By Christy Cole

It is a downward spiral towards food insecurity as Covid-19 hikes unemployment, inflation and hurts access to food within Africa’s most populous nation.

A local saying in Nigeria, ‘No food for lazy man’ ties agricultural products directly to the farmer’s physical prowess. But with COVID-19 and the latest nationwide unrest, things are now out of farmers’ hands. In fact, the coronavirus pandemic is snatching preferred natural food options out of the mouths of locals.

“Everything’s upside down. It’s like they won’t let us live … they won’t let us die.” Tade Craig, 23, laments, referring to a myriad of governance problems and natural disasters which cut across Nigeria right from her Yaba locality to the national level.    

Nigeria was already struggling with the twin shocks of low oil prices and the pandemic which dragged its economy down by 6.10 per cent in the second quarter of 2020, effectively halting a celebrated three-year trend of low but positive real growth. 

Tade’s number one problem is her inability to access affordable raw food items from her regular farm foods vendor on Herbert Macaulay Street. “She used to be here every Sunday for the past three years. That’s changed since Covid started.” Tade said. The World Food Programme says the Covid-19 pandemic could throw an estimated 265 million people into deadly hunger by the end of the year 2020. Currently, Nigeria sits on the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organisation’s list of countries requiring external assistance for food.  

As Covid-19 realities question food security in Nigeria, farm produces vendors say projections of an impending food crisis are connected to an initial closure of Nigeria’s interstate borders – a step taken to curb the spread of the coronavirus – as well as other agriculture sector-specific bottlenecks. “Moving produce across locations is a big problem. We used to pay about 400 thousand Naira to move from the East to the West. Now, we have to pay 780 thousand naira, and then bribe police officers on the way. It’s like smuggling food across the country while knowing the food is not contraband.” says Henry Esigbe a local farm produce vendor.  

Emmanuel Ijewere, a farmer who runs Best Food Farms, attempts a logical explanation for why micro-farm produce retailers may not be able to cater to market needs in certain communities. “It’s true that the lockdown and the government saying some markets should not open on a few days may add to the problem … Covid-19 has exacerbated the situation in terms of prices of food added to the bad roads.”  

Nigeria’s Agricultural sector has for years also struggled with flooding, drought, insecurity occasioned by a long-running farmer herders crises across the south and middle regions, and infrastructural challenges. In 2019 alone, Kebbi state rice farmers lost one billion Naira (£2m) to flooding according to the News Agency of Nigeria. That’s just the impact of flooding on rice farm produce in one state.    

Unequivocally, rising food prices is accompanied by its siblings rising inflation and pressure on consumer wallet. In its 130th communiqué, Nigeria’s Monetary Policy Committee pointed out that the pandemic-induced lockdown and the partial closure of the nation’s land borders significantly impacted inflation and consumer sentiment. The upward inflationary trend reached a 28-month high of 13.22 per cent last year, with the food composite index hitting 16 per cent (source: national bureau of statistics).

Last year when Covid was at its height PWC Nigeria projected scarce agricultural produce from the third quarter of 2020 due to Covid-19 and a farming calendar disruption.  It was therefore not surprising that Nigeria’s agricultural sector declined in the second quarter, growing only 1.58 percent which is 0.21 per cent lesser than its growth in the previous year.

As part of efforts to mitigate the impact of these realities, Nigeria’s Monetary Policy Committee cut interest rates and the government launched initiatives to support the agriculture sector as part of an economic diversification agenda under the Economic Recovery and Growth Plan, ERGP. The plan strives to move Nigeria away from its over-dependence on oil. While none of the interventions has elevated Nigeria to self-sufficiency in agricultural production, one of them, the Anchors Borrowers program – which gave loans to small-scale farmers – did score significant gains in the rice sub-sector.

The Analysts Blue Vertex flagged up weak earnings from Nigeria’s consumer foods and agro-allied companies. Notes by Chief Research Officer, Dare Fajimolu highlight demand and supply problems as well as investors’ response to the sector as key factors which include inflation, higher value-added tax, lower consumer buying power caused by jobs losses to the pandemic, and a worsening Fast Moving Consumer Goods sectoral index drop of about 20 per cent year to date.  

Beyond food, Nigeria’s statistics bureau says the agriculture sector is its highest employer of labour creating 36.4 per cent of the jobs within the economy. A decline in growth therefore severely impacts Nigeria’s already appalling unemployment figures which showed that more than half of the country was either unemployed or underemployed. Loss of jobs also spins the vicious circle of low purchasing power and lack of access to food.  

For economic analysts, there are no quick fixes to Nigeria’s agriculture sector challenges. Sam Chidoka, CEO of Kairos Capital says: “In Nigeria between the farm gate and the market gate a lot of perishables are lost… the government has to pay a lot of attention to mechanisation, storage, input and output from the farms and provide access to funds.”