It was 8:30 am on March 17. The sun had not come out but a small crowd was gathering in front of the Ikosi High School, Ikosi Road, Lagos. A few buses filled with foodstuffs were stationary while another van was being awaited.

In minutes, the van, carrying eggs and loaves of bread drove past and packed right in front of other vans. The gate was flung open by a policewoman and the crowd pushed their way in, stepping on each other, trying to find their feet.

An aged woman was helped up by a kind officer and asked to stand in front of the queue where some officials of the Lagos State Government sat, waiting to start giving out tallies to buyers who had come to purchase food items that Sunday at the school.

The Lagos State Government had through the Ounje Eko initiative designated a few buying spots for Lagos residents to purchase food items at discounted rates.

The Governor, Babajide Olusola Sanwo-Olu, a week ago, directed that Ounje Eko food markets should commence discounted sales of food items across the five divisions of Lagos effective from Sunday, March 17, 2024.

The state government said food items – rice, beans, garri, bread, eggs, tomatoes, onions, and pepper, among others – would be sold at a 25 per cent discount to residents.

To prevent sharp practices and ensure the foodstuffs reach a large number of Lagosians, a voucher system was introduced as the pilot scheme began.

According to the Commissioner for Information and Strategy, Gbenga Omotoso, independent payment solution providers and food vendors had been identified and carefully selected to operate the process.

They would also provide real-time data on the exercise for monitoring.

For transparency, the prices of the items were also listed.

For instance, a 5kg bag of rice would sell for N5,325 while 1kg goes for N1,065; a 5kg bag of beans, N6,225, while 1kg would sell for N1,245.

Prices of other staple food items were also made available through various media outlets.

The markets were expected to be open at 27 locations in Ikeja, six in Lagos Island, nine in Ikorodu, five in Epe; and 10 in Badagry.

The governor also has called on all Lagosians to cooperate with the operators at the various locations, monitor the process, and provide feedback through official channels of the Lagos State Government.

The market was to begin at 10 am and stay open till 4 pm, but Mama Adebisi, an aged woman in the Ikosi area, who has no means of livelihood, told that she got to the school gate before 7 am.

Speaking in a mixture of pidgin and Yoruba, she said, “I come here since 7 am. I hear say Governor won sell food cheap for we wey no fit buy the one wey dey market. That is why I come. I don stand here for long before the officials begin dey come.”

She added, “The crowd even push me down where dem dey rush to enter. Na that policeman help me, carry me go for front of the line, make I collect tally. Na only rice I won buy and small pepper and onions, make I for use am make food.

“I for like buy egg o, but where I won see the money?”

Speaking on how she has managed to survive the hardship in the country, she said, “No be small thing o. Na only God dey sustain me o.

“I no get husband and my children dey struggle. That is why when I hear say Governor Sanwo-Olu wan sell food cheap for us, I rush come in the morning, make I no miss that chance.”

One of our correspondents observed that the officials at the Ikosi High School were well organised. They controlled the crowd into lines.

Bread, eggs, and onions which came later were also displayed. No one was allowed to buy more than 10kg of rice or more than N25,000 worth of food items at once.

Although some individuals came with a few family members so they could get more foodstuffs, the officials made sure everyone was in the queue and had a tally.

When left the location around 11:30 am for another site, the sales were going on smoothly.

At the Egbede Primary School, Egbeda, the crowd was not so much under control as it was at the Ikosi centre. The school had hundreds of people waiting to join the queue. The road leading to the centre had cars parked on both sides of the road, leaving very little space for other commuters or pedestrians to use.

As of 12:30 pm, when one of our correspondents arrived at the venue, some residents were seen arguing over who arrived before the other. This led to a short fight which was later quelled by the security men on duty who took those involved away from the scene.

A mother, Mrs Comfort Ayanda, said she heard about the Ounje initiative on TV and decided to visit the market.

Although she said she might not be able to struggle like others to get in line, she stated she would return on Sunday with her younger brother, who would stand in her stead and buy the foodstuffs.

Another woman who said she was a mother of three but refused to give her name said she was shocked at how organised the market was.

“As you can see, apart from the crowd that has refused to calm down, the officials are well-organised. The rice has already been tied into paint buckets. The peppers are already arranged.

“The onions are also arranged. I bought some rice, eggs, bread and some tomatoes. Everything, as you can see, did not cost me more than N20,000.

“If I were to buy it in a regular market, it would cost me about N35,000 or more. I will keep buying things from this market for as long as it runs because it helps me save some cash,” she said.

 But a man, who came on a bicycle, Phillip Edet, said though the prices of the goods were fair, he could not buy many things.

