The Pungent Food Insufficiency Narrative in the Southwest: Diaspora Onion Farm-Tech Rescue Initiative

Ikechi K. Agbugba (PhD),
(Director, Research & Development/International Coordinator, Africa Agriculture Agenda (AAA), Senior Advisor, African Youth Diaspora Organization)

Food supply chains and items in Nigeria are increasingly getting expensive; most especially in the Southern region. Hence, the need to improve on the scope of farming and cultivation of crops and merchandising. Among other dangers associated in the food supply chain and the prevalent hitches affecting Nigeria’s agriculture sector, the increase in the quantity of spoilt and substandard food products in the case of food with fast spoilage such as fruits and vegetables, which are high value crops (HVC) are gaining more grounds. For instance, food items such as Onions and tomatoes fall into this category.

This notable problem has led to the sharp decline in the price of tomatoes by over 70% during this period. Just last Thursday 4th March, 2021, when the ban on supplies of selected food items were lifted, a bag of Onions which costs about ₦90, 000 (217.85USD) dropped to ₦60,000 (145.23USD) and less, due to its nature of easy perishability, which are available in surplus quantities in markets. More so, food supply can discourage investors from making serious commitments by investing in the sector until they perceive an ease in the current tension surrounding the industry.

Indeed, when this gauntlet dropped, Southwest Nigeria had absolutely no answer to the challenge of food insecurity. The age-old lip-service and empty rhetoric paid to issues touching on improving agricultural production were massively exposed by the reported blockade of huge food crops supplies from the northern regions of Nigeria to the southern part.

And in all of the unfolding turmoil, Governor Seyi Makinde’s Oyo State features prominently in transforming this ugly narrative into a pleasant story. No doubts, the State is touted as the “Food Basket” of the Southwest region, and he is in no doubt struggling to keep that reputation from losing its essence in this seething heat of scarcity.

Going by the Pan-Yoruba socio-political organisation, Afenifere, its South-East counterpart, Ohanaeze Ndigbo and their coastal neighbour, the Pan-Niger Delta Forum, PANDEF were literally beseeching for a reprieve as tension rose in markets from Ibadan to Warri over the ten-fold hike in the prices of food, agro commodities, among other essential items.

In what was mostly an overnight spectacle caused by a reported blockade from Northern Nigeria by the so-called Amalgamated Union of foodstuffs and cattle dealers of Nigeria (AUFCDN), merchants and market traders in the entire southwest and southeast were gripped by angst as the supplies of cattle and vegetables especially onions ceased overnight.

However, it is pertinent to retort that shortly before the blockade was lifted a few days ago, the Arewa Consultative Forum, ACF, suggested that the AUFCDN which is ultimately the conduit of food supply from the North to the South needs to be compensated by the Buhari-led Federal Government to the tune of N4.75 billion because its members claim they incurred irredeemable loses during the #EndSARS’ protest as well as the clashes between Yorubas and Hausa/Fulani ethnicities in Oyo State over the impasse between locals and cattle herders.

Whatever the case may be, the episode of the blockade has been an important eye-opener to the South, as they suddenly realised that they were living dangerously despite the growing separatist talks between the major tribal blocs in Nigeria, what many people have not given much thought to is the fact that there is an intrinsically strong connection that still holds the union called Nigeria together. The north mostly relies on natural resources from the south, while ironically, the south with its conducive agricultural climate and arable lands relies on the north for food.

“It is a warning sign. The signal therein is telling us that we need to buckle up as far as agricultural production is concerned. They blocked the supply, within two or three days, these products are not in the market. It should not be so. We have the land and other resources enough for us to produce in the Southwest. We need to re-strategise. It is a good development that has taught us to buckle up,” notes Mr. Olusegun Dasaolu, the Southwest Chairman of All Farmers’ Association of Nigeria (AFAN).

“In the Southwest, we have the capacity to feed ourselves and export. If you move from Lagos to Ibadan, left and right, what you see are thick forests. We talk much about agriculture. We need to walk the talk….there is a need for our government and the private sector to strongly collaborate and see how we can harness the resources surrounding us.”

