Concerned by deepening poverty and malnutrition fueled by exorbitant, ever-rising food prices and the prevalence of adulterated products, Thomas Kumolu-Johnson is reorganizing the food distribution and marketing chain in Nigeria to connect farmers directly with consumers and to stir public demand for safe food.
The New Idea
Thomas sees the astronomical prices of food items in Nigeria as a result not necessarily of low production, but rather the result of myriad middlemen in the distribution chain and poor knowledge of food storage. To help solve these problems, he is creating "markets of convenience" where farmers' products are sold directly to consumers at less than half the price of the same food at regular markets.
Furthermore, he is eradicating practices in the food production and distribution process that adulterate and even poison food items before they reach the consumer. For instance, to increase the quantity of vegetable oil, distributors sometimes mix it with petroleum-based oil; iodized salt is mixed with table salt; and garri (a staple food made from cassava) is packaged in contaminated bags previously used for storing chemicals or even caustic soda. Thomas's initiative is the first in Nigeria to attempt to bring food that has passed reliable health safety inspection checks to consumers at an affordable price. With the help of his allies, Thomas plans to spread his idea to all states of Nigeria.
Because of two decades of neglect of the agricultural sector in Nigeria, food prices have skyrocketed to such an extent that most families can afford only one meal a day. While it may be argued that Nigeria produces enough food for its populace, the storage and distribution processes are so poor that prices more than quadruple by the time the products reach the consumer. Many rural communities where food is produced do not have electricity, accessible transportation, storage, or telecommunication facilities. A plethora of middlemen in the distribution chain aggravate the situation by exorbitant profit-taking.
Apart from the inherent problems in the distribution chain and the resulting high prices, consumers are also faced with the problem of adulterated and poisoned foods. The Nigerian Food and Drug Agency, whose responsibility it is to check the quality of consumable items, has been inactive for years. The number of reports of food-related deaths from such problems as bad garri or poisonous mushrooms sold as nonpoisonous mushrooms is rising.Before Thomas started making the adulteration of food products known through the media, the government seemed hardly aware the problem existed. Yet, even with the enlightenment that Thomas is providing, government is unable to react effectively because of the poor state of government infrastructure. Furthermore, because the mandate of development organizations that respond to food needs has mostly concentrated on increasing productivity, the distribution chain problems are not addressed.
If this situation is not confronted, the Nigerian food crisis will continue to deepen, and poor families will remain unable to obtain adequate and safe nutrition.
Thomas is altering the food distribution chain to address these problems by eliminating middlemen and educating both consumers and producers about adulterated food. His strategy involves organizing producers, creating markets that directly link them to consumers, training producers in food safety maintenance, and using television to educate consumers about food safety and nutrition.
Thomas begins by organizing farmers into cooperatives to facilitate the direct sale of their products. To do this, he identifies communities that produce the goods he is interested in and calls a meeting of the farmers. Farmers also approach him directly, declaring their interest in participating in the project. After Thomas explains the principles of his initiative, interested farmers then organize into a "market of convenience cooperative," and leaders are elected. The leaders coordinate the collection of food from the other farmers.
Thomas then organizes bimonthly weekend discount markets and corner shops where products from the cooperatives are sold directly to consumers. He solicits the assistance of both state and local government to provide venues for the markets. He also has more than 500 volunteers, mostly women, who are trained to assist in the organization of the markets. To transport the goods to Lagos, Thomas has two schemes. For farmers near the city, he provides transportation with his minivan. He offers to farmers farther away from Lagos prices higher than they would have gotten from the middlemen who come to buy from them in the village, less the price of transportation to the city. Weighing the difference, these farmers generally decide to travel the few hours to Lagos themselves, knowing that they will earn more money for their goods upon delivery to the market. With this incentive system, Thomas can offer his goods more cheaply than others because the combined higher price to farmers and cost of transportation and the minimal profit he expects is still less than what other middlemen want. Farmers have not previously attempted this sort of arrangement on their own because they have not had the ready markets Thomas provides Lagos and therefore could not sell their goods as conveniently or easily in the city.Thomas also trains the farmers and volunteers in the health hazards of adulterated foods and makes sure that all foods that are sold in the convenience market and corner shops are fit for human consumption. Although it is more often the middlemen that adulterate the food, Thomas feels it is important for the farmers to have this knowledge as they begin to interact directly with consumers. Currently, Thomas and his team check for adulterated foods before the goods are transported to markets.
With his television program, Thomas educates the public on the adulteration and poisoning of foods sold in the market. The program also provides nutrition tips to viewers. He has been a guest on numerous other TV and radio programs.
Thomas's initiative has appealed so strongly to producers and consumers alike that it has already spread to eight states of the federation. In addition, the idea has attracted the interest and cooperation of both governmental and citizen sector bodies, including the Directorate of Employment, the Nigerian Labor Congress, the Nigerian Police Force, and the National Youth Service Corps.
Thomas has a long history of turning problems into opportunities. A medical practitioner, Thomas has provided years of voluntary work. He was the first Rotary Club president in Nigeria to admit women into the club, and under his leadership, the Rotary Club also started a soup kitchen and a motor vehicle rescue service. Through this service, vehicles involved in accidents are towed away from the roadside to avert further mishaps. Ordinarily, such vehicles are left by the roadside for months and often result in further accidents when unsuspecting motorists run into them. Thomas also pioneered a motor vehicle recovery scheme by which cars that have been recovered by the police from armed robbers are "reunited" with their owners. He launched this program after being arrested in England on suspicion of driving a stolen vehicle, though he had merely borrowed the car from a friend. He was amazed that within an hour, the British police were able to locate the rightful owner and certify that Thomas had indeed borrowed, not stolen, the car. He inquired about the system, and after the police had explained the process to him, he returned to Nigeria and initiated a similar scheme.
Thomas is well known in Nigeria as an advocate of justice. In the 1970s, he got into trouble with the government hospital where he worked because he took the medical authorities there to court for their corrupt practices, which included diverting government-provided drugs to their private clinics.