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Pests and drought hit Nigeria's tomato farms

Sam Olukoya in AbujaJuly 25, 2016

Tomatoes are a staple food in Nigeria. From farmers in the northern states to traders across the country, many depend on the fruit for a living. But climate change and the tomato moth have hit the industry hard.

Nigeria - Abuja tomato traders © DW/S.Olukoya
Image: DW/S.Olukoya

Nigeria has a reputation as sub-Saharan Africa's biggest tomato producer. The Dede tomato market in the capital Abuja is usually bustling with customers stocking up on the bright fruit, which plays a starring role in Nigerian cuisine. But these days, prices are high and business slow.

"When tomatoes were in abundance we were taking delivery of more than a hundred trucks daily," says Mamuda Mamoko, an official of the market's traders union. "Now we are taking delivery of a little over 20 to 25 trucks."

Things are much the same across the country.

"There are markets where in the past they used to offload more than ten vehicles but now not even a single tomato fruit is available," Mamoko told DW.

Over recent months, infestations of Tuta absoluta - the tomato moth - whose larvae feed on tomato plants, have plagued the country's tomato farms.

Nigeria - Abuja tomato market © DW/S.Olukoya
Traders at the Abuja tomato markets complain that prices are high and business slowImage: DW/S.Olukoya

And that has pushed up prices - at one point by as much as 500 percent.

Leaving a bad taste

In a country where tomatoes are used to prepare most dishes, the shortage is keenly felt by shoppers. "It is not easy, the tomato problem is getting out of hand," says Abuja housewife Famakinwa Tosin.

Tosin has tried to adjust her recipes. "When I cannot afford to buy the fresh tomatoes, I bought dried tomato and cooked it with tinned tomatoes."

But she hasn't been pleased with the results. "The taste is not the same as the fresh ones," she complains.

And the shortage is affecting livelihoods. Esther Obey makes a living selling tomatoes at a roadside stall on the outskirts of the capital. She also operates a machine to grind tomatoes for her customers.

Obey says high prices have put many customers off. As the sole breadwinner of a family of seven, she's worried.

Nigeria - Abuja tomato Traders © DW/S.Olukoya
As well as selling tomatoes Esther Obey offers a service grinding them. Both businesses have been hit hardImage: DW/S.Olukoya

"The way money used to come in before when there were many tomatoes - the money is no longer coming as it used to. So that affects us," she told DW.

Pesticide resistance

The shortage is affecting farmers too. North-east of Abuja, Kaduna is one of Nigeria's key tomato producing states - and one of those worst hit by the moth infestation.

"You leave your farm in good shape today, but when you return to the farm tomorrow to harvest you may find that all the crops are infested," says tomato farmer Mohammadu Sagir. "The moth eats everything."

And dousing the fields in chemicals doesn't seem to offer a solution.

"The pesticide for the infestation is our concern," Sagir told DW. "You keep applying it, but the moth is resistant. It is resistant to all the pesticides that are being applied."

The moths are bad enough. But they aren't the only problem Nigerian tomato farmers have to contend with. Even before the recent infestations began, tomato yields had been falling due to water shortages.

Nigeria - Abuja tomato market © DW/S.Olukoya
Tomato yields were already falling due to drought before the tomato moth hitImage: DW/S.Olukoya

Drought and desertification

Tomatoes are thirsty plants. They don't produce those plump juicy fruit without plenty of water. Nigeria's main tomato producing region is the country's semi-arid north and farmers use irrigation to water their fields.

But in recent years the region has experienced increasing drought and desertification.

Emmanuel Oladepo, professor of climatology at the University of Lagos, says global warming is to blame for higher temperatures that mean the irrigated water evaporates away.

"If it's getting hot and you are still just irrigating, you will be losing a lot of your water to evaporation," Oladepo told DW. "And higher evaporation than normal means less water for tomato to use and therefore it may not yield."

Waste water

And the hot, dry conditions may be contributing to the pest problem too. Oladepo says farmers are resorting to contaminated water to irrigate their fields. And that makes the plants prone to pests.

Nigeria - Abuja tomato market © DW/S.Olukoya
Tomatoes are a key ingredient of Nigerian cuisine and a source of income for manyImage: DW/S.Olukoya

"They use all kinds of water which nobody knows the quality of," he says. Much of it is waste water. "If you keep on using water from drainage - from human waste - to water the tomatoes, you will expect something will happen eventually."

So far, little research has been done into the link between the water shortage and pest infestations. But with livelihoods from farms to urban markets hit by the decline in this key crop, Oladepo says it's high time the issue received proper attention.