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From coffee to toothpaste, the “sachetization” of the Nigerian economy

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Five grams of toothpaste or ten centiliters of cooking oil: strangled by the cost of living, Nigerians now buy their basic necessities in small quantities, packed in tiny plastic bags, to be consumed during the day. The major brands behind this “sachetization of the economy” see a ” innovation “, providing access to consumption for all Nigerians, the majority of whom survive hand-to-mouth. For others, it is an economic and ecological aberration.

In the streets of Lagos, the vibrant economic capital of Africa’s most populous country, sachets are now part of the decor: they color its streets, streaking the thousands of wood and sheet metal shops that can be found everywhere. Sitting on a stool, Ibrahim Atahire has been running one of these small grocery stores for thirty years in a busy street in Obalende, a working-class district. The 55-year-old man with the graying beard assures him: “At my place, you can buy everything in small quantities. »

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And that’s true. On its stand, everything is sold in sachets: coffee or powdered milk for just one cup, a few grams of cereal for a bowl, toothpaste for brushing your teeth, razors wrapped and sold individually, powder detergent for a single wash. Even the mosquito repellent cream to relieve bites is sold in a plastic package smaller than the palm of your hand. For lunch, cooking oil can also be purchased in sachets, as are spices and tomato sauce. One sachet for each ingredient and for each meal.

“For years I have been offering sachets for sale, but now people can no longer afford to buy in normal quantities, so I only sell that”explains the seller.

Inflation of 15.5%

In a parallel street, Sanni Aïcha, purse in hand, goes around the stalls in search of the cheapest packet of cooking oil. This mother of two, peanut seller whose husband is a retired policeman, confides “no longer get out”. “I used to take oil in cans, but for two years everything has been so expensive that we no longer have the money to buy for the month”she laments.

The first economy of the African continent has been hit hard by the Covid-19 pandemic, which has caused prices to rise by 17% in 2021, particularly those of food products, pushing an additional 6 million Nigerians into poverty. It is now suffering the fallout from the war in Ukraine and a much-criticized economic policy. In 2022, the World Bank predicts inflation of 15.5% and 1 million more poor people. In all, the number of people living in extreme poverty is expected to reach 95.1 million, or nearly one in two Nigerians, according to its projections.

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“A large part of the middle class is falling into poverty and can no longer afford to buy in large quantities. So the big brands started offering sachets to keep their consumers.explains Tunde Leye, economist at SBM Intelligence.

Sachets really hit the Nigerian market in the early 2010s, with brands offering consumers reduced quantities of products to encourage them to try new products, says a former marketing manager for a European food giant in Nigeria. But in 2016, when the country fell into recession for the first time after the fall in oil prices, “Consumers started flocking to this format, so we started to generalize them and other brands followed”he explains.

Pollution and floods

Since then, the economic situation has not improved much, so the demand for small plastic packaging has continued to explode, said the director of a plastics factory on condition of anonymity. “Inflation is such that even sanitary napkins are now sold individually”, says the entrepreneur. His customers keep asking him to produce ever smaller packaging, to barely contain a few grams of product.

The sun is at its zenith in Obalende and Sanni Aïcha is still scouring the streets in search of the most competitive price. “Buying in sachets almost every day costs me more at the end of the month”, she laments. For cooking oil, it’s on average 20% more expensive, she says. “Without money aside, I can hardly do otherwise”, continues the peanut seller, who earns her money from day to day – a few thousand naira, barely enough to feed her family. This is how the poorest find themselves ultimately at “spend more” than others, argues economist Tunde Leye.

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This “sachetization of the economy” also poses a significant environmental problem by generating “ever more plastic”, denounces environmental activist Oluwaseyi Moejoh. Because the bags do not only color the shops of Lagos, they are also found on the ground: scattered on the potholed sidewalks of the city or in the form of plastic magmas which clog its open sewers and generate significant floods every season. rains. The poorest, who live in precarious housing, are the first affected. So Oluwaseyi Moejoh pleads for a greater “state control” and the obligation to make the major brands “accountants” of their plastic pollution. Because in the end, “It’s always the poor who end up paying”.

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The World with AFP