On August 31, 2018, the Standards Organisation of Nigeria (SON) warned Nigerian importers of school uniform materials about some cancer-causing substances found in some fabrics made by some Chinese companies. According to the federal agency, the amount of azo dyes used to give variety of colours to fabrics shipped into Nigeria were well above the maximum safety level allowed by international standards. Azo dyes are said to release carcinogenic substances known as aromatic amines when they mix with sweat. At 173 milligrams and 41 milligrams per kilogram of the tested samples respectively, SON’s warning that the substances may lead to cancer is a serious cause for concern for a tropical country with prolonged hot season like Nigeria.
While SON is engaged in the very challenging task of monitoring textile companies in China, a country with weak and oftentimes, state endorsed production of substandard products for export to third world countries, the situation brings to the fore the criminal neglect of Nigeria’s textile industry that inevitably led to the collapse of the sector that used to be the largest employer of labour after agriculture. Inexplicably, the federal government over the years failed to protect the fortunes of local textile manufacturers and allowed them to collapse in the face of unfair competition from cheap but low quality products from mainly China. The collateral damage on Nigeria’s economy of the collapse of the numerous textile companies are too many to quantify. The unsafe level of harmful dye employed by Chinese textile manufacturers whose products have taken over Nigeria’s large and lucrative market is just the latest manifestation.
The alarm raised by SON is well founded. Western European countries have actually banned the use of azo dyes having accepted the scientific proof that the substance is harmful and can cause a range of cancer diseases. For obvious reasons, it is impossible for SON to effectively monitor the importation of materials for making uniforms for the millions of Nigerian school children that require them yearly. Chinese authorities are known to turn the blind eye while its manufacturers willfully circumvent safety rules and standards.
Although SON’s director general, Mr. Osita Aboloma, advised importers of school uniform materials to endeavour to undergo the process of conformity assessment of such materials prior to import, through the SON off-shore Conformity Assessment Programme (SONCAP), to avoid bringing them to the country, it will take much more than that for the country’s younger generation to be shielded from unscrupulous importers and their collaborators among fabric makers.
Perhaps the safety warning provides an opportunity for the government to revive the textile industry through the combination of intensive enlightenment of the populace on the down side of imported fabrics and institutional support for the reactivation of the local textile manufacturers. It is only when local manufacturers dominate the supply of materials for the making of school uniforms that SON can effectively monitor and enforce standards.
The federal government should see in reviving the country’s textile industry a low hanging fruit that can have huge multiplier effect on the economy. With its population, Nigeria offers a huge market, enough to guarantee the viability of textile manufacturers even if they do not venture to export their products. It offers a veritable platform to create employment and only requires the political will on the part of government to evolve an appropriate tariff structure to make them competitive against the cheap but not superior products from China and other Asian nations.
It is commentary on the management of Nigeria’s economy that while other African countries have supported their local textile manufacturers to benefit from the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), a special purpose vehicle that granted preferential access to American market for some African goods, especially textile products, Nigeria has failed to take advantage of the facility. The government cannot stretch the laissez faire disposition to foreign trade to the level of harming the health of OK children.
The path to responding to the health alert by SON does not lie in relying on the agency’s regulatory and enforcement capacity which is severely hampered, but in revving up the local textile industry.