Tomato Armageddon: Tomatoes the new oil in Nigeria


Tomato market

Rose Edet never thought buying tomatoes for her busy Lagos restaurant would be an issue. But the rising cost is causing her a headache and affecting her customers’ favourite Nigerian dishes.

“We are facing tomato Armageddon,” she told AFP in the Ikoyi district of the city. “I have never seen this situation before in my 36 years in existence.”

Tomato prices in Nigeria have been steadily climbing for months, caused by unrest in northern and central states where the crop is grown and this has affected farmers’ ability to plant and harvest.

Fuel price increases and a fall in imports due to a foreign exchange shortage have contributed to the scarcity and now a major crop infestation has worsened the already bleak tomato outlook.

The Tuta absoluta moth dubbed “tomato Ebola” by local farmers, has destroyed more than 80 percent of tomato farms in the northern state of Kaduna, its agriculture commissioner Manzo Daniel said Tuesday.

More than 200 tomato farmers have incurred losses of more than one billion naira, with fears the moth could wreak havoc across the wider north.

A wholesale basket containing hundreds of tomatoes now sells for 42,000 naira ($212, 186 euros), up from 300 to 1,500 naira before the outbreak, he added.

In neighbouring Kano, a new tomato processing plant set up by Africa’s richest man Aliko Dangote to reduce Nigeria’s reliance on imports and boost domestic production has been forced to shut.

The factory, which only opened in March, requires 1,200 tonnes of the fruit every day but is not getting enough, said managing director Abdulkareem Kaita.

Tomatoes are an essential ingredient for many Nigerian dishes, from fiery pepper soups and stews, and even to garnish suya, the popular spicy grilled meat sold at roadside stalls across Nigeria.

The effect of price rises and shortages are adding further hardship to Nigerians already struggling with a lack of fuel for cars and generators, power outages, and spiralling inflation.

Edet and others say they have been forced to switch to imported tinned tomato paste but prices of puree have also shot up.

“A pack of tomato puree that sold at 40 naira has now risen to 55 naira,” said Kano housewife Zainab Abdullahi.

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Many Nigerians have taken to Twitter to complain, with some re-posting photographs of the Tomatina festival in Spain, which every year hosts what is dubbed the world’s biggest food fight.

One user wrote of the pictures of revellers hurling tomatoes at one another and splashing in the fruit’s juice and pulp: “If only these guys know the price of tomatoes in Nigeria today.”

Another commented that tomatoes were “like gold now in Nigeria” while a third said three tomatoes she bought for 200 naira were more than expensive than a litre of fuel at 145 naira.

“Tomatoes is the new oil in Nigeria,” wrote a fourth.

Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari marks a year in office on Sunday, with focus on his record tackling Boko Haram’s Islamist insurgency in the northeast, endemic corruption and the economy.

Few would have predicted that the fall-out of a tomato crop infestation would be an issue as the anniversary approaches.

Kaduna’s government has sent a team to Kenya to find a remedy against the moth, which lays eggs on tomato plants and develops into a hungry caterpillar that feeds on leaves, stems and fruit.

Meanwhile, rumblings of discontent are getting louder, particularly over the effect on the beloved national dish, jollof rice.

Lagos trader, Fatimo Olubunmi said it was her three children’s favourite food but the tomato scarcity has forced her to switch to using tinned tomatoes and dry pepper.

“This is not the original taste. My children don’t feel happy with the current situation. Mo rogo (I’m in trouble),” she said in Yoruba.

“At Kamson Catering Service in Lagos’ Obalende district, customers have been complaining”, said Faith, a cashier.

“They don’t feel good but we explain to them that tomatoes are the issue. They love jollof rice but because of tomatoes now, we are now increasing our prices,” she said.

“I can only hope that things will get better,” added Edet. “Otherwise, this scarcity will get to a crisis stage.”