Nigerian Inflation Pushes Yam Prices Sky-High


In 2002, a single yam tuber cost an average of 37 cents in Nigeria. At the start of 2021, a single tuber went for an average of $3.90—a 954 percent increase, even running ahead of the country’s overall 739.4 percent inflation in 19 years. A plant that for centuries suggested wealth, power, and prosperity has become unaffordable, at least in whole tubers, for vast numbers of the poor.

As inflation continues to plague the Nigerian economy, and the middle class continues to slide further down the economic ladder, staple items are being sold in smaller and smaller amounts for people who can’t afford to buy the whole thing. From shampoo sold in one-use sachets to cereal in tiny boxes, slicing up items for the poor or the rapidly fading middle class is becoming the norm. Pound for pound, this is more expensive—but if you can’t afford to buy the whole bottle and still urgently need to wash your hair, immediate affordability is what matters. Even some luxury goods have jumped onto this bandwagon; in 2019, the liquor brand Baileys unveiled the option to purchase a single shot of Baileys Delight in a sachet that resembles a condiment packet.

But it’s the yam whose slicing cuts deepest at the heart of Nigerian food culture. Chinua Achebe called it the “king of crops,” and in many Nigerian traditions the tuber is at the heart of not only the daily diet but also the language of wealth and power. The yam, especially in traditional parts of the southeast, was mostly planted, tended, and harvested by men, and it suggested prosperity and masculinity. Yams were contained in standing barns, built to proudly display wealth and prominently positioned in farms.

In 2002, a single yam tuber cost an average of 37 cents in Nigeria. At the start of 2021, a single tuber went for an average of $3.90—a 954 percent increase, even running ahead of the country’s overall 739.4 percent inflation in 19 years. A plant that for centuries suggested wealth, power, and prosperity has become unaffordable, at least in whole tubers, for vast numbers of the poor.

As inflation continues to plague the Nigerian economy, and the middle class continues to slide further down the economic ladder, staple items are being sold in smaller and smaller amounts for people who can’t afford to buy the whole thing. From shampoo sold in one-use sachets to cereal in tiny boxes, slicing up items for the poor or the rapidly fading middle class is becoming the norm. Pound for pound, this is more expensive—but if you can’t afford to buy the whole bottle and still urgently need to wash your hair, immediate affordability is what matters. Even some luxury goods have jumped onto this bandwagon; in 2019, the liquor brand Baileys unveiled the option to purchase a single shot of Baileys Delight in a sachet that resembles a condiment packet.

But it’s the yam whose slicing cuts deepest at the heart of Nigerian food culture. Chinua Achebe called it the “king of crops,” and in many Nigerian traditions the tuber is at the heart of not only the daily diet but also the language of wealth and power. The yam, especially in traditional parts of the southeast, was mostly planted, tended, and harvested by men, and it suggested prosperity and masculinity. Yams were contained in standing barns, built to proudly display wealth and prominently positioned in farms.

The wholeness of the yam was part of its appeal. But in Nigerian markets today, yam, like so many other goods, is being sold in slices to those who can no longer afford the whole plant.

Increased demand and a lack of efficient transport networks have led to shortages and increased prices—especially in areas far from the heartlands of yam production in the Middle Belt, such as Enugu in the southeast and Rivers in the far south.

In the capital, Abuja, which is closer to the Middle Belt, a tuber costs around 1,000 naira (about $2) while in the southeast, 181 miles away in Enegu State, sellers say it costs about 1,700 naira, almost double the price.

“A lot of yam-sellers in Rivers state buy yam from the North and Middle Belt,” said Osi Kelvin, who sells yam in Port Harcourt, the southern state’s capital. Kelvin said that yams are also split and sold pre-sliced in some of the rural markets around the state. “This is to aid affordability, especially among the lower class who cannot afford a whole tuber,” he said.

Slicing up yams for sale isn’t new—but it’s become more common as times have gotten harder. As well as its ritual significance, the yam is simply a vital part of the Nigerian diet. According to a 2008 report by the Food and Agriculture Organization, Nigeria produces about 35 million metric tons of yam, valued at about $5.7 billion, making Nigeria the largest producer of yam in the world.

