Fixing Nigeria’s “tomato emergency”

A crop blight has led to the declaration of a state of emergency in northern Nigeria.


Tomatoes have long been a staple of Nigerian cuisine, with traditional dishes like jollof rice and the simple tomato stew relying on this versatile crop.

However, for most Nigerians making these meals has recently become extremely expensive due to the ravaging of farms in the north of the country by the larvae of the tomato leaf miner moth (Tuta absoluta). In May, the price of a single tomato rose by 400% to more than N200 (about $0.71).

In May, the government of the northern state of Kaduna went as far as to declare a state of emergency. Its commissioner of agriculture, Dr Maigari Daniel Manzo, announced that in large parts of the state over 80% of tomato farms had been attacked by the moths. As an example of the way the problem was affecting locals, he said that in three of the 23 local government districts alone, 200 farmers were known to have lost a combined N1bn in the previous month.

Speaking on the news outlet Channels Television in early June, federal information minister Lai Mohammed tried to blame the shortage on Boko Haram’s insurgency in the northeast, which has driven farmers out of the countryside. Two years of war combined with poor rains had caused the shortage, he said.

But the militant group’s actual impact on tomato scarcity is disputed. “The Kaduna state heartlands of tomato production are subject to periodic bouts of religious and communal unrest, but are around 400 miles from the parts of Borno state currently the centre of the Boko Haram insurgency,” says Dr Oliver Owen, research fellow at the University of Oxford Department of International Development.

The creation of roadblocks across northern Nigeria, in response to the Boko Haram threat, may have “added time and disruption costs to transporting agricultural produce in this region, but I am not aware this is a significant contributor to the present crisis as it has been a constant for several years now,” he adds.

Compounding problems

This so-called “tomato Ebola” is the latest in a long line of problems that Nigeria is struggling to overcome, from the Boko Haram insurgency to spiralling inflation and recent fuel shortages.

“The timing of this increase in the price of tomatoes is bad,” says Elizabeth Donnelly, the assistant head and a research fellow of the Chatham House Africa Programme. “The government has a number of fires to fight, including the insurgency in the northeast and rising militancy in the Niger Delta, and this shortage will only add to a list of problems Nigerians are experiencing in their daily lives and linking to the current government.”

Africa’s richest man, Aliko Dangote, has also been affected by the crisis, with his newly opened Dangote Tomato Processing Factory being forced to close until the next irrigation season, due to a lack of fresh tomatoes. The temporary closure of the $20m facility in Kano state dealt a major blow to the efforts to develop a Nigerian tomato paste industry and diversify the country’s economic base.

According to a study of the tomato value chain in Nigeria that was published in the Journal of Scientific Research and Reports in June 2015, more than half of the 1.8m tonnes of fresh tomato produced in the country each year are lost to “poor storage systems, poor transportation and lack of processing enterprises.”

A need for education

There are many opportunities for value to be added to Nigeria’s tomatoes and other agribusiness products, but unless more is done to educate Nigerian farmers on potential risks and establish secure supply chains, it is inevitable that more setbacks like the one in Kaduna state will materialise.

Tuta absoluta is a nocturnal pest and because these farmers do not know that, they spray against it in the day, before the moth comes out in the night. The efficacy of the chemicals is greatly reduced and it therefore does not harm them,” explains Nkiru Okpareke, co-founder and CEO of Envirogro Farms.

“All these mistakes could have been avoided if the farmers were educated or if government provided agricultural extension services for the farmers in their location.”

Government assistance

The tomato leaf miner has spread to a total of six states in Nigeria so far. Federal agriculture minister Audu Ogbeh has said the moth may also pose a risk to pepper and potato plants and is a danger to national food security.

According to Abiodun Claudius-Cole, a plant pathologist at the University of Ibadan, a proactive plan should be developed by the government to ensure that the pest does not spread across the country. “Going forward, scientists in Nigeria need to develop an integrated pest management plan while learning from lessons in other countries,” she says.

President Muhammadu Buhari, has been pushing for economic diversification for some time, partly due to the troubled state of the market for crude oil, which is by far the country’s main export. The economy’s reliance on imported goods is widely reported, but the tomato crisis will enhance this problem as neighbouring countries export more tomatoes to meet increased demand.

Further pressure will be placed on low-income Nigerians, who will bear the brunt of these price rises. “What will make this crisis bite harder is the forex scarcity as consumers will have to rely more on imported tomato paste to make staple foods, which has also become less affordable due to the slide in the exchange rate,” says Owen.

Nigeria may be blessed in many areas with plentiful resources, most notably in oil, but the country has struggled to exploit these commodities to their full extent, creating a dependence on imported goods.

From cocoa to cashew nuts there are a vast number of non-oil exports that Nigeria has the ability to tap into. Agribusiness in Nigeria can only reach its full potential if the government commits to working more closely with the private sector and includes rural communities, who often feel excluded, in the supply chains.

Whether it be the effective management of the tomato leaf miner pest or how Nigeria can benefit from the expected $1 trillion African agriculture and agribusiness sector by 2030, one thing is clear: “the best solution still remains an integrated approach,” says Claudius-Cole.

Finbarr Toesland

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