Tomatoes haven’t always been a part of the average Nigerian’s diet. First cultivated in South America, they were spread throughout the world by roaming European colonists. Today, tomatoes are a necessary ingredient for many West African dishes.
Because tomatoes have become such an important food requirement for many households, they are perennially in high demand. Sellers try to keep up with the population’s ever growing need for the red fruit, in fresh or processed form. Sometimes they are able to flood markets with plum, healthy looking tomatoes, and drive down its price. At other times the commodity becomes so scarce that its price quadruples in the space of a couple of months. The tomato business in Nigeria is eratic. But it has the potential to pay handsomely, and it is this promise that keeps many farmers and transporters stuck to it.
The allure of the tomato fruit for its vendors lies in the fact that it never runs against the public’s taste. There’s actually a supply gap in the market for it, which anyone brave enough to weather the seasonal storms of possible crop failure, pests and hazardous weather, can take advantage of. The rapid growth of Nigeria’s population means that this gap is widening all the time, and there’s always going to be space for new farmers and sellers to take up.
Despite the opportunities that exist for tomato producers and merchants, there’s a fair degree of hesitation on the part of many to join the trade. Unfortunately, they have good reasons to be wary.
Waste, moths and caged potential
Nigeria ranks among the top 20 tomato producing countries in the world. One frequently cited estimate suggests its annual output to be about 1.5 million tons. However, almost half this produce never reaches local markets. Much of it is lost to spoilage, due to the inadequacies of existing storage facilities and epileptic power supply. The country’s rough (and sometimes barely pliable) roads also chip in their quota of trouble, extending the time and cost it takes to move produce from farms and collection points to the cities where majority of its consumers reside.
Pests are another problem. Until 2016, they were only taken seriously by the more well informed experts of agro business, who tried in vain to warn us of the dangers that a major infestation could pose for national food security. Their prophecies were fulfilled last year. An army of the destructive moth Tuta Absoluta swept through farms in Nigeria’s northern region- the heartland of tomato production in the country -and decimated two-thirds of the year’s tomato crop yields. The resulting scarcity of tomatoes fired shockwaves through the supply chain, shot prices up to heights previously unimaginable, and sent chills down ths spines of housewives, market women and government officials. Many people seriously considered unconventional alternatives to the red berry staple.
Although the hordes of Tuta Absoluta have ceased to menace tomato farms in the country, many other challenges still bedevil tomato production and distribution in these parts.
A value chain struggling to create real value
Nigeria’s tomato industry has some way to go before it compares favourably with other top tomato producing countries. The obstacles to real progress in this subsector shows up in almost every section of the value chain. The farms are small and only yield a fraction of what similar land sizes produce annually elsewhere in the world. Processing plants are hard to come by (and the functioning ones are struggling quite badly), and distribution networks are plagued by numerous bottlenecks.
These problems have kept the price of locally produced tomatoes on the high side, causing many to opt for a cheaper alternative- imported tomato puree. Until recently, Nigerians spent at least $1 billion per year on tomato paste. The Federal Government has since banned the importation of the product.
Red dawn in sight
In recent times, there have been positive signs coming from policy makers about regenerating tomato production. The ban on the importation of tomato paste was part of a broader plan to give the local agro based industry a chance to grow at its own pace. The CBN has included tomato farmers in its Anchor Borrowers Program, which allows them to seek low interest loan facilities to fund their production.
Private companies are getting in on the home grown act as well. One major market player, Conserveria Africana (producer of tomato paste brands Gino and Promo) announced last year that it had initiated a pilot scheme in which local farmers in Katsina were organized into cooperatives and provided with seedlings. The plan, according to the company’s managers, is to eventually source its tomatoes from these local farmers, and perhaps replicate this model elsewhere.
Nigerian industrial giant Dangote had also set up a tomato processing factory in Kadawa, Kano State. The factory, which should produce about 400,000 tons of paste annually when it becomes fully functional, is yet to commence operation. Although it has been hampered by the ravages of Tuta Absoluta and the the unmechanized approach of its contracted local farmers to crop production, the company’s officials hope to finally get it up and running next year.
There’s no doubt that Nigeria’s tomatoes can become a symbol of real economic growth for the country. It could be that the rays of promise they have always reflected off their smooth rounded sides are about to become a dazzling sea of red, lifting this country to new heights of self sufficiency and international respectability.