“I thought the money I came with would buy me the basics – rice, beans, spaghetti, and eggs – but I could only buy rice and beans. I am begging the government to further reduce the prices so that poor people like us can afford it.

“I work as a hotel receptionist; my salary is N35,000 monthly. Transport eats up all that money. The removal of the fuel subsidy, floating of the naira, and other policies introduced by the Federal Government are putting a lot of weight on me, I won’t lie.

“My wife and daughter are also feeling the heat but what do I do? I had to shun church service to be here (at the market), to see what I could get. I will still come back next Sunday though,” he added.

An official of the state government who was seen at the Egbeda centre, but refused to give her name, told one of our correspondents during a short interview that the discounted prices offered to the resident showed that the government had the people of Lagos at heart.

She stressed that a crate of eggs, for instance, which sells for around N4,000 in the conventional markets sells for just N2,700 in the Ounje Eko market.

“I am not sure there is any other state that has done this kind of thing for its residents, and I am glad the governor decided to do this because our people are really suffering. You can see the crowd, and it keeps growing.

“The people are so impatient because they feel the foodstuffs would be exhausted. It is a lot of work for us but we are prepared to serve everyone till 4 pm when the market would be closed officially,” she said.

Mrs Soetan first learned of the Ounje Eko initiative from a church WhatsApp group some days before the first of its weekly market campaigns selling foodstuffs at reduced prices. At 10:30 am, she sneaked out of her church nearby and promptly queued at the entrance of Ilupeju Grammar School, one of the 41 food discount market outlets all over the state.

“I thought I’d see a crowd here (at the school) because of how cheap the prices are but I am surprised that there is not much crowd,” she told one of our correspondents as she wrote her name on the entry list. She was number 71 on the list.

A few minutes past 11 am, the business of the day began. The coordinators of the Ilupeju discount outlet had warned they would attend to only 1,000 but by the time the business began, the number was barely up to that figure.

A female announcer warned everyone that only those who had written their names would be called.

observed that a lot of well-dressed families, possibly from church, drove in to partake in the sales while others, men and women, young girls and boys arrived on foot.

The Nigeria Police, the Nigeria Civil Defence Corps and the Lagos Neighbourhood Safety Corps were on the ground to maintain law and order.

At a corner, a man was seen totalling a list of what to buy while peeping at the prices of all the items being sold on a large banner behind one of the tents. Among the items at the special market were weighed and packaged bags of rice, beans, tomatoes, onions, and pepper.

It was gathered from the sellers that no cash payment was allowed and anyone who wanted to buy anything must pay via a point-of-purchase machine or do an electronic cash transfer.

After making her purchase seamlessly, Soetan, while describing her experience, said, “It was easier because there was no crowd. Everything was coordinated and they sold at the price they said they would so it’s a good thing.”

Another resident, Chijioke, said he doubted his chances of buying items from the market to meet his family’s needs as he expected to meet a large uncontrollable crowd.

“I was expecting a very large crowd today but when I saw that the crowd here was relatively small, I was happy. You know everything has become expensive so I have to be careful about how I spend money. Buying foodstuffs here at this rate will help a lot,” he said.

But for some others in the area, the mid-level market in the Idi-Oro area commissioned by the governor last December was not different from the discount market.

An expectant mother who lives in the Ilupeju area, Irene, told one of our correspondents that it was no use for her buying from the discount market when she could get better deals from the Saturday mid-level market.

“Some of the things I saw on the flyers, I buy them cheaper at the Idi-Oro market so there’s no need for me to visit the discount market,” she said.

However, learnt while the Ounje Eko initiative was seen as a laudable idea, some residents believed the prices of the foodstuffs were beyond their reach.

In some videos shared on X during the inauguration of the weekly discount sales, they lamented that the foodstuffs were still too expensive for them.

In one of the videos shared by @Akinbills, a woman, who looked weak and tired said that even with the discount she didn’t have enough money to buy all she needed.

The woman said, “The food is costly. We used to buy 5kg of garri at N2,500 but this one they are selling at Ounje Eko is N5,000. I came with cash and I have exhausted it.

“When I wanted to withdraw money at a PoS stand, I was told that I didn’t have enough money in my account. I planned on buying bread, and rice but I have exhausted the money in my account.

“The government should treat us well because we are really suffering to the extent that we can beg for death. The cost of living is unbearable for us.

“The government should help us find a solution to the problem. The poverty is too much in the land,” she said.

Another younger woman seen in a video online protested the cost of the foodstuffs being sold and insisted that there was no 25 per cent reduction.

