In Nigeria, “jollof rice”, national dish and thermometer of general price inflation

In Nigeria, who will be able to enjoy jollof rice at Christmas? The question has flourished in recent days on social networks and in certain media in the country where we cherish this dish of spicy rice cooked in a tomato and onion sauce, decorated with pieces of meat or fish

In Nigeria, “jollof rice”, national dish and thermometer of general price inflation

In Nigeria, who will be able to enjoy jollof rice at Christmas? The question has flourished in recent days on social networks and in certain media in the country where we cherish this dish of spicy rice cooked in a tomato and onion sauce, decorated with pieces of meat or fish. Jollof rice is to Nigeria what couscous is to Maghreb countries: an emblematic dish.

But this staple of festive meals has also become a thermometer of inflation in a country struggling with a severe economic crisis. Invented by the Nigerian consulting firm SBM Intelligence, the jollof rice index tracks the dance of labels by recording the prices of the dozen ingredients needed to make it every month since 2015, in thirteen markets across the country. According to the latest issue of the index, published on November 23, the cost of this culinary specialty has more than tripled in eight years. Between June and September alone, the increase was 5%. And even 12% for just the bag of rice.

Food security is a long-standing problem in Africa's most populous country, which has faced widespread instability for years. But Nigerian households have had to tighten their belts even more under the effect of reforms undertaken by the government of President Bola Tinubu, who came to power at the end of May. First and foremost, the liberalization of the exchange rate of the naira, the national currency, and the removal of fuel subsidies.

Emergency loans

These measures have long been recommended by multilateral donors to resolve distortions in the Nigerian economy and alleviate public finances. But, so far, the remedy has proven very painful. The naira collapsed, causing the cost of imported products to inflate. And the tripling of the price of gasoline has brought with it the cost of transport and electricity, and in turn that of food. “These policies have had a negative impact on family incomes and made food largely unaffordable,” summarizes Glory Etim, the analyst who oversees the jollof rice index.

Official figures corroborate information gleaned from the markets. According to the National Bureau of Statistics, inflation reached 27.3% in October year-on-year, and even 31.5% for food products alone, unheard of in almost two decades. Bus fares have increased by 117%! The risk, warns the World Bank, is to see more and more Nigerians falling into poverty in a country where more than 80 million people, out of a population of some 215 million, already lack the means to provide for their needs.

“Currently, the main problem facing most Nigerians is protein deficiency, as traditional survival strategies, such as finding substitutes and reducing rations, are proving ineffective,” laments Glory Etim. An impossible equation as demonstrated by a resident of the northwest of the country, interviewed for the creation of the index: instead of eggs, not even to mention meat or fish, “many families use gbeske [soy cheese ] in their stew, and others simply cabbage.”

Another survey published in early November by SBM Intelligence reveals that Nigerians spend an average of 97% of their monthly income on food. Unable to make ends meet, more and more households are turning to credit organizations for emergency loans issued at often prohibitive rates.

Threats of national strike

This maddening crisis in purchasing power fuels exasperation with a government whose lifestyle seems at odds with the sacrifices made by the population. At the beginning of November, the promulgation of a supplementary budget providing millions of dollars for the renovation of the president's residence and the purchase of luxury vehicles intended, among others, for the first lady caused an outcry. The $6.1 million (€5.6 million) that was to be used to purchase a presidential yacht was ultimately allocated at the last minute to student loans.

No mass demonstration has yet brought Nigerians into the streets to denounce austerity and the growing disparities between the population and the elites. At the beginning of October, President Tinubu managed to defuse threats of a national strike agitated by the unions, by announcing an increase in the minimum wage for low-skilled workers. But small protest movements are emerging across the country while the subject has become one of the most discussed in the streets and on social networks.

On Wednesday, November 29, by presenting the first budget of his mandate, Bola Tinubu once again called for the patience of the population, affirming that the negative effects of his reforms would eventually fade. However, “we expect food prices to continue to increase for some time,” predicts Glory Etim. And for many Nigerians, popular or not, jollof rice is now “a ceremonial dish.”