A visit to many major Nigerian open markets will show the visitor a practical side of the magnitude of the country’s Agricultural plight. Most buyers will complain about how expensive those everyday consumer food items- pepper, tomato, onions, vegetables, oils- are, and how little value they get from their purchase. It is natural to take offense at the unkind money-draining quality of these market commodities, because the absence of alternatives means more expensive trips to the market. But while engaged in heated bargaining, the buyer should try to observe the market surroundings to get an understanding behind the reason for the high cost of food. Around the stalls, under the wooden tables, along the narrow walkways, at refuse dumps around or beside the market is a staggering mass of rotting vegetables, fruits and several high-value perishable food items that constitute a major proportion of daily market purchase. That is a reason why the buyer will always complain about the rising cost. It is the same everywhere, whether it is at the Kuto market in Abeokuta, Kachia market in Kaduna or Rumuokoro market in Port Harcourt, or markets in Aba, Onitsha, Ibadan or Lagos, a high level of waste the market customers are forced to pay for in high cost of available goods.
Certainly, the high cost of food is not solely caused by waste. In fact, the overwhelming waste in the food industry is symptomatic of the broader challenges typical of the agricultural sector in Nigeria and other sub-Sahara African countries. More obvious problems such as the lack of adequate infrastructure, market information systems, and government aided marketing boards, poorly enforced policies or lack of agriculture policies, have left farmers with so much to grapple with. Most of these issues, like infrastructure and policies require consistent commitment and co-operation from the government, for sustainable agriculture and food security to move from paper to the field. And from experience in Nigeria, when situations are dependent on government, a long, almost interminable wait is involved. But this article is not about the government, or what it should do, it concerns something different.
Nigeria is a major producer of high value foods, which by definition refers to non-traditional agricultural produce such as vegetables, fruits, milk, beef, poultry, pork, eggs and fish. The list is not exhaustive, however, most high value produce have the distinction of being highly perishable goods with short shelf-life, and most of them have higher market values than traditional cereal grains and export crops. They also constitute the most of daily consumption in the diet making them of very great importance in providing precious income for farmers and traders. However, these agricultural produce have not been fully exploited because of the poor agribusiness environment in Nigeria that has stalled the overall development of agriculture and food production. It common knowledge that the Nigerian government at the federal and state levels has voiced its commitment to agriculture development, although in practice this is not exactly the case.
The Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations (FAO) estimates that 50% of all agricultural production is at the rural and below commercial level in Nigeria, and most of these are involved in domestic consumption produce. These farmers are not only involved in cultivating their lands or rearing livestock, they are equally responsible for selling the farm produce at unregulated prices in any place that assumes the function of a market. It is common to find fruits, honey, vegetables, bush meat and lot of other agricultural produce being hawked along interstate highways in Nigeria to travelers who may buy them for a lot less lower than their actual value, because the farmers are unable to hold on to these products for a long time before they deteriorate. This is a major challenge in the Nigerian agricultural sector- lack of post harvesting technology, which leads to a fast reduction in value of fresh farm produce, and eventually to waste. In some parts of Lagos, there are some public transport buses that always carry the strong acidic smell of spoiling tomatoes that market women transport to the markets. So even before the products reach the markets, they have begun to reduce in quality and consequently, value and the ones that don’t get sold have to be thrown away culminating in million naira worth of wasted food.
While Nigeria is trying to increase its production capacity and evangelizing to its citizens on the profitable virtues of practicing commercial agriculture, those who are interested should remember that sustainable agricultural production does not end with harvest, it is dependent on produce reaching the consumer in an acceptable form and mutually accepted price. This is why the agriculture industry should pay more attention to value addition and product diversification, not only at the commercial level, but most importantly, at the domestic level. This has multiple benefit of improving the state of food by processing, improvement of food nutritional value, stimulation of the local economy and in helping to avoid waste of surplus or unsold fresh farm produce. Simple processes like roasting, cooking, boiling, milling, drying, canning, bottling are value addition measures that can improve the market value of local agricultural produce. For example, the tomatoes and pepper that are bought daily could be processed into blended form that could be canned using local inexpensive technology, fruits and vegetables could also undergo special value addition processes that would ensure no farm produce is wasted after harvest.
Volens, a Belgian NGO working in Zimbabwe in collaboration with other local organizations is involved in processing and marketing high value produce in order to ensure income provision for the local farmers. So far, they have made progress in processing sunflower seeds into cooking oil, marketing home processed juices, making sweet potatoes into jam, among the small-scale farmers who make up 70% of the whole Zimbabwean population. During the first Processed Products Fair organized by ZAVSAP (Zimbabwe – Adding Value to Sustainable Agricultural Produce) in July 2010, the farmers had the opportunity to exhibit their processed products to members of the public. Judging from the delighted reactions of those who attended, the fair was a success. The participants were surprised that those kind of products existed in the country, others expressed their desire to have those products available across the country. ZAVSAP is a network of 9 Zimbabwean NGOs, established in 2008. Its main purpose is to provide training in value addition and marketing of agricultural produce.
In Nigeria, a ready example is the local fruit juice processing industry where several recognized local brands have gained popularity. Newer brands are being introduced to the market regularly increasing the competition within the industry. While this is at a commercial level, it remains an indication of the potential food processing holds even at the small-scale level. It is part of good housekeeping in America and Europe to can fruits and vegetables which are in excess during summer for the cold months of winter and even till the following year when they will be out of season. Even though that is a part of the world with a much higher standard of living than sub-Saharan Africa, it is possible to adopt those technologies here, because it is simple and involves the use of inexpensive kitchen equipment. In Northern Nigeria, the dairy industry is a thriving local industry among Hausas and Fulanis, providing incomes for several households. Traditional foods such as fura de nunu, wara and the local milk butterfat extract have helped to increase the value of normal cow milk as well as creating a diversity of local products which are consumed with relish and have become cultural symbols of the region. There are concerns, however, relating to the hygienic standards of dairy processing, which in most situations do not meet acceptable health standards. But that is a concern for another article.
The former minister of Finance and vice-President of the World Bank, Mrs. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala in a speech delivered in China spoke about supporting the development of a value chain in the Nigerian mining sector: “Mining companies should not just come to extract natural resources in a raw form and ship them away. This is colonial history. Today, they should establish some degree of processing, adding value to the raw materials. This creates employment, develops skills and leads to more buy-in from the local people.” This educated assertion is also applicable to the agricultural industry, where a lot of Nigerian high value agricultural produce is sold in raw form or wasted because of poor processing infrastructure.
The future of the Nigerian agricultural industry rests not only in the disbursement of the billion naira agric loan, or on large commercial farms, but also in adequate processing and marketing of farm produce at the local levels, so that there is no break in the value chain, from production to marketing. The responsibility rests with all, including the government, and individuals interested in or already involved in some form of agricultural enterprise. As more people go into agriculture, they should consider the opportunities that processing offers, and capacity building programmes by educational institutions and private organizations should also focus more training on this aspect of agriculture. If there are more local industries that process fresh farm produce, it will help to guaranty the sale of surplus farm products and prevent the colossal waste that is experienced today. And eventually, it could transform into a stable export industry, where finished, packaged Nigerian brands are sold in other parts of Africa and around the world.
Image via Chuksy