Vivian Onyebukwa And Vera Wisdom-Bassey
With prices of foodstuffs shooting beyond the proverbial roof, and now aiming at the deep-blue sky, with about 300-700 percent increase, in some places and on some items, this is certainly not the best of times for many families and households in Nigeria, especially the low income group. Talking about bleak Christmas, this may end up being the bleakest Nigerians ever had. Inflation is in town and it is now walking on all fours.
Many traders and clients/patrons alike across Nigerian markets have, in the face of soaring food prices and dwindling purchasing power in the season of a ravaging pandemic, found themselves facing a bleak present and a bleaker future. Without commensurate increase in their daily or monthly incomes, many families have been finding it extremely difficult to feed! Many have taken to eating once a day or embarking on compulsory fasting. Things are that bad. And, as they stand now, only God knows when and how they will get better.
Government also worried
Only recently, President Muhammadu Buhari expressed the concern of his administration over the sudden spiral of food prices in the country. In a statement issued in Abuja, through his Senior Special Assistant on Media and Publicity, Mallam Garba Shehu, he regretted the increase in prices of foodstuffs at a time when the economy was already mired in a slowdown occasioned by the global coronavirus situation.
He assured Nigerians that the situation is transient as his administration has already begun to put in place measures to ameliorate the situation. Apart of the statement read: “While Providence has been kind to us with the rains and as such an expectation that a bumper harvest would lead to crashing of food prices and ease the burdens on the population, government’s concern is that the exploitative market behaviour by actors has significantly increased among traders in the past few years and may make any such relief a short-lived one.
“This year has indeed tested us in ways that globalization has never been tested since the turn of the century. These challenges have disrupted lives and supply chains all over the world, and Nigeria has not been spared. The effect has been deeply felt in the delays encountered in the procurement of raw materials for local production of fertilizer, damaging standing crops before harvest and the speculative activities by a number of rice processors who are ready to pay for paddy at any price to keep their mills running non-stop.
“But of all these problems, the most worrisome are the activities of “corrupt” middlemen, with many of them discovered to be foreigners and other food traders who serve as the link between farmers and consumers found to be systematically creating an artificial scarcity so that they can sell at higher prices.
“In dealing with these problems, the administration has, in line with its ease of doing business mantra, avoided imposing stockholding restrictions, in order not to discourage investments in modern warehousing and cold storage. The President has just approved the release of food items from the strategic reserves, including 30,000 tons of maize to animal feeds producers to ease the high cost of poultry production.
“President Buhari’s administration has raised some of these issues with the various food producer associations involved, particularly those of rice and other grains. With their cooperation, the high food prices should soon be a thing of the past. In addition, investments in the agro-allied sector by the private sector will significantly increase domestic production of farming inputs especially fertilizer, further crash prices, create employment and ease the pressure on our foreign reserves.
“One of these major investments is the Dangote Fertilizer plant which is projected to come on stream by the 4th quarter of 2020. Additionally, key government agencies and policymakers with the responsibility and visibility on market activities remain focused on removing structural impediments to the production and free movement of agricultural products.
“President Buhari once again assures Nigerians of his dedication to bringing this issue to a swift end. Nigerians have already suffered grave economic losses owing to the coronavirus pandemic, and the Buhari administration will do all in its power to ensure that our people do not continue to suffer additionally from high food prices.”
Extreme high cost of food items
Well, a visit to some markets in Lagos and, indeed, reports obtained from many places in the country, have shown that high food prices matter has refused to obey the law of tenses. In fact, instead of being a thing of the past or past participle, it has become a thing of the present and present continuous. If anything, it now obeys the law of tension!
Samplers! A paint of beans that formerly sold between N700 and N800 depending on the species, now sells at between N1, 300 and N1, 350. A bag of rice has risen from N12, 000 for local rice and N15, 000 for foreign, to N24, 000 for local and N28, 000 foreign respectively. Some foreign rice even sells as much as N29, 000 to N30,000 per bag. While a ‘dericca’ of local rice is sold at N400, foreign goes for N500 and N550.
The price of wheat is not cheaper either. A paint of it which formerly sold at N1000, is now N1, 500. Vegetable oil has also risen drastically in price. Fifty litres of vegetable oil which sold for N11, 000 is now N14, 000. Groundnut oil formerly sold at N300 a bottle now goes for N700. The same thing goes for red oil. A four-litre paint bucket of red garri goes for N1000, while Ijebu garri is now N1200 as against N700. Four -litre paint bucket of beans has risen from N1, 500 to N1, 700.
A basket of tomatoes now sells for N20, 000 as against the former price of N8, 000 at Mile 12 market, Lagos. A paint of fresh tomatoes which formerly sold at N500 is now N2, 500. As predicted by the law of economics on composite goods, the rise in fresh tomatoes has also affected the price of tin tomatoes. A sachet of tomatoes which formerly sold for N50 is now N150, while the medium size tin which used to be N150, is now N350.
Talking about soaring foodstuffs prices, onion appears to be the mother of them all. Despite its impressive health benefits, which include antioxidants and cancer-fighting compounds, a bag of it which used to sell for N8,000 now goes for as high as N60,000. In Abuja, a woman who reported seeing a bag of it for N16, 000, some weeks ago, says it now goes for N75, 000 and may go higher as Christmas draws closer.