“What then is the use of the discount market? The foodstuffs they brought for us are too expensive; despite their claim that they would deduct 25 per cent from the price they failed to deduct it.

“They are selling a small container of rice for N1,500 in the market, and they are selling it to us at N1,200 here (at the discount market). The same thing applies to the price of beans; it is too expensive,” she said.

“The government should reduce the prices of foodstuffs for us; we voted for him (Sanwo-Olu) to be there. We are suffering. They said they came here with a lot of foodstuffs for us to buy at a subsidised price, but a lot of them are expensive, they didn’t deduct any 25 per cent.

 “It’s only the eggs that are cheaper here, even the onions are expensive. Please, we urge Governor Sanwo-Olu to deduct the 25 per cent as promised because the price we are experiencing here is not up to our expectations, the government can do better, as we are expecting much from him,” she added.

In Nigeria, the challenging economy has plagued the population for decades, manifesting in various forms such as high unemployment rates, inflation, poverty, and food insecurity.

Nigeria’s inflation rate rose to 31.70 per cent in February from 29.90 per cent in January, the National Bureau of Statistics, said on March 15.

The agency said the February 2024 headline inflation rate showed an increase of 1.80 per cent compared to the January 2024 headline inflation rate.

The NBS said on a year-on-year basis, the headline inflation rate was 9.79 per cent points higher than the rate recorded in February 2023, which was 21.91 per cent.

“This shows that the headline inflation rate (year-on-year basis) increased in February 2024 when compared to the same month in the preceding year (i.e. February 2023),” it said.

Furthermore, the bureau said on a month-on-month basis, the headline inflation rate in February 2024 was 3.12 per cent, which was 0.48 per cent higher than the rate recorded in January 2024 (2.64 per cent).

This, it said, meant that in February 2024, the rate of increase in the average price level was more than the rate of increase in the average price level in January 2024.

According to the report, the food inflation rate in February 2024 quickened to 37.92 per cent on a year-on-year basis, which was 13.57 per cent points higher than the rate recorded in February 2023 (24.35 per cent).

In recent years, food prices have been on the rise across Nigeria. The situation deteriorated due to the impact of government policies such as the removal of the fuel subsidy, among others.

The upward trend in the prices of important food items and other products has weakened the purchasing power of many citizens, making it difficult for many households in the country to afford daily meals.

Also, Nigeria’s naira has tumbled in the official and unofficial markets on several occasions in recent times amid an increased forex demand and a significant spike in the prices of goods and services across the country.

In its inflation report last Friday, the NBS said the contributions of items on the divisional year-on-year level to the increase in the headline index were food and non-alcoholic beverages (16.42 per cent), housing water, electricity, gas and other fuel (5.30 per cent), clothing and footwear (2.24 per cent), and transport (2.06 per cent).

Others are furnishings and household equipment and maintenance (1.59 per cent), education (1.25 per cent), health (0.95 per cent), miscellaneous goods and services (0.53 per cent), restaurant and hotels (0.38 per cent), alcoholic beverage, tobacco and kola (0.34 per cent), recreation and culture (0.22 per cent) and communication (0.22 per cent).

The percentage change in the average CPI for the twelve-month ending February 2024 over the average of the CPI for the previous twelve-month period was 26.18 per cent, showing a 6.31 per cent increase compared to 19.87 per cent recorded in February 2023.

The food inflation rate in February 2024 was 37.92 per cent on a year-on-year basis, which was 13.57 per cent points higher compared to the rate recorded in February 2023 (24.35 per cent).

The bureau said the rise in food inflation yearly was caused by increased prices of bread and cereals, potatoes, yam and other tubers, fish, oil and fat, meat, fruit, coffee, tea, and cocoa.

“On a month-on-month basis, the food inflation rate in February 2024 was 3.79 per cent this was 0.58 per cent higher compared to the rate recorded in January 2024 (3.21 per cent),” it said.

It further explained that the rise in food inflation on a month-on-month basis was caused by a rise in the rate of increase in the average prices of bread and cereals, potatoes, yam and other tubers, fish, coffee, tea, and cocoa.

“The average annual rate of food inflation for the 12 months ending February 2024 over the previous 12-month average was 30.07 per cent, which was a 7.95 per cent points increase from the average annual rate of change recorded in February 2023(22.12 per cent),” the report added.

However, while initiatives like selling food at discounted rates may offer relief, experts have noted that they are not sufficient to address the root causes of economic hardship and create sustainable solutions for the populace.

A development economist and tax expert, Dr Ade Dayo, said it is imperative to analyse the underlying factors contributing to economic hardship in Nigeria and propose comprehensive strategies to mitigate the impact.

