By Godwin Oritse
Importation of tomatoes from Benin Republic and other neighbouring countries by Nigerians particularly across the Seme border is on the increase following the Boko Haram insurgence in the North- East of the country famous for tomato farming. As a result, the Nigeria Customs Service (NCS) has collected over N5million baggage fees from such imports in just two months.
A trip to Benin Republic by Financial Vanguard reporter, where tomato farms are rapidly springing up showed that the import of the vegetable has become a big business for both the producers in Benin Republic and buyers of the produce in Nigeria.
During the visits to these farms in Benin Republic, it was discovered that tomatoes produced in Benin are fleshier and do not decay easily but stay longer than those produced in Nigeria. Confirming this to Vanguard, Madam Comfort Akeke, Iya-Oja General of the Badagry Central market said that the fleshy species of tomatoes has less fertilizer as against the watery one that is planted with more fertilizer.
A tomato seller, Mrs Sarah Shanu who corroborated Madam Akeke’s claim said that the issue of tomato production is seasonal adding that sometimes traders from Cotonou do come to Nigeria to buy tomatoes.
She, however, added that the patronage is more from the Nigerian side. A tomato dealer, Mr Fatai Adeyemi aka Tanto olorun told Financial Vanguard that Nigerians rush to Cotonou to buy tomatoes because of the price difference. For instance, a basket of tomato in Benin cost about N2,850 as against N5,000.00 – N8,000.00 at the Mile 12 market in Lagos.
The reason for the price difference is the fact that it is becoming difficult to access tomatoes from the North and the risk and cost of moving the product from the North to Lagos has become very high since the Boko Haram insurgency started about three years ago. Besides the issue of price, another issue that has attracted Nigerians to Songhai Farm, Financial Vanguard learnt, is the quality of tomatoes produced there.
Speaking to Vanguard on the quality of tomatoes produced in Songhai, Malam Shehu Abubakar from Kano said that tomatoes produced in Nigeria can be used as raw material by tomato paste companies because it is watery.
He also explained that increase in the patronage of tomatoes from Cotonou can be attributed to the menace of Boko Haram whose activities in Bornu and Yobe states have disrupted farming activities in those areas. He disclosed that the governments of these states have also enacted laws that bar farmers from planting tall crops like maize so that the insurgents do not take advantage of these crops to create havoc.
Abubakar stated that most of the affected states now look elsewhere for the supply of tomatoes adding that even the Kadawa irrigation project in Shiromawa in Kano where tomatoes are produced in large quantity, has fallen short of production because everybody is turning to it. Another tomato farmer in Badagry, Alhaji Mikky Okunola told Financial Vanguard that it is a shame that Nigerians now import tomatoes from neighbouring countries.
“The development goes to show how unserious the country is about agriculture. I think the government should make deliberate effort to encourage people to go into farming.“We have the land, we have the human resources, the government can use agriculture to resolve the issue of youth unemployment and even make money in the process.
“For a small country like Benin Republic to be exporting tomatoes to Nigeria, it is something the government should look into and see how it has failed in that area,” Okunola said. According to an officer of the Nigeria Customs Service in charge of Baggage at the Seme border post, Mr. Ben Modun, because the season of tomato is gradually coming to an end, the number of trucks passing through the border has reduced.
Modun told Financial Vanguard that before now, about six trucks of tomatoes pass through the border every day adding that only few baskets are brought by traders.His words: “During the season, an average of six trucks and some few baskets pass through the border on daily basis but for now, you can see trickles of baskets coming from Cotonou.”
He said that a total of N5.643 million was realised as baggage fee within two months of the movement of tomatoes across the border. Besides the production of tomatoes, birds of different types are also cultivated in the farm as a rice meal served with quail bird was served to Vanguard Correspondent. Financial Vanguard also gathered that about 250 crates of eggs are produced everyday at the farm.
Investigation by Financial Vanguard showed that because of the boom in the business, the Songhai Farm in Port Novo, Benin Republic, has researched into the production of tomatoes and came up with various methods of tomato farming that give good yields.
Speaking to Vanguard in Port Novo, Head of Commercial and Marketing, Ms Belvue Akpacho said Songhai Farm does not export tomatoes directly to Nigeria, but that they have Nigerian customers who buy tomatoes in large quantities from the farms.
Some of these Nigerians buy as much as eleven tonnes of tomatoes from the farm.
Akpacho explained that sometimes Nigerian traders place order for the vegetable ahead of production and take delivery during harvest. She further explained that the demand for the vegetable from Nigeria has encouraged them to conduct researches on tomato production and the results of some of these studies have been amazing.
According to Akpacho, five varieties of tomatoes that such research has been conducted on showed that some of these varieties such as Nirvana are best grown in Nigeria because of the kind of soil in the country. Other varieties of tomatoes are Makis, Padma, PlatinumRani Jelani and Samrudhi. She said that besides the purchase of tomatoes by Nigerians, tomato seedlings are also sold to Nigerian farmers who want to grow their own tomatoes.
Financial Vanguard also discovered that a lot of Nigerians are currently under-studying different aspects of farming including the production of tomatoes. She stated that the farm has stopped researching into the Nirvana type because it is better grown in Nigeria. The Songhai Farm has also opened up other branches of its farms in Nigeria. Akpacho disclosed to Financial Vanguard that there is now Songhai Badagry, Narasawa and one in Delta State.
“We have the technology to produce good quality tomatoes and one of the best technologies we have used in growing tomatoes is the plastic mesh technology. We grow tomatoes three or four times a year because of the high demand for the product and this has kept our workers busy all year round. Besides the plastic mesh technology used for the production of tomatoes, the Remial Cheap Wood (RCW) and drip technologies are also used to grow the vegetable.
Although the RCW could not be explained by the guide, Kofi Kuessi, who took Financial Vanguard round the farm, however said that the drip technology is a system whereby the tomato ridge is irrigated by underground pipe water. This is done very slowly and stops automatically when the entire farm is fully irrigated and the water is shut down.
For plastic mesh technology, the ridge is covered with plastic with a view to creating heat not above 700C because according to him, the seedling needs a lot of heat to grow well.
Besides the Songahi Farm which is built on a 32-acre land, other places in Parakou and Savalou also have large tomato farms which produce are destined for the Nigerian market.