Charles Acakpo runs a vegetable growing collective in Houéyiho in Cotonou. (Photo by Michael Tchokpodo.)
Jean Adounsiba, another vegetable farmer who works with the collective in Houéyiho, said he is facing the same struggles:
‘We’ve reduced our production because we can’t sell as many vegetables’
Nigeria closed its border with Benin on August 20 in an attempt to stop the smuggling of contraband goods, including food and petrol, across the border. This decision by Africa’s leading economic power has had disastrous effects on vegetable growers in Benin, who are now struggling to sell their produce. Now it is common to see spoiled, unsold vegetables abandoned by the side of the road or, in some cases, even rotting on the vine.
Nigeria made the unilateral decision to shut its border with Benin in August and soon after also closed sections of its border with Cameroon and Niger, in an attempt to clamp down on the smuggling of contraband goods, including petrol and food. One key concern cited by authorities was the rice that Beninese traders import from Asia and then illegally re-export to Nigeria. According to the Nigerian authorities, the importation of these goods jeopardises the country’s agricultural policy aimed at achieving food autonomy.
But these protectionist measures taken by President Muhammadu Buhari have had disastrous consequences on Beninese farmers, many of whom sell their produce on the Nigerian market. They’ve suffered significant losses since the border closure.
‘It’s been hard since Nigeria shut its border’
Charles Acakpo is the president of a vegetable-growing collective in Houéyiho, a swampy area measuring about 37 acres in the centre of Cotonou. A total of 337 farmers grow their vegetables on this land as part of the collective.
We grow all different kinds of vegetables on our plots, including carrots, turnips and different kinds of greens.
Before the borders were closed, lots of Nigerians came to buy our produce. We sold them about 15 tons of vegetables a month, which represented about 75 percent of our total production. They were especially fond of our lettuces and our carrots.
But it has been really hard since Nigeria closed its borders. We are really struggling to sell our produce. Here in Cotonou there is much less demand. People aren’t buying, so we’ve suffered enormous losses.
We’d like our government to negotiate a re-opening of the border with the Nigerian government. That would be a good thing for us and business could start back up on both sides of the border.
The majority of our sales were to Nigerians so, since the border closed, we’ve reduced our production because we can’t sell as many vegetables. So we are sitting here, twiddling our thumbs. If the border stays closed, the future is gloomy.
‘I visited one farmer’s garden where the tomatoes were just rotting on the vines’
In the past, a large portion of the 300,000 tons of tomatoes produced annually in Benin were sold in Nigeria. Since the borders closed, social media has been full of photos of spoiled tomatoes rotting on roadsides in Benin. Some of these photos were taken by AFP photographer Yanick Folly.
In the communities close to the border with Togo, many rotten tomatoes have been abandoned on the side of the road as there aren’t enough buyers. In Grand-Popo [Editor’s note: A coastal town in Benin located on the border with Togo], I visited one farmer’s garden where the tomatoes were just rotting on the vines because the Nigerian customers hadn’t come. He had taken out a loan for 3.5 million CFA francs [Editor’s note: equivalent to €5,400] to buy seeds and fertiliser for the season and now he can’t pay it back. It was a major loss for him.
In this Facebook post (translated from French), AFP photographer Yanick Folly explains that tomatoes have been left to rot in fields and on the side of the road since the border between Benin and Nigeria was closed. Benin’s farmers sold a large percentage of their produce to Nigerians.
In this Facebook post, Comlan Hugues Soussoukpé explains (in French) that, since the closure of the border between Nigeria and Benin, it has been hard for Benin’s farmers to sell their tomatoes. He calls on Benin’s government to help farmers by buying the tomatoes, a move he says was taken by the Togolese government.
On September 7, Benin’s agriculture minister, Gaston Dossouhoui, promised to look for new markets for the vegetables that have already been harvested.
In 2004, authorities in Benin signed a memorandum of agreement with Nigerian authorities that listed about 30 products that were banned from import into Nigeria. The list included food products as well as car accessories. But Benin doesn’t always respect this agreement. According to the World Bank, about 20 percent of Benin’s GDP comes from the informal exportation and re-exportation of products to Nigeria.