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Nigerian tomato growers are currently navigating quite troubled waters as the tomato crops across the country are getting ravaged by a Tuta absoluta infestation. National tomato production is indeed suffering a 90% loss, with prices skyrocketing in every state. “A basket of fresh tomatoes used to sell for about ten to 20 cents, now it sells for three to five dollars,” says Abiola Oladigbolu, head of the Biopesticide Centre at the National Horticultural Research Institute. But how did it get to this point?

The first infestation

According to Abiola, the first large infestation of Tuta absoluta occurred in 2015. The majority of tomato growers were affected, and many switched to the cultivation of different crops, given the severity of the outbreak. Fuelled by the fact that Tuta thrives in warm environments, growers had no other option to control the infestation than to wait for the colder season to start. That is when NIHORT, the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations, together with the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development (FMARD), started working on possible solutions and spreading awareness about the insect. “We did radio interviews and promoted relevant information as much as we could, considering how serious the situation was.”

The awareness campaign was also intended to share information about the solutions that the partnered institutions worked on. This included two biopesticides and a trap tray. “Dr Abiola Oke and her team came up with the idea,” Abiola explains. “Thanks to the support from institutions and associations, we have developed two biopesticides – the NIHORT Lyptol and the NIHORT Raktin. These were purposed to offer a first defence to tomato growers to control the infestation in their crops.” Additionally, the tuta trap tray (TTT) is meant to trap masses of insects and kill adult Tuta absoluta so that no more eggs could be laid.

Find out more about Timeless Tomatoes here.

A devastating second wave

As a result of the big promotion NIHORT initiated, the Tuta absoluta was controlled in 2015, and the situation was normalised. Growers kept using the three solutions to prevent Tuta from returning. But something went wrong in the run-up to 2023. “Not experiencing issues with Tuta for a while, growers thought that the problem was permanently resolved and thus they neglected the IPM programme. The warm season started with exceptionally high temperatures. In other words, Tuta absoluta found perfect breeding conditions to thrive.”

The situation snowballed, with growers losing entire crops, prices going up by 400%, and there was an overall lack of tomato supply throughout Nigeria. “The rain season is approaching fast, and with that, the temperature will drop,” continues Abiola. “However, as it starts getting warm again, we’ll be back to square one and most certainly deal with another Tuta absoluta infestation.” That’s where the collaboration between the federal government and different institutions comes into play.

“We need more resources to scale up the production of our biopesticides and trap trays and to better distribute it to growers.” NIHORT’ s executive director/ CEO, Dr Lawal Attanda, emphasised the need for the federal government to incorporate NIHORT’s Tuta Integrated Pest Management packages into the National Tomato Policy programme to prevent annual occurrences. He further stressed that research is ongoing to discover newer biopesticides and traps and these should be distributed to growers at a very low price or no cost.

NIHORT is also working on different long term, more preventative, solutions. “We have bred three varieties of tomato that can be grown in different parts of the country and is tolerant to wilt,” says the biopesticide head. “We are now multiplying them, and it’s going to take some time before we can provide seeds to growers. The main goal in the end is for more growers to produce tomatoes across Nigeria. Tuta infestations affected the northern part of the country in particular because of high temperatures. Until a better solution is found, every Nigerian tomato producer needs to implement the IPM program that was developed by NIHORT.” – press release, Fresh Plaza