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Despite drop in tomato, pepper prices, pests still lurk around

Nigeria is experiencing one of the worst tomato and pepper shortage in history, with prices staying high for several months. With the development, experts have…

Nigeria is experiencing one of the worst tomato and pepper shortage in history, with prices staying high for several months. With the development, experts have cautioned that if the federal government does not address the problem with urgency, it will last beyond the 2024 wet season.

In the last two months, tomato became more scarce across the country, making the vegetable extremely expensive and nearly out of the reach of most Nigerians. A basket of tomato reached N120,000 at the beginning of June, 2024, which stakeholders said had never happened. The same basket was sold at between N5,000 and N7,000 in 2021.

However, many consumers were a little bit relieved that the price of tomato has reduced from the N120,000 per basket to roughly between N60,000 and N68,000 last week. However, despite the declining price, production is plagued by persistent problems.

Nigeria’s tomato production increased from 190,000 tonnes in 1973 to about 3.68 million tonnes in 2022, with an average annual growth rate of 7.70 per cent, according to Knoema, an Eldridge Business Premier data platform.

The domestic tomato demand in Nigeria is around 5.4 million tonnes. Prior to the emergence of Tuta Absoluta, the deficit was 1.3 million tonnes, but it has since increased as many farmers have lost roughly 60 per cent of their crops.

Alhaji Abdullahi Ringim, the National President of Tomato Growers Association Nigeria (TOGAN), put the damage in 2023 at $17bn as a result of pest attacks.

Another dealer, Ibrahim Sanni, described the situation as a “crisis”, warning that if allowed to continue “will aggravate the price of tomato for consumers in the coming months.”

Last year, over 500 farmers in Kano State alone lost over 300 hectares estimated at N17bn, according to the leadership of the tomato growers in the state.

Tomato farmers in Kano said 2024 was the worst, adding that since February they had been experiencing difficulties with the reemergence of pests destroying farms across Kura, Garun Mallam, Bunkure and other irrigation sites in the state.

Meanwhile, many farmers in states like Gombe, Kaduna, Katsina and Plateau and other regions recognised for tomato production have been forced to abandon tomato farming due to the current circumstances.

Since it first appeared in Nigeria, Tuta Absoluta has devastated a great deal of farmlands and overwhelmed tomato growers, severely impairing tomato production in the country.

The Chairman of the Kano State chapter of TOGAN, Alhaji Sani Danladi Yadakwari, told our correspondent that during the initial stages of the pest’s resurgence, farmers believed they could control it, but that the pest eventually overtook them.

He explained that even though farmers had made progress in their battle against the pest, the Tuta Absoluta had never left the state since it first appeared in 2016, adding that the bug was putting up a fierce battle, leaving farmers to fend for themselves.

It was gathered that tomato producers and other industry observers anticipated the unfavourable trend and alerted authorities about it, but that action against it was slow.

Malam Shehu Ubale, a tomato farmer in Kano, stated that it was beneficial that Nigerians were going through the price increase and scarcity of tomato to serve as a reminder that the tomato industry was an important sub-sector.

He bemoaned the fact that no one appeared to care that tomato producers had been left to suffer for decades.

He said, “You will shade tears for us, especially when we experience glut. Farmers are usually left to count their losses while other farmers that can afford it hire people to cut and dry the tomato as the only available preservation technique they know. However, it is indeed acknowledged that there were multi-national agencies that were giving assistance to tomato farmers but the assistance was usually interrupted. It is good that the nation has experienced what it experienced recently. This will show to the people and the government how important tomato farmers are to the nation.”

However, Alhaji Ringim, National President of TOGAN, said that it was incorrect to believe that the government didn’t take any action to compensate tomato farmers for the losses they suffered as a result of the pest invasion.

He said the affected farmers in some afflicted states received pesticides and some form of support from the Federal Ministry of Agriculture and Food Security.

He explained that the ministry set up a committee to checkmate the pest and manage it effectively.

He said TOGAN was currently in talks with the National Raw Materials Research Council (NRMRC) and other relevant bodies for better and improved seeds to reduce the total dependence on seeds from abroad, which he noted were gradually becoming unaffordable.

Meanwhile, following the devastating effect of the pest on tomato and tomato farmers in Nigeria and the resistance trend exhibited by it over the years, HortiNigeria, a The Netherlands-funded horticulture programme, implemented in Kano and three other states in the country, in collaboration with some other partners, has launched the Integrated Pest Management (IPM) campaign to educate and empower value chain actors, especially smallholder farmers, on effective pest management strategies to effectively manage the attack of the Tuta Absoluta on tomato.

HortiNigeria’s Agribusiness Coordinator, Mr Danjuma Makama, explained that the project was implementing IPM campaign where agro-input dealers would play a critical role.

He said the dealers would be able to provide farmers with advisory services on the solutions to tackle the pest while providing the necessary inputs to deal with it.

Massive rainy season production needed

Over time, most Northern areas in Nigeria have relied heavily on irrigation for tomato production. As many of the farmers utilise local varieties that are unsuitable for rain-fed farming, they lack the facilities (such as greenhouses or rain-fed varieties) necessary to produce during the wet season. Scarcity during the rainy season is an inevitable result of this.

Experts say if the heat-tolerant and rainy season varieties are up-scaled in the country; it will create more opportunities for farmers to make more money all-year-round.

At the moment, even with the advancing rainy season, diseases are already threatening the availability of the produce in the market; and this will further heighten fear of prolonged scarcity unless the government intervenes.

Why fight against disease difficult

The National Horticultural Research Institute (NIHORT) has been warning since last year that using only synthetic pesticides to manage Tuta Absoluta had caused resistance or a shift in the Tuta population’s sensitivity to the chemicals.

Synthetic pesticide sprays became less successful due to resistance development, which allowed the infestation to continue to spread.

Commonly called tomato ebola among farmers, Tuta Absoluta ravaged farms, especially in the Northern part of the country, prompting the institute to set up a team of scientists led by Dr Abiola O. Oke to contain the pest.

The team developed Fact Sheets, the Tuta Trap-Tray (TTT) and two bio-pesticides – NIHORT-Lyptol and NIHORT-Raktin to control the insect both at the pupa and adult stages.

The scientists now want the Federal Ministry of Agriculture and Food Security to incorporate NIHORT’s sustainable Tuta Integrated Management Package for tomato production in the National Tomato Policy to stem the tide of its occurrence.

3 new varieties offer hope, but…

NIHORT released three tomato seeds on January 19, 2023, that were engineered for high output, fusarium tolerance, good shelf life and nutritional properties. One of the types is HORTITOM1, which may yield up to 55.6 tonnes per hectare and matures in 75 to 82 days. HORTITOM2, which can yield 49 tonnes per hectare after maturing in 80 to 87 days, and HORTITOM3, which can yield 63.3 tonnes per hectare after maturing in 79 to 85 days.

However, unless these varieties are accessible to farmers across the country, bridging the demand gap will be a mirage.

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