Tomato, Onion Prices Rise with Flooded Fields

Tomatoes and onions are staples in the delicious stews that accompany injera other meals throughout the day both during fasting and non-fasting seasons. So when flood waters devasted tomato and onion farms in major production areas, the impact was hard felt both in short supply and consequent spike in price. TESFA MOGESSIE, FORTUNE STAFF WRITER, talks with farmers, middlemen and consumers to determine the scope and scale of the impact.

For Mulu Yihune, a resident in Addis Abeba, vegetables and fruits are necessary to raise a healthy family. The Lent season was, however, a challenge in terms of the prices of these foods.

“The price of vegetable usually hikes in the Lent season,” she said, referring to the high consumption of vegetables then, as meat, the usual preference of many is forbidden among Orthodox Christians during the 55-day period before Easter.

Given her serious stand on vegetables for health, she never stops. She was actually looking forward to the post- lent season, when vegetable prices return to normal.

“This season is known for a plunge in price of vegetables, particularly tomatoes,” said Mulu.

Two things usually coincided – a drop in demand and hike in supply.

The market price in the past two weeks however surprised her when it turned out to be the opposite of the trend she had observed for at least the past four years, as she managed her family’s nutrition.

She was lost in trying to explain the market price. Little did she know about what had taken place at one of the major source farms in Meqi.

Meqi, in East Shewa, which produces large quantities of both onions and tomatoes, with 1,246ha covered with tomatoes alone, was stricken by serious flooding two weeks ago.

Similar flood damage was experienced in Dugda District of Oromia Region nearly 131km south east of capital Addis Abeba.

Beyene Bediro, a farmer, lives in Mekdagirissa Kebele, south of Meqi town, which is the capital of the District. He was moping at the corner of his farm, distressed at seeing tomato plants destroyed by flood waters. There smallholder farmers earn a living by the cultivation and sale of vegetables.

But the flood waters interrupted his daily routine, messed up his surroundings and made him lose the tomatoes he had planted on his one hectare farm.

Four of the eleven kebeles that had been inundated by the surreal flash floods were the main sources of tomato and onion supply to the capital Addis Abeba.

The unexpected torrential rains and corresponding floods since late March, not only affected Beyene’s and his friends’ fields, but also devastated the eastern part of the country. Nationwide, 240,000 people were displaced, according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA).

Life for Beyene and friends has taken a different turn.

“The paradox of it is that such devastation happened on the day when we were celebrating Easter,” Beyene narrated.

They saw no rain in Meqi, but the water flowing from the highland of Adele Kebele in Sodo Wereda of the Southern Nations, Nationalities & Peoples’ Region (SNNPR) flooded his farm. The downflow ended up in Meqi River that ushered in the disaster for farmers in the four adjacent kebeles, destroying everything.

Beyene lost the entire tomato and onion harvest from his one hectare cultivation. His expectation and plans were all gone with the flood. He grew frantic as he remembered the night he considered as some sort of a curse on his village. He had invested 45,000 Br and had expected a return of 70,000 Br from the sale of his produce. The investment cost includes expenses incurred in purchasing seeds and paying for labour.

In Meqi’s weather conditions it takes an average of five months for crops to be ready for harvesting, giving the farmers there a chance to reap twice a year. The first season is from January to June and the second, from August to November. It takes three months for onions to reach maturity and three and half months for tomatoes to be reaped. The rest of the time is spent in field preparation.

Had there been one month more before the incident, Beyene said that he would have been able to reap safely and secure his crop. On average, he expected to reap 20ql as he did last year. The farmers’ whole lives depend on vegetable production – they give and take from their fields.

Tears flowed down Beyene’s face as he calculated his losses. However, his friend Ejerso Abegez has moved on from his dismay and is working on his plan.

What makes Ejarso’s situation worse is that he had paid an extra 16,000 Br for the year, driving him to find a second channel immediately. He had no time to waste crying over his loss.

His total investment reached close to 80 thousand as he had hoped to double his profits.

“It was a matter of three weeks,” he said angrily when Fortune met with working in his farm – now a corn farm.

He had already planted corn, adjusting to the high demand for water to grow corn.

The flood and outflow of the river was a surprise not only to the Ejarso and Beyene but to officials who were informed about the potential flood by meteorological forecasts.

Though there had been a national metrology alert on the possibility of flooding, the District was unable to take adequate preemptive measures.

“We knew such could come but never forecast the magnitude,” said Bonsa Follo, Dugda District’s Deputy Administrator and Agriculture Office Head. He said the District had advised the farmers to strengthen the potential flood outlet areas. Remains of hedges that were put around the river banks to protect the farms against potential damage, are still visible.

Close to 8 million Birr damage is estimated by official agriculture office of the area.

Though all players understood the nature of the damage as a natural calamity, some voiced their reservations on preventive measures that should have been put in place.

