The onset of the rainy season usually signals a rising cost of tomato in Nigeria as dry season farmers turn their attention to major food crops. This year however, scarcity of tomato has visited our farms, markets and homes with a vengeance. A moth known as Tuta absoluta has ravaged farms in many states, making tomato very scarce and very expensive and out of reach for most homes.
The cost of tomato this season has never been experienced before in Nigeria, with one tomato fruit being sold for as much as one hundred naira. Most households have abandoned tomato altogether and must prepare their family meals without it. In Kano State for example, a large basket of tomato which sold for N3000 two months ago now costs N18,000 or more in the city. Tomato is so scarce that the Dangote Tomato Company, which was recently commissioned to cash in on the bumper harvest, has been forced to close down for now.
Most of the very rich tomato growing farms at the Kadawa irrigation site in Kano State have been ravaged by the disease, which spread through the region like wild fire in harmattan.
Tomato farmers at the irrigation site said when they used chemicals to attack the pests, their tomato crops still shrank and later wilted. In neighbouring Kaduna State, Over 2000 hectares of tomato farmland have been ravaged by the disease in four local government areas. The affected LGAs are Soba, Kubau, Kudan and Ikara. A basket of tomato which sold for N2000 to N3000 in those areas now sells for between N17,000 to N20,000.
In Sokoto State too, the story is not different and the tomato pest is having a field day. Kware, Goronyo and Wurno local governments, which lie along the fertile Rima River valley, are said to be the hardest hit. The Treasurer of Sokoto State Tomato Sellers Association Alhaji Aminu Lemi was quoted as saying a basket that sold during the boom period at N8,000 now sells at N26,000. He said, “Consumers in Sokoto, except the wealthy ones, have abandoned tomato completely, forcing the merchants to take it to Lagos, Ibadan, Kaduna or Abuja. We used to off load about 40 trailers of tomato but now only one trailer is offloaded. Sometimes, the merchants just spend a night here in Sokoto before moving to other places to avoid their commodity being destroyed.”
Tuta absoluta, known as mining moth or tomato leaf miner, is a well known pest that ravages tomato farms in South America, Europe and Africa. Its larva feeds voraciously upon tomato plants, producing large galleries in leaves, burrowing in stalks, and consuming apical buds and green and ripe fruits. It is capable of causing a 100 percent yield loss. The tomato disease was earlier recorded in Katsina State and then in some parts of Kaduna State, but it has now overrun the entire North West region.
Agricultural authorities at all levels must rise to the challenge and combat this disease as soon as possible, which has already cost hard pressed dry season farmers hundreds of millions of naira in losses. The Federal Ministry of Agriculture as well as every state Ministry of Agriculture has a pest control department which is meant to prevent or to respond quickly to pest invasions. The commonest agricultural pests around here are locusts, quelea birds and rodents but as happened this time, a lesser known pest, a moth caterpillar, has descended on our tomato and the efforts and investments of millions of farmers have suddenly gone down the drain.
Federal, state and local government agricultural authorities must get together quickly with university Faculties of Agriculture, River Basin Development Authorities, agricultural research institutes and international partners to halt this pest in its tracks. They must also intensify research efforts and improve on early warning systems in order to ensure that this kind of calamity does not happen again anytime soon.