The sight before the farmer is like a scene from a horror movie. The leaves of the tomato plants are rusted grey, parched at edges. Some of the fruits look like they have been infested by boils, while others have dark holes drilled into them. The army of bugs remain, hiding behind leaves or within the mines they have drilled into the fruits. Just two days before, the farm had been thriving, with the farmer expecting a healthy bountiful harvest. Today, all has gone to waste.
A Bug on Rampage
This farm has been struck by the dreaded Tuta absoluta. The moth has a reputation for swiftly destroying tomato cultivation in just about 48 hours – prompting farmers to nickname it Tomato Ebola. It can breed between 10-12 generations in a year. The female lays between 250 – 300 eggs within its life time.
Tomato Farmer, Mallam Abdullahi Umaru said all his effort to prevent the outbreak in his farm came to no avail. His use of insecticide had not yielded any result as the pests seem to have developed some resistance to the chemicals.
In and around Makarfi, Hunkuyi, Soba and Zuntu villages of Kaduna, in Danja Katsina State and in Kadawa, Dakasoye and Kura villages in Kano state – which account for more than a quarter of Nigeria’s tomato production – the story is the same; tomato farmers within the last month have recorded a minimum of 40% crop loss to the menace.
The effect on the market reached farther than the spread of the bug. In Lagos, Abuja and even Calabar, the cost of tomatoes skyrocketed. Wakul Ibrahim, a wholesale dealer in tomatoes at Nasarawa wholesale market in Calabar who has been in the business for about 4 years complained that the scarcity of tomatoes observed from March this year is worse compared to what happened last year. “Last year December, a basket of tomatoes was selling between N5,000 and N6,000 even uptill January this year (2016), but currently it goes for N30,000 if you see it. I spent N145,000 to bring five (5) baskets from the north last week,” he moaned.
Khalid Yakubu, another dealer complained, “For the last one week, tomato has not entered this market. Before, it was every week and baskets of tomatoes were everywhere, but now only those few. I do not know why it is scarce but I know it is scarce despite the fact that tomato has two planting seasons.”
State Secretary, Perishable Sellers Association Mandate Market, Ilorin, Dauda Abiodun Rasak told AgroNigeria that the tomato being sold in the state was brought in from Chad, Burkina-Faso and Cameroon. “We are now importing tomato from neighbouring countries to augment local production. It is that bad. Although buyers like the varieties being sold but it comes with a high price of between N33,000 to N35,000 depending on purchasing power of individual buyers.”
The Threat of Misinformation
For years the Tuta bug or Tomato Leaf Miner was a pest little known in these parts. This bug was first discovered in South America for which reason it is also known as the South American Moth. It started its journey around the world in 2006 and quickly spread to Spain. By 2009, it was already documented as having spread to the continent of Africa attacking crop fields in Egypt and neighbouring Senegal.
Last year, the Tuta bug was observed in Northern Nigeria for the first time at about the same time as the Muslim Fast leading many to believe that the rise in cost at that time was due to the low productivity of farmers. AgroNigeria took up the challenge and embarked on an expensive national awareness programme aimed at sensitization about the immediate causes of the tomato scarcity experienced across the country, at that time. This prompted spirited effort on the part of stakeholders to address the trend. Kano state in particular set up a Committee to look into the matter.
This year, the Tuta bug is back. Interestingly, the sudden astronomical rise in tomatoes to over 20 times its price was again being attributed to other factors – even by the authorities – thereby giving the Tuta bug added time to fester and metamorphose with more devastating effect. A large portion of the blame was laid at the feet of Dansa Agro-Allied Ltd. The organisation had commissioned a mammoth tomato processing plant in Kano at the first quarter of this year. “Dangote paste factory has mounted its agents around virtually all the production zones in Kano State and he is collecting at least 8,000 baskets of tomatoes daily which make it increasingly difficult for individuals and retailers to buy directly from the farms like before,” alleges Alhaji Taofeek Olowo, Spokesperson for the Amalgamated Foods Sellers Association Mandate Market, Ilorin. “For instance, if an individual buys for N1,000 per basket, Dangote will buy three times the price and they are willing to sell to him any day, coupled with the fact that he has agents scouting for tomato and whenever the opportunity present itself, they mop up all the harvest to feed their paste industry,”Alhaji Olowo stated further.
