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Bread: A staple going out of the poors’ reach

With an economy in a tailspin, according to experts, more Nigerians may soon be flung into the abyss of poverty and hardship as like other food items, bread, a popular staple across the world, appears set to leave the table of the commoners due to Nigeria’s harsh economic realities. LADESOPE LADELOKUN writes on the plight of ordinary Nigerians and the need for a quick intervention by the government

 

In the South Eastern part of Nigeria, the kola nut is to many, a symbol of life and commensality. Hence the saying, “He who brings Kola brings life”. But for many across the world, bread brings life.

Little wonder multiple reports abound across the world where a slight increase in the price of bread triggered bloody protests, dispatching souls to early graves in some cases. In Nigeria, except deliberate steps are taken to reverse spiralling cost of production and among other issues, according to Nigerian bakers, consumers can only brace for frequent hikes in the prices of the staple; something observers say may soon wipe off bread from the table of the common man.

This is corroborated by a warning by the Association of Master Bakers and Caterers of Nigeria that the price of the smallest bread could go for as high as N1,000 should the bakers continue the production of the staple without the necessary government’s intervention.

Already, with a number low-income earners groaning under the weight of economic hardships, even as lamentations about burgeoning prices of cooking gas, kerosene, diesel, food and other essential commodities remain unceasing, concerns are rife that more Nigerians may be condemned into the abyss of poverty.

In a report it titled, ‘A Better Future for All Nigerians: 2022 Nigeria Poverty Assessment’, the World Bank said it projected the number of poor Nigerians to hit 95.1 million in 2022.

 

It expatiated further that given the effects of the COVID-19 crisis, the poverty    headcount rate, “is instead projected to jump from 40.1 per cent in 2018/19 to 42.0 per cent in 2020 and 42.6 per cent in 2022, implying that the number of poor people was 89.0 million in 2020 and would be 95.1 million in 2022.” Earlier in July, the National Bureau of Statistics(NBS) said Nigeria’s food inflation rose to 20.6 per cent in June 2022, from 19.5 per cent recorded in May 2022.

The increase, according to experts, was fueled by rising prices of food and the high cost of diesel. Findings by Sunday Telegraph revealed that some bakers in states like Kogi, Cross River, Ogun, among other states, have already jacked up prices of bread by at least 20 per cent after a four-day warning strike said to have yielded no result. In an interview with Sunday Telegraph, a Lagos-based baker, Sina Olawale, lamented how unbearable cost of production may soon make a great number of bakers close shop if the intervention needed from the Federal Government fails to come.

“As a producer of bread, we are facing many challenges. There’s price increment in sugar, yeast , flour and all our ingredients, even diesel. We’ve bearing the burden for a long time but we can no longer cope. The problem has overwhelmed us. So, the strike was necessary to draw the attention of the Nigerian people and the Federal Government to our plight.

“Look, in June last year, flour was still N17, 000. We were complaining that that price was unbearable. Initially, it was N5,500. We had projected that the price would not be more than N22,000.

But, today, unfortunately, a bag of flour is N29,000. Even sugar was N17,000 as of June last year is now N28,5000. We bought diesel for N340 a litre last year. It is over N800 today.

For a carton of yeast that we bought for N14,000 as of last June, it is now N23,000. You see, no one can sincerely blame us for increasing the price of bread. If we really want to charge consumers appropriately, the bread people buy for N100 should go for N300; the ones sold for N500 should go for N1,500.

We are not in any position to keep the prices of bread down. If we can buy diesel and all our ingredients at cheaper prices, it will definitely reflect in the price of bread.

This is why I’m appealing to the Federal Government to support bakers.” Speaking on a televised morning programme on OGTV, an Abeokuta-based baker, Adeniyi Adeniyi, bemoaned the failure of the Nigerian government to provide adequate assistance to manufacturers in form of subsidies on imported raw materials.

His words: “Because we don’t have the conventional electricity supply, every factory, not just bakeries, is forced to use diesel. The government said diesel had been deregulated. So, people sell at whatever cost they feel is profitable for them. Sadly, the price of diesel rose from N185 to over N800 and the issue of generating power and the cost of diesel will affect a lot of things.

And it’s unfortunate there’s no deliberate policy to assist manufacturers. I don’t think people plan before they come into government. I think all they are interested in is just to occupy positions. If you have a feeling for your people and you’re part of them, you will have a deliberate plan for solving problems.

The  issue of soaring bread prices didn’t start today. From the outset, the major materials -wheat-which we use is imported. The local farmers are not encouraged and they even impose tax the imported wheat.

