JOHANNESBURG - It is tempting, says Godfrey Nwosu, to blame Nigeria’s rising food prices on something as simple as a drought that has battered the Lake Chad basin and sent crop yields tumbling across the region.
If only it were that simple, Nwosu says. As the head of an organization that promotes Nigerian farming, he would be fielding endless calls from young upstarts eager to plant maize and cassava.
Nwosu isn’t, however, and says he worries that the environmental shocks are only a starting point to this ongoing food crisis.
“The younger ones have been encouraged to go into farming, but it is not yet 100 percent because most of them are looking for white-collar jobs,” he told VOA from Abuja.
Nigeria’s high food prices, he says, are also a result of inflation, high oil prices, high import duties on farming equipment, corruption, a lack of strong pro-farming legislation and the declining popularity of farming among young job-seekers.
“And that is why you see, the hike of things, petrol and everything, it has affected everything because it affects the food prices and makes it go high,” he said.
Aid organizations have recently sounded the alarm over a drought that has left 16 million people in East Africa facing hunger. The United Nations has declared a famine in parts of South Sudan and is warning of impending famine in Somalia.
While drought is mostly the culprit for this food crisis, these two nations were already especially vulnerable, says economist Mario Zappacosta of the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization.
“The main reasons behind the current crisis, which has a regional characteristic affecting most of the countries in eastern Africa, is the drought,” he said.
“...But in some countries the crisis is even compounded by other factors, such as conflict and violence in South Sudan and Somalia.”
Paul Makube, an agricultural economist with South Africa’s First National Bank, says food prices are finally stabilizing in southern Africa after more than a year of erratic weather, as farmers expect the next harvest to be good; but, he says that while the drought was mostly responsible for the increase in food prices, it has laid bare a lack of development in the agricultural sector.
“So basically it is a supply and demand situation,” he told VOA from Johannesburg. “But the other thing that is related to the erratic nature of production in the region is with regard to the adoption of technology that will sustain or help in, you know, for example, dry conditions. We don’t have that in most of the countries in the region.”
FAO economist Jonathan Pound, who focuses on food prices, says some African governments have made efforts to offset the price increases. Kenya removed duties on imported maize. In Zimbabwe, he says, the government slashed taxes on food staples. And other southern African nations released some of their national reserves of staple foods to increase supply and keep prices stable.
He says, however, that governments need to strike a fine balance.
“There are two different perspectives there; I mean you both want prices to be affordable so people can easily consume foods, but at the same time, you also want to make it attractive to farmers so they can support their production as well, but also their incomes and livelihoods.”
This push-and-pull is what preoccupies Nwosu, the secretary-general of the All Farmers Association of Nigeria, who says his government needs to do more to support and encourage farmers and help lower their costs. He’s encouraged by recent growth in Nigeria’s rice-farming sector but says high prices aren’t enough to lure people into this complicated business — and keep them there, year after year, in good times and bad.