Yam, for a lot of Nigerians, is a low-effort, high-reward meal, mostly because it can be cooked in so many different ways. “It is like the first law of thermodynamics—yam can be converted from one form to another. You can boil, fry, or pound it,” said Bushra Abdulmalik, a food scientist. “Yam can be processed to make yam flour, fried yam chips, yam balls, and even starch.”

Yam prices were not traditionally a high concern, because families were growing their own yams. But as urbanization grew and wealth became more about real money and less about yams, barns started to become extinct, and the men who would once have planted yams went looking for new opportunities in the city.

“People are not farming, period,” said Odi Lagi, an Igbo cultural enthusiast. “Urbanization and development eroded a lot of it. Farming is hard, but the terrain in Eastern Nigeria makes it twice as hard.”

The rising prices are cutting into long-standing celebrations.

For instance, for the Igbo of southeastern Nigeria, one of the country’s largest ethnic groups, the New Yam Festival is the heart of the traditional ritual year. The festival is usually held in August, symbolizing harvest season. Igbos roast the newly harvested yams, and entertainment is usually centered on wrestling, dance, and costumed processions known as masquerades—mostly carried out by men’s societies. Women have their own August Meeting, where they return to the villages to discuss leadership and communal responsibilities.

This is an expensive obligation, and the economic downturn has made it worse. “August is the month for harvest and New Yam festivals. It is a period of great mobilization among the Igbo,” said Lagi, who has declared herself “queen of yam festivals.” “But Igbos also feel obligated to travel for the Christmas festivities. This means two different expenses in a year, making it unsustainable in the face of Nigeria’s constant economic downturn.”

The traumatic legacy of the Biafran War (1967-1970), in which largely Igbo Eastern Nigeria attempted to leave the country, reshaped the agricultural landscape and made yam farming a rarer and costlier business.

“What Biafra did was force Igbos to come home and invest at home,” Lagi said. “What this means is that now, every Igbo man and woman in Nigeria or abroad comes home to build a mansion in their village [using money from life in the city], leaving the lands remaining for farming too far away, uphill, and on very lonely and dangerous pathways. Who wants to go there?”

“Christianity is perhaps a cheaper alternative compared to traditional worship,” said Father Paul, an Anglican priest in Enugu state who asked that his second name not be used. “Christianity has fewer festivities and no need for the kind of sacrifice that could put a dent in pockets,” he suggested, citing examples of such traditional worship practices as offering sacrifices of yams, goats, and even cows to deities.

“A family in my village who were custodians of some of the cultural artifacts spanning a hundred years burnt those artifacts because they had ‘found God,’” Lagi said. “This caused a hold on those cultural activities before they resumed again.”

One consequence of conversion to missionary faiths like Christianity or Islam is a complete dissociation from cultural activities like the New Yam Festival.

“As a Christian, you cannot be involved in traditional worship or activities that have any relationship with idol worship,” Father Paul said. “And, sometimes the New Yam Festival is symbolic of traditional worship, as it includes libations and masquerade dances.”

Dissociation from cultural activities is even stronger among younger Nigerians. “You mustn’t even contribute monetarily toward festivities with idol worship elements,” said Ogonna Anyaji, an Igbo native and sociologist. “As part of the traditions of the New Yam Festival, you cannot eat newly harvested yam unless the festival has been completed. But I eat my yams as soon as they hit the market,” she said. “There’s obviously a conflict of interest where both beliefs cannot coexist.”

The Igbo aren’t the only ones to center the yam. For the Tiv people of Benue state in north-central Nigeria, yams, apart from being one of their most prominent crops, are also a key component of dowries.

“Yams are at the epicenter of our food system in Tivland,” said Su’eddie Vershima Agema, a writer from Tiv. “While we don’t have a formal New Yam Festival like the Igbos do, it still forms a strong part of everything we do—from daily meals to feasts.”

But ultimately, festivities can be abandoned when times get tough. And yams, like everything else, can be sliced up.

“Nigerians are practical people,” Anyaji said. “And cultural festivals is at the bottom of a very long list an average Nigerian thinks about.”

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Source link : https://foreignpolicy.com/2021/11/25/yams-nigeria-festivals-holiday/?tpcc=recirc_latest062921

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Publish date : 2021-11-25 13:01:12

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