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
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
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.