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A Moth Nicknamed 'Tomato Ebola' Ravages Nigeria's Tomatoes

The price of tomatoes at Nigerian markets is going higher and higher as moths and their larvae wipe out much of the crop.

Nigerian tomatoes are tasty and juicy. But a basket of toms is now costing an arm and a leg. From about $1.40 three months ago, that price has rocketed 400 percent to a staggering $40, according to local media.

Tomato farms in the northwest and central regions have been ravaged, prompting the governor of Kaduna state in the north, Mallam Nasir El-Rufai, to have reportedly declared a tomato state of emergency in the sector. El-Rufai is quoted as saying 80 percent of Kaduna's tomato production — and the state is deemed by the U.N. to be the tomato capital of Nigeria — has been hit by the disease.

That's because a pesky pest — a moth — has got to Nigeria's tomato crop. The insect goes by the name Tuta Absoluta, aka Tomato Leaf Miner, says Daniel Manzo Maigari, Kaduna state's commissioner for agriculture.

The moth attacks the leaves of the tomato plant, and larvae produced by the moth feed voraciously on the plants and cause a 100 percent loss in yield. No amount of spraying is said to kill the larvae.

Maigari said "You spray it, after about three hours, it comes back to life."

Some Nigerians are calling the pest that has ravaged the crop "Tomato Ebola."

Nigeria's federal agriculture minister, Audu Ogbeh, confirmed Wednesday that the pest has spread to at least six states and poses a threat to national food security.

Ogbeh warned that the moth can also attack pepper and potato plants.

"So we are confronting something quite serious. But the good thing is that we are tackling it right now as experts will commence work immediately." He added "We are bringing the commissioners and governors of states to jointly attack this pest, which, if not dealt with, will create serious problems for food security in our country," he said and that everything was being done to tackle the phenomenon.

Meanwhile, Maigari, Kaduna state's agriculture commissioner, is quoted as saying that some 200 farmers have collectively lost more than $5m over the past month in his state.

Tomatoes are a central ingredient in many Nigerian dishes and very much part of the diet here, so the scarcity means many people simply can't afford toms.

In some eateries, where tomatoes were served routinely, they've vanished. A "suya" (kebab) spot in the capital Abuja is still selling tender grilled skewered meat, with sliced onions, shredded cabbage and spiced pepper powder as garnish. Gone are the gorgeous red, diced tomatoes that used to brighten the popular takeout meal.

The tomato crisis is a blow for President Muhammadu Buhari, who has been urging his compatriots to return to the soil and farm, to diversify Africa's largest, petroleum-heavy, economy. Nigeria is suffering because of the calamitous current market price for crude oil, its main export.

Nigeria is looking to Kenya to try to combat the tomato menace. Kaduna's government has dispatched agricultural specialists to Kenya to meet experts on the Tomato Leaf Miner, to learn how to tackle the pest. Maigari, the Kaduna state agriculture commissioner, told journalists, "We have sent some of our officials to Kenya to meet our partners. Kenya has a good advantage over us on this issue," he said. "We understand that they use a plant extract to take care of this problem. But we do not have that knowledge yet. We expect them to return very soon with short- and mid-term solutions."

Ogbeh, the federal agriculture minister, confirmed that the disease is relatively new to Nigeria, so expertise on how to curb its spread is limited.

Maigari said the problem was so "severe" that businessman Aliko Dangote, Nigeria's and Africa's wealthiest man, has had to suspend production at his recently-built tomato processing plant in northern Kano state because of a lack of tomatoes.

Meanwhile, the twittersphere is exploding with tomato posts. Nigerians with a sense of humor are posting photos of the Spanish festival known as La Tomatina, an August celebration in which tens of thousands of folks converge on a town called Bunol to pelt each other with tons of tomatoes. Their message: What a waste of tomatoes, send them to Nigeria!

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