Empty wallets, empty bellies: Food inflation grips Nigerians

For Olamilekan Kafaru, a bus driver in the Ikorodu area of Lagos, Nigeria, eating three square meals daily is almost impossible. 

“These days, you give thanks to God if you can afford two meals a day,” says Kafaru, a father of four who has been struggling to feed his family as inflation erodes his income. 

At a dizzying 40.53% increase, food inflation in the country is the highest in nearly three decades, placing more pressure on ordinary citizens who already spend a larger portion of their income on food. With food prices skyrocketing every month, millions of Nigerians face a brutal reality: food has become a luxury.

President Bola Tinubu campaigned on a promise to “deliver food security and affordability.” After nearly a year in office, he has yet to deliver on this promise. The price of rice—Nigeria’s most consumed food—rose to ₦1,340 per kilogram in March, compared with ₦540 in the previous year, according to the National Bureau of Statistics. A loaf of sliced bread sold for ₦1,109, compared to ₦561 last year. 

Concerns about food insecurity have been expressed for some time now in Africa’s most populous country, which has also been battling poverty and widespread insecurity for several years. Conflicts in certain regions of the country have disrupted agricultural activities and displaced farmers, hindering food production and distribution. Gunmen have kidnapped hundreds of people in Northern Nigeria. The Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations projects more than 26 million people at risk of food insecurity this year. 

This situation has forced Nigerians into desperation. At least seven people died in February during a stampede at the Lagos regional headquarters of Nigeria’s customs service where it sold off bags of confiscated rice at discounted prices. There were also reported attacks on warehouses across the country.

“People are hungry and angry. A meal of bread and beans that used to cost ₦500 now costs at least ₦700 or ₦1000,” says Aminat Balogun, a fashion designer in the Ogijo area of Ogun State.

Driven by food prices, Nigeria’s headline inflation hit a staggering 33.69% in April, despite the country’s central bank’s interest rate hikes in February and March. The apex bank is expected to raise the lending rate again at its next monetary policy committee meeting on May 20. The Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) governor, Olayemi Cardoso, told the Financial Times this week that the apex bank will “do whatever is necessary” to tackle inflation. Lagos-based market-focused consulting firm SBM Intelligence argued that “the structural nature of the country’s inflation drivers” affects the effectiveness of the CBN’s efforts. 

“The cost of living crisis will kill us all if care is not taken,” said Abibat Olayemi, who runs a grocery store in the Surulere area of Lagos. Her sales have dropped by 50% in the past few months as customers spend less due to rising prices.

For Sosanwo who runs a block business, relief is desperately needed. “I don’t even know how an ordinary man is surviving. Right now, rice is ₦75,000 to ₦76,000 per bag. Imagine asking an ordinary man when he last cooked rice in his house.” he told TechCabal.

Experts have long argued that Nigeria should focus on achieving food security rather than obsess over food self-sufficiency. In recent years, the Nigerian government has banned importing certain food items and closed borders to increase local production and export. These decisions have only served to increase food insecurity. Nigeria does not produce enough to feed its population, and millions of citizens lack access to nutritious food.

“Temporarily suspending import restrictions on key food items can help stabilise prices and ensure access to affordable food for consumers,” said Basil Abia, co-founder of Veriv Africa, a data insights company. “Incentivising state governments to invest in agricultural competitiveness through revenue-sharing programmes can also enhance food security at the local level.”

Since taking office in May 2023, President Tinubu has introduced a raft of economic reforms, removing $10 billion-a-year fuel subsidies and adopting a uniform exchange rate. Though praised by international investors, both moves have triggered a cost of living crisis for ordinary Nigerians. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) projects Nigeria will lose its place as Africa’s third-largest economy to Algeria in 2024.

Tinubu, who declared a state of emergency last July to tackle rising food prices and shortages and opened up food reserves, insisted that Nigeria is on course to attain food security. “Nigeria will be self-sufficient in food production during my administration,” he said last week. But poor Nigerians will need more than assurances.

“You can’t claim to have the interest of the people at heart when you are spending billions on buying cars and renovating offices,” a visibly angry John Obinna, a Lagos-based banker told TechCabal. “If this government is serious about addressing food inflation, it must show workings.”

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