•Weeks after its disappearance from the markets, there is no let-up in the tomato crisis
By Tessy Igomu
The role it plays and its place in meals in homes across the country remains indomitable. The unique taste of tomato and the colour it adds to meals, no doubt, makes it one priceless item.
Tomato is rich in minerals, carbohydrates, vitamins and can be eaten raw as an important part of salad. It can be crushed into juice or made into sauce and used as a good ingredient in the preparation of various types of food and stew.
That tomato would suddenly go out of reach has remained totally unimaginable to most consumers across Nigeria. But that, unfortunately, is the reality.
For months now, tomatoes have largely disappeared from the market. The few that are available are sold for hitherto inconceivable prices.
As an avid lover of Shawarma, Ijeoma couldn’t fathom why she was asked to pay an extra N200 to have the snack spiced with slices of tomatoes.
“With tomatoes, you have to pay N1000 but without it, you pay N800. Tomatoes are very expensive now,” she was bluntly told by the sales boy, operating the grill.
The import of the young man’s explanation finally sank in days later when she went to the market to purchase tomatoes for the home. The housewife was shocked when she discovered that what she usually bought for N800 would cost her N1800.
“Tomatoes don cost. We no even see sef to buy for market. Today, I buy one basket for N42, 000, instead of N12, 000. I no dey beg anybody to buy. Na who need am and get money go buy,” the tomato seller said with finality.
Musa who sells suya – barbequed meat – on Lateef Salami Street, Ajao Estate, Lagos, insisted that slices of tomatoes on any purchase attracted an additional N200. For him, even though satisfying his teeming customers remained a priority, that would have to come at a higher cost.
“I get cucumber, cabbage and onions for my customers. Anyone wey want tomato go pay for am. E too cost for market,” he explained in smattering English.
For months now, the country has been hit by what could aptly be described as the worst tomato scarcity in country. Most Nigerians are yet to overcome the shock of having the item suddenly priced out of their reach. With consumers bearing the brunt, as tomato traders pass the hike in prices to them, homes, restaurants and other end users have been forced to cut down the quantities they consume. Right now, the sumptuous fruit and key ingredient for most delicacies has virtually disappeared from the menu.
Only a negligible number of meals are prepared without this important condiment. The place of tomato in Nigeria can’t be overemphasised, as foods such as stews, soups, jollof rice, fried egg and even salad are usually tomato-based. This fact explains tomato’s prime place in millions of homes across the country and worldwide.
Coping with the tomato drought
A housewife and restaurant owner, Ifreke, disclosed that she was forced to remove the stew from her menu. She said she had since restricted herself to making only jollof rice at home and in her restaurant. In her words, it would be suicidal to embark on purely tomato-based meals.
“I cannot buy the tomatoes. They are too expensive. No customer is ready to pay extra for a meal of white rice and stew. If you make the stew with processed tomato puree, they will complain. So, they are forced to eat jollof rice or any other meal,” she said.
According to a research by the Department of Agricultural Economics, University of Ibadan, tomatoes constitute 18 per cent of all vegetables consumed by Nigeria’s 180 million populace. And with Nigeria ranking second largest in the production of the commodity in Africa and 13th in the world, accounting for 10.79 per cent of Africa’s and 1.2 per cent of total world production, it then becomes unbelievable to consumers that its price could increase astronomically by over 400 per cent. And for them, this luxury condiment is no longer a necessity, neither is it a commodity to crave for.
Presently, a basket of tomato, which sold between N5, 000 and N10,000, now sells for between N40, 000 and N55, 000. As such, a container of four small-sized pieces now goes for as much as N500 or N700, depending on the buyer’s bargaining power.
Alternatives to the rescue
Already, the scarcity has automatically made most households to switch to other alternatives. They said they would return to tomatoes when the commodity returns to the market in generous quantities. Interestingly, even those whose lives are said to revolve around fresh tomatoes and would have nothing to do with processed, canned, tomato pastes have found some creative ways of substituting the commodity.
