The recurrence of Tuta absoluta, popularly known as ‘Tomato Ebola’, has exposed the federal government’s inability to tackle underrated threats facing the country’s food security, according to BusinessDay’s findings.
Nigeria had an opportunity of quelling the recurrence of Tomato Ebola eight years ago after it suffered from the devastating invasion of the Tuta absoluta pests.
However, the government has instead allowed it to recur year after year, leading to the current ravages in Kano, Kaduna, Katsina, and Gombe states, with an estimated N1.3 billion loss, according to the National Horticultural Research Institute (NIHORT).
The situation in tomato-producing states has led to a 363 percent increase in the price of fresh tomatoes in Lagos markets in four months.
A big basket of fresh tomatoes in Mile 12 Market in Lagos is sold for between N43,000 and N45,000, depending on negotiation, as against N9,500 in January, according to a BusinessDay market survey. The price of a plastic crate of fresh tomatoes is between N18,000 and N19,000.
Sani Danladi, secretary-general of the National Tomato Growers, Processors, and Marketers Association of Nigeria, said tomato farmlands in Kano have recorded about 80 percent loss owing to Tuta absoluta.
Danladi said the country has failed to tackle the recurring pest infestation that has led to losses for farmers already contending several issues.
“More than 300 hectares have been destroyed by the outbreak that has affected more than 500 farmers in Kano State, and also affected farmers in Kaduna, Katsina, Jigawa, and Gombe states,” he said.
According to him, the tomato association is still collecting data from the remaining states to be able to evaluate the loss, and it is the main reason why the prices of the crop are surging.
“The prices of tomatoes usually go up by this time yearly because tomatoes do not produce well during the rainy season, but this year’s scarcity is more severe and prices are higher because of Tomato Ebola. It is ravaging several farms,” he said.
Tuta absoluta has a reputation for swiftly ravaging tomato cultivation in a little above 48 hours – prompting farmers to nickname it Tomato Ebola. It can breed between 10 and 12 generations in a year with the female capable of laying between 250 and 300 eggs within its lifetime.
Auwal NaAllah Kiru, secretary of Mile 12 Market, said if the scarcity persists, traders will be forced to start exporting tomatoes from neighbouring West African countries.
Read also: GTCO concludes Food & Drink Festival
Nigeria is the 13th largest producer of tomatoes in the world and the second after Egypt in Africa, yet the country is still unable to meet local demand because about 50 percent of tomato produce is wasted due to a lack of storage facilities, poor handling practice, and poor transportation network across the country.
Experts say that the recurrence of Tomato Ebola without any solution to tackle it at a national scale in Nigeria shows that relevant authorities seem helpless on preventive measures.
“There are chemicals that can help in preventing and limiting the spread. Various agro companies have long developed products for it. But the government has failed in subsidizing it so farmers can afford it,” said Abiodun Olorundenro, operations manager of Aquashoots Limited.
“We can afford to underrate any threat to our food security. We need to adopt a holistic approach to food security or it will be all talk without any action.”
Tuta absoluta is not only peculiar to the Nigerian climate, but several other countries have provided measures that prevent it or reduce its impacts, he said, adding that the situation has remained the same in Nigeria.
“Continuous farmers’ sensitisation on global best practices and pest management to avoid recurrence of Tuta absoluta is needed,” he added.
Abiola Oladigbolu, head of the NIHORT Biopesticide Centre, said that the Tuta absoluta is an invasive pest that moves from region to region, noting that it is not peculiar to Nigeria.
According to him, the Tuta pest attacks the tomato plant by eating up the green part and preventing it from photosynthesis, thus leading to the death of the plant.
He said farmers are supposed to develop management practices as preventive measures but they have failed to do so which is causing the continuous outbreak, adding that once it invades an environment, it remains there.
“It will keep recurring yearly if our farmers refuse to do the needful regarding management practices. We have educated them on it and have developed management practices and some products,” he said.
He urged the government to subsidise the chemical products developed by the institute for farmers’ affordability while calling on the private sector to partner with the research centre to upscale the production of the chemical.
He also called on the government to make it a national policy for tomato farmers to have the NIHORT package on their farmers to prevent the recurrence of the invasion, saying research to develop resistant seeds for Tuta is ongoing in the institute.