Tomato has been an important part of daily cuisine all over the world. However, its fragility is visible in its short life span after harvest when not properly stored.
According to the National Horticulture Research Institute (NIHORT), Nigeria’s current tomatoes production is put at 2.3 metric tonnes as against 2.8 metric tonnes two years ago. NIHORT estimates that about 40 per cent of the fruit does not make its way to saucy menu owing to post-harvest losses at the peak of production. This is even though at the point of harvest, local farmers prefer to use woven baskets from palm fronds to package the commodity before it is sold to buyers.
The perforation in the basket is credited for providing air for the tomatoes to breath and therefore prolonging its lifespan when compared to other packaging methods such as sacks and other materials. With the baskets, the commodity is comfortably transported from one part of the country to another and as such, it is not unusual to see baskets with tomatoes sturdily fastened on the top of fuel tankers or heavily loaded in trucks on Nigerian highways.
With the northern part of Nigeria being the hub of tomato farming while the southern part is where palm trees are grown, consequently, it has created business opportunities of improving old, faulty tomato baskets.
Inevitably, new baskets will undergo wear and tear and will subsequently be thrown away or refurbished. Second hand palm baskets, as refurbished baskets are now called, are devoid of the sheen and high cost associated with the ones that are freshly made. Though still serving the same purpose, the refurbished baskets to a large extent will trim down the price of tomatoes compared to those sold in new baskets.
At the Bakin Dogo market in Kaduna metropolis, broken straws of old baskets are strewn on the ground while the ones ready for sale are stacked together then haphazardly tossed aside. With no shade, workers expertly weave together straws extracted from various old baskets to create new ones.
Forty five-year-old Muhammad Lawal, who has 25 years’ experience in the business, said the baskets are sourced from tomato dealers which most times become a burden to them after the produce are turned into designated plastics.
Even when the strand or iron in the process of basket making could easily injure the artisans, our correspondent gathered that they do not mind the little discomfort as long as it puts food on the table. According to Muhammad, there are those who prefer the second hand baskets due to its low price, adding that: “the price of the second hand basket is much lower. Farmers with less capital will go for it while others with larger capital will go for the new ones. But due to the price, we get more demand since it serves the same purpose. We get it from market women who have bought tomato from farmers. After turning them from the baskets, they find that they don’t have much use for the baskets again. So, when we buy the baskets, we check how good it is and if it is in bad shape, we try to fix and sell it.”
Not to restrict his business activities to Kaduna alone, Muhammad said he travels to different parts of the country to get the baskets. According to him, “I travel to Lagos, Abuja and Edo states because tomato is ferried there almost on daily basis. While there, I buy as many as I can, then transport them back to Kaduna to work on.”
On how the baskets are woven, he explained: “The base of the basket, which is very important, is overly intertwined so we hardly touch it. We often work on the sides, so we get straws that are straight and another curved, all from baskets that are bad beyond repairs. The straight one will be the pillar while the curved ones will go around till it reaches the height we want, then a head will be fixed on the top. We tie the head with a strong thread to hold it together with the body. Subsequently, an iron will be tied all-round the entire basket to give it a strong finishing.”
The iron, according to Muhammad, is gotten from old, burnt tyres adding that, “one of our members buys them from Kakuri in Chikun Local Government Area, then sells them to other members who are interested. The wire is used to fasten the different straws to make the basket firm even when overburdened. When it is not there, the straws would likely protrude and the basket will break.”
Often times, Muhammad works from 5am to 7pm and is able to refurbish close to 100 baskets a day. The worn out baskets are purchased from tomato dealers such as Isah Yusuf who sells a basket for between N70 and N100.
Yusuf explained that the baskets made from dried palm fronds have been used for the purpose of packaging and transporting tomatoes for decades and despite advancement in technology, its position has not been threatened. “I have known the cane baskets before I started selling tomatoes; it has been in existence for a long time. The alternative basket used besides the cane basket is the rubber type but when rubber is exposed to intense sunlight, it gets hot so the tomatoes will most likely spoil easily,” he said.
According to Muhammad, the cane basket’s longevity depends on how it is used, adding that even the freshly made ones could snap easily if not properly handled or when labourers employed to load it into a car exert too much pressure on it. However, when handled properly, he said the life span could be between three to four years.
Hassan Khalid, who also engages in the business, noted that Kaduna remains the main hub for producing such baskets in northern Nigeria. He said the basket does not only serve as a storage container for tomatoes but is also used as a measurement tool for tomato farmers and dealers.
Like Abubakar, Khalid disclosed that the business has been his mainstay in the last 10 years and said he sells each basket between N200 and N400 depending on the size and thickness as well as whether the baskets are sold as single or in bulk.
The two men told our correspondent that on a good day, they smile home with nothing less than N2,000 daily. But most importantly for Abubakar, even though tomatoes now grow all season, the peak of tomato harvest during the dry season increase demands for baskets and therefore doubles his profit.