The buy-Nigeria advocate behind Erisco Foods – Eric Umeofia
“Sometimes I ask myself, ’Why am I wasting my time manufacturing, as those who went into trading are richer than me, all because I chose to help my country’”
If you are looking for a Nigerian who walks his talk when it comes to advocacy for the patronage of made-in-Nigeria products, Chief Eric Umeofia is your man. You would be wrong if thought his advocacy stems from a selfish desire to sell the tomato paste his company produces. For, his Western suit made from local fabrics – which presents quite a unique picture – would leave you in no doubt about his genuine commitment to the Nigerian cause.
Yes, Umeofia believes in the Nigerian cause. It’s a cause that has pitched him against powerful forces in virtually all sectors of the national life – governments, importers, financial institutions, regulatory agencies, etc. He has fought many battles in demonstration of what he believes in, some of which have put his patriotism to test. Were it only for profit making, he would long have closed shop in Nigeria to relocate to other parts of the world where he has thriving businesses that do not give him the kind of headache he is getting from doing business in his own country. But his commitment is not all about money.
Umeofia is interested in seeing Nigeria take its rightful place in the comity of nations, economically speaking. His passion to grow the country’s economy is perhaps unparalleled. He had read about how five people made America great, and resolved to be one of those to make Nigeria great.
It is the reason he shunned importation of tomato paste, which most of his contemporaries do, and which offers quicker return on investment, preferring, instead, to take the rather long and winding route of manufacturing, not minding the myriad of problems that include inconsistent government policies, multiple taxation, virtually docile regulatory agencies, unfavourable exchange rates, competition from cheap and substandard imported tomato, etc.
He recalls an instance when he approached one of the big banks in the country for a credit facility to build a tomato concentrate plant in Kano in 2009. The bank pointedly advised him to import tomato paste, rather than waste time on local manufacture, reminding him of the concern of its directors and shareholders for dividends at the end of the financial year, which the uncertainty of manufacturing cannot guarantee. “They are not interested in committing to development”, Umeofia says, on the attitude of banks to industrialization. “All they are after is buying and selling”.
Umeofia says doing business in Nigeria is perhaps more risky than fighting Boko Haram. “Sometimes I ask myself, ‘Why am I wasting my time manufacturing, as those who went into trading are richer than me, all because I chose to help my country’”, he said recently in an interview. Such feelings, however, do not slow down his desire to contribute to Nigeria’s economic growth.
He has President Muhammadu Buhari to thank for providing a ray of hope for manufacturers in the country, through the decision by the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) to deny importers of goods that can be manufactured in the country access to foreign exchange. “Before the advent of this government, some of us manufacturers felt we made the greatest mistakes of our lives by being investors”, he said. “If not for President Buhari, I would have shut down this business by now or take it elsewhere”.
Rousing national consciousness for patronage of Nigerian products
Umeofia is currently riding on the waves of national popularity with his range of tomato paste products that have roused the consciousness of Nigerians to the need to look inwards for the country’s food requirements, thanks to the publicity that has trailed him and the activities of his company in recent times.
The factory of Erisco Foods Limited at Alausa, Ikeja, of which he is the president and chief executive officer, has become something of a Mecca for top federal government functionaries since Aisha Buhari, the wife of the president, commissioned the company’s multi-billion naira ultra modern plant, recently. They include Chief Audu Ogbe and Dr. Ogbonnaya Onu, ministers of agriculture and science and technology, respectively, as well as Aisha Abubakar, minister of state for industry, trade and investment. Governor Aminu Tambuwal of Sokoto State also came calling. Their purpose: To openly show solidarity with one Nigerian that is contributing to the concerted efforts to produce enough food for the country and for export and, where necessary, pledge government support for his initiative.
It is not for nothing that the industrialist, in his early fifties, who hails from the sleepy town of Amichi, in Anambra State, goes by the sobriquet of “Tomato King”. His middle name might as well be tomato. He thinks tomato, eats tomato, drinks tomato, breaths tomato, and dreams tomato. His factory is the largest in Africa and the fourth largest in the world. With cheap and, in some cases, sub-standard imported tomato flooding the Nigerian market, Umeofia finds himself engaged in the fight of his life – to get Nigerians to shun imported tomato and fully embrace locally produced ones that include his Ric-Giko brand of tomato paste; to contribute to employment generation in particular and revamping of the national economy in general.
