(Bloomberg) -- Soaring tomato prices in Nigeria are creating a new headache for authorities, who are battling food inflation that’s at its highest in decades and has fanned protests and looting.

Agriculture Minister Mohammad Abubakar, in a recent post on X, blamed rising prices on production being hit by a severe infestation known as Tomato Ebola or Tomato Leaf Miner — caused by a moth-like insect. The government has responded by sending teams into the affected areas to combat the threat and help farmers recover their crops as quickly as possible.

The price of tomatoes — an essential ingredient in many beloved dishes in Africa’s most populous nation — has surged due to shortages, according to market traders. 

Audu Isa, who sells vegetables at one of the biggest markets in Abuja, the capital, said the price for a small basket of tomatoes has jumped to 25,000 naira ($17) from 7,000 naira in April. That price spike is “the worst we’ve had it in 10 years,” he said.

It gets worse. In Jos, a city in Nigeria’s central Plateau state, a large basket of the crop can cost as much as 75,000 naira, almost 20 times more expensive than three months ago.

Joshua Lalong, a farmer in Jos, said “the biggest issue is the cost of fuel that has gone up, which makes dry season farming impossible.” 

President Bola Tinubu scrapped a popular but costly fuel subsidy and eased foreign-exchange controls shortly after taking office in May 2023. Both led fuel prices to surge before the subsidy was reintroduced.

“Watering machines need fuel and many of us are losing money because of fuel prices, so there is no incentive for many of us to cultivate tomatoes and other produce,” Lalong said.

Food prices are particularly sensitive in Nigeria, where an average household spends more than 50% of its budget to eat and the rise in the cost of living has already sparked unrest.

Trucks hauling food supplies earlier in the year were hijacked on rural highways, and soldiers had to stand guard to prevent grain warehouses from being ransacked in major cities by desperate Nigerians.

The country is also considering suspending import duties on some food staples as well as drugs and other essential items for six months to slow inflation. 

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Tomatoes present a new problem. They hold immense significance in Nigerian cuisine for their contribution to the stews and jollof rice beloved in the West African nation, and are also a major agricultural commodity.

According to researchers at Cornell University, over 200,000 smallscale farmers cultivate the crop, making Nigeria the second largest producer of tomatoes in Africa and 12th globally. The item constitutes a fifth of the nation’s daily vegetable consumption.

In addition to Tomato Ebola and the high cost of fuel, farmers also blame the weather.

“Due to the hot weather, farmers nowadays, for fear of incurring losses, will dare not plant tomatoes in February or March, because it will not grow,” Sani Danladi Yadakwari, chairman of a growers association said from Kano, Nigeria’s biggest tomatoes producing state. “By May, all the tomatoes produced in Nigeria have finished. We are now waiting for rain to start falling to plant the new tomato.” he said.

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--With assistance from Mustapha Adamu.

©2024 Bloomberg L.P.