Tell us a little about yourself…
I grew up with my grandparents in Ifon, Ondo State – a rural area in South Western Nigeria. At University I studied agriculture, with a specialisation in biochemistry and nutrition, then studied at the Univeristy of Reading in the UK where I earned both an MSc and a PhD in Food Technology, and also qualified as a Chartered Chemist of the Royal Society of Chemistry and Industry. Since my return to Nigeria, I have acquired wide-ranging post-qualification career experiences in research, academics and industry both in and outside the country, with a particular focus on quality assurance and fortification efforts. Inspired by the experiences throughout my career, and especially in working with SMEs, in 2019 I helped to establish the first specific local advocacy initiative to protect and promote consumer rights to safe, nutritious and healthy foods in Nigeria: Consumer Advocacy for Food Safety and Nutrition Initiative (CAFSANI). I serve as Executive Director of CAFSANI, in addition to my primary duties as Professor of Food Science and Technology at the Bells University of Technology, Ota. I am also proud to say that I am an accomplished Mentor and a Professor of Professors, having had the privilege of nurturing over 300 graduates in Food Science and Technology at different levels in the last 35 years.
What got you interested in nutrition?
I was initially admitted to study veterinary medicine at the University of Ibadan but from the first practical class on anatomy and physiology of farm animals, I was clear in my mind that I was not going to be fulfilled in that profession. So, I changed my course from the Department of Animal Science to study Biochemistry and Nutrition, and there I discovered my passion for Food Science and Technology, which I pursued for my postgraduate studies. I have spent the last four decades pursuing various initiatives at interface between good nutrition, food and agriculture. The link between agriculture, food and nutrition cannot be over-emphasised in an agrarian economy in a country like ours, yet we have one of the worst nutritional indices in the global community today. It is incredible how little people know about the foods they eat and the nourishment that they provide, including the dangers of unsafe food preservation and handling practices. This is what inspired me to create CAFSANI; it is our goal to bring this subject of nutrition and food safety to the general public like never before, to help spread knowledge that nutrition plays an important role in enhancing our immune systems and in reinforcing and promoting good health. This work is extremely fulfilling, especially now in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, as the public is now appreciating the importance of a good nutritional status and hygiene in being able to withstand debilitating diseases in our communities.
What do you work on, and how does it relate to public private engagement for nutrition?
At CAFSANI, our objective is to collaborate with various stakeholders including regulators, professional associations (like the Nigerian Institute of Food Science and Technology and the Nutrition Society of Nigeria), and development/civil society organisations, to provide a knowledge-based platform for protecting and promoting consumer interests. Our focus is to create awareness and contribute to arresting the worsening nutrition statistics in Nigeria, thereby enhancing the quality of life.
To do this well, we knew before we started that we would need to assemble a Board of Trustees with a wide range of expertise, credibility and professional achievements. I am very pleased by the diversity in our board, and that all members are committed to and passionate about promoting consumer education and awareness of nutritious foods, as well as the incidences of food fraud. The Chairman of our board is Prof. Hafiz Abubakar, MFR, DSc, currently a Visiting Professor at the National Universities Commission, Abuja, and he is the immediate past Deputy Governor and Honorable Commissioner of Education, Science, Technology and Innovation for Kano State.
As part of our outreach strategy, we seek out individuals from various sectors, both in the public and private space, who can add value to the discourse as volunteers or partners for our sensitisation programmes and workshops as we cannot do this alone. These workshops create a safe space for drawing and mobilizing attention to the challenges of different communities so that we not only become more familiar with each other’s beliefs, but also foster public–private partnerships. Hopefully, this will create opportunities for collaborations and ultimately an understanding of the processes and actions necessary for achieving a local food supply system characterized by access to safe, nutritious foods.
We also work with partners to provide technical data, market research and support to businesses and regulatory bodies, which are often not readily available in Nigeria. To ensure sustainability of projects and programmes, our advocacy platform also seeks to bridge the gap between government commitment and support to strengthening ownership and continuity at community levels, which requires advocacy activities and co-operation with governments at all levels to ensure not just the buy-in but the necessary support and investments for continuity.
What is exciting about your work?
The most exciting thing for me is to see how all stakeholders, including colleagues in the academia, government and the general public embrace new knowledge and focus on how we can - together - create a safer food system because we are all consumers!
