In Ethiopia, tomato is more than just a vegetable. Apart from being a diet staple and shopper's favourite, tomato prices has a siginificant impact in the livelihoods of many residents. The past three weeks exhibited a three-fold hike in the price of tomato, reaching as high as 37 Br per kilo. One of the major reason was a decline in productivity in high yield areas such as Meqi Wereda, Oromia Regional State. Now, the market seems stablised with the introduction of new supplier to Addis Abeba, reports SAMSON BERHANE, FORTUNE STAFF WRITER.
For Kurfa Mideqsa, planting tomatoes was not his first choice, but there was no other option available to him to pursue his dream of farming on a large scale. Kurfa, who lives in a small hut, in Adele Deqeqa kebele, in Meqi, which is in Oromia Regional State, takes care of his family of five with the small income he makes every six months.
Bearing unexpected circumstances, especially under weather irregularities, the 25 year-old Kurfa makes at least 50,000 Br in profits on a good year.
But this year, he lost about 160,000 Br of his savings due to the recent cold snap that hit many parts of the country.
“There was just a month left until the tomatoes were ripe, when the cold began,” he said. “I lost business partners because I could not keep up the supply.”
Two weeks ago, when Fortune visited Meqi, most of the tomato farms were almost empty. Onions and other vegetables have been dominating the market recently, and some farmers were left struggling after massive losses. Kurfa was one of them.
The recent cold weather has frustrated many vegetable growers in Meqi. Plants like tomatoes must be successfully pollinated to produce their fruit. This year, extreme temperatures, which were recorded at below five degree Celsius in some areas, drastically diminished pollination.
“I could have earned revenues of 92,400 Br if my crop had not been damaged,” Kurfa added angrily.
The growth of all warm-season crops is sluggish in cold weather; which may also create the perfect conditions for a fungal disease that attacks germinating seedlings, according to tomato growers Fortune spoke to.
Kurfa and the hundreds of other farmers in Meqi and its surroundings produced 101,000qt of tomatoes in the last six months, according to estimates by the Meqi Farmers Cooperatives Union. However, this is 50pc lower than the same period last year. On the other hand, tomato production on the national level has been rising over the last three years.
Last year, small holders and commercial farmers produced over a billion quintals of tomatoes; 31pc lower than two years ago. Oromia Regional State, including Meqi, accounted for the lion’s share of production with 84pc.
Another farmer, Ajebachew Abese, who has similar experiences as Kurfa, says the under-productivity of Meqi farms caused the price hike in tomatoes. Besides being a farmer, Ajebachew also works as a broker between farmers and wholesalers.
“I know more than 30 farmers with more than five hectares who produced nothing during the last season,” he said, explaining the extent of the damage.” The effect of the cold was unbearable.”
Now, instead of vegetables, Ajebachew is starting to grow weather- and seasonality- resistant crops.
“Growing tomatoes needs high capital to sustain losses,” he said. “I lost close to 52,000 Br.”
Some farmers on the other hand, were not significantly affected by the cold. Some of them even left Meqi in search of better and more productive land elsewhere. Some among them are benefiting from the hike in prices.
Tadele Kuraze, who has been a farmer for 12 years, left Meqi and went to Adele Wereda, 20Kms away.
“The effects of the cold were moderate here,” Tadele said. “Some of us managed to save tomatoes from being damaged by the cold.”
To make up for such losses, farmers like Tadele believe that price-elevating is the only solution to stay afloat.
In the last three weeks, price of tomatoes has gone through the roof, selling for as high as 37Br per kilogram depending on the area.
The Central Statistical Agency reported that food inflation has risen to 7.8pc, reaching its highest level in nine months. The rise was largely due to a surge in the price of vegetables, especially tomatoes, which experienced a threefold rise over the past three weeks.
Retailers in Atkilt Tera, an area known for being a hub for vegetable suppliers, believe the recent unrest in Oromia Regional State negatively affected the supply of tomatoes in high-production areas like Meqi.
Atkilt Tera, located within Merkato, is well known for its varied supply of vegetables. The usual way of supplying and retailing vegetables is done through wholesalers who come from long distances, especially rural cities, carrying their supply in boxes, which are then sold to retailers.
“There was apprehension amongst some farmers,” said Tekalegn Shumete, a wholesaler at Atkilt Tera while explaining the low productivity of Meqi farmers.
Brehane Teresa, in his mid 30s, agrees with Tekalegn.
“Many farmers abandoned production after some locals threatened them,” said Brehane, a supplier at the Addis Abeba Market.
Brehane says the number of trucks transporting tomatoes are declining after the unrest.
“I used to see over 40 Isuzu trucks leaving to Addis everyday,” he says. “But now it is way below half of this amount.”
On the other hand, Abdo Neyewo, an agricultural and marketing expert who resides in Meqi, believes that the unrest had nothing to do with either the price hike or the under-productivity of tomato farms.
“The land has been exploited,” he explained. “It is non-resistant to diseases.”
He thinks the farmers have left after realising the overexploitation of the land.
“Unless farmers use shifting cultivation methods, the land cannot produce as efficiently as before,” Abdo, who has a decade of experience, underscored.
This week, a month after the first rise in prices, tomato prices in Atkilit Tera, were showing a downward trend.
Wholesalers in Atkilit Tera, such as Biniam Melesse believe that price declines are expected as the city is looking for suppliers from other areas which produce the vegetable.
“After Meqi was hit by a slump in tomato production, there was high shortage in Addis Abeba,” he said. ”The introduction of new sources is now solving the problem.”
Bako, Hawassa, and Arbaminch are the new cities from which tomatoes are being sourced.
Last week, the wholesale price of tomato ranged between 10 Br to 15 Br, around five Birr lower than the retail price.
“This will decline by half as there are tons of tomatoes produced in the new areas,” Biniam added optimistically.
Price hikes are not an entirely new thing. Normally, tomato prices rise during the Easter fasting season every year, but the recent sharp increase in prices is unheard of, according to some residents.
Residents, like Hiwot Semahegn, saw their pocketbooks pinched over this past year as tomato prices spiked, prompting an overall increase in food costs.
Hiwot, a mother of one, lives around the Haya Hulet area. She was buying tomatoes for 35 Br a kilogram for the past three weeks until price stabilized last week.
“The price was higher compared to last year’s fasting season,” she said. ”I remember it was 20 Br a kilo.”
In the area where Hiwot lives, the current price of tomatoes averaged 21 Br a kilo, which is the lowest price recorded in the current month so far.
The price hike in food products such as tomatoes might continue through the remaining months of 2017, according to a report released by BMI, a Fitch Group.
In spite fo the rising prices in Addis, the demand for tomatoes remains unchanged, halfway to the end of the fasting season.
“Most food cannot be made without tomato, so we will just deal with the prices as a usual problem,” Hiwot said.
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