Smoking fish traditionally may soon belong to history

The owner of Tee Ess Farms in Lagos, Tunde Sanni, was licensed by the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to produce smoked fish for the U.S.; but understandably, Sanni did not gain this prominence through the traditional way of smoking fish.

The traditional way of smoking fish is done by leaving the fish to be naturally instilled with smoke generated by burning wood. In most cases, smokehouses are built for the purpose of smoking fish.

This tradition is however gradually being replaced with mechanical methods of preserving fish. It is held that these new methods preserve fish in less time, unlike the traditional way, which is left overnight to naturally care-for the fish. Kiln technology, refrigeration and freezing of fish are among the new inventions for preserving fish.

The smoking kiln technology has been espoused in Lagos State by 168 farmers in the aggregate of 71 males and 97 females. Spectators said that more than 2, 215 jobs were created as a consequence of the novel technology.

Sanni's breakthrough was coming many years the international market could not accept the traditional way of smoking fish, being perceived by traditional Nigerian families, as the best ways to preserve fish. This breakthrough was perhaps necessitated by the growing demand of smoked fish by Africans living in the Diaspora.

A study said: The US and Europe remain the major destinations for Africans who venture abroad. As a result of this transcontinental migration, and a growing appreciation for African flavours and food, the demand for dried and smoked fish appears to be going through the roof.

Press officers supposed of the infiltration, as coming from the accomplishment of the Commercial Agriculture Development Project (CADP), which was maintained by the World Bank. And Tunde Sanni is not only the owner of Tee Ess Farms in Lagos, but, also, a member of Post-Harvest Commercial Fish Processor Commodity Interest Group (CIG).

He said: “Before the CADP intervention, processors were producing 150 kilogrammes of locally smoked fish per week, using excess charcoal with all its negative health implications and entry barrier to the international market.”

Farmers were introduced to the new smoking kiln technology by the efforts of CADP. It was given that kiln technology improves fish processing by reducing the smoke level to internationally acceptable standards.

“After the technology intervention and participation in capacity-building activities facilitated by CADP, our smoking methods just got better…. My farm also smokes fish for other farmers according to international standards and they package the fish with their label,” Sanni said.

What this is circuitously causing the traditional way of smoking fish is that with CADP's new intervention, the traditional way of smoking fish is conceptualized as unacceptable in the international market in order to enable the manufacturers of the technologies to sell their wares without giving a hoot to the adverse effect such machines could cause to human health: High levels of Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons (PAH).

“The consultants from the United States, processors have created branded packaging for filleted and whole smoked fish. The packages have barcodes that enhance competitiveness and protection while establishing corporate identity in the market,” reported a Nigerian broadsheet.

Marie Francoise Marie-Nelly, World Bank Country Director for Nigeria, said, “We are pleased to see that with appropriate support and incentives, Nigerian farmers can break through sophisticated markets such as the US market. This is very encouraging and going forward, we would like to see many more examples that will help make the Nigerian Government's vision of transforming agriculture from subsistence level to a business venture a reality.”

It's discernible that a pack of 500 grammes of smoked catfish bought from Nigeria at $12.50, sells for between $15 and $20 in the international market, making it what analysts had called, a potentially money-making business.

According to a source: “A study sponsored by the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) of the United Nations, the quantity of dried and smoked catfish, tilapia and other types of fish exported from West Africa to the United Kingdom was estimated at over 500 tonnes per year; with a retail value of nearly $20 million.

“Nigeria alone exports about 5 tonnes of smoked fish per month (via airfreight). Other major exporting countries are Ghana, the Ivory Coast, Senegal and Cameroon. However, with stricter regulations on food imported into the US and Europe, Africans are finding it difficult to exploit the million-dollar foreign market for smoked and dried fish...”

Many stakeholders in the agricultural sector in the country had given their nod to the new development. A member of the Lagos Chamber of Commerce and Industry, Aderemi Giwa was one of the stakeholders.

According to a source, Giwa said: “This new smoking technology, with the support of World Bank through the Commercial Agricultural Development Project, has really moved fish farming in Lagos State to a new and unparalleled dimension…. Farmers can now export directly to the US market, thereby boosting our economy and at the same time increasing the standard of living of Nigerian fish farmers.”

Being supported by the International Development Association (IDA), small and medium scale commercial farmers and agro-processors had been advised to upgrade subsistence agriculture to commercial ventures. In May 2013, the Federal Institute of Industrial Research Oshodi (FIIRO), Lagos, trained 32 entrepreneurs comprising of fish farmers and processors on the use of modern fish smoking technology.

The institute had introduced an industrial fish smoking kiln it manufactured, at the training it held at the Ojo Military Cantonment, which was in collaboration with the Lagos Commercial Agriculture Development Project (CADP).

The quintessence of the training was given as “to prepare these entrepreneurs for the international market as well as highbrow domestic market. The fish smoking kilns introduced were of two types, the big size with a capacity to smoke fish of 200kg to 300kg wet weight and sold for N650, 000 and the medium size to smoke fish of about 60kg to 80kg wet weight and sold for N350, 000.”

In a statement credited to the engineer that conducted the training on how to use the fish smoking kilns, Mr. Felix Ajuebo said that the equipment was designed to last for 30years to 40 years. This, some of the trainees like Tundun Tijani, expressed their readiness to engage in full fish business as the new technology would scale up production.

Still, this business does not come with it without increasing health and bioterrorism concerns, which have led to very severe rules on imported food and animal produce even though that it seemed easy in recent times to send container loads of smoked fish across the seas to the US and Europe..

Before the breakthrough of Nigerian mechanically smoked fish in the international market, “It is important to note that up to 40 percent of smoked fish exported from Africa is detained, returned or destroyed at US and European ports due to simple mistakes such as improper packaging and labeling, inadequate compliance with paperwork, insect infestation and mould growth on the products,” said a source.

Specialists had explained in different forum, saying: Unlike Europe, it is still possible to export commercial quantities of smoked and dried fish to the USA, another huge market for the product. Nonetheless, following the passing of the Bioterrorism Act of 2002, “all facilities that manufacture, process, pack, or store food, beverages, or dietary supplements that may be consumed in the United States by humans or animals are required to be registered with the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA).”

Conditions were that a potential fish business person had to register to include: An inspection of the facility where the dried and smoked fish is produced. According to sources, companies located outside the United States, must choose a US Agent who will be responsible for communicating with the FDA and handle any necessary paperwork.

Having a Certificate of Registration assures customers and suppliers that you have complied with all FDA regulations. There were the European Union (EU) regulations, which banned all 'commercial' shipments of smoked fish from Africa (and other non-EU countries) from inflowing the EU region, therefore constraining the traditional way of smoking fish, which is gradually belonging to history.

The resultant of this was that the policies drastically reduced the quantity of smoked fish that could be exported to Europe. Even though that 'personal' export was allowed, it was done in small quantities of smoked fish, given as not more than 20kg in total weight. The directive was seemingly intended to avert across-the-board export of smoked fish to Europe, except for 'Personal export', which includes deliveries that are 20kg (or less) and may be carried as hand luggage, while travelling.

A source reported, “It can also be sent (by mail or freight) directly to private addresses and named individuals in the EU for personal consumption only. Any exports to registered businesses in the EU or export quantities beyond the 20kg limit will not be allowed and will be seized and/or destroyed at EU ports. This new policy has essentially killed smoked fish wholesale businesses in Europe who are presently unable to legally import commercial quantities of these products into the EU...”

Odimegwu Onwumere, a Poet/Writer, writes from Rivers State.

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Articles by Odimegwu Onwumere