The Tilapia From China, By Aliyu Modibbo Umar

The last time I wrote on the “banana invasion”, a handful of my friends, wondered why I am writing on what appeared to them as mundane issue. “Why not write on the burning issues of the day,” one of them queried. “Such as?” I enquired. My friend continued by recounting my enormous experience in government. “You worked for over 10 years in the Villa, have been Minister three times, you should give us your perspective on the political maneuverings going on in the country.”

Now, to me that is the problem. Everyone is speaking too much on politics and neglecting lively discourse on trade, agriculture and similar things that provide the citizens of our country the means for day-to-day survival. “For now, I will continue to write on issues on lopsided trade policies which places our farmers and industrialists at disadvantage by allowing unfair competition.” I politely responded.

One of those major Nigeria contradictions that caught my attention recently, is the importation of Tilapia, a fish which can be produced in abundance in Nigeria. If you recently savored, a perfectly baked tilapia fish at home or at that favorite bukka joint anywhere in Nigeria, most likely it is imported from China. Yes, you heard me correctly, that tilapia you just ate and washed down with whatever your favorite drink is, most likely imported from far away China. My new knowledge that we are consuming tilapia from China was prompted from the reaction of my cousin on the article on the foreign banana importation.

My cousin, who joined me for dinner, noticing fat baked tilapia on the table, exclaimed, “I bet you that fish is from China.” I immediately protested. How can I think even remotely that Nigeria would import tilapia, which is a common fish from Lagos to Maiduguri? Didn’t the Ministry of Agriculture embark on an extensive programme to introduce tilapia fish farming in Nigeria to boost its production but mostly to provide jobs for the populace? My cousin must be joking I thought. But to my utmost surprise, and to prove to me that he is not lying, he placed a call to his fish seller. “Madam Bukka, the tilapia you are now baking, where is it from?” “China,” she responded on the speakerphone. “sebi, you have my BB pin? Send the picture of the tilapia in the carton to me, now.” After a few minutes, my cousin gave me his blackberry with an “I told you so grin on his face and when I looked at the screen of the phone, it was staring back at me! A Chinese packaged tilapia fish in Nigeria.

For a moment, I began to imagine the ordeal the Chinese tilapia had to endure before getting into my wife’s cooking pot. First, I reckoned it had to be harvested at a Chinese fish farm, then it will be marketed dead or alive by a Chinese entrepreneur, who will clean up, sprinkle some preservatives on it, then package it in a box with Made in China boldly printed on it, ready for shipment to us knowing that we buy anything in Nigeria.

A cursory investigation reveals that China is the largest exporter of tilapia in the world. Other leading suppliers are Indonesia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Thailand. It is reported that Iran and India have started massive tilapia farming. According to OA Fagbenro et al in their paper title, 60 Years of Tilapia Aquaculture in Nigeria, our country with over 25 species of tilapia is the second largest producer of farm-raised tilapias in Africa, after Egypt. Being the second largest producer of tilapia in Africa, one would have thought that Nigeria should be exporting tilapia to other African countries and not importing from China or any other country for that matter.

Nigeria has no reason to allow massive importation of tilapia to the detriment of the potential for massive tilapia production in our nation. Raising a tilapia farm is not as they say, rocket science. Rather, it is an endeavor that can be done with over 90% locally sourced fish farm requirements and a little aquaculture input sourced locally. So why should Nigeria go through the same embarrassment of having to allow massive importation of tilapia into the country? On a daily basis our fish and shrimps stock worth billions of Naira is stolen from our territorial waters and to compound the embarrassing situation, we spend billions of naira also to import tilapia from China.

Something doesn’t quite add up here. If we forget financial technicalities and just do a simple arithmetic, it is disheartening the amount of money that should have been earned by Nigerian entrepreneurs that we so freely allow to take a flight to far away china or the employment potentials and opportunities that we carelessly throw overboard as it were. Something fishy must be going on here! I think, and rightly so too, that Nigeria as a matter of urgent need should really re-examine its import policies especially in food related items that we have or ought to have advantage in. Since the last time I wrote about imported bananas, I have noticed that instead of abating, more new labels of banana have made it to Nigerian market.

This is in addition to tomatoes, pepper, carrots, onions, mushrooms, and vegetables that are easily grown in Nigeria. If you, doubt my claim, please visit any market, anywhere in the country to attest to this. It is demeaning, it is disheartening, it is uninspiring and it is destructive to the commercial fiber of our country and indeed a great threat to food security and job creation. No other nation that I know of would allow food to be taken out of the mouth of her citizens so brazenly as it is being done here in Nigeria.

We import mangoes while we have several species of mangoes rotting away stretching from Keffi all the way to Ogoja. We are importing peanuts, when the groundnuts of Kano are grown all over the country. There is imported bitter kola and kolanuts when the country can produce enough for its local consumption if not for export. Where and why have we acquired this psychological crave for things that are imported? Nigeria as a nation should step up her act in order to restore confidence in our locally manufactured goods and farm produce.


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If it continues unabated like this, the impact would be too devastating to our collective psyche. Driving through a busy street the other day, I caught a glimps of the various food items displayed. I saw beans, I saw yam and I also saw garri. And in a split of a second, I just thought could it also be that the garri and yam that I saw are imports from Accra or Lome? At the rate at which we are careless about importations in our country, anything is possible.

Dr.  Aliyu Modibbo Umar, Publisher of the Hausa language Newspaper, Rariya, was a cabinet minister of Commerce, and later the Federal Capital Territory under the Obasanjo and Yar Ardua administrations.



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