SPECIAL REPORT: Why Tomatoes Are Scarce and Expensive

imageTomatoes, a vegetable consumed in most households, is scarce and very costly. Many have attributed the shortage to the Mile 12, Ketu, Lagos crisis. Some blame diseases, the high cost of transportation and insecurity in the North.

Why are tomatoes, a must vegetable for households, scarce and very expensive?

This is the question all are seeking answers to. Across the country, there has been an outcry over the high cost of the crop. The cost has forced restaurants, grocers, households and other consumers to cut down the quantities they buy. Four pieces of tomatoes cost as much as N400; that is N100 per one. Since the end of April, when tomatoes became scarce, comsumers have been bearing the brunt as traders pass the hike in prices to them.

About 75 per cent of vegetables, such as tomatoes, consumed in the country, come from the Northeast and Northwest parts of the country. In recent weeks, vegetable shipments from the North have dropped, while prices have soared by as much as 100 per cent.

Some weeks back in Lagos, a basket of tomatoes sold for between N4,000 and N6,000. But now, it costs between N20,000 and N25,000.

Factors for the shortage, many traders said, include the fuel crisis; insurgency; the recent Mile 12, Lagos crisis and viral attacks on the crop.

Reacting to the situation, the Programme Co-ordinator, Farmers Development Union (FADU), Elder Victor Olowe, who co-ordinates a massive number of farmers across the Southwest, told The Nation that the fuel scarcity made it expensive for farmers to move tomatoes from the North to the South.

The scarcity not only made transporters to spend many hours on long queues at petrol stations, it also added to the delay in the movement of the produce. According to him, many farmers, who bring tomatoes to the South, now sell their produce in neighbouring states’ markets. This has caused a hike in prices in the southern part of the country.

Olowe added that the recent Mile 12 crisis might have worsened the scarcity. According to him, producers who bring the produce to the South no longer come because of fear.

Olowe said the situation has had a huge impact on the Southwest because farmers in the region did not envisage it.

To buttress his point, he said farmers in the Southwest were just starting to prepare the ground for the planting season. Consequently, according to him, the prices of tomatoes will still be on the high side.

“This is because farmers are still a couple of weeks from harvesting, since they just started planting. It’s likely that the high prices will hold for a while,” he said, adding: “If the weather holds out, supplies from the southwest will improve.”

However, he said supplies were expected to remain tight until mid-July or August, when some farmers would have harvested their crops. While buyers still expect supplies from the North to improve, President, Federation of Agricultural Commodities Association of Nigeria (FACAN), Dr. Victor Iyama, observed 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.

Also speaking on the issue, a Senior Intervention Manager, Tomatoes, Growth and Employment in States (GEMS4 Nigeria), Mr Richard Ogundele, described the shortage as a regular occurence. To him, it normally happens between the months of April and September. He said production of tomatoes usually drops during the period as a result of low rainfall in the North.

This year’s shortage, according to him, is remarkable because farmers had to share the little quantity produced with processing companies before sending the remaining ones to the South.

It was learnt that some plantations in the North have been very difficult to access, especially remote communities of the Northeast, where insecurity has been a serious issue. In some parts of Southern Kaduna, where inhabitants are predominantly farmers, security challenges seem to be threatening farming activities. Cultivation of other crops such as guinea corn, rice, wheat, groundnut, sugar cane, yam, cassava, soya beans, okra, beans and vegetables for local consumption and commercial purposes have been affected.

Acknowledging the efforts by Dangote Group and others in tomato processing to mop up local harvests, Iyama said the quantity being processed was still too low to cause the shortage. For instance, Dangote Tomato Processing Factory in Kadawa, Kano State has the capacity to process 120 tonnes of tomatoes daily at full capacity. This is still small compared to the number of wastes farmers record in the Northeast which has no large processing plants.

According to Iyama, food security has been undermined in the North, with production of crops falling by varying degrees due to the impact of insurgency on fertilisers; and the disruption of market routes. Before the insurgency, the area recorded higher yields due to improvements in land and crop management practices that helped capture major markets even in the neighbouring countries.

The North’s farming sector received a sizeable investment in modern farming techniques and infrastructure. The authorities were even beginning to invest in irrigation in many projects, as was the case with some large private investors. Today, much of this infrastructure is either damaged or lying waste and idle.

