By Sola Ogundipe
REPORTS of imported gari packaged as “Ïndian gari” displayed and sold to the public in a Lagos supermarket, came as a rude shock and complete surprise to millions of Nigerians. Previously, it was unimaginable that Nigeria could ever get to the point of importing gari, a popular West African staple food made from cassava tubers.
Nigeria is not only the world’s largest producer of cassava, producing in excess of 45 million metric tonnes per annum and accounting for over 80 per cent of the world’s output. According to the World Bank, indigenous research institutions and the Nigeria Bureau of Statistics, NBS, Nigeria is also prided as the world’s largest exporter of the commodity.
A number of profitable cash crops have kept Nigeria on the world map of exports for decades regardless of the country’s neglect of agriculture. Cassava is one of the most notable. Along with sorghum, cotton, rice and cocoa, cassava is one of the crops identified as a prospective foreign exchange earner for the country under the Agricultural Transformation Agenda (ATA) with Nigeria becoming the largest cassava processor globally.
According to the Nigeria Bureau of Statistics, NBS agricultural survey, 33 states of the Federation are currently cultivating cassava, but with the latest development that could be interpreted as an indication of a lack of value addition of natural resources, Nigeria continues to remain an economic paradox.
Blessed with excellent soil for cultivation and agriculture-friendly weather, Nigeria perpetually spends a fortune on food imports, even for finished food products from crops cultivated locally.
Excellent soil for cultivation
From available records, an estimated 600 million tonnes of food is imported into the country annually. In 2015, the country imported over three million metric tonnes of rice. Nigeria spends about N75 billion importing rice every year and is currently the world’s second highest rice importing nation after China.
Between 2006 and 2015, Nigeria imported 24 million metric tonnes of rice valued at N1.77 trillion. In five years, Nigeria imported some 14.7 million metric tonnes of milled rice valued at N1.15 trillion. Once a power broker in sugar exports, Nigeria now spends in excess of N60 billion annually to import sugar, N165 billion goes to the importation of wheat and N105 billion on fish.
But importation of cassava or any of its products is inexcusable for Nigeria, because where cassava is concerned; Nigeria is in a class of its own. Food is what cassava is mostly used for. Over 800 million people world-wide depend on cassava for food and the consumption in West Africa is more than 120kg per annum/per capita. For more than a decade or so, Nigeria has been exporting cassava chips to the People’s Republic of China under the Presidential Initiative on cassava with plans to engage the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture, IITA, to ensure that more of the gari consumed in the country is processed by cassava processing companies.
Catastrophic effect on agriculture
It is widely acknowledged that despite the millions of tonnes of cassava being produced in Nigeria, the gari that is made in Togo, Cameroun and other neighbouring countries, is often adjudged better than the one made in Nigeria, hence, some Nigerians tend to opt for foreign gari, but the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) reports that Nigeria’s cassava is superior – based on research.
The comparative advantage of cassava like similar crops in areas where the nation is strong, are subsequently lost. Worse still, there is little or no effort to improve this advantage so that more can be reaped from the natural resource. This development is obviously due to the fact that over the decades, governments relegated agriculture in the heyday of the oil boom. This had a catastrophic effect on agriculture that currently gets less than three per cent of the entire national budget.
The demand for gari and its varieties is increasing geometrically in the country. The importation of gari is expected to worsen an already bad situation if allowed to continue. As the demand is rising the clamour for modern farming and food processing technology as well as the expanding international market for cassava and it processed forms creates bigger openings for bigger business ventures and bigger profits.
The opportunities that cassava based businesses have are vast but Nigeria has not harnessed them adequately even though the awareness and capacities have been available for several years.
Cassava is truly a national food with an urban market presence and a ‘food of choice’ even in the face of alternative food options in urban areas. A versatile commodity with numerous uses and by products, cassava consumption is waxing even stronger as it fights to retain its position as a Nigerian food staple with industrial potential.