Reacting to this Alhaji Kaita, Director at Dansa Holdings told AgroNigeria in an exclusive interview that this is simply not true. “Our Factory has been closed [since April],” he informed us. The Dansa Holdings Factory was designed to rely on over 50,000 tomato farmers located around the Kadawa Valley in Kano State to feed it constant and qualitative tomato produce for its machines. “What is causing the scarcity is the infestation by this pest called Tuta absoluta that has wiped out most of the tomato farms. Even our own tomato farm has been destroyed by this pest completely,” Alhaji Kaita revealed. Tomato farmers in Kano corroborate this stand. According to Mallams Iliya and Abbas, both tomato farmers in Kano, the devastation they suffered was massive. They said the Tuta pest, which they have given names like tomato Ebola and also Sharon, is solely responsible for the scarcity and that it crippled their tomato production – not the Dangote processing plant. According to them, the quantity of tomatoes that the factory absorbed was low compared to farmers’ expected yield and that not all farmers were involved in supplying the factory with tomatoes.
For farmers, the economic loss is heavy. For Nigeria, it should be considered a national tragedy. At the two day National Economic Council retreat held in March this year, target dates were set for self-sufficiency in three commodities including tomato which had 2016 as its self-sufficiency date. With Nigeria’s dwindling foreign exchange reserve and a budget deficit of about N2.2 trillion requiring a source of funding, the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development (FMARD), Chief Audu Ogbeh, has hinted of an ambitious plan designed to ensure Nigeria captures 15 per cent trade volume of fruits and vegetables to Europe. There are talks of a loan from the Africa Development Bank (AfDB). But all of these remain futuristic with no impact on the immediate response. A very worrying trend indeed.
Too Little, Too Late
AgroNigeria set out to find out what government response has really been like. At the Dakasoye Village in Kano state the farmers said they had not received any assistance from government. They were however quick to add that whatever help government wants to render are often hijacked before it gets down to small scale farmers. These farmers were evidently expecting intervention in the form of monetary compensation. For now however, the government has gone the way of evaluation and sensitization.
On their part, the Kano State Government says they were teaching farmers how to use rotational agriculture in addition to pesticides to combat the pest. Commissioner for Agriculture Kano State, Hajia Binta Rabiu, also intimated AgroNigeria with various other steps taken by the State to combat the bug such as spraying their farms between 1.00am and 3.00am. “The moth is most active during night hours”, Hajia Rabiu revealed. “ If you spray your farm in the day time like in the morning from 6, 7, or8.00am, you’ll discover the pest has already finished attacking the crop and gone underground,” she advised.
Director at the Institute for Agricultural Research, Prof I.U. Abubakar told AgroNigeria that the Institute is aware of the bug attack in Kaduna, Kano, Katsina and some other states and that their research teams have already visited several farms in many of the affected villages in Kaduna state to see the effect of the bug, speak with farmers and get some samples. According to him, the main challenge they are facing with the bug is the resistance to pesticides. Director of Agricultural Services at the Kaduna State Ministry of Agriculture, Mrs Jumai K. Ambi agrees. She said the state was on a sensitization tour of farms urging the farmers to insure their farms. According to Mrs Ambi, the state is currently assessing the damage.
Sad to say, these interventions have been happening mostly on a state by state basis and seem to lack co-ordination at the center. Mr Dipo Sofowura reports spotting the bugs on his farm in Ogun state. “The awareness was very poor. It happened on our farm but I didn’t even know it was Tuta. I think government response was very poor,” he asserts.
Clearly, when it comes to tomato, Nigeria’s concerns are hydra-headed. On the one hand, there is the fight against the enormous waste in the sector and on the other, the Tuta bug. Prior to this time, the adoption of a hands-on approach to tomato production, coupled with farmer education, had led to a reduction in tomato crop waste. In this regard, Executive Secretary of the Federation of All Commodities Association of Nigeria (FACAN), Alhaji Akin Gbadamosi, commends the efforts of the Growth and Employment in States (GEMS4) project, an initiative dedicated to improving agricultural standards in Nigeria from farm gate to market. “GEMS4 are working hard on giving training and workshops to the farmers to see how we can address the issue of post-harvest loss,” Gbadamosi stated. The FACAN scribe however laments the fact that government seems to be shirking its responsibilities. “I can say government has done almost nothing concerning Tuta absoluta. It is mainly the private sector and farmers who have made a frantic effort to curtail the problem but I know they cannot succeed without government intervention”, he added.
Speaking on measures that can and had been taken to reduce tomato waste, Bolaji Akinboro, Chief Executive Officer of Cellulant Group, who has spent several years working in the Tomato Value Chain, says cutting waste is a function of access to primary and secondary processing. This, he posits, is dependent on having a major processor in the country and a good transport system. “The Dangote plant solves the former and the proposed investment in road infrastructure by the present administration should address the latter. We only hope that The Minister for works can get to work as quickly as he has promised now that he has an approved budget to work with. Otherwise, we will assume that his criticisms of his predecessors when he was in the opposition were misplaced,” Akinboro stated further.