We are also happy to see the enthusiastic support of many professionals, both within and outside the food and nutrition space, who, despite the fact that this is not an environment that has a culture of ‘volunteering’ services, have indicated their interests in offering their services to CAFSANI as volunteers in support of this initiative. This is mainly because they see it as worthwhile and long overdue, and not because of any financial benefits apart from the goodwill and credibility we have managed to build over decades. In fact, my wife who is a banker and had always wondered why I was so active in the pursuit of so many diverse “pro bono” activities in food and nutrition that didn’t have any financial rewards, now shares this passion!
I continue to remember the song of one very popular Highlife musician in Nigeria in the 70s who sang the lyric that “once food is eliminated from poverty, your poverty is over…” So we are committed and excited about the prospects of making this a reality in our own life time.
What is challenging about it?
One major challenge, which I mentioned briefly above, is the sustainability component of many projects which would benefit consumers. Access to supporting grants and funds at this initial startup stage has also been a major challenge for us, but we were so determined that we took up the challenge by using personal resources. This was necessary to establish a presence, build credibility and increase our visibility through participation in various food safety, nutrition and sensitisation trainings and workshops. These efforts are gradually yielding results. Another major challenge is that it is often difficult to believe that some people truly want to ‘give back’ to this society despite the challenges without any strings attached -- this in fact is our motivation!
What’s the latest news or a recent success?
Within the short period of existence of CAFSANI, we have been invited to a public inquiry as Consumer Protection Agents to the Federal Competition and Consumer Protection Commission on a violation of “Consumer Right to Life” which suggests that we are gaining recognition in promoting Consumer Rights to Safety in general! We have also made quite a number of impacting presentations in many webinars targeted at the public, professional associations and SMEs during this COVID-19 pandemic, and we are particularly excited at our increasing number of followers on social media.
We issued a public awareness information and advisory on how to avoid the debilitating impact of a possible spread of the COVID-19 (Coronavirus) in mid-March. This was prior to the index case in Nigeria as soon as the raging effects of the pandemic were evident in countries like China, Italy, Spain, Germany and the United Kingdom, even before it became a major issue in the United States. This was premised upon our conviction that we are in a global community and we cannot be isolated from any such pandemic. We are all witnesses to the subsequent impact and lockdowns across the world due to this pandemic, which has now attained a global emergency posing both economic and political challenges which are quite depressing. Our continued participation in conversations around the impacts of COVID-19 on SMEs, and strategies to mitigate risks are definitely yielding positive results. These discussions are likely to continue because SMEs are the live wire of the economy, responsible for over 60-70% of the food system.
Though there is currently no evidence to suggest that COVID-19 can be transmitted through food or water, we will continue to share information about food preparation and eating habits to encourage safe and nutritious diets, especially during this time. However, the attendant disruptions in the food supply system will pose a significant challenge for all actors in the system for a long time to come. This is where I see the relevance of CAFSANI manifesting even more in the foreseeable future.
With the present global lockdowns, it is difficult to plan for anything with a considerable degree of certainty, but as much as possible through appropriate collaborations, public safety and awareness releases and especially online training activities, CAFSANI intends to keep the momentum going in these challenging times and utilising all the resources at its disposal, especially our deeply committed Trustees and our knowledgeable and diverse base of volunteers!
Has this work made you change your mind about anything?
Yes, of course. When this idea first came to me, I wondered how the initiative would be received and whether the efforts would be accepted as genuine in a highly skeptical and opportunistic, elite community. I have really been proved wrong and I am glad I was not discouraged by these initial misgivings! Whether from the Food Science and Technology community or the Nutrition community, the encouragement has been overwhelming. I am really glad that we did not allow ourselves to be dissuaded by those negative thoughts from pursuing this dream. If anything, the work so far, and we have just started, has really increased our conviction that science will always matter, and we all have a duty to give back and find creative ways to communicate our messages at every level. As Francis Bacon says, no matter the mountains we face, all that matters is that we cross over to the other side! Together we can change the narrative and use such platforms and initiatives as CAFSANI to create a more stable society with a better quality of life for the average consumer.
If you had to have a slogan, or a strapline, for this work, what would it be?
"The voice of the consumer - Pioneering the advocacy for safe and nutritious foods”
What is your favourite food or meal to share with family and friends?
Pounded yam with plenty of green leafy vegetables (celosia & spinach/amaranth), garnished with shrimp and fresh fish.