Nigerian Tomato Emergency Forces Dangote Factory Shutdown, Spreads To Other African Countries

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Written by Dana Sanchez

A threat to the Nigerian tomato crop is affecting Africa’s richest man in a country trying desperately to diversify its economy and add value locally to products produced within its borders.

Farms in Nigeria’s north have been devastated by the larvae of the tomato leaf miner moth, Tuta absoluta, aka tomato Ebola. In May, the price of a tomato rose by 400 percent to about $0.71.

Africa’s richest man, Aliko Dangote, has been affected by the crisis, African Business Magazine reported. His newly opened Dangote Tomato Processing Factory was forced to close temporarily until the next irrigation season, due to a lack of fresh tomatoes. The $20 million facility in Kano state is part of an effort to develop a Nigerian tomato paste industry and diversify the country’s economic base.

Farmers have been so badly affected by the tomato crisis that in May, the government of the northern state of Kaduna declared a state of emergency. More than 80 percent of tomato farms were attacked by the moths in parts of the state, said Commissioner of Agriculture Maigari Daniel Manzo.

The Dangote tomato paste factory was expected to provide 430,000 tonnes of paste, used widely in Nigerian dishes from jollof rice to soups.

“Nigeria is such a huge market for tomato paste that we will find quite challenging to satisfy,” the factory’s general manager, Abdulkarim Kaita, told AFP in January, Daily Mail reported.

Nigeria is the 14th biggest tomato producer in the world but has been forced to rely on tomato puree imports, mostly from China, because of a lack of processing plants.

Dangote’s factory was built by Switzerland-based Syngenta, a global  agribusiness that produces agrochemicals and seeds. The factory employed 120 people and was to be supplied by 50,000 tomato farmers. Now those plans are on hold.

Since arriving from South America via Spain in 2008, the tomato-leaf miner has spread to at least 15 African countries, Bloomberg reported.

There was an outbreak in Zambia in May, raising the threat of infestation in surrounding countries. The pest hasn’t been seen yet in South Africa, but the risk is increasing, said Jan Hendrik Venter, a plant health early-warnings scientist at the South African Agriculture Ministry, in an e-mail to Bloomberg.

“Tuta has the potential to effectively eliminate tomato from the agricultural cycle,” said Richard Hopkins, head of pest behavior at the London-based University of Greenwich Natural Resources Institute.

Tuta damages fruit and kills plants as the moths lay eggs. The caterpillars burrow into leaves and stems, according to pest-management company Koppert BV. It can develop pesticide resistance in one season and being an alien species, has few natural predators outside South America. It does best in warm climates, and Africa has ideal conditions for it to produce up to 12 generations a year. Each female lays 260 eggs. It also affects potatoes, eggplants, peppers and tobacco, according to Bloomberg.

Nigeria’s tomato crop has more problems than moths

More than half of Nigeria’s 1.8 million tonnes of fresh tomatoes produced each year are lost to poor storage systems, poor transportation and lack of processing enterprises, according to a study of the tomato value chain in Nigeria published in the Journal of Scientific Research and Reports in June 2015, African Business Magazine reports.

There are many opportunities to add value to Nigeria’s tomatoes and other agribusiness products, but Nigerian farmers lack enough education on potential risks and secure supply chains.

“Tuta absoluta is a nocturnal pest and because these farmers do not know that, they spray against it in the day, before the moth comes out in the night. The efficacy of the chemicals is greatly reduced and it therefore does not harm them,” aid Nkiru Okpareke, co-founder and CEO of Envirogro Farms. “Mistakes could have been avoided if the farmers were educated or if government provided agricultural extension services for the farmers in their location.”

President Muhammadu Buhari has pushed for economic diversification as crude oil prices plummeted — the country’s main export. Reliance is heavy on imported goods, and is expected to increase as neighboring countries export more tomatoes to meet demand.

Poor Nigerians will bear the brunt of these price increases, according to African Business Magazine. Consumers will have to rely more on imported tomato paste to make staple foods. Tomato paste has also become more expensive due to the slide in the exchange rate.

The tomato leaf miner has spread to six states in Nigeria so far and may threaten pepper and potato plants.

“This is going to cause havoc,” said Shakir Al-Zaidi, managing director at Russell IPM, a U.K.-based pest-management company that’s been fighting Tuta absoluta for 10 years. “Until it hits, nobody’s ready and there’s total devastation. Eventually the farmer will find a way to deal with it but at a cost to the consumer’s health.”

Farmers in developing countries often use pesticide formulations banned elsewhere because it’s all that’s available, increasing risks of cancer and damage to consumers’ nervous systems, said Rangaswamy Muniappan in a Bloomber interview. He is director of integrated pest management at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University’s Office of International Research, Education, and Development in Blacksburg, Virginia.

Growers usually increase the amount and frequency of pesticide applications after an outbreak. Using more expensive pesticides also increases the cost of production, he said. Spanish farmers spent $512 more per tomato hectare in 2006 when the country was the first outside South America to have an outbreak.

Tuta spread through the Mediterranean and North Africa after arriving in Europe. The Sahara Desert created a buffer zone, but when it got to Senegal and Sudan in 2012, it spread fast to surrounding countries. It spreads through reused crates and boxes, contaminated fruit and infected seedlings.

Farmers have tried controlling Tuta by rotating pesticides so the insects don’t develop resistance, and by using pheromone traps, which attract males to glue-covered paper. These devices help detect the pest’s arrival, but are “totally useless” as a mass trapping method, Al-Zaidi said, according to Bloomberg.

He recommend farmer education and applying the metarhizium anisopliae fungus to the soil which kills the insects in their pupal stages. Trials in Tanzania in 2015 were effective, and Russell IPM is selling the fungus commercially there. Al-Zaidi plans to demonstrate it in Nigeria. There are no side effects to humans, he said.

“It will not go away but we need learn how live with it and how to keep it under control,” Al-Zaidi said.