Every day, ordinary Nigerians from Maiduguri to Oyorokoto-Andoni in Rivers State, Okerenkoko-Delta to Wamako in Sokoto State make difficult decisions. They are forced to choose between having one meal or paying essential life-sustaining bills. This anomaly does not affect the people at the lowest rung of the economic ladder alone, but also the middle class. The cliche, the rich also cry, is truer now than ever in our country. The increase in the price of food and essential items is not abating. The proverbial ‘three square meals’ that serves as evidence of good living and conquering hunger is gradually becoming a mirage. This basic feeding pattern has been replaced with various feeding patterns that guarantee only one or two meals a day – the quality of the meal is not even considered in this equation. The goal is often to put food in the stomach.
The above is the reality of millions of families in Nigeria. Hunger is in the land, and there is no denying it. Many families have gone into survival mode, and food is a trade-off with other essential necessities like medication and school fees. Children are the most hit. They lack the necessary nutrients they need to grow and develop physically and emotionally with a lack of nutritious food.
Two statistics in recent times drive home the point that Nigerians are facing the reality of hunger. Global Hunger Index report ranked Nigeria 103 out of 116 countries, indicating that hunger is severe and may become alarming if nothing is done urgently. As if that report is not indicative enough, the World Bank, in a new report titled ‘COVID-19 in Nigeria: Frontline Data and Pathways for Policy’ posits that additional six million Nigerians may be pushed to extreme poverty and hunger by the end of 2021 because of food inflation.
One may be inclined to dismissing these reports as just alarmist but they call for urgent actions before many Nigerians face an existential threat. The reality on the ground is evident for all to see. If the fortunate few who are wealthy are feeling the pinch of hyperinflation in Nigeria, imagine how the over 80 million Nigerians earning below one dollar ninety cents a day survive. Imagine how a family man that makes the minimum wage (N30,000 per month) will feed his family and pay all his bills when a bag of beans is almost N100,000, three times the salary, and a bag of rice is over N30,000, which is equivalent to his monthly salary. A sack of spaghetti is N350 from N200 a few months ago. All these increases in prices are simultaneously happening when income is static or falling, and many are losing their jobs due to Covid-19 induced economic crises.
Hunger fuels criminality and crime; it affects education and school enrolment; it affects healthcare quality. Most importantly, hunger affects political choices. Politicians are already using it as a weapon as we match towards 2023 general election. From the prevailing situation, it will be a significant weapon available to politicians to influence voters. One cannot blame voters entirely if they fall to the weapon of hunger because a hungry man cannot reason objectively; neither does he worry about the future when all he is struggling to do is to feed himself and his family in the present.
It is dangerous to our democracy to allow the weaponisation of hunger and the proverbial calls for ‘stomach infrastructure’. The implications of this on Nigeria’s development are dire.
There is a nexus between hunger and unemployment, increased poverty, food inflation, widespread loss of income and low productivity. How can we fuel our economy to grow to greater heights when most of the consumers are hungry and cannot afford to participate effectively in the economy?
Granted, this administration is doing all it can to tackle hunger and poverty, in various parts of Nigeria. By various interventions, nevertheless, for every recipient of poverty and hunger palliatives, many are left out. And more are joining the ranks of the poor and hungry in their millions. The government should rethink hunger and poverty alleviation policies and approaches and make them fit for purpose given the current realities. For instance, it is surprising that the government, through CBN, is giving out more loans and grants to the agriculture sector, but its impact is minimal or not felt on the dinning table of families.
Data from the Ministry of Agriculture suggest we are producing more rice in the country, but the price of rice is skyrocketing and beyond ordinary people’s reach. One should expect that there should be a corresponding increase in food self-sufficiency in Nigeria with such CBN intervention. Besides, it is either that the money from CBN is not getting to the actual farmers or is not being used for farming purposes. We cannot pretend not to know that the prevailing insecurity makes it almost impossible to farm in most parts of the country.
