Africa: Nigerian Travel Expert Uko Says Air Cargo Is The Future For Food Distribution, Wealth For Farmers And The Economy

Siginon cargo safety handling aviation

The passion exhibited by stakeholders to ensure that air cargo grows in Nigeria at the just concluded CHINET21 Aviation Cargo has shown that, there is a lot the Aviation Industry and farmers stand to benefit if government agencies and major players play their part.

The CHINET21 Conference has brought to the fore the challenges militating against the growth of Air Cargo in Nigeria and there were avalanche of suggestions on how to reduce these challenges to the barest by experts, professionals and operators in the business.

CHINET21, is the first ever Aviation Cargo and Export in Nigeria with 100% focus on air cargo bringing together the Who is Who in the air cargo and export sector in Nigeria.

For the first time, NEPC, NAFDAC, Exporters, the CBN, Ground handlers, Cargo Operators, State Government among others where in the room to talk, agree and disagree on the subject matter.
In this interview, the organizer of the CHINET21 Conference, Mr. Ikechi Uko speaks on the fall out of the conference and how the communique if fully implemented would benefit Nigeria as a country.

What do you have to say of the just concluded conference as the organizer?
What we heard is that it was the best conference in two years, I heard things like oh! I couldn’t leave the hall because there was new knowledge being shared, what I learnt the most is, there are so many knowledgeable people in Nigeria, so you wonder why we are not getting it right. But I also learnt something that everybody else that was also in the hall was an expert in something.

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You found people correcting people in areas that the other person is not a master of. Someone who we taught knows everything, when he came to talk, other people say sorry you are wrong. I saw that people got to the limit of their knowledge, so we all learnt, it was something that was needed.

Now, outside the attendance and the biggest fall out of that is, that cargo and export environment is actually a very challenging environment that nobody ever bothered about trying to resolve and it is difficult because there are so many agencies involved. One of those agencies told me, this thing (Conference) worked because it was done by you, if any of the agencies tried this kind of conference, the others wouldn’t come and that is part of the problem why we have the dysfunction.

Am impressed with the fact that, we are beginning to understand what the problems are, everybody seems to know the problem but nobody has made an effort to resolve it. Am excited that we have started a conversation and the Whatsapp platform has showed that this conversation needs to be done because new things are coming out. Am being asked to put together another event that would bother on an implementation of some of these things that we have understood.

Boosting air cargo is laced with so much challenges as highlighted by stakeholders at the conference, some people may say, we have had so many conferences on this matter, will this one not be another talk show with a communique at the end of the day to gather dust.

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My answer has been that, we are the ones who put it together, we understood the problems and I have done conferences over the past 20 years in putting together events and we are effective in delivering not just the conference but in helping in implementing the outcome. Part of what we have done in working on the communique is, we have actually drill down to the real problem. Before next year’s event, there will be a town hall where we will try to look at the implementations of the suggestions and we also have to put together an expert committee that would advise every single agency that needs some help to get this thing done, we need to have a checklist, we need to have a cargo terminal both local and international.

The Government is working on the cargo terminals currently.
Yes, the government for Lagos we know but for domestic, there are no cargo terminals outside MM2. We need to highlight some of these things so people can begin to see that it is not just a talk shop. Being the first time we are able to bring all of this together. We understood the fact that, there has been no communication and people operate in silos and that needs to change.

We have problem of packaging, the packaging has to be done where the plane goes off, if it is vegetables, are they done to the right specifications? The IGAP they are talking about, which organization in Nigeria is supervising and certifying, none. In all these challenges that have been identified, our job between now and June 2022 is to activate, engage advocacy and talk to the relevant agencies involve in this process.

Am seeing a desire by those agencies to do better, they are receptive to what we are doing and they have said help us get these information and we will be able to implement our own side. But there needs to be a global certification standards that if I need to export within one week, I should be able to go through all the documentation and get my export out, that is where we will need more help.

Many stakeholders are putting the ball in the court of the government in ensuring seamless air cargo, they talked about charges, taxes, multiplicity of agencies etc what about the stakeholders themselves?
Somebody said yesterday, these things are private sector driven and I said to some extent, because of the fact that, there were two handling agencies that we know, NAHCO and SAHCO and they couldn’t fix rates. These are two private companies, NCAA has to get involved to help them fix rates that means, you cannot claim it’s private sector driven when two companies could not sit down and agree on rates for ground handling. So, government needs to play a big role and government needs to organize because anything that has to do with export, you are dealing with a foreign country, you have customs, you have certification, you have standards, private sector can’t do that. It is not possible for private sector to certify itself, handle every aspect of it.