The alarm bells started ringing in 2020 when the chief vegetable in every Nigerian household-Onions, became a luxury commodity, such that Nigerians in their ingenuity coined a new term for the phenomenon by essentially referring to onions as the “new gold”, because of its extreme scarcity and high prices on the open market.

A historical trend analysis of onion prices in Nigeria shows that from January 2020 to December 2020, prices on the open market unbelievably shot up more than 325%.

According to Nairametrics, one of the leading financial resource company that monitor, analyse and report on financial information in Nigeria, an average 100 kg bag of dry onions was selling for around N20, 000 in most of the markets in the Southwest as of January 2020, and by November 2020, prices had hit the roof at approximately N85, 000 for the same bag.

On the surface, it is easy to blame these price hikes on the AUFCDN, given the fact that some 90% of Nigeria’s local onion production comes from the major northern belt hubs of Kano, Kaduna, Jigawa, Sokoto, Plateau, Bauchi, and Kebbi State.

However, Nairametrics’ analysis reveals an even more disturbing fact that may mean the high prices of onions in Nigeria will become the “new normal”.

The problem with the price hikes, according to Nairametrics is because onion farmers have been contending with increasing fertiliser prices for a while now. The spate of insecurity in the country is also a major factor, while the net effect is a skyrocketing cost of living in the country.

These more nuanced factors listed by Nairametrics are a threat enough to food security in Nigeria, especially in the Southwest and not necessarily a blockade by AUFCDN that does not make much business sense.

The growing uncertainty in food security makes the proposed Diaspora-led Green Leben Initiative (GLI) appear to be the most practical approach currently to solving the challenge, one crop at a time.

The Diaspora-led Green Leben Initiative (GLI) will be looking forward to partner with Seyi Makinde of Oyo State with this innovative plan to turn Oyo State into an onion cultivation hub using tried and tested German agricultural systems and technology.

GLI had earlier had extensive discussions with the business unit of diaspora organizations including ADC-DN business Group, because the principals of GLI, Stephen Adeoye and Raphael Ofori-Adeniran are basically Nigerians living in Germany with focus on knowledge transfer and because of the powerful role the Nigerian diaspora will be playing in the next phase of Nigeria’s existence.

GLI-Diaspora Initiative is operated by Zukunft Fuer Das Leben (ZfL), a non-profit social business enterprise based in Germany. And through ZfL’s partnership with the Abuja-based Industrial Herm Agro Solutions Nigeria Limited (IHAS), they intend to burst the myth that only the northern belt of Nigeria can satisfy its onion needs.

GLI -Diaspora Initiative intends to make this point felt through Oyo State and show that aside from cultivating onions in Oyo State, they can realise 400% more yield per acre in that part of Nigeria.

Complementing feasibility studies conducted by GLI-Diaspora initiative, several other organisations have proven time and again that it is not impossible for Oyo State to shift the boundaries of Nigeria’s onion belts down to the south.

On July 2, 2016, an agri-business programme in Ibadan dubbed Oluyole Flowering Field Day, demonstrated conclusively, how South-West Nigeria has an untapped potential for the cultivation of cultural crops such as onions.

The program was sponsored by BATNF in partnership with East-West Seed Company and a specialised programme by the International Fertilizer Development Centre (IFDC 2SCALE).

GLI’s -Diaspora Initiative proposition is therefore simple, namely: The Oyo State government should provide the enabling environment and the organisation and partners will demonstrate to the entire country that the state can cultivate organic and conventional onions with yields of up to 20 tonnes per acre.

The popular cultivation centres in the north produce approximately 4.5 metric tonnes of onions per acre. But GLI -Diaspora Initiative says with its strategic partnerships in Europe, it can produce four times more onion on that same land size and beat Kano, Kaduna, Jigawa, or Sokoto in terms of yield.

To put the plan in perspective, it is common knowledge that due to the long cold spells in Europe, crop production should naturally be a challenge. That would have been true had the Europeans not had a re-thought and optimized their farming methods drastically with best practices and technology.

So, even though Germany and Holland are not particularly having favourable climatic conditions, they still manage onion yields of up to 35 metric tonnes per acre.

The plan being proposed by GLI in Oyo State is a replication of what farmers had already achieved in Germany. The plan is two-pronged: A commercial onion value chain and capacity building for other farmers to mirror their system with other crops.

