Widespread Disillusionment over Spiraling Cost of Food Prices

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Chiemelie Ezeobi, Mary Nnah, Rebecca Ejifoma, Chiamaka Ozulumba and Oluwabunmi Fache write that the harsh economic downturn is taking its toll on ordinary Nigerians, especially with the spiraling cost of food prices

“With the current price of onions, there is no way you won’t cry when cutting it”. This was just one of the several jokes passed around last week in Nigeria over the alarming cost of foodstuff, especially staples like tomatoes, onions, pepper, rice, cooking oil, beans and yam.

In the face of the global slump in the price of crude oil in the international market and the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, many economies are battling depression, which in turn translates to limited access to funds but increase in the cost of living. Although some may argue that Nigeria is not depressed, but things are definitely not the same anymore given the high cost of living, especially the price of foodstuffs.

Sustainable Development Goals

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), also known as the Global Goals, were adopted by all United Nations Member States, of which Nigeria is a part of, in 2015 as a universal call to action to end poverty, protect the planet and ensure that all people enjoy peace and prosperity by 2030.

The 2030 Agenda comprises 17 new SDGs, which will guide policy and funding for the next 15 years, beginning with a historic pledge to end poverty. Everywhere. Permanently.

The 17 SDGs are integrated—that is because they recognise that action in one area will affect outcomes in others, and that development must balance social, economic and environmental sustainability.

Through these pledge, Nigeria is supposed to- end poverty, ensure zero hunger, good health and well-being, provide quality education, ensure gender equality, provide clean water and sanitation, provide affordable and clean energy, provide avenue for decent work and economic growth, create industry, innovation and infrastructure, reduce inequality, build sustainable cities and communities, ensure responsible consumption and production, act on climate action, ensure life below water and on land, provide peace, justice and strong institutions as well as build viable partnerships for the goals.

But five years down the line, the question that begs an answer is-how far has Nigeria gone in ending poverty while ensuring zero hunger?

Impact of COVID-19

When COVID-19 broke out globally, many opined that it would lead to economic instability and food inflation. Months down the line, those predictions have sadly proved to be true.

Across the globe, the pandemic has put global economies through the wringer, shrinking the economy, which in turn translates to reduction in the value chain of food supply.

During the heat of the pandemic, many nations shut down as lockdowns were imposed as one of the measures to curtail the spread. Inevitably, this affected the food supply and consumption chain. While the cost of foodstuff skyrocketed, the standard of living dropped in Nigeria.

Following the lockdown to flatten the curve of COVID-19 pandemic, many bemoaned the lack of access to food, as well as the promised government palliatives. This is just as they bitterly decried the sudden drastic hike in price of essential foodstuffs like rice, yam, cassava flakes (garri), beans, sachet water, fish, and meat among other things. But months down the line, has anything become different or did they go from bad to worse?

Widespread Disillusionment

From civil servants to traders, teachers, professionals and even the common man, the angst against the increase in the cost of food resonated. The reason is not far-fetched- while the cost of these were increased, none of them experienced salary increase- some were even retrenched or took pay cuts.

Indeed, 2020 is a year to remember for hardship it imposed on Nigerians. Despite the hardship pioneered by the lockdown, Nigerians in several parts of Lagos are currently undergoing a second wave of hardship with the sudden hike in food prices.

When the lockdown was eased off, things seemed to have eased off a little but like a full cycle, the chickens have come home to roost.

Across the state, tales of woe have erupted as the prices of foodstuff have gone steep, further making food a luxury for the masses.

Even those that opted for Mile 12 Market in Lagos State to buy foodstuff cheap were disappointed as the price disparity wasn’t much. Known for selling staples like onions, tomatoes, pepper, vegetables, groundnut and red oil, as well as fruits, the Mile 12 market in Lagos is also renowned for being a rallying point for wholesale.

Cost of Basic Foodstuffs

Giving a comprehensive breakdown of most foodstuff in the market at the moment,

things to know (an online platform that can be accessed at thingstoknow.com.ng), posited that food has become one of the most important commodities in the market as people’s lives depend on it.

According to the platform, while 80kg bag of Ijebu Garri costs N10,500, the 50kg bag of the white and yellow garri cost between N6,500 to N7,500. Also, five litres of palm oil costs N2,200 to N2,500 whole the 20 litres and 30 litres cost N8,800 to N9,000 and N12,800 to N13,000 respectively.

