Tuesday, 21 June 2016

When Midas touched Garri

When in March the price of tomatoes went through the roof, several self-appointed analysts gave reasons for the spike. Some attributed it to the marauding herdsmen who have been destroying farmlands and killing the hardworking farmers who cultivate them. Another school of thought blamed it on the emergence of two enormous tomato paste processing plants. “They have mopped up all the tomatoes in the country o!” they cried. There was also the ludicrous pundits who blamed it on the economic policies of the current, and some on the past, governments of the country.

Few weeks later, reports revealed that the primary cause of the astronomical increase in the price of tomatoes was none of the above. It turned out that a little brown moth called Tuta absoluta was the culprit responsible for the situation. So all the time and energy Nigerians expended in dishing out allegations and vitriol was no more than an exercise in futility. What should have been a concerted effort to flush out the pest from our farms ended up being dissipated in insults and hatred towards each other.

Today, the same can be said of garri, popularly referred to as the poor man’s food. A visit to our markets show that indeed garri is as good as gold, a commodity out of the reach of the common man. We find that a paint bucket of garri which sold for N280 in January went for N550 in May. Lest we are tempted to, once more, go down the route of handing out inaccurate assumptions about why this is happening I decided to ask those who should know. It will be unfortunate if we repeat the same mistake.

The first and major cause for the costly garri is Mother Nature. The rains started very late this year and before they came there was a hell-like heat everywhere. This meant that the ground from which cassava, the root tuber for making garri, is uprooted was hard. Soil that used to be quite loose and won’t require more than a little bit of shaking the stem to uproot the tubers didn’t budge no matter how hard the harvesters tried. The same time that they would have used to fill five or six head pans of cassava saw them barely filling only two. Naturally, their wages went up for less tubers and thus began the increase in the cost of goods.

The lack of rain also meant that other farm produce that formed part of our diet like maize and millet could not be grown. Many customers were forced to go for the available little garri. In many homes, meals like pap, tuwo and beans may not be served that often, but they significantly reduce the demand for garri. This scarcity of other food items also contributed to the increase in garri price.
Starch is one of the main products of cassava. In recent times, the demand for the product has increased making it to command a premium in the market. By some rough estimates of people in the industry, the same weight of cassava that produces N100 garri will yield N200 worth of starch. Therefore when a garri-maker and a starch producer met in the already expensive cassava market you know who had the higher bargaining power. As more and more cassava tubers went into starch production less and even less grains of garri showed up in our markets.

Lastly, one cannot discount the effect of the killer herdsmen. Their theatre of war, for the most part, has been the middle belt to the southern part of the country. This coincides with the cassava growing area of the country. Fleeing farmers don’t grow cassava neither do scared scampering village women fry garri leading to more scarcity of the product.

What can we take from these findings? First there is need for more irrigation farming in Nigeria. If this were abundantly available, farmers will not need to wait for the showers before they start sowing other food items like maize and millet on their farms. This would have reduced the demand for garri and left it reasonably priced. Secondly, there is a large market for cassava and we need more people to go into its production. Nigeria is the largest producer of the commodity but it cannot even meet its on domestic need for it. Were ethanol production a big thing in the country both starch and garri makers will face major hurdles trying to get cassava for their factories. It is a product that we will always need and aspiring entrepreneurs can look in that direction.

The government also has to live up to its responsibility of securing life and property from criminals like the killer herdsmen. Government cannot be advocating for a return to farming and ignore the dastardly acts of these groups. No one is asking government to grow cassava or make garri but they should create a safe enabling environment for willing farmers to do so.

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