Food for thought: reforming governance through food

From roadside “Mama Put” canteens and street vendors to sprawling supermarkets and vast catering networks, a booming food culture in Lagos is transforming the city’s landscape and culture with an industrial intensity nearly unmatched by any other commercial venture in the local economy. Much of this can be attributed to the stable growth of Nigeria’s economy over the last half decade and to the changing face of demand and purchasing power in Lagos. In effect, Nigeria’s food and beverage manufacturing industry sold an estimated NGN500 billion (about US$3,2 billion) worth of packaged goods in 2011 alone. Patronage of restaurant and fast-food eateries is also on the rise, which is not surprising with more women working outside the home, long transit times and the altered lifestyle of a burgeoning young population.

The evolving food culture is asserting its dominance with a strong physical presence and impressive statistics. In the last six years, mega-grocery stores have opened in large retail complexes off central city locations. Fully fitted with opulent bars and restaurants, international hotels also seem to be springing up overnight in wealthy island districts. High-end hospitality is also forging new clusters close to the domestic and international airports in Ikeja, bringing with it a thriving nightlife. But it doesn’t end there. Notorious Nigerian weddings – more superfluous in Lagos and Abuja than elsewhere in the country – at an average of NGN7,800,000 (about US$50,000) cost the same as weddings in Los Angeles. And if that wasn’t startling enough, securing marital bliss for high-society couples can cost up to six times more. A significant proportion of this budget obliges the appetite of guests typically tallying up from a humble 400 to 2,000.

With almost every birthday, christening, burial and payday properly celebrated, Nigeria effortlessly leads the continental “champagne campaign”, guzzling 593,000 bottles of alcoholic beverages in 2010. This was over a fifth of Africa’s consumption and 50 percent more than wealthier South Africa. Although 75 percent of alcohol products consumed in Nigeria are locally brewed, imports accounted for over NGN78 billion (US$500 million) in 2011. With the favoured premium brands like Laurent-Perrier and Moet Hennessy bagging 10 percent growth on the continent, foreign suppliers are all too happy to supplement their waning consumer home base with the money of Africa’s nouveau-riche and bourgeoisie.

Lagos is indeed flowing with milk and honey. The city’s food problem isn’t one of scarcity or soaring prices, but a market environment that disadvantages the small- to medium-sized farmers, wholesalers and retailers. Despite the high demand of goods in a flourishing food industry, many are unable to pull themselves out of poverty. Part of the reason for this is the surplus provision to local markets as ongoing sectarian violence in the upper regions of the country dissuades suppliers from venturing there, thus forcing over-supplied markets to sell below cost price. Commenting on the market condition, Rasheed Balogun, a taxforce officer under the Lagos State Perishable Goods observes: “Suppliers to the north have reduced in number. Formerly, we would transfer some of our goods there, like these oranges from Ghana, pineapples from Cotonou and watermelons from Chad. Wholesalers who go there escape death and are not willing to risk their lives again.”

But this is a fairly recent and (presumably) temporary phenomenon, unlike the structural issues facing the city’s food industry and culture. The annual influx of 600,000 people – mostly low-wage earners – and the expensive culinary tastes of a growing middle-class mean it is Lagos’ market-stalls and not its dining tables that will increasingly be spaces of marked disparity. On average Lagosians spend more per capita on food than the rest of the country, with slum-dwellers spending 80 percent of their income on what they eat. Food – in the way it is produced, transported, sold, cooked and disposed of – may well present a valuable vantage point to rethink the planning of our cities. A better-structured and supported agro-business climate could turn this challenge into an opportunity for generating wealth lower down the food chain. In agreement, Managing Director of the International Fund for Agricultural Development, Kanayo Nwanze, argues for a multi-pronged agribusiness value chain to diversify food supply to Lagos, while also creating market opportunities for rural producers in ways that promote infrastructural development and improve social services further inland. “The mistake policymakers and governments make is that they over-invest in the big cities to the disadvantage of rural areas. The result is that rather than create attractive future cities for today’s rural youth, they encourage increased migration and bulging in urban cities.”

Cambridge lecturer, architect and writer of Hungry City: How Food Shapes Our Lives, Carolyn Steel argues that feeding cities has “a greater social and physical impact on us and our planet than anything else we do”. The interrelated impacts of food production, consumption and disposal can certainly change the course of the city’s physical expansion and development. It can also dynamically affect its public health and poverty reduction strategies. On the most part, even the poor of Lagos are relatively well fed. Yet with 25 million mouths to feed by 2015, coupled with limited arable farmland, flash floods and unpredictable rainfall, sustaining access to affordable food cannot be taken for granted. While on the whole packaged food production and commercial dining are thriving, more infrastructural and capital investments are needed to scale up traditional food markets and the agricultural communes to reduce high spend and low returns for the poorer farmers who form the majority.

This month’s escalating price of grain in the US – the world’s breadbasket – should ring alarm bells for policymakers and their executing bodies. In contrast to western perceptions of a famine-afflicted Africa, Nigerians can and should be able to feed themselves. If there is a food problem, it is not biological or even climatic at present. The “Growing Greener Cities in Africa” report from the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization stresses the need to cultivate peri-urban agriculture to counter food insecurity amid urbanisation trends. Lagos’ city administrators appear to have already begun addressing these concerns. Considerable efforts are being made with pig-rearing cooperatives on the outskirts, fish-farming innovations in marshlands and a biogas initiative at the Ketu food market. On the whole, the food and agricultural industry is crippled by ineffective linkages between investment, technology and government policy.

The success of Nigeria’s alcoholic beverage industry shows that where local production has been embraced, it has flourished. It is not so much in the dearth of articulated interventions, but in their inability to successfully forge a constructive value chain that is frustrating efforts to address inequities among various suppliers and spur on wealth creation.

Ore Disu is an urban researcher and analyst based in Lagos


This article is part of UrbanAfrica’s reporting project


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