Could you elaborate on the mandate of the Standards Organisation of Nigeria (SON)?
SON is a government agency that acts as a national standards group for Nigeria and is also involved in the quality assurance of all products. Our regulatory regime is limited to non-food and non-drug items. We do not handle food or drugs, except at the level of the elaboration of standards. All standards in Nigeria are elaborated in line with international practice. Our role has actually dovetailed into being part of a trade facilitation team. For example, if Nigeria wants to promote exports, the typical Nigerian exporter may not understand European standards, whereupon it is our responsibility to ensure sufficient testing such that when Nigerian products are exported, they are not rejected. If, for example, there is a standard for cement in Europe, and we lack our own standard, we adopt that of the European market, making it easier for us to trade with those nations. We also create so-called Mutual Recognition Agreements (MRAs) between countries allowing them to freely trade with one another. Our role is not limited to the original mandate of quality assurance. Any product entering Nigeria must be certified by us, especially those classified as life-endangering products such as tires, reinforcement bars, or toys. Therefore, standards must define the health, safety, and environmental impact. There is also a performance role. If a foreign manufacturer has been breaching standards, we have the responsibility to blacklist it from selling in Nigeria. We have not fine-tuned this mechanism, but have created a better base today for ensuring that such manufacturers and their local counterparts are not allowed to deal in Nigeria, from whom we block access to foreign exchange in cooperation with the Central Bank. In 2011, there was a huge volume of substandard products in Nigeria, and we observed that the nation had effectively experienced deindustrialization. Local manufacturers found themselves competing with substandard products. Yet, the fight is on, and we are taking it beyond Nigeria in order to set a pan-African standardization precedent.
You recently outlined an agenda with multiple strategy points for SON. What can you tell us about this?
Firstly, it is essential to improve the competitiveness of Nigerian-made products. Secondly, there is no quality control infrastructure, in other words, no accreditation body. And neither do we have a peer review mechanism with other accredited organizations in other parts of the world. Therefore, our test results are not yet applicable in Europe and America, as a result of which our exports lose substantial value. So, we are currently working on establishing quality infrastructure and creating an accreditation body. In another example, we have a metrology laboratory, but need to upgrade it to a metrological institute. We also need to harness the private sector through public-private partnerships (PPPs). Thirdly, our agenda is to create awareness by engaging the consumer in Nigeria. To achieve that, we also have media engagement and make sure the media is sufficiently trained and best positioned to disseminate information on what we are doing. Fourth, aggressive conformity assessment helps us to make sure that products imported from China are tested there by certified companies before being shipped. The system, while improved, is not yet 100% perfected. We are set to conduct a review at the end of 2014 because looking ahead we are keen to deepen our relationship with SMEs, which comprise the bulk of the economy, contributing the most to GDP and employing the most people. To maximize their efficiency, we need to engage them in awareness of each other's particular offering. For example, a community that assembles vehicles loses out to China if a client wants to purchase engine oil and lubricant, despite the fact that companies just 2 km away are able to provide them, thus, benefiting the local economy. Our responsibility is to create such linkages.
What would you offer to foreign firms keen to partner with the agency?
We need partnerships in the area of standards elaboration. Some of the multinationals have certain experience in areas where our experience is lacking. That becomes an area of collaboration; they teach us. Secondly, Nigeria has developed an automotive policy, but has yet to develop the capacity to certify vehicles. We need to be able to build capacity, to have the knowledge base to be able to certify these vehicles, and to be able to check them against established standards. Also, we need people to set up testing centers and standards development organizations.