Umeofia’s patriotism and commitment to the Nigerian Project has not just come with his range of tomato paste products. Nigerians will recall that in 1984, he introduced the Erisco Bonpet fire extinguisher into the country’s market as the first step toward setting up a manufacturing plant for the product. As a way of getting public sector interest in the project, he donated one utility car to all the state governments as part of the introduction.
“Our mission then was to establish, with our foreign partners, a fire extinguishing plant in the country”, he said. “But the problem was bad leadership. The regulator of standards, then, refused to cooperate with us. My suppliers asked for standards before they come to Nigeria to establish. I pursued that standard but was frustrated. And that was why we went to Angola to establish. Thirty years after, there is still no fire extinguisher plant in this country. Very bad”.
Umeofia’s decision to return to the country that once rejected him wasn’t as a result of failure during his overseas sojourn. Nor was it because the system back home had changed and became friendlier. He came back because of a desire to contribute to the country’s economic rebirth, not minding the challenges.
“I am a very contented human being”, he says. “We didn’t come back to Nigeria because we want to make more money, but to help the economy. I make more money in my overseas businesses than the one here. I lose money here, and make more money there. But the system of this country is capable of killing in millions, because of greed”.
He describes people in government as inexperienced. “They will read big books, but when you confront them with one issue, they will be telling you stories. If you are not a practical man, you cannot do anything. Here, people are running for government posts just to line their pockets, and not to help the nation”.
Health risks of imported tomato
Umeofia is not happy about the government’s inability to demonstrate the political will to ban importation of substandard tomato paste from China, most of which he says do not contain lycopene, part of the carotenoid family and a pigment that helps to give tomato paste its reddish colour and, most importantly, one of the free-radical fighting antioxidants. Free radicals are damaging molecules that float around in the body disrupting cells and promoting disease. As an antioxidant, lycopene destroys free radicals thereby preventing them from getting attached to cells for the purpose of destroying the immune system.
Umeofia knows enough to know that substandard tomato paste contains little or no lycopene, attributing the reddish colour to addition of colouring, which is impossible to dispose off by the body. The colouring, he says, sticks to viens, arteries and vital organs, and may accumulate to cause cancer, hypertension and other diseases that may be difficult to cure.
Besides the danger it poses to health, Umeofia says imparted tomato does not meet the required standard in terms of quality, because of the shortcuts adopted by foreign manufacturers. “For example, a tomato paste should at least have 40 per cent real tomato; other ingredients are water and salt”, he explains. “So it means that in each tank you are mixing, you need to use six to eight drums of tomato; it depends on the quantity you are producing. That will make it to be concentrated. But in some countries, they use a drum of tomato and add starch and colour to make it look like real tomatoes. That colour they add is dangerous to health as it blocks blood vessels”.
Upon discovery of the danger imported tomato paste poses to the lives of Nigerians, Umeofia promptly alerted the National Food and Drugs Administration and Control (NAFDAC), but to his utter shock and dismay, the agency did nothing.
His decision to run where angels fear to tread is a reflection of his lion heartedness and ability to dare. He brushed aside fears by some people that local manufacture of canned tomato paste was an impossibility, to do the unthinkable. That was after he turned down invitations to join the cartel of substandard tomato importers.
“The truth is that I have been invited severally by this group of individuals to be part of their scheme, but I would rather stop production and close down this company than engage in importation of any product that could have adverse effect on the wellbeing of Nigerians”, he says. “Do u know that after I had said ‘no’ to their offer, they went ahead to insist that I at least stop making comments about the poor quality of the products they bring in and give them freedom to make money? But I can’t keep quiet, especially when I know that we can produce better versions of these products here in Nigeria”.
Like the patriot he is, Umeofia has been able to overcome the frustrations and obstacles that have dogged his path in his effort to contribute his quota to the economic development of the country by plunging into the manufacture of tomato paste, using the latest technology available anywhere in the world.
His relevance to the needs of the country today must be seen against the background of the effort by the Buhari administration to diversify the economy, from dependence on oil to a greater focus on agriculture and solid minerals, the former being the pivot of the government’s drive to ensure food sufficiency and export.
