Kano, Gusau, Sokoto, Gombe, Abuja — Despite being the second largest producer of tomatoes in Africa after Egypt, with the production capacity of 1.2 million metric tons annually, Nigeria is a net importer of tomatoes and tomato pastes spending over N11 billion on it annually, a situation which experts and farmers say is unnecessary and a waste of resources.
Central Bank Governor Sanusi Lamido Sanusi said recently that Nigeria spends that much money annually on the importation of tomatoes which at the peak of its season, large quantities are always left to waste due to lack of industries to process the commodity.
A look at the industry shows that the farmers and factories in the tomato sector are disadvantaged by unfavorable government policies, poor infrastructure and unfair international trade policy.
A visit to some supermarkets in Abuja, Lagos and Port-Harcourt shows that importers of fresh tomatoes are making brisk business in the country even as effort to trace the selling point of such imported commodity failed as most people denied knowing it.
Majority of the people that spoke to our reporters in Abuja, Lagos and Port-Harcourt deny knowledge of any imported fresh tomatoes being sold in the country, however, most people admit taking imported tinned tomatoes when they cannot get fresh ones.
A resident of Abuja, Mrs Fatima Salihu, who said she uses imported fresh tomatoes often, said large quantities of fresh tomatoes are always displayed in most supermarkets in Abuja but people always rushed for them, adding, "most times one has to book through staff of the supermarkets to buy and keep for you."
When Daily Trust visited Grand Square, a major supermarket and shopping mall in the central city of Abuja, only local tomatoes were available. Attendants admit selling imported tomato products. At the Shoprite in Apo, imported tomato was available. The attendant, who spoke with Daily Trust, said the products were brought in from South Africa and other European countries.
According her, a single ball of tomato weighing 564 grams cost N433.00 which is little less than the price of a dustbin size basket of the local produce at peak production in Abuja.
However, the imported tomato, according to our source, is more attractive and can last for a period of two weeks if properly handled making it more durable than the local product.
Our reporters observed that most of those who bought the imported fresh tomatoes were well-to-do Nigerians and expatriates. On the other hand, imported processed tomato pastes continue to dominate the Nigerian markets at the detriment of the local farmers and processing industries.
In Plateau State, an official of the Plateau State Agricultural Service Training Centre, Beatrice Jang told Daily Trust in Abuja during an agricultural show that the state government imported special specie of tomatoes and other vegetables from Israel and planted them in commercial quantities.
She said the tomatoes have enough flesh for good cooking and for salad, adding, "this improved specie of tomatoes does not have much seeds in it. That may be the reason why it is not too sour like the local ones. We have already introduced it to our farmers in Plateau State who have since commenced mass farming of the specie."
Though the imported fresh tomatoes seem to be circulating more in Abuja, Lagos and Port-Harcourt, the large quantity of tinned tomatoes that has flooded the Nigerian markets seems to be posing a serious threat to the marketability of the locally produced variety in the country.
In Sokoto, where 17 of the 23 local government areas are noted for mass production of tomatoes, about 40 truck loads of tomatoes produced in the state are daily transported to other states and neighbouring Niger Republic for sale while large quantities of the product is thrown away daily as waste due to its perishable nature.
Kano, which is also one of the highest producers of tomatoes mainly from irrigation farming, is also recording huge waste of tomatoes due to lack of storage facility and processing factories to take care of the excess product at the peak of production.
One of the farmers in Kano, Abdullahi Bawa Guri said tomatoes and other vegetables are mainly produced during irrigation farming, adding, "usually during rainy season like this, tomato becomes a hot commodity and scarce at the same time, because most farmers in most parts of the state have shifted their attention to the rainy season. Tomatoes and other perishable crops are usually cultivated during the dry season.Idris Shehu, a civil servant with Kano State Ministry of Education, said he resorted to the use of sachet and tinned tomatoes since the price of the fresh variety skyrocketed in recent months, adding, "I have a wife and three children. In the past, tomatoes of N100 to N150 were enough for our daily usage but now I have to use tomatoes of N500.
"But when a friend introduced me to the use of tinned and sachet tomatoes, things became relatively cheaper. A sachet tomato of N90 can do the trick for you. Now I do not use fresh tomatoes anymore, I prefer to use the processed one as it is cheaper for me," Shehu concluded.
Daily Trust learnt that the over dependence on tinned tomatoes imported into the country is a result of the near non-availability of fully functional tomatoes processing company in the country despite the abundance of raw materials.
Some of the tomato processing companies in the North are either not functioning or are operating at below capacity due to problems ranging from lack of adequate power supply to power the machines thereby relying on generators that lead to high cost of production, to lack of basic necessities and infrastructure like water, improved seeds to produce the required variety, and good roads.
An example of abandoned factories that are today serving as homes for reptiles is the Manto processing company in Kumo, Gombe State which was established in 1986 by the then Bauchi state government, fully equipped to produce tomatoes and mango juice. Since its inception, the company has been dormant to the disadvantage of the farmer and populace in general.
A source confided in Daily Trust that, "since establishment of Manto in 1986, the company has not produced anything in commercial quantity. It was during the time of Governor Habu Hashidu, the first executive Governor of Gombe State that effort was made to resuscitate the company for the production of tinned tomatoes such as the cans and other materials and they had a test-run production. Since that test-run production, nothing was heard from the multi-million naira Manto tomato and Mango producing company."
Another source in government who do not want to be mentioned told our correspondent that resuscitating the company is the best thing any serious government would do for the people of Gombe State who are over 70 percent farmers as that can boost tomato farming in the state.
"It is quite unfortunate that all the governments the state had with the exception of Hashidu who gave some attention to the company, the rest were busy paying attention to infrastructural development rather than human development," the source said.
Effort to get the reaction of the state Commissioner of Commerce and Industry, Mr. Hamza Wuro Bokki, proved abortive as he neither picked his calls nor responded to text messages sent to his phone by this reporter.
Nasiru Umar, Farm Manager of Savannah Integrated Farms Limited, said his food processing company had hard times competing with foreign companies that have advantage over them in terms of cost of production.
He said his company, until recently known as Vegfru, was into large production of tomatoes and juice drinks but had to fold up due to lack of basic infrastructure like power and water which made business difficult for both the company and the farmers feeding it with raw materials.
He said though his company provides the farmers around the area with seeds and helped them with tractors that prepared land for the tomato farmers, the company sank boreholes as source of irrigation water for the farmers and bought large quantities of fuel to power generators due to epileptic power supply.
"We have many competitors that are not Nigerians. Most of the paste being marketed in Nigeria, at least 90 percent of them are imported from outside the country. And the cost of production outside Nigeria is less than that in Nigeria because of may be two problems: one lack of electricity, two very high cost of diesel.
"We are using very big generators and our fuel consumption is very high. Then our boiler oil, which is black oil, the consumption is also very high. So, without subsidizing this fuel or without ensuring steady power supply, I don't think we can make profit," he said.
An economist, Ibrahim Yahaya Nasaru said, "the main problem is the failure of government to empower and assist local farmers to set up processing industries for their products. If that can be done, anybody that wants to import anything can go ahead and import. Is it not when you see market that you will go for the second time? Government at all levels can empower our local farmers if they want to," he said.
Abdulwasiu Hassan, Vincent A. Yusuf, Rakiya A. Muhammad, Adamu Saleh, Ibrahim Musa Giginyu and Shehu Umar