It came as no surprise, therefore, when recently a man who could not understand the economic logic of it all, displayed on Facebook video, few pieces of onions that he said his wife bought for N1, 000. His question sounded rhetorical when he asked, like Sonny Okosuns, the Oziddi music maestro, asked some years ago: “Where is Nigeria heading to?”
The stories are the same with regard to prices of egusi, ogbono and pepper. Even the price of common salt is not common anymore. Though its price did not really increase, but its quantity has been reduced by those Garuba described as “unscrupulous middlemen” and middle women, while still being sold at the same price. A tuber of yam which used to cost N300 is now sold at between N500 and N600.
Bread makers under the aegis of the Premium Bread-makers Association of Nigeria (PBAN), recently complained about the increase in the price of flour, a major ingredient in bread making. They said it has increased from N10, 500 per 50kg bag to N13, 500, while sugar has increased from N13, 500 per bag to N29, 000. For that reason, the prices of loaves of bread have increased too from what it used to be.
Why prices of food items are high
Some traders interviewed by our reporters attributed the extra-ordinary price increases to a lot of factors. They include: the inability of farmers to produce enough food for domestic consumption, border closure, increase in the price of petrol, and electricity tariff. Others blame it on bad roads, COVID 19 lockdown, bandit and herdsmen activities, high exchange rates, climate, and lately, the EndSARS protest.
At Iyana-Iba market, one of the petty traders who identified herself as Nkechi, said: “I think the exchange rate of dollars has increased and this is affecting the raw materials used in producing these goods such as fertilizers. Every day as I go to the market to buy things, I realise that the prices of goods I sell keep increasing. What should I do? I buy because I just have to sell.”
Another known as Iya Bisi, a vegetable seller, attributed the high price of vegetables to dry season. She noted that in rainy season, vegetables are not that costly because there is rain to continue to produce them in large quantities. Now, the price of vegetables has gone up. A bunch which used to sell at N50 now goes from N100 upward. In fact, it is difficult to get N50 vegetable these days.
Madam Josephine a tomato seller, who said she has been in the business for about 10 years, agreed that tomato is quite more expensive this year than in past years. “We don try to meet the farmers, but dem tok say no way to bring dem come Lagos,’ she explained in Nigerian Pidgin English.
Mallam Musa, a potato seller confirmed Madam Josephine’s statement when he attributed the high cost of potatoes to high cost of transportation. He too spoke in Pidgin English. “Since dis lockdown began goment no want make us travel again,” he claimed. “Even as dem open the road, when we travel, we go pay police for road. But when we come back we go add the money to what we want sell because police no want hear anything but dem money. Again, road no good. The farmers too no dey farm again because kidnappers and Boko Haram de pursue dem comot for dem farm. Who wan die?”
Surviving the situation
Which way Nigeria? Which way to go, Sony Okosuns, sang some years ago. Some women interviewed by Saturday Sun shared their experiences on how they try to survive the situation. Clara Anyiam, a civil servant, described onion as no-go area. “I bought shallot to substitute it”, she said. Nnenna Ejieji, a businesswoman who lives in Abuja, narrated her experience. «I went to a nearby market on the outskirts of Abuja last Thursday and I was told that one bag of onions sold for N75, 000. I couldn’t comprehend it because some weeks earlier when I was there, it was N16, 000. I now began to wonder how it is in Lagos, Port Harcourt and other places. May God keep, provide and sustain us.” She advised people to buy now and keep against December because the price may get to N100, 000 per bag.
Nene Ugorji, an academic who lives in Owerri, lamented that the spiraling cost of food items issue appear to be worse in South East. “It’s horrible,” she said. “Here, one big lobe of onion is between N200 and N400. How about fresh tomatoes? It is out-of-reach to the less-privileged. The hardship is biting.” Ngozi Udemba, a lawyer offered her advice: “Cut off every non-essential, cook precise quantity to avoid any form of waste. Reduce the pieces of fish and meat and warn everyone in the house to tighten their belt. You can make a delicious pot of jollof rice with red oil and not a drop of tomatoes and hardly will anyone, especially men, know that there is no tomato in it.”
Chigoo Ojiaka, a doctor of law and a lecturer, advised women to try banga. “We can also try banga jollof rice. It is delicious. If you are in Owerri, you can buy ofe akwu (banga soup) mixed spices from the market. Just ask those that sell local spices from the market to give you spices for ofe akwu.”
Ngozi Okpalakunne, a journalist, said she has stopped using onions for some time now. “When the price comes down, I will resume. I can’t kill myself,” she told Saturday Sun. Ekaete Effiong, a teacher, said that to survive the situation, she has decided to forgo the buying of blended items. “I buy wheat and blend it by myself,” she said. “I also do that with corn. It makes it cheaper for me.”Anne John, a bread seller, said her survival strategy is to skip meals. “We practise what we call 101. That means, we eat only twice a day, morning and night.”
A retiree, Odetayo Aduke, lamented how things have not been easy for her. She said: “Cost of food items and other commodities are rising every day. Prices of some commodities have risen to more than 20 percent. Only God can deliver us especially those of us who are pensioners who are surviving on meagre pension. I also pray that government will come to our rescue now that majority of our children are unemployed.”