Solving Tomato Ebola in Nigeria

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Earlier this year, a tomato disease invaded Nigeria via the Republic of Niger. It destroyed about 80% of the tomato farms in that area. An exotic pest known as “tuta absoluta” has been identified as the culprit of this devastation. The insect looks like a moth and is originally from South America. This insect and its larvae have also become a serious threat throughout the Mediterranean. The moth attacks the leaves of the tomato plant by laying down many larvae that feed voraciously on the plants.

The Nigerians called this pest “Tomato Ebola” or also called “Tomato Minier”. Tomatoes are Nigeria’s new substitute for the oil-rich economy. Audu Ogbeh, the federal minister of agriculture, reported that this pest has spread to six states (Jigawa, Kano, Katsina, Kaduna, Plateau and Lagos). The exotic insects posed a threat to their national food security as the insect also eats potato and pepper plants. This decimation quickly brought together commissioners and governors of each Nigerian state to deal with this crisis. Local tomato farmers lost more than $5 million in just one month.

Combating the tuta absoluta is vital for Nigeria as tomatoes are a key ingredient in most Nigerian dishes and one of the country’s staple food sources. Because this new herbivorous pest is so unique to the nation, finding solutions has proven to be a daunting task. Tomato farms and factories in the north-west and central regions were severely devastated. This prompted their governors to declare an immediate state of emergency. Spraying insecticides did not stop and did not kill the moth. Only after about three hours did the moth come to life again and lay more larvae.

Large tomato factories had no choice but to start phasing out the production of various tomato products (e.g. paste and puree) at their processing plants. Thousands of jobs were lost as a result. In Nigeria, wholesale baskets of tomatoes could be bought, but at a steep price of 42,000 naira, down from 1,500 naira before the outbreak. There are some tomato varieties that are grown insect-free in the western part of the country that have been used and sold as alternatives.

In 2015 there were signs of tomato blight in Kenya, but on a much smaller scale. Kenya made an extract from a plant that appeared to kill the insects. However, no further action was taken against this pest, nor was this information shared widely. The Nigerian state government has aggressively conducted studies involving agricultural experts and researchers to find a permanent solution. The country’s government began sending its experts abroad to find out how to eradicate the moths.

The Boko Haram insurgency halted agricultural production in the north-eastern regions of the country. In the Middle Belt region, another major agricultural center, there were ongoing disputes between farmers and pastoralists. Nigeria was also looking for ways to support tomato farmers and production factories. Nigeria also approved a national budget to reduce waste, which prompted farmers to spend heavily with little return on their investment.

Recently, on May 27, 2016, Dr. Ogbonnaya Onu, Nigeria’s Minister of Science and Technology, that a new pesticide has been approved to combat tuta absoluta. This new pesticide was developed by the National Research Institute for Chemical Technology. The minister did not reveal the name of the pesticide but said it would be distributed to farmers very soon. dr Onu only said that this pesticide will save Nigeria billions of naira. The minister also reports that Nigeria, with its mass production by industrialists and support from other unidentified sources, will help Nigeria contribute back to its food security throughout Africa and the world.

Thanks to Dayo Omons

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