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Culture

Untold Story of Nigerian Food Staples

History of the popular Nigerian food staples and stories of the unsung heroes who through bravery paved way for wealth and food sustainability as we know it in Nigeria and Africa at large.

How The Frozen Fish Business Began

In the 1950’s traders in Lagos markets dismissed the frozen fish business as a silly idea. One man dared to present it before Nigerian consumers while they mockingly labeled his product ‘mortuary fish’. His name is Michael Ibru.

In 1957, he launched into the frozen fish business. At the time, there wasn’t any detectable appetite for the product. The odds were stacked against him as earlier attempts by Europeans to run a similar venture had failed.

Photograph of Michael Ibru

Ibru knew that there was an exploding demand for seafood and that fresh catches weren’t enough to fill the gap. There could be more protein on the meal tables of Nigerians if they adopted fish preserved by freezing where freshly harvested ones were unavailable.

He got market women to sing praise for his product in regular, lively processions. In time, what was ridiculed ‘mortuary fish’ became a sought-after commodity. By the 1970s, Ibru Sea Foods (the company he founded ) was raking in 90 million naira annually. The company also held about 60 percent of Nigeria’s emerging frozen fish market.

A Short History Of Nigerian Staple- Garri

Cassava was introduced to Southern Nigeria by slaves who returned to Nigeria in the beginning of the 1900s. Its value wasn’t really visible until slaves started to return in the 19th century and introduced processing methods. Cassava can be processed into many different things, including garri, fufu, animal feed, alcohol, starches for sizing paper and textiles, etc. 

The processing of cassava is important because it contains traces of cyanide, which has been said to cause heart failure, loss of sight, and other damages to the human body. Garri, however, does have many health benefits. Apart from its high fiber and starch content, it contains phosphorus, calcium, riboflavin, etc.

White garri and Yellow garri

These slaves taught Nigerians how to remove the cyanide & make garri from it. Palm oil is added to garri to reduce the cyanide in garri.

Palm oil is known to be anti-poison. This process turns the initial whitish color to yellow. Yellow garri is the variant that had palm oil added to it during the final production process which is frying. When this process isn’t undertaken, White garri is left to stay for more days (fermentation) to reduce the cyanide. It’s why it has a sour taste.

The Success Story of Catfish Farming in Nigeria.

It was started by the govt in the same period (the 1950s) Michael Ibru was pioneering the frozen fish industry in Nigeria. Historically, there was no record of fish farming in Nigeria until 1951 when the feasibility of fish farming was tested at a small experimental Station in Onikan, Lagos & Panyam Catfish Farm, Plateau State. This was the beginning of Catfish farming in Nigeria.

Nigerian Man in His Fish Farm

Catfish Farming was initially dominated by Govt with direct involvement in Catfish production. River Basin Development Authorities (RBDA) were established to run commercial Catfish Farms and prove the commercial viability of aquaculture as part of their functions. They also gave technical assistance in the construction of ponds and provided inputs (fingerlings, feed, etc).

Catfish farming gave Nigeria a niche in global aquaculture production. It’s currently the 2nd highest producer of aquaculture products in Africa behind Egypt & the highest producer of African catfish in the world with over 160K tons in 2015 increasing output by 39% since 2010.

Estimates put the current production output of Catfish in Nigeria at over 253,898 metric tonnes per year. however, this amount is not enough for the Nigerian market. Besides the fact that Nigeria is the world’s largest producer of Catfish. Nigeria is the 2nd largest producer of fish in Africa after Egypt. Catfish is about 80% of the fish produced in Nigeria. Also, Nigeria made smoked catfish popular worldwide & a big export to Europe & America.

Cocoa production in Nigeria

The production of cocoa is important to the economy of Nigeria. Cocoa is the leading agricultural export of the country and Nigeria is currently the world’s fourth-largest producer of Cocoa, after Ivory Coast, Indonesia, and Ghana, and the third-largest exporter, after Ivory Coast and Ghana.

Captain James Pinson Labulo Davies, a Saros (ex- Nigerian slave from Sierra Leone) pioneered cocoa farming in West Africa, successfully established a Cocoa farm in Lagos with cocoa seeds from the Amazon obtained from a Brazilian ship & the Island of Fernando Po in 1879 & 1880.

A man with his wife and children at a cocoa plantation.

Davies passed the knowledge of cocoa farming to Jacob Kehinde Coker, a local Yoruba & founder of the African Church (1901) who helped establish the Agege Planter’s Union that spread cocoa farming throughout the Yoruba region. The British barely invested in Cocoa farming in Nigeria.

Cocoa eventually success in Nigeria was achieved by Nigerians. In 2010, Cocoa production accounted for only 0.3% of agricultural GDP. Average cocoa beans production in Nigeria between 2000 and 2010 was 389,272 tonnes per year rising from 170,000 tonnes produced in 1999. Currently, farmers sell their products indirectly through a cooperative or a licensed buying agent who in turn sell it to exporting firms

The Story Behind Rice

Slaves from Africa introduced rice (Oryza glaberrima) to America & taught their white masters how to grow & preserve it years before the rice (Oryza sativa) from Asia became a preferred option. How they took it across to the Americas is interesting.

African rice is a unique kind of rice. It is rugged and well adapted to hard knock life. African rice grows profusely that it chokes weeds. This rice variant is resistant to drought & common rice insects, pest & diseases. It requires low-labor. It is filling & has a fine nutty flavor.

Higher-yielding Asian rice would eventually dominate plantations, but African rice was reliably grown even in the unlikeliest of conditions. And Africans possessed the necessary cultivation skills to get it firmly established in the New World.

When captured before embarking on the usually horrible voyage to the Americas & Caribbean, slaves hide grains on their bodies. Slaves usually hide grains for food on land travels as they are often starved by their handier. It was a survival skill.

Much of the existing dogma suggested that slaves were nothing more than unknowing laborers performing their masters’ tasks. This is hardly the truth. According to Judith Carney, a rice historian and geography professor at the University of California, Los Angeles; “No slave owner was going to admit that their slaves taught them how to grow rice,” 

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