Barrister Osita Aboloma, Director-General, Standards Organisation of Nigeria (SON), spoke with The Commerce Africa’s Managing Editor, Yusuf Issa An-Nuphawi on emergency issuance of standards to the manufacturers of personal protective equipment (PPE) and hand sanitizers during economic shutdown occasioned by coronavirus pandemic.
Would you share your experience with us on how you issued standards and certifications for the production of personal protective equipment by local manufacturers during the economic shutdown?
Aboloma: The Standards Organisation of Nigeria (SON) is the National Standards Bureau (NSB). By its mandate, NSB is the representative of Nigeria at the level of international standardisation bodies. Coronavirus pandemic occasioned shutdown of the economy. As a result, a lot of the local manufacturers shift from the production of their primary goods to the market demanding personal protective equipment (PPEs) and other consumables that are related to the fight against COVID-19.
SON was a member of the Presidential Task Force (PTF) for the sustainability of production and delivery of essential materials during the lockdown. So, we leveraged on our existing understandings and collaborations with the relevant international bodies to access standards that are required for the production of PPEs which were not in high demand in the pre-COVID-19 period. We were able to access the required standards, at no cost, for local the manufacturers. We accessed a total of twenty-nine, 29, standards from the International Organisation for Standardisation (ISO) and African Organisation for Standardization. We were also in touch with the Economic Community of West African Countries (ECOWAS), Commission to share ideas and offering solutions to novel challenges during the crisis. We made these standards available to the PTF, State Governments and manufacturers producing PPEs in order to guide them and ensuring that what they produce meet the requirements of the relevant standards. Our forty-two offices across the States of the Federation were also on the alert to provide quality assurance guidelines to the manufacturers of PPEs such as barrier masks, hand sanitizers and ventilators.
Did you issue certification to manufacturers of PPE during the emergency?
Aboloma: A part from industrial manufacturers, a lot of tertiary institutions went into the production of ventilators in order to address the challenge of shortage. So, our offices in Lagos, Akwa Ibom, Cross River, Abuja, Ogun, and Edo had to go to major institutions in the States, take the relevant standards along to provide guidance, and of course, we have enough experienced staff who took part in the development of the standards. While we were doing this, we were not doing it for the purposes of certification. Because it was in an emergency. We were just doing them for guidance to ensure that at that particular time in the emergency situation, everything was produced in line with the requirements of the standards. There was no time to go through the rigorous process of certification.
All we were concerned about was the safety of Nigerians, and to ensure that the manufacturing sector of the economy was sustainable at that time. So, we made the standards available. The PPE that was more in use was the barrier mask. So, during the lockdown, we reached out to the ECOWAS and initiated the process of harmonizing the standards within the subregion to arrest negative impact that may stem from the porosity of the borders between the countries in West Africa. So, in spite of the lockdown of the economy, of course using IT facilities, we went into standards development, harmonization processes and meetings to ensure that the standards were in place.
With your intervention, one can deduce that manufacturers of PPEs have made a lot of incomes during the lockdown. Can you give us an estimate of what your intervention translates in income term?
Aboloma: That will be difficult. Don’t forget that everything that we did at that period were under the auspices of the PTF on sustainable production of essential materials. So, we were working in connection with all other agencies, ministries and departments under the PTF of which we were a member. Only the PTF can quantify economic impact of our collective efforts in term of revenue.
Nigeria recorded significant progress in 2019 ease of doing business ranking. How did you contribute to that achievement?
Aboloma: We embraced automation to ensure a shorter turnaround time and improved service efficiency. We automated most of our services. More than 90% of the process of registering products is now done electronically. Processing of certification for locally-manufactured products is now done electronically. Because we embraced automation, we are able to reduce customers’ crowd in our offices for services, achieve efficiency and effectiveness in our operations. And these are the ways we contributed to moving up the Country in the ranking of the ease of doing business.
What are you doing in preparation for the implementation of AfCFTA to ensure that Nigeria, the largest market in Africa, is not made a dumping ground for sub-standard products?
Aboloma: The Federal Ministry of Industry, Trade and Investment, our supervising ministry, is the focal point of AfCFTA matters in Nigeria. But SON is central to the National Quality Infrastructure (NQIF) because of its statutory mandate of standardisation. There must be standards with which to adjudge products and services. Quality assurance or conformity assessment is part of our key mandates as a standard bureau. We are also key to the promotion of the National Accreditation Service (NAS). It is the delivery of the NQIF that will prepare Nigeria effectively for the implementation of the AfCFTA agreement. And we have gone far in the establishment and implementation of NQIF before the signing of the AfCFTA agreement by President Muhammadu Buhari.
What is your relationship with other government agencies on the matters of intelligence gathering on sub-standard products?
Aboloma: We have a wonderful relationship with sister regulatory and security agencies. In fact, without them there is no way we can work in terms of actualizing our mandate of curbing amount of substandard or life-threatening products that are coming into the country, or have been produced within the country. We work seamlessly with all the security agencies which include the Nigerian Police Force, the DSS, and even the Office of the National Security Adviser, NIA, Customs, NAFDAC, and others. So, the success of standardization is actually hinged on stakeholders’ participation. And our activities are based on effective collaborations with the relevant stakeholders. So, whether with the organized private sector or with sister regulatory agencies or with MDAs, everything that we do on a daily basis is hinged on collaboration. Our 42 offices across the nation are doing their work, working with respective state governments and other bodies to ensure that our mandate is effectively implemented in each of these states. So, SON’s mandate is stakeholders-driven.
What is your recent estimation of investments lost to substandard goods?
Aboloma: It is regrettable that we are not positioned at the point of entries into the Country. We have less problem with products that are manufactured in Nigeria, and that is because we can always track them to where they have been manufactured. And in any case, our mandate is to guide local manufacturers to meet the requirement of standards, even if they have started and they are not meeting it, we have a responsibility to guide them. It is only those who refused to be guided and are recalcitrant that you will find us shutting down. So, we do not have problem with products that are locally manufactured. But our problems are simply issues of circumventing the Off-shore Conformity Assessment Programmes, issue of wrong declaration, and issue of using the Federal Government’s approvals for raw materials and machineries to bring in finished substandard products by some unscrupulous elements. They are the key problems we have in the area of tackling substandard and life-threatening products in Nigeria.
What are your challenges?
Aboloma: The usual challenges. Well, we can do with a lot more resources from the government. We can do with a lot more support from international development partners. At the moment, we have almost completed laboratory structures in all the six geo-political zones. In fact, they are just waiting for commissioning. But those structures need to be equipped. Laboratory equipment are denominated in foreign currencies. They cost a lot. Personnel to man them are not just anybody, they must be trained and qualified. The chemical reagents and other materials to use are also denominated in foreign currencies. So, we required all these in the standardization, in conformity assessment and quality assurance. So, we can do with a lot more support from the government and even the Nigerian populace, ensuring that whenever they see something unwholesome happening around them, they report immediately to SON. Since SON cannot be everywhere, the information we get from people will go a long way to assist us in tackling issues around substandard goods and services.