Meanwhile, 500g of Dangote, Power and Golden Penny Spaghetti cost between N200 to N250 while that of Bonita cost N250 to N300.

A big basket of sweet potato cost between N500 to N650 while the small basket cost N300 to N400; a big basket of Irish potato costs N1,900 to N2,200, while a medium and small basket cost

N1,000 to N1,300 and N500 to N700 respectively.

For unbranded groundnut oil, the five litres costs N2,300 to N2,500; the 20 and 30 litres cost N9,000 to N9,500 and N13,500 to N14,000 respectively.

Meanwhile, five litres of Wesson Oil cost N4,500 to N4,700; Kings Vegetable Oil costs N2,900 to N3,000; 3.8 litres of Mamador Vegetable Oil costs N3,000 to N3,200; and three litres of Power Vegetable Oil cost N2,400 to N2,600.

Coming to sugar, 50kg of Dangote Sugar costs N17,000 to N17, 300 while 500g of St. Louis Sugar cube and Golden Penny sugar costs N300 to N400.

A small loaf of bread costs N70 to N150; a medium size loaf costs N300 to N500; while the large loaf costs N500 to N1,000. Eggs are not left out on the price hike as a crate now goes for N1,000 to N1,300.

Meanwhile, a 50kg bag of local rice and polished rice costs N14,000 to N25,000 and N22,000 to N28,000 respectively. A five kg bag of Ofada Rice costs N2,800 to N3,500 while a 50kg bag of Ofada Rice costs N25,000 to N28,000.

Also, a 50kg bag of Mama Gold Rice, Royal Stallion Rice, Rice Master and Cap Rice cost N26,000 to N32,000, N25,500 to N31,500, N26,000 to N31,000 and N25,500 to N32,000, respectively. But a 25kg bag of Master Rice, Cap Rice, Falcon Rice cost N13,000 to N16,500, N13,000 to N17,000, and N8,000 to N10,000 respectively, while the five kg bag of Basmati Rice costs N4,000 to N4,800.

For those that buy per cup, a cup of local rice costs N800 while that of polished rice costs between N100 to N130.

For beans lovers, the steep prices are also alarming. 50kg bag of Oloyin Beans costs N30,000 to N39,000 while its 25kg bag cost N15,000 to N19,000 and a cup cost N100. Also, 50kg bag of Olotun Beans costs N29,000 to N36,000 while its 25kg bag costs N14,000 to N17,500 and a cup costs N100.

The 50kg bag of Lima Beans costs N33,000 while the 25kg bag costs N16,500 and a cup costs N110. Also, a 50kg bag of White Beans costs N32,000 while the cup costs N80. For the 50kg bag of Brown Beans, it costs N32,000 while the

cup of Brown Beans cost N90.

Bringing the pricing to yams, a medium size of yam size yams cost between N400 to N500; a large size yam N500 to N1,000 while Abuja yam costs N500 to 700 for medium size and N700 to N1000 for the large size. Benue medium size yams cost N250 to N450 and N600 to N800 for the large size.

Lamentations

It was lamentation galore as THISDAY sampled opinions of Nigerians who bear the brunt of this anomaly. These Nigerians are those who can’t even afford to buy foodstuff in stock, rather, buy retail from traders. They all lamented on the same grounds, especially with the economic crunch brought by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

Giving a breakdown of some foodstuff in her area, a resident of Ejigbo who spoke on anonymity said a bag of rice which was formerly sold for N18 000 has inched up to N28 000 while a paint of garri that was formerly pegged at N300 has now gone up to N800, and a fresh basket of tomatoes that cost N8000 before has skyrocketed to N30,000.

She also noted that a bottle of unbranded groundnut oil that costs N700 now costs N1,200 while a bottle of red oil that was formerly at N700, now costs N1000, adding that processed foods are not left out. According to her, a sachet of tomato paste that cost N50 before now costs N150.

Also speaking, Miss Chika Ukeagbu, a resident of Ikorodu said: “I am trying to survive, coping is a mild word. Onions are now referred to as ‘Diamonds’ ‘Liquid gold’. A sachet of TastyTom tomato paste is N150, Vitali tomato paste is N120 and the fresh ones are expensive. I have embraced cooking coconut rice. A crate of eggs cost N1,400, while retailers sell N100 for one.