Do you think there are so many charges?
I don’t think there are so many charges because we are hearing that NAFDAC does not charge, Quarantine doesn’t charge, Export Promotion Council doesn’t. So when we hear about these charges, what are those charges? Are they handling charges? Are they taxes that need to be paid for? Those are some of the things that we need to interrogate, we hear charges, charges, where are those charges coming from? Those are the things we are going to work out with the stakeholders to find out what are these charges, what is it that you complain about?. I agree that timeliness and so many agencies getting involved is a problem, we all admit that even the government agencies, what you are supposed to have at the ports maybe Quarantine, NAFDAC, Customs now you have other security agencies who do not agree on listening to any other person. They are superior to these other agencies, that is why you will see multiplicity of agencies at the airports.

That means the FG has a big role to play?
Yes, there has to be a One-Stop Shop in that terminal just like they have done for passengers services, you come, you check-in, get your boarding pass, check-in your load and go and wait for the aircraft. Your box goes to the screening room where everybody’s box is screened. Before now, you do Quarantine, NDLEA, Customs, there are four agencies at that table, that has been eliminated. So, we also need to eliminate this for cargo. You go into a room where the machine screens it, everybody is there with their own system and then screen and it passes, there is only one screening point.

Lets go to packaging, at the conference, some stakeholders say packaging is a problem, do you think packaging is a big problem?
Even those who say packaging is not a problem, they also said that Nigerians do not package well. Packaging is very, very important. We are told that if you are doing fruits, there has to be holes so that air can enter, if you are doing vegetables it has to be packed like this, if you are doing meat it has its own form of packaging. So, there are specifications and if you go to any store in Europe and see how those things are packed, it is the same mangoes, the same bananas, why don’t we invest in packaging? I don’t think anybody can say packaging is not a problem, what I have heard is that packaging alone is not a solution to the problem. There is the certification and the traceability; we have to know what you use in your farm and what type of chemicals you are using in your farm? It is important, that is where we have problem in Nigeria.

If air cargo is to get a boost in Nigeria like you just mentioned, the farmers also need to be carried along, in this regard what is your committee doing to ensure that the issue of traceability is done?
First, we are getting educated about the IGAP projects, almost all the big stores in the world have those certifications, we don’t have many people in Nigeria who do certification, most times you have to bring outsiders to come and certify this product. When someone is growing his grains or apple and he says he wants to export, if it is not certified it cannot go, we need to start getting into that certification level.

For some countries, there are NGO’s I know in East Africa who bring those experts to do that certification in the country. Nigeria as a country needs to look into that because that is a big problem. These people have to come and say these are the standards, these are the chemicals that are not allowed to be used for farming and there has to be an extension programme to our farmers. States government have to come in to help their farmers who want to export to be able to set the right standards. If you are going to plant apple, these are the chemicals you cannot use, so that traceability starts from the farm. You don’t need to come and check my produce at the airport, I already have certification from the farms, State governments now have to get involved in that aspect.

For this export thing to work, State Governments have to get involved in the farm because farm produce are 75% of our export, traceability is important. So, our advocacy would be to the Ministry of Agric in each of those states because that is what delivers the quality that we can put in the aircraft.

Should we see this conference as a light in the dark tunnel in the growth or enhancement of air cargo in the country?
I think so and I will tell you why. This is big business, passenger traffic is very small, a particular airline brings a passenger plane in a day and brings five cargo planes in a day. So cargo is massive and we have a country where we need to employ people, we need to feed people, we are just importing. The success of air cargo in Nigeria would herald an export revolution in this country, that if we are going to make air cargo seamless in this country, it is going to be massive.
Goods do rot, tomatoes are harvested, it doesn’t get to the table, it rots. If you put it in these trailers and they say one bridge has broken somewhere, it rots. Air cargo is the future for food distribution, for wealth for farmers, for the economy.

For me, what we have started with the air cargo conference is not just the export. The DG of NCAA told me, you are thinking of export, what of domestic cargo? That this is even bigger, no domestic cargo airline, we only have one that is distributing for DHL, where are the domestic cargo planes, none.

There is no domestic cargo airline, there is domestic cargo distribution by air, everybody is stuck on the road, the roads keep going bad meanwhile, one 737 can carry what 20 trailers are carrying in one hour and come back. A 737 deployed on a route can take out all those trailers bringing produce. What this conference has done is to highlight the importance of air cargo and I see it as the future of not just aviation but trade and wealth for Nigeria.

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