Holding a piece of white paper containing a long list of what her family needed for the month of May, Mrs. Precious Oghenekewe let out a heavy sigh.
“We need divine intervention to survive this month; things must not continue like this,” she declared as she waved the paper at her husband, who remained speechless all through.
There are millions of Oghenekewes across Nigeria lamenting the harsh economic realities facing them at the moment. When this might end is something that no one can answer correctly for now. Average, low and no-income earners are all lamenting and praying for palliatives from whoever is willing to offer.
With the lockdown occasioned by the spread of the coronavirus pandemic grounding commercial and social activities in almost all parts of the country, hunger has begun to stare Nigerians in the face. Many people still see the situation as if they are daydreaming.
Despite the shrinking income that workers are suddenly faced with, prices of foodstuff and other items have been on a steady increase at an alarming rate. It is more pathetic seeing prices of staple foods skyrocketing with dwindling purchasing power.
For instance, the price of garri has almost doubled in the last two months. The story is almost the same thing for lovers of yam, rice and many food ingredients. A paint bucket plastic of garri that used to be sold for between N400 and N500 now goes for between N900 and N1,000 in Lagos. Depending on the size, a tuber of yam is now sold for as much as N1,500 against N600 or N700 as it was in the past. A kilogramme of chicken that was previously sold at N1,100 is now N1,500. This cuts across almost all categories of produce.
But what many people are yet to fathom is the fact that about 90 per cent of these agro-commodities are home-grown. With this, pundits believe that farmers and marketers are cashing into the crisis to quickly enrich themselves, to the detriment of the rest of the country. They are calling for appropriate punishments for traders who are involved in price-gouging. They believe the situation at hand does not call for abnormal profits. Other analysts have blamed government for its inability to take control of the situation to ensure price regulation through proper monitoring.
But those in the distribution business have argued that the restrictions have negatively impacted the food supply chain with the tightening of transportation and port capacities. According to them, this has resulted in the shortage of food. They added that when demand is more than supply, the price of the items involved were bound to naturally go up.
Many Nigerians, however, disagreed with the explanations, and insisted that sellers were out to seek more profits amid the coronavirus scare, especially as shoppers stock essentials. They are calling for government to intervene and enforce price control.
Other concerned Nigerians have recommended that, to address the perennial price hike in staple foods, there was the need to introduce supply to communities directly from the producers, believing that farmers would be encouraged and empowered to increase production.
Stakeholders are of the opinion that a prolonged outbreak of COVID-19 would lead to economic instability and food inflation. They claimed that, while the short-term impacts have been more evident, it was yet to be understood what magnitude of impact the outbreak of the pandemic would have on the supply chain in the long term.
A resident of Mafoluku community in Lagos, Mr. Ehis Mommoh, told the reporter on the telephone: “I was caught by surprise by the rapid rise of prices. The food, for example garri, that I was buying before the outbreak of COVID-19 increased by more than 100 per cent, and this is a problem for me personally. What I earn in my workplace could hardly feed my family when things were normal. In fact, my salary is just a little above the price of a bag of rice. With this happening, I think it is time to consider returning to my village.”
When asked if he was not considering changing jobs to where he could earn better, he laughed out loud. He said anyone having such thoughts at this critical time was only daydreaming. He stated that he saw no possibility that companies that were set to retrench their workers would be employing new hands at the same time.
An economist based in Lagos, Mr. Chidi Emmanuel, said the price hike was due to a number of reasons. He said sellers were trying to profit from the crisis, while there was also an increase of demand owing to panic buying by people who didn’t know what tomorrow would bring.
He also pointed out that, apart from foodstuff, many commodities that were coming from China were halted since the Chinese market was heavily affected at the beginning of the year. Traders have stopped travelling to China and other countries to purchase goods and for other businesses, he said.
Emmanuel further explained that, as long as Nigeria was dependent on imports from China and other Asian countries, there was no way it could escape from the impact of coronavirus with disruption to the supply chain.
“Our agriculture sector has been neglected for too long. If the sector was being properly funded and coordinated by government, we would not have become beggars today. The government keeps singing diversification of the economy over the years, but the citizens are yet to see the result. We are lucky as a country to have been blessed with so much and diverse natural resources, but we have been unlucky as a people to always find the wrong people in public office,” he lamented.
He raised the alarm that the situation could worsen since Nigerian traders were now relying on stocks already there. He pointed out that, if the virus was not contained in five or six months, the country might really get to feel the heat. He predicted that more factories might have to shut down, which would result in more workers losing their jobs.
It is also projected that, in the long run, if the price of oil remains low, the Nigerian currency could be devalued and the lives of Nigerians would become more miserable, even if traders do not raise prices.
A distraught resident of Abule-Egba, Lagos State, Mrs. Opemipo Gbenga, described the development as disgusting. She said it was heart-breaking that, in times like this, Nigerians chose to be evil and wicked to one another: “We are our own problems because a lot of things went up, even when they have nothing to do with the virus. A bag of sachet water is being sold at N150, instead of N100; and hand sanitizer of N300 is now N800. To eat at this present time is war.
“It is wickedness against humanity. We are blaming and cursing government when our hearts are far more wicked and evil than theirs. This is why people are going against government’s order; because they are hungry and need to go out and fend for themselves. Some will survive COVID-19 and die from hunger,” she said.
Also warning of the dangers ahead, farmers and other stakeholders in the sector have raised the alarm on a looming food crisis after the COVID-19 crisis. They are of the opinion that the coronavirus pandemic would affect farming activities and could lead to shortage of food production.
National coordinator of Zero Hunger Commodity Association, Dr. Tunde Arosanyin, who urged the federal and state governments to assist farmers with inputs to safeguard the food security programme, said food security in the country was already threatened due to the lingering crisis between farmers and herdsmen in some states. He said that the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic when the rainy season is about to start would affect farming and food production this year, adding that one major challen ge was to get the labourers to farm while the lockdown lasted.