An Urgent Need for Action
The situation surely requires some inspirational leadership from the managers of our politico-economic fortunes. Inaction on the part of government will only result in the failure of its policy thrust aimed at ensuring local production of tomato paste – a key foreign exchange drain. Already, stakeholders say the plan for self-sufficiency in tomato will not be possible this year because of the Tuta infestation and the fact that the year is almost gone and major interventions to deliver the goal have not commenced. Also there is the issue of stakeholder engagement and farmer support which is sorely lacking.
The Tuta bug cannot be treated with kid gloves. The fact that the bug has struck twice should be a clarion call for tangible action to be taken. “Government has to do its job with regards to sensitization but we must realize that they have also been hampered due to the fact that they didn’t have a budget to work with,” Akinboro asserts. “The tomato value chain actors have to also play a major role. In fact, the value chain actors are even more important than government in my view,” he noted further.
Speaking on the same note, CEO of AgroNigeria, Mr Richard Mbaram, recently wrote, “Nigeria has far too much agricultural promise that it would border on sheer criminality to stand idly by and watch it being frittered away”.
Presently, Nigeria is the largest producer of tomato in Sub-Saharan Africa, with an annual production of over 1.5 million tonnes. Sadly, about 900,000 tonnes of Nigeria’s tomatoes rot before getting to markets leading to the importation of 300,000 tonnes of tomato paste from China worth about $360 million to support local production and meet self-sufficiency needs.
Mr Mbaram further notes that we are fresh from 3 years of informed policy reforms that saw us begin to get a sense of what Eldorado might not just ‘look like’ but ‘feel like’ and that it is important to keep that tempo going. The Cellulant helmsman agrees, “The former minister did something quite good. He helped Nigerians to understand that agriculture is a business. The massive influx of home grown investors and entrepreneurs into agriculture over the past 4 years has really helped”.
Need for Determined and Focused Leadership
Government cannot afford at this time to relent in its effort to ensure that agriculture is continually approached as a business. The private sector has proved itself ready to participate in these efforts. The mindset which created the problems being currently faced must be done away with. Efficiency and timeliness of action should become a culture.
Government must by necessity work with private sector actors to find a lasting solution to the Tuta problem. One of the solutions proffered is to spread the production of tomato and other vegetables to all ecological zones to stem recurring scarcity. Dr. Abiodun Aderibigbe a researcher from the Nigeria Stored Products Research Institute (NSPRI) Ilorin, insists that “Farmers in Kwara, Kogi and Niger States should strive to produce tomato and pepper en-mass like Oyo, Iseyin farmers did. There should also be rain-fed production, in the entire Southern part of the country, of improved varieties so that tomato production with the aid of irrigation from the North could be complemented”. Aderigbigbe also harped on the use of chemicals to subdue Tuta Absoluta attack on tomato farms. According to him, in developed countries, helicopters and planes are employed in such situation to boom-spray without allowing chance of survival for the super bug which ravages and devours vegetables at will while investigation and research are intensified.
Similarly, Bayo Issa, an agricultural scientist had this to say : “We all know that the North accounts for 80% of tomato consumed in this country. Having said that, I think it is not enough to limit tomato production in their hands as presently being witnessed and has unfortunately caused a hike in price. Researchers should step up their quest to eradicate it while government should prepare to re-draw the geographical spread of tomato producing areas in the country such that other farmers elsewhere can be encouraged to expand their production scale”. He goes on to observe that “the use of irrigation is prevalent in the North, making it possible to produce all year round”.
Perhaps research such as that carried out by Farmtech Bio Solutions should be encouraged. CEO of the organisation, Mr Iyase William told AgroNigeria in an exclusive chat that plans were well underway to provide a bio solution to fight the Tuta bug. “The advantage of our product is that with synthetic chemicals, Tuta absoluta has the probability of being resistant to it, but biological methods [possibility of developing resistance] is very very very low. You can use [our product] to lure the Tuta absoluta moths for 6-8 weeks. You can monitor when the pests are on your farm and when to increase your traps,” he revealed.
In the final analysis, the Minister of agriculture needs to understand that Nigeria is faced with a food crisis and must assume the reins of control – in real terms – and report to the Vice-President who will in turn should keep the President updated about developments in the sector. Efforts of individuals working within the country to proffer lasting solutions to this pest – either through synthetic or bio solutions – should be harnessed by both public and private sector so that Nigerian farms can be rid of this bug.