The federal government could avert a perennial scarcity of tomato if it acts fast enough before the close of the next planting season which is just two months away, according to industrialist and Chief Executive Officer of Erisco Foods, Chief Eric Umeofia.
The price of tomato which is a highly consumed crop in Nigeria recently spiked astronomically by up to 400 per cent due to scarcity which has been attributed to various factors.
According to Umeofia, who owns a 450,000 metric tonnes tomato paste per annum production plant that employs about 1650 people, the scarcity at this time of the year is nothing new except that it became more acute this year, due to low volume cultivated, ravaging of cultivated crops by heat-wave and pests, particularly the “tuta absoluta.”
“Heat wave is the disease that has affected tomato in the last farming season; it happens when there is too much heat due to climate change, it occurred last year and we researched and came up with an improved seed. We tested them this year and none of them were affected by the disease; however the quantity we planted was small, because I have no capacity and support to expand it.”
He noted that the only way to avert another bout of disaster next year was if they receive funding support from the government and banks at a single digit interest rate.
“So far we have invested hundreds of millions of USD already in the sector, but we need the support of our government and the window of opportunity to avert a recurrence of the endemic diseases is remaining just two months, otherwise what would be experienced next year will be worse, as most farmers are not ready to go back to the farms with the same disease prone seedlings.” Umeofia noted.
He disclosed that Erisco has at its disposal the resistant seeds, the right fertilizer, technology and data on the most suitable time to plant.
“For now we can plant the heat resistant seed but only at our own capacity for production, which is why the government needs to step in urgently. The minister of agriculture is capable of handling the demands of the ministry but it appears he is yet to be briefed on tomato, because he has not given it much attention since he assumed office.”
He said it was not true that Erisco and Dangote bought up all the fresh tomatoes from farmers thereby leading to its scarcity, a statement which he attributed to coming from the Minister of Budgeting and National Planning Senator Udoma Udo Udoma and leading to the speculation that the government was considering suspending the partial ban on tomato paste.
“We have now found it convenient to explain to Nigerians that some highly placed civil servants in the country are against manufacturers and are thereby covertly supporting imports by being economical with the truth to the minister, so that the minister can advise the president on the next course of action to take.
“The correct situation is that there is usually scarcity of tomato around this time every year, but this is the most acute it has been. Last season we knew it would come to this and we started pleading with the government of the last administration and banks on the need to stop the embarrassment and save Nigeria from depending on imported tomato paste, because we have the potential to export, unfortunately no one listened.
“We have plans in Erisco to change the face of tomato planting with high breed heat-resistant seed, better transportation, processing, packaging and distribution of quality tomato paste in this country. However, the banks and the government had no understanding of what we were proposing and chose to entertain only import cabals that derive joy in killing the Nigerian economy for the betterment of their own country and jeopardising the health of Nigerians just because of money.
“Unless the government becomes wiser and chooses to listen to the simple truth which we have been pushing, our monumental achievement in the tomato sector (producing tomato from fruits to paste and cutting down 75 per cent wastages), will be eroded by detractors of value addition.”
He advised that investors should be invited to bring technology transfer to the country by setting up factories locally instead of flooding the Nigerian markets with substandard products, stressing; “If people continue to insist on foreign products without asking for made-in-Nigeria, we will not grow our economy.