By Francis Ewherido
I used to buy walnuts, especially from hawkers. But I noticed that if I buy a pack of seven walnuts, as many as three could be spoilt. Apparently, the sellers pack freshly cooked walnuts with stale ones. The most frustrating aspect was that I would crack and be chewing two good ones and by the time I crack the third one and throw into my mouth, I would notice it is bad. Meanwhile, it had mixed up with the two previous good ones. I am then forced to spit out everything. Then I changed strategy and started buying and cooking raw walnuts, but it was too much stress, so I stopped. Division of labour, specialisation and outsourcing came about to enable people concentrate on their areas of interest and core competence and not try to do everything, so cooking walnuts was just out of place for me. I have stopped eating walnuts out of frustration. That is one (not one because my wife and children have stopped eating walnut too) customer lost by not only walnut sellers, but growers and wholesalers. The hawkers are just penny wise and pound foolish. If the trend continues, the walnut business chain will suffer grievously over time. Who will be the ultimate losers?
On my way from work one evening, I saw a young boy under 10 years – unless his growth is stunted – hawking some good-looking bananas. I stopped, bought a bunch and left my “change” of N200 for him just to encourage him. When I settled down to eat the bananas after getting home, they were not ripe and good; they used chemicals to make them look ripe. Since then, I have never bought bananas from hawkers. Who is the biggest loser here? The hawkers.
I do not buy palm oil in Lagos. I get it straight from source in Delta State. Much of the palm oil they sell these days is adulterated. I heard that if you go to a popular foodstuff market in Lagos, they openly mix palm oil with chemicals to make it look very red. In some other places, they mix palm oil with camwood powder (Urhobos call it isele) to make the palm oil very red. I took my time to go online to check what camwood powder is used for. The result of all my searches shows it is for external use only: it heals sunburns and acne, it has bleaching abilities when used with certain soaps, it has anti-ageing elements, it has anti-inflammatory agent that helps to improve blood circulation to your face, among others. That is what some unscrupulous traders mix with palm oil to make it look very red and sell to people to consume.
Garri is not spared of this adulteration and it has spread abroad. I learnt that in some markets, where they sell African foodstuff in London, there is a preference for Ghana garri because you never know with Nigeria garri; it is sometimes is “adulterated.” Yet we are the highest producer of cassava in the world. Do not be surprised if other by-products of cassava in and from Nigeria have also been affected by this problem of adulteration. Sad.
These are just a few of the areas where unscrupulous people are using adulteration to destroy whole sectors. Sometime ago, there was a story that some imported fish and poultry were being preserved with chemicals used to preserve corpses in morgues. There was also a story that traders use chemicals to increase the size and thickness of ponmo (cow skin). People are just being short-sighted, thinking they are smart, but they are actually very foolish. They are being kobo wise, but naira foolish. If the trend continues, the bad eggs will bring down whole sectors of the economy.
I grew up to meet adulteration of ogogoro (a local alcoholic drink derived from palmwine). In the 70s, ogogoro sold in urban centres like Warri tasted differently from the one sourced from the local distillers in my village, Ewhu, Delta State. My father never bought ogogoro in Warri. It came directly from Ewhu. During my traditional marriage, the ogogoro I gave to my inlaws, as part of marriage items, came directly from Ewhu and it was commended as original when they tasted it. A foreigner, who noticed the difference in taste between Lagos ogogoro and the ogogoro sold in the villages, has spotted a business opportunity. Her company now distils and bottles original ogogoro as a premium spirit and distributes it worldwide.
But not all stories of adulteration have a happy ending like that of ogogoro. We currently have a big problem on our hands. I have noticed that many people of my generation (50 to 60) are developing and dying of high blood pressure, stroke, prostate cancer, diabetes, renal failure, heart failure, heart attack and other debilitating ailments. The focus on prevention of these health conditions has been on lifestyle changes: regular exercise, eating more fruits and veggies, avoiding fast foods and other processed, eating less of fried food and more of cooked foods, regular check-ups to enable people detect ailments in their early stages, reducing consumption of alcohol and sugar, among others. We do not know how much consumption of adulterated items is adding to the upsurge of these ailments. When people unknowingly consume adulterated food, no work done, as my former schoolmate used to say. All our efforts to maintain strict health regimen and stay healthy can be undone by consumption of adulterated foods and drinks.
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Now, what government agencies in Nigeria are responsible for ensuring that the food items and drinks we consume are safe for human consumption? The National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control (NAFDAC) readily comes to mind. NAFDAC is responsible for regulating and controlling the manufacture, importation, exportation, advertisement, distribution, sale and use of food, drugs, cosmetics, medical devices, chemicals and packaged water in Nigeria. This is a very wide scope to cover. How well have they done the job? I have never really followed NAFDAC’s activities, especially since Prof. Dora Akinyuli, its former director general, died. But a cursory look shows that NAFDAC still has a lot of grounds to cover.
Beyond NAFDAC, we have Standard Organisation of Nigeria, which is responsible for setting and maintaining standards for products imported into and manufactured in Nigeria. You also have the various state food, products and health inspectors. But the problem of adulteration has become hydra headed. In my humble opinion, these agencies seem to be overwhelmed. The Nigerian factor can also be a huge impediment.
In Nigeria, resorting to self-help is nothing strange or new. We sometimes provide ourselves water for domestic use, electricity, roads, etc. Where the government agencies have failed or are overwhelmed individuals need to help themselves. You need to be careful with impromptu buying of foodstuff. If possible buy from the source where the food item is produced. Also buy from trusted retailers only. When hawkers, road side sellers and unscrupulous retailers find out that they are losing market share, they will refrain from their evil ways.
Francis Ewherido is a seasoned relationship, financial and insurance coach. He’s also an author. He can be reached on: firstname.lastname@example.org.