This is designed to ultimately improve food security in Nigeria from the farm to the dining table.

Data shows that despite producing some 1.4 million metric tonnes of onions in 2019, Nigeria still imports about 1.1 million metric tonnes every year, implying that the country requires approximately 2.5 million metric tonnes annually in satisfying the palette of a nation that depends so much on onions and the fact is often taken for granted.

However, on a general note, it can be implied that the difficulties associated with food supply chains especially that of Onions in Nigeria appear as consequential and at the same time polarized touching on the Southern and Northern regions in specific ways.

For the northern region (comprising the North-Central, North-East and North-West geopolitical zones), it could result to:
• Farmers and marketers relying on the sale of Onions, as well as other foods and agro commodities putting up with onerous economic burdens which will definitely result to protracted consequences touching on farmers’ households, children’s education, among other factors.
• Tax from the government will equally drop which is directly proportional to sales which are less.
• There will be skeletal loss of job opportunities for transporters, among other intermediaries.

On the other hand, for the South-West region, among other southern regions comprising the South-East and South-South geopolitical zones), they would definitely resort to finding alternatives to food items sourced from the North, giving rise to high inflation rates, a major blockade that will not just trigger in the south, but will unlock in damaging consequences in the short-run period. This is because there is barely inadequate substitute for food and other agro items from the north.

Imagine this: From its blueprint, if GLI could gain access to 5000 acres of land in Oyo State, the state can produce 100,000 metric tonnes per planting season and 300,000 metric tonnes in three planting cycles a year. That is more than a quarter of what Nigeria imports annually.

It gets even better if Oyo State exports some of its organic onions abroad for additional foreign exchange. And that is just for onions.

With their plan, 2,500 farmers would be directly involved as smallholders and additionally, some 15,000 other jobs in the onion value chain will be created in Oyo State.

That sounds too good to be true, but the fact is that Green Leben is already in Ghana and is in the process of securing the necessary funding to cultivate about 1000 acres of onion in the Volta and Upper East Region of Ghana. There are already 100 farmers signed on to the Green Leben capacity building in Ghana.

A consignment of the regular red onion common in Nigeria has been imported into Ghana from GLI’s partners in Germany to sample the Ghanaian market. Also, there is a consignment of about 20 metric tonnes available to be sent to Oyo State immediately as an introduction to the vegetable market in the state.

If Governor Makinde takes up the GLI’s -Diaspora Initiative challenge, the principals of GLI confirmed to us that they are ready to cultivate the same onions in Oyo State immediately.

In the GLI module, with an average of two acres and three planting cycles in a year, an onion farmer can gross approximately US$ 76,000 every year in income.

To put mildly, that is about US$ 6,000 in income monthly for an ordinary onion farmer in Oyo State. Not many blue-collar jobs can gross that salary monthly in Nigeria.

Currently, an average onion farmer with a two-acre farmland can only produce approximately nine (9) metric tonnes and 18 metric tonnes per annum at one and two planting cycles respectively.

With 100kg bag of onion currently selling at N45, 000 (or US$ 1,090 per metric tonne) a producer in the North would be lucky to take home US$ 9,000 yearly if the estimated 50% post-harvest losses caused by poor storage and transportation are factored into the equation.

The Onion Producers and Marketers Association of Nigeria, estimates that the country could generate up to US$420 million extra income from exporting organic onions to neighbouring countries or abroad.

This means that there is a waiting market of half a billion dollars to be grabbed by farmers if only their policymakers are eager enough to change the narrative of impoverishment amid plenty.

As Mr. Olusegun Dasaolu said, it can only be a win-win for the Southwest if they start taking agriculture seriously. The social and economic impact is just too immense to be glossed over.

GLI’s -Diaspora initiative is already partnering with Youths Capacity Building and Business Development (YCBBD) Delta State for training and mentoring in agricultural development in that state.


Emeka Gbandi is the Chief International Editor of African Heritage magazine. He is an investment enthusiast , a copywriter with the Mildest touch who has created a niche in investment and ICT. Skilled and certified in social change and has a flair to creatively chronicle people,places and events portraying Africa and its rich culture and heritage.

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