One of those affected, the Vegefresh Company Limited, was closed down in Bauchi as a result of insurgency.

For agro entrepreneurs, the longer the crisis endures, the more costly it will be for the agricultural sector to recover. Although there are signs that the sector has, at least, adapted, in some areas, the lack of fertiliser and cheap fuel has had a detrimental impact that it will require years for the country’s agriculture to recover.

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. Reduced areas of cultivation have lowered the living standards of rural farming communities that once depended on agriculture.

Speaking with The Nation, Crop protection specialist Prof Daniel Gwary, who works extensively with farmers in the Northeastern part of the country, said insecurity has posed a big challenge to local farmers in the area, adding that since it began, many people do not want to go to the farms. Reports said local farmers in the area now go to farm in groups because of fear of being attacked.

They claimed that they were scared and would spend lesser time on their farms for fear of attacks, urging security operatives to stop the wave of insecurity to protect the crucial sector.

Gwary noted that insecurity has caused a lot of problems, especially in the Northeast and that tomato farmers are affected. Early in the year, some farm wells dried up in Katsina, giving concern to tomato irrigation farmers. Tomato farmers had to rely on wells dug on their farms to water their farmlands.

Sadly also, tomato production has been severely hit by the outbreak of Tuta absoluta, a disease which left farms devastated across the producing states. For instance, farms at the Kadawa Irrigation Valley, which is the major producing area and demonstration farms to feed the Dangote’s Dansa Tomato Company in Kano State, were damaged by the disease.

Reports from other states showed that the disease was responsible for the huge economic loss to farmers.

Katsina was also affected by the disease with many tomato farmers devastated by the destruction of their farms.

Farmers are worried about Tuta absoluta, a grey-brown moth that is 7mm long, which can wipe out a farm within days. Once it attacks a farm, there is no remedy. The pest attacks fruits in the open farm and in greenhouses. It is lethal; and a female pest can produce up to 260 eggs in 21 days. Experts say Tuta absoluta is a very dangerous pest.

All these factors are responsible for high cost of tomatoes in Lagos and other southern markets.

To watchers, tomato shortage is dire. But stakeholders and local farmers wouldn’t want the government to rely on imports. Since tomato is a vital crop, they want the government to support tomatoes farms to increase production rate. They want the government to provide facilities and create appropriate conditions for the re-planting of crops and to tackle water shortages nationwide.

Observers believe that, despite some cases of corruption, the Federal Government’s transformation agenda should have a significant impact in stimulating agriculture. According to the Federal Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development (FMARD), Nigeria is the 13th largest producer of tomato in the world and the second after Egypt in Africa. Nigeria has a domestic demand for tomatoes put at 2.3 million tons, while it produces only 1.8 million tons annually. However, due to the dysfunctional agricultural value chain system, about 50 per cent of the tomato produced is wasted.

The situation has resulted in tomato waste of over 750,000 tonnes and an import bill of N16 billion annually.

According to experts, the panacea to tomato waste is processing.

The Federal Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development puts the annual local demand for tomato paste at 900,000 tonnes. Sadly, Nigeria is forced to rely on import of tomato puree, mostly from China because of lack of adequate processing plants. Currently, most processing plants in Nigeria are not functional

To ensure that wastage is curtailed during glut, indigenous companies have risen to the challenge by reviving one of the moribund processing plants and investing in the industry. Notably, the Ikara Food Processing Plant in Kaduna, which had been moribund for over two decades, was resuscitated in 2014 through a public-private partnership between the state and Springfield Agro Ltd.

Following the trail of Ikara Food Company is Erisco Foods Ltd.

The Chief Executive Officer of Erisco Foods, Chief Eric Umeofia, said the plant has an installed production capacity of 450,000 metric tonnes per annum at its Lagos factory, making it the biggest in Africa and fourth largest in the world. Also, Dangote Industries has a tomato factory in Kano State.

The plant has a production capacity of 430,000 metric tonnes of paste per annum. It requires 40 trailers of fresh tomatoes (1, 200mt) daily to run at full capacity. To strengthen the supply chain needed to improve tomato processing, the factory is collaborating with GEMS4 and the Tomato Growers Association in Kano. Ogundele said linking tomato farmers to processing plants initiative creates increased business choices for farmers by facilitating business linkages between small scale tomato farmers and tomato processing plants. It enables them to serve each other on a commercial basis.

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