The overflow of the river is a common phenomenon but flooding of such magnitude has not occurred in ten years. The notorious tomato disease,Tuta absoluta, was the other major set-back to the tomato farms which are the blood lines of the Bekelgrissa, Argogedilala, Woldamekdela and Shibogamo, Derradalecha kebeles.

Residents claim better protection schemes as the missing element in the equation while local authorities refer to higher regional authorities, to look into the matter.

A permanent protection wall is beyond the budget capacity of the wereda office,” Bonsa said.

Two hundred and sixty households dependent on tomato and onion production have been affected by the flood he said. The total area covered by the four kebeles is 382ha.

Alerted by the huge damage, he said that the district had bought a total of 2,000 sacks which they had filled with sand and put as a protection wall beside the river.

The people affected by the flood are receiving aid as they are braced by the Productive Safety Net Program, he added. To help them recoup their losses, the district will provide seeds and fertilizers for the August sowing season.

Tomato production in the country has been consistently going upwards. In 2014/2015, smallholder farmers produced 534,882ql of tomatoes of which Oromia’s share was 51.7pc. This figure was 31pc lower than the previous year. In the same period commercial farms produced 549,615ql of tomatoes, 84pc of which came from the same region. The potential areas for onion and tomato production in the region are East Shewa, West Arsi, South West Shewa and East Hararghe.

In one corner of Meqi, Shite Gadissa who owns a fruits and vegetables retail shop feels the price rise. She said that she used to sell a kilo of onions for four Birr and a kilo of tomatoes for seven Birr but after the flood, both items saw a marked increase in price. The price of onions rose by three Birr and tomato went up by six Birr.

Her customer Mebrat Haile, too, feels the pinch, as tomatoes and onions are staples in Ethiopian daily cuisine.

“The price is raised up to a level I did not know before,” she said. “This [the price increment] is affecting my life. Now I have to allot a big portion of my 1,500 Br monthly salary,” she added.

However, in Addis Abeba, the price pinch is unbearable. All fruits and vegetables from Shola to Piassa are now being sold at exorbitant prices. Brokers are communicating the damage to retailers in Addis. Samsom Bedilu, a broker, has been letting them know that farmers lost a vast field of onions and tomatoes which created shortage.

Demand from Addis Abeba has shown no decline but the shortage here has left retailers’ demand unsatisfied, Samson said.

“I saw many retailers scramble to buy. I have received more calls than ever from buyers to look for low prices,” he added.

Back in Shola Market situated at the north inlet of Addis Abeba, the price hike in onions and tomatoes is a visible 25pc. The price increase from eight Birr to twelve Birr angered customers.

Though the retailers did not clearly put their fingers on what caused the price hike they sensed something fundamental and therefore adjusted their prices, at the cost of losing some clients who thought it was all artificial, said Asefa Kebede, a vegetable seller, whose daily transactions range from 3,000 Br to 4,000 Br on average. In the busiest Piassa market in, a corner known as Atkilt Tera, prices though comparably low to those in Shola Market seem inclined to rise.

Another retailer, Debebe Leul, sheltered in a plastic shed, said that prices had risen suddenly.

I used to sell a kilo of onions for eight Birr and a kilo of tomatoes for 13 Br. However, this time the price rose to 17 Br for tomatoes and 12 Br for onions, he said, plonking down on his stool.

“This is the biggest rise ever as long as I know the market,” he said.

While all options must be considered, the chances of modern farming coming to the rescue seems lame.

“Tomato farming could be a risky business for commercial farms” said the owner of a commercial farm that specializes in fruit and vegetable cultivation.

He affirmed the increased demand and the positively changing culture of consuming vegetables that encourage the farms to focus on supplying in adequate quantities.

“It will take at least 40 days for modern commercial farms to be able to bridge the gap, if they try to jump into this business opportunity,” Fikadu Afewerk, an expert in the tomato farming said.

Tomatoes take 28 days to mature after the nursery, in a controlled farm.

In 2015 Ethiopia exported about 610,518ql of tomatoes worth 9.4 million dollars to Djibouti, Somalia and United Arab Emirate.

“Export of tomato is so weak that it should not be a big concern,” the commercial farmer told Fortune. “Due to its highly perishable nature and huge standards, tomato exports hardly make it to the European market.

He advised focus should be on meeting local demand that is hiking faster than the price.

Onions are another story.

The country harvested 3.15 million quintals of onions following Belg and Meher seasons, with Oromia Region sharing 34pc in 2014/2015. In that year the country exported about 250,980ql of onions worth 2.48 million dollars, a decline by six per cent from the previous year. The major export destinations were Djibouti and Somalia.

Egypt is the leading onion producer in Africa with a production capacity of around 2.2 million quintals per year.


Published on May 24,2016 [ Vol 17 ,No 838]



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