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OUTSIDE THE BOX BY ALEX OTTI

0
1968

It was towards the end of last year that my friend and sister, the very brilliant and irrepressible Hafsat Abiola Costelloe handed me a copy of the “Point” Newspaper which she and other friends publish. As I flipped through, I came by a write up about how Champagnes, wines and other choice imported drinks were no longer served at the Villa under the new President, Buhari. In their place, the paper went on, the villa now parades our locally made Zobo and Kunu drinks. I thought that made a great statement. The first was that in line with the change agenda, Aso Rock had to lead by example by outlawing the very expensive and imported drinks from the President’s bar. While a bottle of Moet and Chandon costs up to N30,000.00, Cristal Champagne costs as much as N100,000.00per bottle depending on where one is buying from. That is more than 5 people’s monthly pay going by the minimum wage of N18,000.00. We are aware that some states have said they are unable to pay the minimum wage, and depending on what they have agreed to pay, we may as well be talking about 8 to 10 people’s salaries. I understand there are some more expensive brands like Armand De Brignac also known as Ace of Spades, Dom Perignon Vintage, Krug,and Boerl and Kroff whose price can go as high as N1million per bottle. Yes, one million whooping Naira and beyond for a 75cl bottle. The wines don’t come cheaper either. There are some that also sell for hundreds of thousands of Naira subject to their vintage and the region from where they came.

And talking about imported and expensive choice wine and champagne, we seem to have acquired a notorious reputation, just like in other things, of consuming more than our proportionate share of the products. For instance, Shoprite CEO, Whitey Bason was reported to have said a few years ago that “seven stores in Nigeria, sold more Moet and Chandon Champagne than all the liquor shops in South Africa last year (2013)” I do not know how many liquor shops South Africa has, but I do know that Shoprite alone, being a South African brand would have dozens of shops there, in addition to all the other liquor stores that exist in the country. I also do know that South Africa is a bigger and more developed economy than Nigeria, rebasing or no rebasing of GDP. I also do know that in spite of our population, South Africa commands better standard of living than Nigeria. Finally, I do know that Shoprite is not the only store chain in Nigeria, not to talk of several small importers and smugglers of wines in our country. When we add the sales figures of these other sellers, then we should be able to agree with Data analysts, Euro monitor which published that Nigerians spent £38million ($57m) on champagne alone in the year 2012. Euromonitor goes on to forecast that the figure will rise to about $105million by 2017. Note that these figures are only for champagne. It has also been established that the value of the wine industry (all imported) in Nigeria by last year was in the region of £237million about $380million. While these numbers seemed mind boggling to me, someone who is in the business of importing choice drinks dismissed them as ultra conservative. He insists that if all of the imports were captured, the figures may be three to four times the published ones. He narrated an experience he had in 2013 where a French champagne house he represents in Nigeria informed him that the quota allocated to Nigeria for the whole year had been exhausted five months into the year in May. He had to sell quotas of other countries to Nigerians to keep his market intact.

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Nigeria had also been said to witness the second largest growth in Champagne consumption in the world, after France as at 2014. It must be noted that France is also the largest producer of champagnes in the world. So, France is the largest consumer of its product. Is that not instructive? The question now is, why should we be the second largest? Think of other countries in the world with better standard of living, bigger GDP, and generally better economic management records. Does it bother us that we have failed in virtually everything and I’m not amongst the elites who clap for ourselves for numbers which have no bearing to the realities of our existential conditions. Just very recently, we were told Nigeria was one of the fastest growing economies in the world. We were also told our GDP growth rate was around 7% per annum. While we were not in a position to dispute some of these numbers, we kept trying to relate them to our poverty level, of which the same statics had it that 63% of the population live below the poverty line of less than one dollar per day. We knew we couldn’t generate electricity for our people, neither could we guarantee food security nor affordable health care delivery system. We also knew that most of the handful of industries left were producing much below installed capacity. We were also unable to provide jobs for most of our young people. So, what were those lofty figures all about?