“One of the primary drivers of economic hardship in Nigeria is structural unemployment, exacerbated by a mismatch between the skills possessed by the workforce and the demands of the labour market. Despite being endowed with abundant human and natural resources, Nigeria continues to face challenges in creating sufficient employment opportunities for its growing population, particularly among the youth.

“This structural unemployment perpetuates poverty and deprives individuals of the means to meet their basic needs, including food security. Furthermore, Nigeria grapples with persistently high inflation rates, which erode the purchasing power of the average citizen and contribute to worsening economic conditions.

“Inflation diminishes the value of wages and savings, making it increasingly difficult for households to afford essential goods and services, including food,” Dayo said.

He said addressing inflation required a combination of monetary and fiscal policies aimed at stabilising prices, enhancing productivity, and promoting economic growth.

“Moreover, the prevalence of poverty exacerbates economic hardship in Nigeria, with a significant portion of the population living below the poverty line. Poverty limits individuals’ access to education, healthcare, and economic opportunities, trapping them in a cycle of deprivation and vulnerability.

“To alleviate poverty, the government must implement targeted social intervention programmes that provide support to the most vulnerable segments of society while also promoting inclusive economic growth and development,” he added.

Another economic researcher, Dr Usman Musa, said Nigeria faced recurrent food insecurity, characterised by inadequate access to sufficient, safe, and nutritious food for all individuals.

While selling food at discounted rates may provide temporary relief to some, he said, it did not address the underlying causes of food insecurity, such as poor agricultural productivity, inadequate infrastructure, and climate change.

He said, “To achieve food security, Nigeria must prioritise investments in agriculture, improve access to inputs and technology for farmers, and strengthen food distribution systems to ensure equitable access to nutritious food for all citizens.

“It is essential to recognise that addressing economic hardship requires a multifaceted approach that tackles the root causes of poverty, unemployment, inflation, and food insecurity. Merely offering discounted food prices is a short-term measure that fails to address the systemic issues driving economic hardship in the country.

“Instead, the government should focus on implementing comprehensive policies and reforms that promote inclusive growth, create employment opportunities, stabilise prices, alleviate poverty, and ensure food security for all Nigerians.”

“One key area that requires urgent attention is the diversification of the Nigerian economy away from its heavy reliance on oil revenues. By investing in sectors such as agriculture, manufacturing, and technology, Nigeria can create new sources of employment, generate wealth, and reduce its vulnerability to external shocks. Furthermore, efforts to improve the business environment, enhance infrastructure, and strengthen institutions are crucial for attracting investment, stimulating economic growth, and fostering development,” he added.

Speaking further, Musa said the government must prioritise investments in human capital, including education, healthcare, and skills training, to empower individuals with the tools and capabilities needed to participate in the economy actively. By investing in education and training programmes, he said Nigeria could equip its workforce with the skills demanded by the labour market, thereby reducing unemployment and poverty rates over the long term.

“Moreover, addressing corruption and improving governance are essential for creating an enabling environment for economic growth and development. Corruption undermines public trust, distorts resource allocation, and stifles investment, thereby hindering efforts to reduce poverty and promote prosperity,” he added.

During times of living crisis, the poor and vulnerable are the most affected, hence strategies must be put in place to cushion the effect of the crises that affect their survival, an economist, Prof Adeola Adenikinju, told .

Adenikinju, who is the President of the Nigerian Economic Society, lauded the efforts of the Lagos State Government in considering the welfare of the masses describing it as something worth replicating in other states.

“What the Lagos State Government is doing is fine, it is what every state government should do. when you are doing reforms, you have to provide a cushion for the vulnerable and poor; that is what the governmtn should have done.

“When you are going through a force that has a significant cost of living, you have to take care of the poor so Lagos State is trying, the Federal Government should support it, and other states should copy it so that you provide some relief for the poor and the vulnerable.

 “Sustainability is the issue,” Adenikinju said.

“We need to have more information to know whether it is sustainable or not. If it is subsidised, then that may not be sustainable. If it is not subsidised but simply removes inefficiencies, and cuts down unnecessary costs, the profits that middlemen are making that means it can be sustainable and can then be replicated across states but if the cost of production is higher than the market price that they are selling, then it cannot be sustainable on a long term,” he added.

The professor also maintained that making farming attractive to Nigerians would not only serve as a long term solution but could also help address the impact of inflation.

This, he said, was in addition to bridging the infrastructure gaps in rural areas where agricultural products are grown and foodstuffs are more affordable by providing good road networks and communication systems.