“I had to start taking walks half of the way to cut down on transport fare since it tripled. I do not expect that the prices come down soon, because contrary to the laws of physics, here in Nigeria, what goes up doesn’t come down.”

Another resident of Ikorodu, Miss Ahuekwe Chioma said: “It is very serious. Can you imagine Congo (cup) of rice has gone from N800 to N1,200. And there is no hope for reduction in price as the yuletide season is almost here. Food is essential, so I cut the cost of other things that are not so necessary like extra perfumes or clothes and use the money to eat. The government should do something, before Nigerians starve.”

Also speaking, Mr. Ekim Inokon lamented that everything and not just foodstuff has tripled in price, while Mrs Chinwe Ezeoke, a baker also revealed that steep prices affected products used by bakers.

She said: “Everything is super expensive in Nigeria right now and it is very bad. I am a baker and core baking materials are almost going out of my reach and making me lose customers everyday as they can’t keep up with the ever changing prices of cakes and pastries.

“I bought a bag of Golden Penny Flour last month for N13,200 now it’s N14,400; a bag of Dangote Refined Sugar is now N21,000 from N18,000; a bucket of margarine is now N12,000 from N9,000; a crate of medium sized eggs is N1,300 while a crate of jumbo sized eggs sells for N1,800. Let’s not even talk about the price of food stuffs.”

Another resident, Chisom Ani noted that “foodstuffs are getting expensive by the day. Initially, foodstuff worth N50,000 would be enough for three months. But right now, N50,000 foodstuff lasts a month and my portion size didn’t increase. We might not be able to afford the next rent at this rate. And there’s no hope honestly. Just despair. Things are getting more expensive in this season. I wonder what would happen out of season.

“Right now, in my area, a paint of garri is N900, a paint of beans is N1300. We are not even talking about rice.The price of corn is more than 200 per cent its former price. Legumes like fio-fio (pigeon pea), akidi (cowpea) and ọkpa (Bambara) have about 50 per cent increase in price, at this rate people might die of hunger.”

In a careful study in areas like Lekki and Okokomaiko, there was a loud difference in prices of foodstuffs in the markets and street trading.

In Lekki, a derica of rice is N550, a sachet tomato paste of N50 now cost a whooping N250, pepper is now from N200 above, a tiny bulb of onion formerly worth N20 is now N100, a bottle of vegetable oil of N400 is now N700 while a kilo of frozen chicken is now N1,700 from N1,400.

In Okokomaiko, the prices are even more considerate than Lekki. While prices of pepper, tomatoes and rice remains the same, others have taken a new form. Sachet tomato paste formerly worth N50 now costs N140, onions worth N10 before now cost N50, a bottle of groundnut oil is now worth N600 from its initial N450 while a bottle of palm oil is now N500 from N400.

Woes for Traders

But while consumers lament, traders seem to be worse off as they battle with low sales and even making profit off the foodstuff they sell.

At the different markets visited on the mainland and the Island, it was the same tales of woe. From Oja market in Jakande Estate to the Isolo Market then the Anjorin market to the Odo market at Cele and Aswani Market, and other markets on the Island, with Lekki as the focus for highbrow areas, it was same tale of slow sales due to the high cost of foodstuffs.

Popularly known as Mama Ejima, the trader who operates several stalls at the Oja market with her husband, said they were forced to relinquish one of the stalls when they couldn’t pay the rent for the year.

According to her, “we were really counting on making sales this year but we have been disappointed. In my shop, where I sell mostly grains and grounded cassava (garri), I hardly sell up to 12 bags a week. It wasn’t like this before. But I understand why people no longer buy bags of rice. The least bag of rice in my shop goes for N28,000. What people do now is that they buy the rice in cups and not bags and it’s affecting us”.

Another trader at the Odo market, known as Dee, also a foodstuff dealer, told THISDAY that the only solution to the high cost of foodstuff is for the government to encourage more Nigerians to dabble into agriculture.

Alhaji Ibrahim Mohammed, a ram seller at the Oke-Afa bridge, also lamented low patronage. He said, “There are virtually no customers and the few we had complained about the prices.”

