In this interview with Abba-Eku Onyeka of NewsDirect the Head, Public Relations, Standards Organisation of Nigeria (SON), Bola Fashina, who doubles as the Special Assistant (SA) to the Director-General (DG) of the Agency, Osita Aboloma Esq, speaks on the roles SON is playing to curtail the spread of the dreaded Covid-19 pandemic and how the pandemic has strengthened the Organisation’s standardisation processes. Excerpts:
Covid-19 pandemic has continued to pose problems to the globe, many companies and individuals, among others, have been producing Personal Protection Equipments (PPE). Has SON been supervising them to ensure that they meet standards?
Yes, you know that COVID-19 came like a thief in the night. The world was not prepared for it and in Nigeria here too even though we have been hearing about it in other places. Given this fact, it is a novel kind of virus. But going by the experiences of other nations that had the pandemic before it came to Nigeria, all necessary steps were taken by the government. The Presidential Task Force (PTF) was set up to the kind of coordinate the country’s response to the fight against COVID-19 and SON is a member of the PTF. Obviously, the involvement of SON is to assist the PTF and the nation in ensuring delivery of essential items in relation to the fight against the pandemic, particularly during the period of lockdown when the movement of people was restricted in most parts of the nation. We also ensure that we use our international collaboration and affiliation with International Organisation for Standardisation (IOS) and the African Organisation Standardisation (AOS) to assess standards that are related to materials required for the fight against the pandemic; materials like facemasks, ventilators, hand sanitizers, among others that are used in the medical field. We were able to provide about 29 standards that are related to this for local manufacturers within those periods to ensure that when they are producing those products, they produce them to meet the requirements of the applicable standards, as well as ensure the safety of Nigerians during the periods. Apart from that, because we have what is called essential service, in spite of the lockdown occasioned by COVID-19, our officers on the field in state offices were there working. A lot of them were supporting manufacturers who are producing materials related to the fight. All these materials include ventilators, Hand sanitizers, Face Barrier Masks, and other machines that are related to the fight against the pandemic. At the moment the lockdown has been lifted partially. So all our offices across the nation are out on the field inspecting and guiding manufactures of essential materials in ensuring that their products meet the requirements of the standards. We also provided support to the PTF to ensure that essential materials that are imported for the fight against COVID-19 are those that also meet the requirements of the relevant standards. Apart from that, the SON also provided assistance in ensuring that we lifted charges concerned with the off-shore conformity assessment of the products that are related to the fight against COVID-19. They were allowed to come in at virtually no service charge, because of the emergency situation of the dreaded pandemic.
The fight against the pandemic is still ongoing, as the disease is still on the increase. What is your plan for it at the moment?
Well, the first plan at the National Standards Bureaus (NSBs) is to ensure that standards continue to be available. Even during the lockdown as a result of the pandemic, standardization activities were ongoing. The organisation was mobilizing stakeholders in Nigeria to ensure continued participation in the development of international standards. Even during the lockdown, all these things were being done using ITC. And apart from that, so many technical processes took place for the harmonization of standards, for example in West Africa. Standards for Barrier Mask has been harmonised to ensure that once it is produced and certified in one country within the region, it can easily move to another part of the region without a problem. In standardization work, standard development is still ongoing.
In actual fact, during the lockdown, the Standard Council, being the governing Council of SON, approved new 168 Nigerian Industrial Standards (NIS) for use in the country. That tells you that a lot of these Standards were developed during the lockdown as a result of the pandemic, using ICT facilities, because the world is changing. You don’t have to be physically present. Virtually, things are holding every day. So the management of the Organization was meeting virtually. The governing council met and was able to approve Standards virtually. Apart from that, one major task the governing council also undertook was the approval of the Nigerian National Standardization Strategy (NNSS). This strategy is to look into the future and kind of isolate the focus of the nation in terms of development, then use the result that is available, optimise them to ensure that focus is actually on those areas that the nation requires most. So the strategy has been approved by the governing council and SON is going to be using this strategy/approval as a guide for the development of standards for the next four to five years. So plans are already there. We already know what areas to focus on; areas that are in tune with the economic recovery growth plans of the government, to ensure that available resources are used optimally to develop standards in most critical areas for the nation’s needs. That is one of those things we have done and we continue to do. Our officers are always on the field. We are having meetings; thank God for automation. Most of our services are already automated. Even as we are battling with the continuous challenge with COVID-19, people don’t necessarily have to physically visit our offices to enjoy most of our services, because they are mostly ultimately automated. You want to register your products, you don’t need to come to our office. You want your products locally certified through the Mandatory Conformity Assessment (MCA), you can apply online. You want to make payment to the organisation, you will get your demand note online. You make your payment, upload the payment and you will be receipted online. So we are automated to the point that people don’t necessarily physically have to come to our office to enjoy most of the services we have to offer.