You see, this is the only country I know where food items are not subsidised. They politicise everything. There is no deliberate plan to grow our own wheat. “The only thing government is interested in subsidising is petrol. I beg to be corrected. It’s because that sector is shady.

You’re saying there’s unemployment. It’s because those people in government are not ready to do the right thing. I know graduates that are roaming the streets. Tell them this is one hectare of land, at the end of 12 months, if you farm on this land, you get this quantity of crops from it.

This is how much you will get from it. Right now, we produce nearly zero quantity of wheat. We import almost all the wheat we use for producing bread. There was a time during former President Olusegun Obasanjo’s administration, we tried cassava flour.

But when it came, people embraced it. You know how we run this government. When you try a thing and you’re not getting the ultimate result at the beginning, you’re supposed to push further, what they do is to back out. Because they backed out, the programme failed. We don’t persevere at all. The Russian-Ukraine war is also not helping. If we had invested in cassava flour, we would be facing less problems now. ”

According to the Premium Breadmakers Association of Nigeria (PBAN), operating a bakery in Nigeria has become near impossible as the incessant increase in the prices of baking materials and diesel has rendered the industry comatose, adding that bakeries are mostly running on huge losses, and this is no longer sustainable. It further stated that “bread is a staple food and one of the cheapest ‘grab and go’ food that is available for both the poor and rich.

It, therefore, behoves the Federal Government to be mindful of this and ensure the survival and sustainability of the industry. “Our efforts to ensure the survival of the industry led to a series of meetings with the Federal Ministry of Industry, Trade and Investment, Abuja (FMITI) with our sister association in the bread making industry in 2021. Our best attempts to ensure that the suggestions we put forward for the survival of the bread making industry have not yielded the desired result.” ‘

 

How rise in bread price sparked deadly protests in countries

 

In protests that swept across Sudan amid rising public anger over soaring prices of bread and other economic woes in 2018, at least, eight people were killed, according to Al Jazeera .

 

Bread prices had more than tripled since the start of the said year after a government decision to stop state-funded imports of wheat. Officials, Aljazeera reports, had hoped the move would create competition between private companies importing wheat, and therefore act as a check on price rises – but a number of bakeries had stopped production, citing a lack of flour.

“The protests began peacefully and then turned to violence and vandalism … We declared a state of emergency and a curfew and the closure of schools in the city,” Hatem al-Wassilah, the governor of the Nile River state.

Only in May 2022, soaring bread prices triggered protests in Iran, in which some shops were set on fire, prompting bread prices have more than tripled since the start of this year after a government decision to stop state-funded imports of wheat to arrest scores of “provocateurs”, the official IRNA news agency had said. The protests were said to be triggered by a cut in government subsidies for imported wheat that caused price hikes as high as 300 per cent for a variety of flour-based staples.

Reuters reported that Iran’s official inflation rate is around 40 per cent, and some estimate it is over 50 per cent. Almost half Iran’s 82 million population are now below the poverty line. The government, it was learnt, plans to offer digital coupons in the next couple of months for limited amounts of bread at subsidised prices.

While the rest will be offered at market rates, other food items will be added later. There were scattered protests in a number of cities, according to IRNA, in which crowds chanted slogans against price rises and some shops were set on fire. Iranian officials have also blamed the price hikes on the smuggling of subsidised bread into neighbouring Iraq and Afghanistan.

Why Russia-Ukraine war can be blessing in disguise

 

A former United Nations Industrial Development Organisation (UNIDO) Representative in Nigeria on Agric Exports and Trade, Dr. John Isemede, has disclosed it was time to scale up inclusion of between 20 and 50 per cent cassava starch in bread production in Nigeria.

Isemede, who is also a former Director-General of Nigerian Association of Chambers of Commerce, Industry, Mines and Agriculture (NACCIMA), stated that Nigeria needed to revisit the abandoned 20 per cent cassava inclusion in wheat bread and all other flour-based products under the High Quality Cassava Flour (HQCF) initiative during former President Olusegun Obasanjo’s era, to navigate the rise in bread prices in the country.

In an interview with New Telegraph( a sister publication to Sunday Telegraph), Isemede explained that Nigeria produced 40 per cent of the total world’s cassava, saying that since it had comparative advantage in cassava production, there is urgent need to bring back cassava starch and wheat bread nationwide to save Nigerians paying through their noise for bread.

According to him, the time has come and a challenge to the Federal Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development (FMARD), the three universities of agriculture at the state levels, Federal Institute of Industrial Research Oshodi (FIIRO), Raw Material Research and Development Council (RMRDC) to save the country from imminent hunger.

