It is recognized the world over that the value of Agricultural produce, like most other trading assets, is a function of the quality. The better the quality the higher the income accruing there from. The Nigerian experience has however, shown in the last couple of years, that the income accruing from the export of produce, has been on a steady decline, due mainly to quality issues.
Factors affecting Quality
Quality can be related to the uniqueness of a product compared to it’s taste, market value and the rare characteristics of the product to it’s consumer and in the market at large. The main factors that affect ar.d/or determine the inherent quality of Agricultural Produce can be distinguished between factors that can be controlled and/ or improved and those which cannot.
Soil and climate are the two major factors, which are somewhat beyond the control of the farmer in quality determination. Some soils carry more nutrients and in different proportions to other sand naturally have an effect on the final product.
Produce farmers may take some actions on the types of soil by adding nutrients, but usually they are forced to accept the soil types they have inherited. There is also little influence the farmer can exert over the climate.
For cocoa, for example, lack of rainfall at the appropriate time will result in pods containing smaller beans, with the nibs not only being proportionately smaller but also containing less fat.
The farmers and market operations themselves, in assuring high quality products, can control a number of other factors, which impact on the quality of produce, to a reasonable extent. The farmer, for example, does have some control over the specie (or type) of crop grown. Although this may appear somewhat academic to those who already have existing crop stands, the fact remains that some hybrids have been found to be higher-yielding and more resistant to some diseases.
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Other factors which come under the control of the farmer/trader include farming practices, harvesting techniques/ processes, post-harvest preparation (fermentation, drying, floating, etc) packing, storage and handling, fumigation, etc.)
Quality assurance is the planned and conscious effort at ensuring that the overall quality of a product conforms to given standard, beginning from the point of production. It involves the systematic design and manipulation of the factors, activities and functions that would impact on the final quality of the product from the onset.
Quality Assurance is the heart of ensuring the highest possible returns (in terms of quality) from produce production and exports. The main objective of Quality Assurance is to get the quality of the produce “right first time”, (i.e. at the point of production).
The reasoning is that if the quality of produce is not assured at the production, harvesting and drying level, no amount of subsequent efforts will improve the quality.
This therefore means that the most important group of stakeholders in assuring high quality agricultural export products in Nigeria are the farmers who are expected to assure quality right from the farms.
The quality assurance techniques may vary for different products, but there is a high degree of certainly that a higher quality product will be achieved if standard practices of farming, harvesting, timing, post-harvest preparation, storage and handling are followed by most farmers.
Another basic requirement for achieving high quality agricultural export products in Nigeria is for the government and other stakeholders to take decisive steps at establishing effective and functional quality control mechanisms.
Briefly defined, quality control is a system for programming and coordinating the efforts of the various groups involved in maintaining or improving the quality of a product.
From the foregoing, it can be seen that quality control is a more embracing concept that includes all the operational techniques and activities in achieving high quality produce. It does not just stop at ensuring that the quality of the product is achieved (or assured) at the point of production, it also embodies other efforts at ensuring that the quality does not degenerate between the point of production and final destination.
Therefore, part of the total quality control has to include proper storage facilities, effective extension services, training of buyers on grading, provision of access to suitable equipment, timely evacuation/ transportation from buying center to port, etc. For most produce like Ginger, the sooner they are taken to the port of loading and dispatched to the final receiver, the less chance there is for any further deterioration in quality.
Other Problems Associated With Quality Control in Nigeria
In addition to some of the factors already highlighted under quality assurance, the following reasons may explain the poor quality of agricultural produce in Nigeria.
Procurement of Poor Quality by Traders
A general factor in the quality issue in Nigeria is that private traders, whether or not they pre-financed the farmer, buy produce from farmers before it has been properly prepared, dried and/or fermented. They are not necessarily doing this out of ignorance, but because they want to collect a certain volume before competitors do so.
Moreso, they know that they will pay a lower price usually when the quality is poor. Some of them subsequently do additional processing by themselves, others blend (mix) the bad ones with better quality stuff. However, with poorer quality produce going into the chain and reaching the port, the average quality is inevitably going down.
Secondly, quality controls in Nigeria are more limited to the port level than the agrarian hinterland where the actual production is done. And where upcountry control still exists, it appears to be more nominal than effective. This should not have been so as the controls are expected to have started from the farms. This is true because once the produce is in the port warehouse, it is too late to correct the situation.
Ignorance of Trade Financier
Quality problem is also linked to the financing of the trade. Most Banks involved in produce financing are not always interested in the quality. They will always tell you, ignorantly, that they are not “commodity bankers” and so, many of them simply act as general bankers, even lending on the basis of non-commodity-related collateral (property etc). So from this angle too, there is no incentive in the first part of the chain to buy and sell high quality produce and to have it stored and transported while maintaining quality.
Sharp Increase in Market Operators
Another factor that has affected the quality of Nigerian produce is the sharp increase in the number of operators, particularly of the exporters, most of whom lack the necessary experience and financial backing. The proliferation of these unorganized and inexperienced operators has resulted in a “product hunting” situation, putting pressure on farmers to sell “anything”. The result is loss of confidence in the quality of most Nigerian export produce by the international market.
Reduction of Phytosanitary Treatments
Furthermore, the reduction of phytosanitary treatments, due to lack of financial resources for the acquisition of production inputs such as fertilizer and pesticides and their scarcity in the local market, has also impacted negatively on the quality of the Nigerian produce.