Almost every tailor, among others who can sew or join cloths together, are in the business of making Barrier Masks with all kinds of clothes to sell to the public, has SON ever made time to find out if they meet the required standards?
What we have done really was that, even during the lockdown, we not only made the standards available but also reduced the highlight of the standards into handbills and disseminated them on the social and regular media, so that everybody can print copies and have a guide. So if you want to buy, you can have a guide on the type of Facemask or Barriermask you want to buy. And of course, if I know what I want and you are the one making it, if you don’t meet my requirement, I am not going to patronise you. So what we are doing is to make the guidelines available to everybody; those who are going to patronise and those who are making the mask, because the COVID – 19 pandemic didn’t provide the opportunity to certify the products before they go into the market; it was an emergency situation. That was why we ensured that the guidelines were available to all the consumers. So it is the responsibility of the person who is buying to ensure that he is guided enough to buy only the Facemasks that meet the requirements of the standards and they are going to be safe for his use and required purpose.
What would be your advice to Nigerians in that regard?
My advice to Nigerians is that the pandemic has brought the relevance of standard and quality to all of us. When we say we should wash our hands regularly with soap and water, we are simply saying, be hygienic. That is what standard is all about. When we say you have to use a product, ensure that what you are going to buy for use is the one that meets the quality requirements; that is safe for use; that is durable and; ensuring that it is fit for the purpose for which it was made. These are the objectives of standard development and implementation all over the world. So I am asking Nigerians to join the quality vanguard; pay more attention to the quality of what you buy and use. Where you don’t know, please get somebody that knows to assist you. If you see something unwholesome happening somewhere, inform SON, so that we can continue to assist you to ensure an improvement in the lives of all of us through standard and quality assurance.
Do you have advice for the companies that manufacture PPE like Hand Sanitizers, Facemasks, among others?
Yes, a lot of them are even coming on their own, requesting our officers to come and guide them. Now that work has partially resumed, the process of certification has begun. What that is going to do is to ensure that as many people as having gone into the production of these essential materials, competitiveness will now come in. And you can only be competitive if your products meet the required quality; at least the minimum requirements of the applicable standards. That is what every manufacturer in the nation should strive for. The Mandatory Conformity Assessment Program (MCAP) is put up to ensure among others that you get it right the first time, all the time and that your products meet the requirements of the standards and the expectations of the consumers so that there can be repeated purchase and you can expand your production capacity and employ more Nigerians. Those are the beauties standardization can bring into a nation.
Many phythomedicinal researchers have produced many drugs with which they claim to have used in curing ill health, including COVID-19. Could you speak on the standards of their products?
Source: SON website
Long before now, the SON had a National Mirror Committee on African Traditional Medicine (NMCATM). We are working in conjunction with all other African nations to produce African Traditional Medicine (ATM) standards. Why ATM? It is to ensure that because of the common availability of a lot of these materials in different countries in Africa, the standards being produced are being produced for Africa so that once they are approved, each of the nations can on its own adopt them, rather than having each country producing them individually. So they are in the National Mirror Committee on Traditional Medicines in Nigeria under the supervision and guidance of the SON. Long before now, for more than three to four years now, they have been working on traditional medicines in Africa. So my advice is that anybody who is going to buy traditional medicine should only patronise those of them that are already certified.