In Nigeria, sugar at home, sweets from abroad

Northern Nigerian farmers boast about land that could be some of the most productive for sugar in West Africa – but they say that productivity is wasted without big-time local buyers. And while the government works to implement new policies to help the local industry, farmers sell sugar cane as snacks on the street while the country imports 97% of the sugar it consumes.

Mallam Usman Abdu Gubuci describes himself as one of the sugar-farming “giants” in his area, with five hectares of land. He said his part of northern Nigeria could be a major supplier of sugar to West Africa, but that farmers no longer even bother to grow sugar that can be refined.

“There is special sugar cane for that sugar, which we were introduced with. But when we planted it, no buyer. In other words, no industry to buy so we ended up wasting our money,” said Gubuci.

Reducing sugar imports

Instead, he said, all of his product goes to local markets and people drink sugar water from the stalks. And while these stalks do sell, he said, it is not a business that can grow.

Last fall, the Nigerian government introduced a new plan to decrease sugar imports and boost Nigerian production. The plan includes increasing taxes on imported sugar and giving tax breaks to anyone who wants to invest in local sugar refinement. It also calls for no import duties on machinery used for processing sugar.

Sugar officials say Nigeria spent $620 million on sugar imports in 2012, and they don’t expect that number to decline immediately.

Hajiya Bilkisu Mohammed, who heads the Association of Women Farmers in northern Nigeria, said that part of the reason local farmers can’t sell sugar for refining is that factories in this part of Nigeria have to battle constant electrical shortages. They must rely on expensive generators, driving up costs and making their products more expensive.

Potential for profit

Saidu Usman Gwambe, a sugar cane farmer, said his land has the potential to be enormously profitable, but he’s not sure how much longer he can wait for a government rescue.

“We can call government to come and support us to continue the producing of the sugar cane,” said Gwambe.

The Nigerian government also has announced plans to reduce imports of other food products in recent months. In January, President Goodluck Jonathan promised to increase food production by 20 million metric tons by 2015. He said that will create 3.5 million jobs and reduce Nigeria’s dependence on imports. – VOA

Ibrahima Yakuba contributed to this report from Kaduna, Nigeria.