The other issue is that most of the investment in the agriculture sector goes to subsistence farming and not mechanised and large-scale agriculture. Subsistence farming cannot help Nigeria address the problem of hunger and food inflation. Recently, the Central Bank posited that its various interventions in agriculture have led to the food import bill dropping from USD3.4billon in 2014 to USD0.56billion in 2020, representing a drop of over 80%. However, this has not had a material effect on the affordability or availability of food in the market and homes. Statistically, our bill for food import has dropped, but it has not bridged the gap in food self-sufficiency.
Conversely, the CBN may have inadvertently imposed suffering on the people or denied access to food stock by 80%. A country that works is not necessarily about statistics alone but the everyday experience of ordinary people. Food is not there, but the little available is beyond the reach of the common person. The government should explore a strategy that combines incentives for mass production of food and stimulus for influencing the supply chain to make sure that food is available and affordable.
Food security must be at the heart of national security, and a rethink of the existing national food security strategy is needed. We want a situation where economic growth aligns with alleviating hunger. So, collaboration is required among relevant government agencies to address hunger and poverty. The present hunger ravaging Nigerians is precarious because many other factors are pushing Nigerians to the brim. The fragile and perilous state of our polity is marked by heightened insecurity, divisiveness, and ethnic agitations. Therefore, I call for a declaration by the Federal Government of a national state of emergency against hunger. It is anathema for a hard-working citizen of Nigeria to go to bed without food, not out of choice but out of lack.
The sooner government tackled the insecurity situation in the food corridors of Nigeria, the better for everyone. Farmers should be encouraged and protected from attacks when they go back to their farms. The infrastructure needed for the movement of food and services allied to the food industry must be improved as national urgency. We must strengthen the supply end of food security.
Food processing is also crucial. Not only is demand outstripping supply leading to demand-pull inflation in food in Nigeria, but supply is not strengthened because of waste that occurs, especially with seasonal foods. The government should encourage the food processing and storage industry to thrive in Nigeria. It must be the aim of the Nigerian government in the long run to make Nigeria a net exporter of food. We know that farmers need a moderate increase in food prices to make the food business economically viable. The effective synergy between farmers and the food processing and storage industry may help control and stabilise prices for the benefit of both farmers and consumers.
The demand for food in Nigeria will continue to increase. Not only is our population growing daily, but we also are at the centre of the supply chain for smaller neighbouring African countries. At present, the demand pressure may not come down, and policies to achieve a reduction will only work in the medium to long term. Therefore, I implore the government to focus on immediate remedial actions to salvage the situation.
Unfortunately, on the broad sectoral performance, agriculture grew by 1.22% during the third quarter of 2021 in real terms lower than the third quarter of 2020, which recorded 1.39%. This is worrisome. How can the agriculture sector grow less in 2021 compared to 2020, when the covid 19 pandemic was at its worst state? One explanation may be that insecurity in food corridors has a more negative impact on agriculture than Covid 19. Also, the medium-term effect of insecurity and covid 19 on agriculture may have started to show by the third quarter of 2021. Whatever be the case, the government should strive to turn this trend around.
There is a need to collaborate with international organisations dealing with the food crisis to alleviate the impact of lack of food or the high cost of food on poor people in Nigeria. We do not have to wait until hunger overwhelms our system before looking for international collaborations to ameliorate the problem. The implication may be too challenging to contemplate.
As a matter of urgency, Nigeria should revisit the policy of reducing the importation of food, especially now. There is no prescription that every nation has to meet its food needs from domestic production. What nations must not fail to do is to identify their competitive advantages in terms of agricultural production for domestic consumption and export. The economic theory of specialisation and international trade provides that countries should import what they do not have competitive advantage in producing while they export what they produce competitively.
As a temporary stop-gap measure, the government can allow for the importation of selected food items to cushion the impact of food inflation and gradually phase them out as food security is achieved and things stabilise. It is also not unreasonable to argue that the food inflation Nigeria is facing now may have been caused partly by the devaluation of naira that has increased the prices of food and other goods imported at the new exchange rate.
In conclusion, it is our contention that food inflation is part of poverty and is at the root of the current ravaging hunger level. Tackling the supply side of food will help not only to make food available but will also force the prices down. The rising cases of hunger and malnutrition is a ticking time bomb waiting to explode. Now is the time to tackle it head-on and avert a crisis waiting to happen. A stitch in time saves nine.