rice Farmers Co-operative in the state. In this interview, she says if government invests in Shea butter business, it could make up for fluctuating crude oil export. Excerpt:
Tell us about the prospects of Shea butter business in Nigeria?
Shea butter has been with us for a long time. You can call it as a business that is being run and operated by women. As an entrepreneur, I like to encourage women and to help them harness what they have to improve their production. It has revenue generation potential that if the Nigerian government focuses on, it can take over from crude oil export.
How would you advice government to go about it, based on the potential you just mentioned?
Government knows of the potential because they try to come up with some policies, but the problem that has been bedeviling us in Nigeria is that most of these policies are not well articulated. Again those that implement them don’t do that to the letter. Along the line, you will see variations, deviations and all that. So, they are not getting to those that should really benefit.
Nigeria is one of the biggest producers of Shea butter in the whole world. We have it but our export level is very low. The CEO of Nigerian Export Promotion Council (NEPC), Mr. Segun Awolowo said that the Shea butter industry can bring in over 100 million dollars as revenue if we harness it properly. If government invest in it, it will grow. Because Shea Butter is in high demand. So why would we allow other countries to steal our products and pass it as their own?
Why do you think we are still having issues making a breakthrough in the export market?
We are not adding value because we don’t have the appropriate machines. The German Technical Company, GIZ in Niger State is trying. They have trained a few people in the state. They have trained pickers. We have those that pick the nuts, we have those that process it and then we have those that market it. I can tell you authoritatively that in the hinterland from where we get the Shea nuts, foreigners are there. The Chinese are there. Some of them know our villages better than we do. They buy the nuts and Shea butter and export them. Our Shea butter is taken from here to Ghana and further exported from Ghana as Ghanaian Shea butter. Meanwhile, the Shea butter is from Nigeria.
So we need the machineries to help us add value to what we produce here in Nigeria. We need the machines which make processing easier and purifying it better. Manual processing will not completely remove the impurities..
Basically, what is our Shea butter used for when it is exported abroad?
It’s used in a lot of things. That is the value chain that Nigeria can key into. It is used in pharmaceuticals, cosmetics and in the food industry. It’s used in making body moisturizers and for making chocolates as well.
What should government do to help grow this sector?
Governments need to invest in growing the Shea trees. Because Shea trees take up to 20/25 years to mature, but the research institute have come up with trees that produce from five to seven years. So governments have to purposely invest in the growing of Shea trees.
They also have to invest in the processing of Shea butter. We need to process our Shea butter to meet international best practices and standard. We are still behind in our packaging. When we go for exhibitions abroad and you see our Shea butter that has been repackaged, you will know that we are far behind. The percentage of us in the business that can compete with the international standard in our packaging is few compared to our Shea butter potential.
And in production, a research in 2018 showed we were able to produce 500,000 tonnes per year but what was exported was just 25 percent of that amount.
Governments need to be involved in this business. They need to invest in it, so the production level can increase and so that our processing can meet international standard, and the packaging must be right. When we do that, I guess we will not miss crude oil.
Have you formed clusters so that government can engage the women properly when they want to invest?
Oh yes. We have the Shea Butter Association, and in the Nigerian Association of Women Entrepreneurs (NAWE), we have the Shea group and we try to interface with government on our challenges and how best to intervene. But government can come in by providing us with loans and capacity building.
You also package local rice, tell us more about it?
I love seeing people look good. Not only physically, but health wise. When you eat right, you will be well. I can tell you that our local rice is one of the best rice varieties in the world because of the nutrients. It’s not easy packaging rice in Nigeria. In 2014 when the present AfDB President, Mr Adeshina Akinwumi, was Minister of Agriculture, we had an agriculture fair. He came to our stand and saw our rice, Veez Nature Rice well packaged, and he promised us a milling machine. All the efforts to get it failed.
Till date, we don’t have a milling machine hence, we do it manually or we go to commercial millers whom we pay to mill. And so long as its commercial millers that you’re using, you cannot control the quality that comes out. If we had that mill, God knows how far we would have gone. We could not get it on our own because it is expensive. We wanted the one that mills, de-stones, par boils and then we package – like four machine in one.
Have you tried to get assistance from Bank of Industry (BOI) or Bank of Agriculture (BOA)?
You know it’s easier said than done. You know we have beautiful policies, but many stop at rhetoric. If you want it from these banks, the documentation is too much. I am a lawyer, so if I find it difficult to access these loans, you can imagine how some of these women can get it. It’s not easy to come by.
The Female Rice Cooperatives tried to get the Anchors Borrowers money, but to no avail. Sometimes is not the money we need but the machineries. If we get our machineries and packaging materials, we are good to go. And then we need capacity building. We need constant capacity building to meet with international best practices. Also, individually we need training and re-training to upgrade ourselves.
What have you learnt as an entrepreneur?
You need to be strong. Have integrity. If you say your product is good, then it should be so. As an entrepreneur, you have to improve on yourself. Today, I looked at the Shea butter my company produces and I said I must improve my packaging. Manage your time well and learn to juggle the home front and business as well.
I studied Business Administration from Bida Poly and Law from University of Abuja. I went to Nigeria Law School, Bwari. I have attended trainings abroad.