Many fresh tomato sellers have resorted to purchasing the produce from neighbouring countries, especially the Republic of Benin and Cameroon, in an effort to make the produce more available in Nigeria. But even that effort appears insignificant, as it has done nothing to ameliorate the pain of tomato consumers.
Factors responsible for the lingering tomato crisis
The tomato crisis is coming on the heels of a recent excruciating fuel scarcity, fuel price hike and a general rise in commodity prices due to inflation. The Federal Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development (FMARD) said Nigeria’s domestic demand for tomatoes is about 2.3 million tons annually while it produces only 1.8 million tons each year.
Initially, fears were rife based on speculations that the sudden scarcity of tomatoes was caused by the establishment of tomato processing plants. Part of the speculation was that those behind the plants might have mopped up the available stock in tomato farms to feed their factory, all in a bid to encourage the patronage of processed tomato puree.
Many factors have been cited as being responsible for the shortage in the supply of tomatoes. These include the recent fuel scarcity and increase in pump price from N86.50 to N145, unrest and insecurity in the North-East, inadequate harvest and the planned relocation of the popular Mile 12 Market in Lagos.
Tuta Absoluta, the tomato Ebola
But the real culprit behind this is actually a moth known as the Tomato Leaf Miner, otherwise known as Tuta Absoluta or the South American tomato moth. The tomato killer had been spreading rapidly across the world from South America where it was first discovered in 1927.
The moth has recently been identified in Spain, France, Italy, Greece, Malta, Morocco, Libya and Algeria. It continued its voracious appetite by infecting the Middle Eastern states of Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, Iran and Saudi Arabia, before it further advanced to Africa. It moved from Egypt to Sudan, Ethiopia, and Senegal, before berthing in Nigeria.
This harmful moth has a strong preference for the tomato plant. It travels and breeds in swarms and has a reputation for swiftly ravaging tomato cultivation in a little above 48 hours, prompting farmers to nickname it the Tomato Ebola. The moth and its lava are reputed to also feed on the leaves of the tomato plant, depriving it of the nutrient to flower and develop fruit. It is lethal. A female pest can produce up to 260 eggs in 21 days. Nigerian farmers are worried that this grey-brown moth, which is 7mm long, has no cure.
The pest, which is likened to termites devouring wood, was said to have first appeared in early March and has devastated tomato plantations in Jigawa, Bauchi, Sokoto, Gombe, Taraba, Kaduna Katsina, as well as in Plateau. Kano, a major state that is into commercial cultivation of the crop has also taken a major hit.
About 75 per cent of vegetables, such as tomatoes, consumed in the country, come from the Northeast and Northwest parts of the country. Hence, this pest infestation made tomato shipments from the North to drastically drop, making prices to soar.
The invasion of this pest prompted the governor of Kaduna State, Mallam Nasir El-Rufai, to declare a “tomato state of emergency.”
According to the Kaduna state’s commissioner of agriculture, Maigari Daniel Manzo, 80 per cent of tomato farms have been ravaged by the pest, adding that over 200 tomato farmers in three out of 12 tomato-producing local government areas of the state were affected by the plague, which has cost them about N1 billion.
He also lamented that the moth was very difficult to control, as it has high mutation capacity and an ability to develop resistance to insecticides.
“You spray it, and after about three hours, it comes back to life,” Maigari said.
Cost of the tomato crisis
Many depend on tomato farming for their livelihood. Already, states which contribute strongly to Nigeria’s overall tomato production, have seen losses running into millions of dollars. Nigeria is reputed to be the 14th largest producer of tomatoes in the world, the largest producer of tomatoes in sub-Saharan Africa and the eighth largest importer of tomato paste in the world after Iraq and Japan.
With the country having a significant demand for processed tomatoes, research indicates that almost half of the tomato pastes found in its markets are either imported from China or Italy. Thus, the prevailing unavailability of fresh tomatoes definitely translates to more demand of processed tomatoes and expenditure on import.
According to the Director General and CEO of the Raw Material and Research and Development Council (RMRDC), Dr. Hussaini Ibrahim, Nigeria spends about 1.5 billion dollars annually on the importation of tomato products from China and other parts of the world.