At Sango Ota Market a portion of fresh tomatoes sold for N400 previously is now N700. Trying to justify the reason for increase in price, the seller, a young man from the North, said a basket of tomatoes he usually buys N1500 is now sold for N3000, adding that everything is very expensive and not just fresh tomatoes and pepper.

The sizes of baskets of fresh tomatoes, he said vary. “There are like five different categories of baskets of tomatoes and the sizes determine the price at which they are sold. They are all very expensive right now. We can’t just explain the reason why”, he said.

Another woman who sells onions said the portion of onions sold for N100 three weeks ago is what she sells for N500 now. She argued that onions are very expensive now, adding that just a day before, she went to the market and a bag of onions she usually buys for N20,000 was now sold for between N45,000 and N65,000 depending on the sizes.

“We praise those who can still buy onions at the moment and they can’t help it because onions are something you can’t do without when cooking. Before now I use to buy a full bag but now I can only afford to buy a quarter bag for N15,000 and even at that, it was not as plenty as it usually was”, she added, noting that the lack of rain this year might have been responsible for the high cost of food items in the market.

Another food stuff seller at the market who sells gari, rice and beans said she bought a bag of foreign rice few weeks ago for between N28,000 and N30,000 but just a day before now, she bought it for N33,000.

“Palm oil before now was between N8000 and N9000 but just two weeks ago, I bought it for N12,000 and then it was suddenly increased to N15,500. A 25 litre of groundnut oil is now sold for N20,000 instead of N15,000 that it was previously sold. A bag of beans sold for N17,000 previously is now sold for N30,000. This does not include transportation fee from where I buy them.”

Mummy Chiwendu who sells garri, semo, palm oil and groundnut oil, also reiterated that the prices for everything has changed drastically. She said groundnut oil in Eva bottle which was previously sold for N800 was now sold for N1,200 while a bag of white garri, which was sold for N10,000 rose to N17,000 and a bag of yellow garri which previously sold for N6,125 has increased to N7,625.

Likely Causes

For the layman, the likely factors behind the steep prices of foodstuff might be the closed border, heavy rainfall that resulted to flooding, COVID-19 pandemic and inaccessible roads from the farms to markets.

Border-wise, Nigeria imports nearly $4 billion of rice and wheat annually, according to the government due to an underdeveloped manufacturing industry. To tackle this, Nigeria partially closed its border with Benin Republic, which was also an avenue for smuggling activities, especially of rice. Asides the positives recorded, the resultant effect saw the prices of foodstuff skyrocket as local production couldn’t meet up with the consumption demands.

One of those that ascribed the high cost of food stuff to the closure of the Nigeria borders, was one of the traders at Sango Ota Market, who further lamented that she hardly makes gains from her sales these days.

Also blaming the border closure, Mummy Precious, a wholesale rice seller, lamented that within six months, the price of rice jumped with no end in sight. According to her, she sold foreign rice six months ago at N18000 but has now upped to N28000. Dashing hopes that the price would crash before December’s festive period, she expressed fears that it might even increase because rice becomes a common staple at that point.

Another young man who sells onions at Ejigbo market when asked why onions are so expensive, mentioned that heavy rainfall was the main reason behind the sharp increase in prices that had settled at a reasonable rate since October last year. He explained that the price of onion might come down before December, because December is summer time which will be good for preserving onion.

According to Mummy Chinwendu, the reason for the high cost was not far-fetched: many farmers boycotted cultivation in 2020 because of the difficulties experienced during the pandemic where they accrued huge loss. She also revealed that those that cultivate cassava was the worst hit as their farms were hit by glut.

Reminiscing that a basket of fresh tomato sold for N12,000 before COVID-19, Madam Bola, another trader at Boundary Market, lamented that it has skyrocketed between N28,000 to N30,000. Giving likely reasons for this, she speculated that it might be because fresh tomatoes are very hard to transport.

But according to the federal government, aside the perennial flooding that wiped out farmlands across the nation, one of the major issues behind the hike in food prices was the exploitative behaviour by middlemen and other actors.

Government’s Efforts

With all the woes surrounding cost of foodstuff, many would argue that the Buhari administration has done a lot in boosting local production of food.

Just after the heat of the lockdown, President Muhammadu Buhari had in August pledged to strengthen his administration’s focus on agriculture with policies that will support the cultivation and consumption of locally produced food items.

In September, one of such moves was the release of 30,000 tons of maize from the national reserves to animal feed producers to ease the current high cost of poultry production.

