Rafat Salami, Abuja

The announcement in June by the Nigeria National Research Institute for Chemical Technology that it has discovered a solution to the tomato leaf miner, which destroyed nearly 80% of tomato farms in the country, a new window for investment has opened.

Across six northern states of Kaduna, Kano, Katsina, Jigawa, Nassarawa and Plateau, tomato farms in were ravaged by the Tuta Absoluta or Leaf miner between January and April, when it usually is its glut season. During that period, a basket of Tomatoes normally costs about 1,000 Naira but this year, prices went up by over 300%, such that by the end of April, many households could not afford to buy any.

So devastating was the destruction that Kaduna state government declared a state of emergency on tomatoes in April this year and put the loss suffered as a direct result of the tomato leaf miner disease at about one billion Naira, within just one month.

Nigeria’s Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development says the country produces an average of 1.8 million tons during a good season, though it requires nearly 2.3 million tons of tomatoes annually. Worse still, due to dysfunction in the agriculture value chain system, from production through processing, storage and transportation, the Ministry of Agriculture says about 50% of the tomato produced is wasted.

To bridge the huge demand gap, Nigeria imports tomato puree worth over 16 billion Naira annually, further depleting scarce foreign reserves.

Before now, there were three tomato processing factory which could potentially reduce the waste, provide job opportunities and conserve the country’s foreign reserves. These have since closed due to unfavourable operating conditions and unprofitability.

A light however, appeared in the horizon with the establishment this year, of the Dangote Tomato Processing Factory in Kano, with a 120 ton per day processing capacity.

Ostensibly, the factory had hoped to mop up the excess tomatoes left to waste for processing into purée but that hope was dashed when it was forced to close down in May, barely a month after it opened.

Before the Dangote factory, there had been the Ikara Food Processing Plant in Kaduna, which was resuscitated in 2014 after it was moribund for over two decades. There was also the Erisco Foods Ltd in Lagos, whose plant had an installed production capacity of 450,000 metric tonnes per annum. The tomato leaf miner effectively put all the factories out of business, at least for now.

The potential for the re-opening of these factories and the establishment of many more has brightened with the discovery by Nigerian researchers at the Nigeria National Research Institute for Chemical Technology, of a pesticide capable of killing the species of moth that has ravaged the crop. That discovery provides a new window for investments and by next year, a huge potential for a bumper harvest of tomatoes, which the Agricultural Economics Department of the University of Ibadan says constitutes 18 percent of all vegetables consumed by Nigerians.

To maximise the benefits of the newly discovered pesticide, Nigeria must ensure that it is for humans and the environment, as well as pass it through a thorough regulatory certification process and then make the final product easily and readily available to farmers. In this regard, time is of critical essence.

Importantly, opportunities have now also opened for research and development of resistant and high quality improved seed varieties and the adoption of sound agro practices and policies, which will in turn improve yields.

Instructively, the ensuing tomato scarcity has proven how fragile and vulnerable the food security situation is and the need for proper planning for the future. Furthermore, the tomatoes value chain from the farms to the table, is in dire need of improvement.

Implementing solutions to redress the situation means that Nigeria must seize this opportunity to embark on a holistic critical needs-assessment, in order to efficiently move agro-produce like tomatoes from the farms, while also minimising losses to farmers, transporters and ultimately the consumer.

Doing all of this in record time can not be understated. It is the surest way to ensure that Nigeria, the 13th largest producer of tomato in the world and the second after Egypt in Africa, takes the top spot on the continent and improves its global market ranking.