The Dangote Tomato Company, sited in Kano State, which could have bridged the gap in importation, was reported to have stopped operation partly due to the scarcity of tomato in the market
Erisco Tomato Paste, known as Nagiko, which is the first tomato paste to be made in Nigeria, has also not fared better due to the pest infestation.
Around this time in 2015, farmers in some parts of Nigeria recorded losses as a result of this same pest attack but the consequences of this attack was not felt or reflected in the price of the commodity because demand for tomato wasn’t so high.
Economists have warned that if the federal government does not treat the pest infestation as a matter of urgency, it can take the country years to recover from the attack, just as it took Sudan about three years to recover from a similar attack in 2010.
Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development, Audu Ogbeh, while speaking on the pest and its impact on the country, warned that if the infestation was not properly handled, it will create serious problems for food security in the country, noting that the moth could also attack pepper and potato plants.
According to reports, also contributing in no small measure to the scarcity is the fact that most tomato farmers are still a couple of weeks from harvesting, as they had just commenced planting. So, increase in supplies in the southwest and south-south, is said to be dependent on good weather condition favourable to the crop.
President, Federation of Agricultural Commodities Association of Nigeria (FACAN), Dr. Victor Iyama, said supplies are expected to remain tight until mid-July or August, when some farmers would have harvested their crops. He also disclosed that insurgency has affected hundreds of small-scale tomato farmers in the North.
“In most cases, their livelihoods have been threatened while markets have become inaccessible. As a result, tomatoes are rottening in the fields, because the roads to many markets are not safe,” he said.
Lai Mohammed, Minister of Information and Culture, also attributed the ongoing tomato scarcity in the country to the Boko Haram insurgency.
Mohammed said insecurity in the North-East had forced many farmers out of the zone.
Said he: “People talk about the price of tomatoes but they forget one thing; they forget that the price of tomato today is a direct result of the fact that we have lost two years harvest to the Boko Haram insurgency. Most of the people you see riding okada (motorcycles) in Lagos are people who would have been in the farm to produce consumable items.”
According to experts and agricultural economists, up to 70 per cent of livelihoods in the North are connected to agriculture in one way or the other. The assert that reduced areas of cultivation have lowered the living standards of rural farming communities that once depended on agriculture.
And for agro entrepreneurs, the longer the security challenges last, the longer and costly it will be for the agricultural sector to recover, with its impact on food security better imagined.
Living on hope
If the assurance by the federal government is anything to go by, there might be reprieve for farmers, sellers and consumers of tomato alike very soon. Dr Ogbonnaya Onu, the Minister of Science and Technology, disclosed that the federal government has developed a home-grown solution to the tomato pest through the National Chemical Institute for Chemical Technology in Zaria, Kaduna State.
Also the Minister of Agriculture & Rural Development, Chief Audu Ogbeh, while speaking recently, noted that the highly reproductive nature of the pest and lack of management skills for its containment resulted in its spread. He, however, said the Federal Government had started consulting with the affected states and experts to seek measures to tackle the pest.
He said: “The pest can also attack even pepper and Irish potato. So, we are confronting something quite serious. But the good thing is that we are tackling it right now, as experts will commence work immediately.
“We are bringing the commissioners and state governors to jointly attack this pest, which if not dealt with, will create serious problems for food security in our country. We are in contact with a group which had dealt with this in other countries and they are offering us solutions. In the next few days we shall get to work on this and begin treatment. It is going to be quite expensive as it will cost about five naira per tomato plant.”
Enter tomato-less meals
Trust Nigerians with their ingenuity and ability to make light what is presumed to be an otherwise bad situation. With tomatoes becoming out of reach of most consumers, many have been embracing meals that need little or no tomatoes. These alternatives include vegetable stew, palm kernel soup (Ofe-Akwu), white soup (Ofe-Nsala), beef stew, carrot stew, chicken-carrot stew, chicken sauce and Warri stew. These, according to most housewives, are cheap, filling and easy to prepare.