Also in September, Buhari directed the Governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria, Godwin Emefiele, not to release money for food and fertiliser importation henceforth. This was targeted at reducing food importation and promoting local production. But the Manufacturers Association of Nigeria (MAN) warned that the directive could cause further inflation, as Nigeria was not in anyway sufficient in food production.

In October, the federal government unveiled plans aimed at providing interest-free loans to farmers in the country. As was disclosed by the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development, Sabo Nanono, his ministry would work with the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) in providing the loans.

Existing Food Initiatives

Also, there are existing food programmes and loans run by the government to assist those who want to veer off into agriculture.

In a recent article run on THISDAY titled ‘Turning Agriculture into a Wealth Creating Sector’ Managing Director/CEO Neo Media & Marketing Limited, Mr. Ehi Braimah, a public relations and marketing strategist based in Lagos, recalled that previous governments launched “Operation Feed the Nation” and “Green Revolution” but added that these initiatives, as laudable as they were, largely ended as mere slogans.

“They were politicised because we went to bed every night on empty stomachs. But it shouldn’t be so if we plan properly. Nigeria is blessed with about 84 million hectares (304, 843 sq km) of arable land and natural endowments such as favourable weather, fertile soil and an energetic youth population. The agriculture sector has the potential of providing the largest employment in the country if we embark on mechanised farming.

“Due to inefficiency in the process and because we have mainly small holder farmers who farm on less than half a hectare of land each, the volume per yield per hectare is small.”

But he commended the recent programmes on ground which include the CBN intervention economic programme that was aimed at reviving the poultry sub-sector including creating jobs and engendering inclusive economic growth.

He also cited the Anchor Borrowers programme, notinh that it was a worthwhile and productive intervention also by the CBN in the agriculture sector. With the loan, farmers can access soft loans at nine per cent interest rate through the Farmers’ Association or Co-operatives and increase their yield.

Also, he listed the Presidential Fertiliser Initiative (PFI) under the auspices of the Nigerian Sovereign Investment Authority (NSIA), which has ensured that farmers can now purchase a 50 kg fertiliser bag for N5,000, thus abolishing the racketeering activities of middlemen.

Ensuring Food Security

In ensuring food security, the role of smallholder farmer in the agriculture value chain cannot be overemphasised as people will rely increasingly on locally produced food in the coming months.

Sadly, despite the important role they play in the agricultural chain, these smallholder farmers struggle to operate, achieve scale and contribute to the economy in line with their potential because of failures within the system to the success and sustainability of Nigeria’s agriculture sector.

This challenge and many more were the crux of a recent Zoom conversation during the heat of the pandemic, held by Kola Masha of Babban Gona Company, Uka Eje of Thrive Agric, Ndidi Nwuneli, who is the Managing Partner at Sahel Consulting, and Debisi Araba who is African Region Director, International Center for Tropical Agriculture and an environmental policy expert, of which THISDAY participated.

In tackling the challenges faced by these smallholder farmers, these experts focused on the key themes of identity, access to credit, and value chain optimisation etc. According to them, “how do we ensure that the primary drivers of the sector – the smallholder farmers – are included and empowered, and their economic outcomes enhanced?”

Tackling “Smallholder Farmer Inclusion; Nigeria, Data and the Path to Food Security”,

Nwuneli said: ”we need to know who needs what, where they are, what they need most, how that impacts the sector, the nation and much more. The reason this is extremely important can be seen in how fundamental and foundational it is, especially for resource allocation.

”Different surveys have shown that poor access to market, poor access to finance, and inadequate knowledge of improved farming practices are the three biggest challenges to smallholders. While these findings form a step forward towards understanding the smallholder’s plight, quantifying the problem in statistics such as required investment to reach a possible solution per region or locale, the number of affected farmers per issues, etc, paints a better picture and brings a target solution closer.”

At this point, it is gainsaying to note that no matter how laudable all these government food programmes are, as long as they don’t translate to affordable food for the common man, then the objective has been lost.

On the policy restriction of food imports, Braimah noted that from all indications, the policy will continue even “when we cannot meet domestic demands. With shrinking oil revenue amid COVID-19 setback, investing in agriculture remains an attractive option amongst other government initiatives — we must therefore till the land to feed ourselves“.