The government’s effort at promoting backward integration in the agricultural sector sits well with Umeofia who says agriculture is his forte. Erisco Foods has 460 hecters of tomato plantation in Jigawa State, and is about to acquire the same size of land in Sokoto State, where it plans to set up a manufacturing plant, as well as a tractor manufacturing company to produce between 20, 000 and 30, 000 tractors a year to encourage mechanized farming.
The plan to set up a tractor manufacturing company, Umeofia explains, is informed by the absence of such an outfit in the country. “I am doing everything possible for Nigeria to be rich in agriculture machinery”.
“When you want to do backward integration of tomato in this country, you need a minimum of one line to process tomato into concentrate, and it costs $30 million to $40 million to do one line”, Umeofia said. “In China, 95 per cent of the factories are owned by government. The same machine that will work for 60 to 90 days a year, will work for 35 days in China. So, getting the money isn’t easy. We grow tomato twice a year here in Nigeria. In China, they grow just once a year – the same China that produces once a year we are importing from them”.
The newly commissioned plant at the Alausa factory of Erisco Foods has a capacity for 450, 000 metric tons of tomato paste a year. Umeofia says he and Dantata, another tomato producer, can meet local demand for the product and also export. The snag, he says, is that there is no market for locally produced tomato, due to the proliferation of cheap, imported ones. He is confident, however, that with the support of the Buhari administration, the situation will turn around for the better for local manufacturers.
There seems to be a ray of hope for Umeofia and Dantata for a change in the situation in the country. Aisha Buhari said this much when she commissioned Erisco Foods new production line.
“I think we have imported enough and we have to change that culture of importing things we can produce locally”, said Mrs. Buhari. “This is part of the change we are talking about that must happen in the country. Local manufacturers have to be encouraged to grow, as that is the only way to create employment for the youths and help local farmers to benefit more from their labour”.
Umeofia received his primary education at Saint Andrew Primary School, Amichi, before moving to Lagos in 1970 to commence apprenticeship in textile business with Messrs De G Sons and Company. He moved to Kano in 1976 for yet another apprenticeship in motor spare parts selling, with De Nna Mercedes Benz Agency. He ventured into the business of spare parts two years later in Sokoto.
In 1991, Umeofia returned to Lagos to start a general import business and, four years later, founded Tropical Fire Prevention Services Limited, marketing Erisco Bonpet Automatic Fire Extinguisher in Nigeria, which was quite popular then, especially in Lagos.
Umeofia spread his business tentacles in 1997 by venturing into foreign investment with Meena Hotels and General Merchant with Erisco Group Corp, Monriovia, Liberia; Automotive Engineering Industry, Luanda, Angola and OTC-Commerico E. Industria, also in Luanda, Angola. The Erisco Group of Companies in Nigeria has three subsidiaries, namely, Tropical Fire Prevention Services Limited, Erisco Foods Processing Limited and C. O. Ersico Nigeria Limited.
He has attended several business management courses within and outside the country to sharpen his skills.
Umeofia does not get regular mention in the media only for his involvement in local manufacture of tomato paste and crusade for patronage of Nigerian products. His philanthropic gestures have propped him up as a man to whom success does not mean wealth acquisition, but touching the lives of as many people as he can conveniently touch. Apart from impacting the lives of individuals, Umeofia donates generously to organizations with noble causes.
Though a Christian, he has not only built and donated churches, he has also built mosques. This is informed by his belief that there is only one God, and the two religions worship the same God.
“I want to impact my society, and this informed my building churches and mosques”, he explains his direct and indirect involvement in the two religions.
His comment on a very important Christian obligation is bound to ruffle more than a few feathers in Christendom. “I don’t want people to use religion to deceive the people all in the name of tithe”, he says. “I am a Christian, but I don’t support this idea of tithe. I give what I have to people who need them. I will rather pay my staff well and also those that come my way than give tithe to a pastor”.
Umeofia has on two occasions been featured on the Newsline programme of the Nigerian Television Authority for giving money to those who needed it. He reacted to a news story featuring a female National Youth Service Corps member who had one arm amputated after an accident by not only paying her hospital bill, but also providing her with an artificial arm and offering her employment in his companys. He was also featured on the same programme when he donated a brand new tricycle to a female operator who was featured in a previous edition as working for somebody to provide for her family.