columnBy Nasir El-rufai
The cost of a measure or 'mudu' of beans reached a never-before-seen price of N500 a week ago. For most Nigerians families, beans and its derivatives like 'akara' and 'moi-moi' are the richest source of nutrients and very often the only source of proteins - meat, fish, milk and eggs - having disappeared from their menus long ago. The new price of beans means that if a small family on minimum wage buys two 'mudus' or measures per week, they would spend N4,000 per month, or a staggering 20% of family income on a single food item.
Being locally grown and readily available, beans is known in virtually all Nigerian homes and is consumed by most people. But with such a high price, this important staple may also vanish from the list of affordable food items for many families. What makes the situation doubly alarming is the fact that the beans stock currently in the market was harvested last year, when by most accounts, farmers had a comparatively rich harvest. This year, tens of thousands of Nigeria's farmlands are under water, having been inundated by floods from heavy rainfall and releases of water from some dams.
Beans is only a metaphor for the impending food shortages across Nigeria, worsened by the floods which devastated large swathes of farmland from Adamawa to Jigawa, Bauchi, Plateau, Benue, Kaduna, Kogi to Cross Rivers, Imo, Akwa Ibom, Ebonyi, Edo, Delta and Taraba States. Apart from the loss of lives and disruptions of travel and commercial activity, thousands of Nigerians have suddenly become internally displaced and cut from their livelihoods. With little or nothing to harvest, the price of practically all food crops eaten by Nigerians would double or quadruple.
Another implication of the damaged infrastructure caused by the flooding is that what little produce and livestock that survived the flooding may not be able to reach their traditional markets, thus resulting in higher costs to the consumer. Reports indicate that one of Nigeria's most important food producing areas - the Hadejia Basin - has been substantially washed away by the floods. Large parts of Benue State, 'the food basket of the nation', also experienced flooding and loss of produce and farmlands. While we count the visible losses in terms of lives, property, farmlands, livestock and critical infrastructure, the worst effects of the flooding may only manifest next year and beyond because this year's harvest is effectively lost, and the fact that flooded communities and farmlands take years and even longer to recover, if at all.
Prolonged rains have done a lot of damage to substitute crops that in lean periods might mitigate the situation. These are largely millets, sorghum and maize. All the three missed out sunlight at critical times as the rains kept pouring in high intensity and without respite. Again, the rains persisted when the crops needed to be dried for storage. Both incidences have upped post harvest losses, further reducing supply of carbohydrates to make up for the anticipatory shortage of beans. Worse still, the poor would compete with the breweries, livestock feeds and food processing companies, as well as our neighbouring countries, for the scarce supplies that would be released to the markets.
Another aspect that government seems unwilling to confront is the number of farmers that have abandoned their farms in the North-east and parts of North-west. The case is particularly desperate in Yobe and parts of Borno, Bauchi and Gombe States. It is also important to ask why government chose to ignore flood warnings issued by the Nigerian Meteorological Agency (NIMET) until the situation got out of hand. At the moment, NIMET has forecast another round of flooding in 16 states of the federation. What is the Federal Government doing and how would all these factors impact on food security?
The agricultural sector had consistently been above 7% in terms of growth for the previous decade, but it collapsed in 2011 and is not forecasted to grow by more than 4% this year as a result of the floods and the failure of President Goodluck Jonathan's voucher system of fertiliser subsidisation. Agricultural production is unfortunately but likely to suffer a double whammy this year and next for these reasons unless we get luckier.
A serious government should not only be concerned, but should by now be taking proactive measures to ameliorate the now inevitable food shortages, as well as help farmers to resettle, while seeking more lasting solutions to flooding. Already, the price of bread has gone up by about a quarter this year. With major cassava producing states under flood, even President Jonathan's joke about cassava bread may turn out to be another bite of empty air for many Nigerians.
Before this year's devastating floods, Nigeria's agricultural value was worth about N15 trillion, as against its true potential of N40 trillion. There was already a gap of about N25 trillion. What makes the situation saddening is that we have about 50 million farmers and abundant land and water resources, but out of an estimated 3 million hectares of land that can be irrigated, only about 60,000 hectares is currently irrigated. Out of about 323 dams on the country, only a few are used for irrigation purposes. No figures exist yet for the true costs this year's floods, but it would be in trillions of naira.
Last year, Nigeria spent N635 billion to import wheat; N356 billion on rice, N217 billion on sugar and N97 billion on fish, but it may not be that easy to solve our food shortages by simply resorting to importing food; several parts of the world's most fertile food producing regions' have also been inundated, or in the case of the United States, suffering from the worst drought in decades. Niger Republic - from where Nigeria imports large amounts of the beans we consume - has also suffered flooding; Russia had to suspend wheat exports for a while. Globally, the price of food has gone up by about 10%, with experts predicting more increases.â€ÂÂ¨â€ÂÂ¨
Niger Republic avoided hunger in the last two years through intensive use of irrigation. The strategy not only reduced the country's reliance on imports but it also created a new industry as well as significantly raised income levels in the affected areas. Despite our country's vast irrigation infrastructure and irrigable farmlands, the food imports mafia is likely going to coerce President Jonathan into expensive food imports that millions of Nigerians in both rural and urban areas will not be able to afford. This strategy, by refusing to put to work assets owned by the poor in form of irrigable farms and wetlands all over Nigeria would be the same strategy that while increasing poverty in rural Nigeria, would concurrently increase income levels of the few local moguls and their Asian collaborators in the rice, wheat, stock fish, and tomato paste import businesses.
For the over 112 million Nigerians living in poverty, what would the situation be like next year when rural residents and farmers would have eaten what little of their stored foods which were not destroyed by the flood? How many Nigerian families would face starvation simply because they cannot afford even the most basic food stuff? Currently, Nigeria is ranked a very poor 80 out of about 200 countries in terms of food security. Which government can talk of safety of lives and property when tens of millions of citizens are hungry?â€ÂÂ¨Government should not wait until Nigerians start dropping dead from hunger before acting. Efforts must be made to avoid the chaos that would follow any government backed massive importation of food because the process will be abused like the fuel subsidy regime. Indeed, one cannot rule out the emergence of a food subsidy cabal that will replicate the corruption that still trails the fuel subsidy cabal. (Incidentally, everybody seems to have forgotten the N2.6 trillion that was stolen by that cabal).
Nigeria must take urgent action to manage the impending national food shortages, inflated food prices and possible malnutrition for millions of families. One would expect government to consider these critical posers: what is the extent of damage to farmlands and agriculture? What is the quantity of livestock lost? How many Nigerian families are at risk of hunger and malnutrition? What is the quantity of grains left in our Strategic Grain Reserve and functional silos nationwide? What quantity of food do we need to import, from where and at what cost?
A government with vision would take immediate measures to protect millions of vulnerable Nigerians from the effects of rising food costs, hunger and malnutrition, while considering long term measures to rebuild damage infrastructure, incentivise farmers and improve the agricultural sector. In the 2013 budget proposal, agriculture has been allocated only N80 billion against the background of the challenges the sector faces. What is the thinking of government? Obviously, it is yet to appreciate the enormity of the looming food security problems. With a meagre 35% for infrastructure and other capital investments, we have not even started.
If millions of Nigerian families are already facing hunger because of government inactivity and misplaced spending priorities, imagine what it would be like at the turn of this century - when all our oil would have dried up, or when technology would have made fossil fuels redundant! By that time, Nigeria would have a population of over 700 million. We hope that the governments of those days will be better and more proactive than the ones we see today.