I believe that a concerted effort needs be made to localize the drinks industry in Nigeria. Given the sheer size of this industry, we should consider a few actions. The first one should be fiscal. What this means is that the government should ensure that the tariff paid for the luxury expensive imported products and in fact others like it should be such that would not only make them more expensive, but discourage their imports. This would also impact positively on the demand for foreign exchange, thereby saving the huge sums allocated to it from our dwindling foreign exchange reserves. Government would also be at liberty to introduce huge consumption taxes on such products which would serve additional purpose of raising internally generated revenue from those who can pay.
We also need to encourage the production and packaging of local alternatives. A lot of people may know that the whole thing is about branding. Champagne is a Sparkling wine from the champagne area of France. Cognac is a brandy from that zone also. People who drink the imported London dry gin, Scotch Whiskey, or Russian Vodka will tell you that other than packaging and what the young ones call “efizzy”, there is no major difference from our local alternatives of Kai Kai, gin, schnapps and burukutu. We also have our signature drink which Oyinbos cannot bottle.That is the Palm wine which is very nutritious and fortified with yeast and vitamins. I believe that there should be a deliberate effort at not only encouraging its local consumption, but also proper preservation, bottling and possible export. These are industries that a few of us will not only encourage tax holidays, but also some form of well managed subsidy for local investors
The next action plan is reorienting our people. Studies have shown that many people who drink red wine do not enjoy it. Some take it because others are taking it. Others believe it is a status symbol to show that one has arrived. While some have been made to believe that it is good for the heart and that it lowers cholesterol in the body. While I am not aware of any scientific proof of the latter argument, I have contended that even if it was medicinal as claimed, the barrels of alcohol our people end up pumping into their system cannot be anything but harmful to their body. So it is all about taste which most times is acquired. After all, some very popular delicacies and drinks taste awful the first time. For instance, Stout is bitter, Sushi and salad are raw, Caviar is salty and African Salad or Ugba is stale, the first time. People eventually develop a craving for them as time goes on. We need to make our people believe that the locally made products are as good, if not better than imported ones. We must promote the products even with tax payer’s money because it is good for our economy, it is good for jobs for our youths and it is gentle to our foreign exchange reserves.
Finally, we must enforce the tariff policy and ensure that it works. There should be a zero tolerance for smuggling of the foreign products as doing otherwise would mess up any possible gains to be made, allowing cheaper products into the market to compete with those that came in through the proper route.

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We will extend this suggestion to other products some of them are already being made in Nigeria but are facing very stiff competition from cheaper imports. We have sweet oranges here in Nigeria, but our homes and supermarkets are flooded with orange juice from every part of the world. We grow tomatoes in Nigeria, but import tomato paste. Even palm products are imported from Malaysia, who we are told got their first seedling of palm fruits from Umudike, Umuahia in the 60s. We grow rice, but still spend a lot importing par boiled rice from other countries. Of course, we export crude and import refined petroleum products. I’m yet to see any other economy that operates that way. Granted there may be a thousand and one reasons why we find ourselves here, we must start by refusing to accept this as our lot.

I believe President Buhari has started by leading the way for others to follow. By removing the expensive and imported drinks from the villa, the president has contributed in saving our very hard earned foreign exchange making it available for alternative uses. In addition, our local manufacturers can produce more given the import substitution impact and the industry can employ more of our teeming youths without jobs and pay taxes to government as well as contribute to our economic growth. We must all follow suit. There are a lot of other products in the homes of most of our elites that can be replaced with locally made alternatives. From food through fashion to lifestyle products. So, open those fridges and begin to toss out those expensive imported drinks and dairy products. Check your wardrobes and start replacing the Amani Suites and Italian shoes with dresses and shoes made in Aba. I even heard we now make drones. That way, what we need to import with our arms budget would have to go down, thereby reducing the temptation to use them for purposes not intended.

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