The former director-general of NACCIMA explained that the on-going war in Ukraine was a wakeup call for Nigeria and the present administration to embark on backward integration in finding a lasting solution to the looming food crisis in the country.

He pointed out that revisiting the cassava starch and wheat bread production would help the processors mop up the country’s large cassava crop in bread making. Isemede said: “The focus is the war in Russia and Ukraine – effects on food prices in Nigeria, and Nigerians have to know that wheat is not 100 per cent substitute for cassava, but, we can take three lessons from our mistakes of the past to save the situation.

“One, the palm oil fruits that was yielding per HA in Nigeria is in the past before Malaysia came into Nigeria and it’s now yielding over 200 per cent to 500 per cent in Malaysia and Indonesia “Two, the Gulf War wind fall could have an export opportunities but not structure to run trade.

So, the money became another cake sharing/ free money for imports/ consumption, and three, this is the time to revisit the works of Dr Adesina on – Cassava starch and Wheat Bread. Time to scale up cassava to 20 per cent – 50 per cent using the Malaysian model of 1970s after the seedlings from Edo State.

This is now a challenge to our FMARD, the three universities of agriculture at the state levels, FIIRO, RMRDC etc to save our country from the eminent hunger in the land.”

 

Politics trumps welfare

For the National Leader, Progressive Bakers Association of Nigeria, Jacob Adejorin, the Federal Government can do a lot to assist bakers and millers and bakers. According to him, the four-day warning strike by bakers yielded no result because politics trumped the welfare of the masses.

“When the millers increased the price of flour, they did not inform the bakers. That was not the case before. It used to take as long as a year to increase the price of flour, but that has changed. In a month, they could increase the price of flour four times in a week. In July alone, they have increased the price three times. We cannot really say they are exploiting us.

The value of the naira to the dollar keeps falling. And millers get dollars from the black market. That’s an area government can assist. If these millers can get dollars at the official rate, it will go a long way.

“At the moment, the Federal Government is not ready to listen to us. What they are interested in now is politics. And you can’t increase the price of bread like they are increasing the price of flour.

We don’t know what the price will be before the end of the month. It’s now N29,000. If care is not taken, a bag of flour will hit N40,000 next month. These problems have made many bakers to close shop. When last did you see people hawk Agege bread?

 

Most of the young people that work in bakeries now sell local herbs on the streets. Some ride motorcycles for a living. Bakers are suffering. Everything has increased,” he told Sunday Telegraph.

What to do

Speaking with Sunday Telegraph on how to crash the price of bread and other food items, economist and lecturer at the University of Lagos, Dr Babatope Ogunniyi, harped on the need by the Federal Government to tackle insecurity to provide the enabling environment for farmers to work, among other long-term measures.

 

“We don’t have an immediate solution because it’s an exogenous problem. But if we talk about long-term solutions, the normal thing everyone would like to do is to start production of wheat.

Even about now, some countries are enjoying the situation because they’re smiling to the bank and getting more money. Why do we have problems with exchange rate in Nigeria?

Let’s assume one or two of our refineries are working, we will realise that the demand for exchange rate would be cut off if not almost zero. At that level, we will get more money into the economy We are still having debt financing when it comes to the issue of oil because what we are giving out, we don’t really have enough when they return the refined product.

 

And that’s why it’s becoming a bigger problem by the day coupled with other challenges arising from other countries. “For example, the issue of wheat, the war between Ukraine and Russia is not helping the situation.

That’s why we are not in control of price. We import from Ukraine and today, there’s no action to get wheat from Ukraine. How do you solve that problem? If you’re talking about production, we cannot even have a solution to the problem. Farmers are not allowed to work due to insecurity.

 

So, who will produce wheat in Nigeria? That’s why I said we can only engage in a long term solution. Maybe, we have to defeat the terrorists first and open doors for agripreneurs, so we go back to land and if the production should come up, it simply means we may be able to produce enough that will be sufficient for local consumption. But besides that, no solution.

And that’s why I said we are at the crossroads. Should we be praying for the war between Ukraine and Russia to end? Or, should we face the banditry and other insecurity issues within? We can only solve these problems one by one. Everyone is in a dilemma. But we cannot fold our arms. There are things we can do but they may not bring immediate solution. Are there substitutes?

 

At a time, we were talking about cassava bread. Is it possible to do more research to see if that can be immediate substitute? Or are there other products? These are the things we can look at.”

 

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