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Harnessing onion powder potential for consumption, export

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Despite the lingering hike in the price of onions across the country, post-harvest challenges remain a major task that must be addressed, to forestall reoccurrence of the perennial scarcity.

Onion (Allium cepa) is a vegetable crop grown almost all over the world. It is grown mainly for its bulb, which is used in every home, almost daily. It is rarely used as a sole dish or in large quantities.
It also serves as medicinal herb. It is claimed to minimize high blood pressure and other heart diseases due to its favourable action on the elasticity of blood vessels. As a commodity of world trade, onion ranks second in importance after tomatoes among the vegetables.

In 2012 alone, an estimate of 240, 000 tons of green onions and 1, 350, 000 tons of dry onions were produced in Nigeria, with the country ranking sixth amongst the top 10 producers of green onions in the world, and 11th in terms of dry onions production, with China and Japan respectively, on number one and two spots for green onions production, and China and India on number one and two spots when it comes to dry onions production.

In the last few weeks, its price has risen by 200 per cent, and the rise has become a daily affair.

Though some dealers claimed the price of onions is usually high at the last quarter of the year, especially in November and December because this is the period when farmers grow the crop, coupled with soaring demands, some farmers have hinted that the problem may stay longer than expected if the issue of storage remains unresolved.

Onions are perishable commodity and cannot be stored for a long time after harvest in ordinary conditions. Up to half or more of onions harvested yearly in the country, decays or shrivels due to storage challenges.

Research has shown that with few good storage facilities available, farmers are forced to sell onions at low prices during glut periods, resulting to constant scarcity of the produce.

According to the World Vegetable Centre (WorldVeg), Nigeria loses as much as 50 per cent of its onion harvest due to postharvest losses, especially as poor postharvest practices occur throughout the onions value chain, especially during transit.

It was revealed that gaps in knowledge on how to properly grade bulbs for marketing and how to manage stored produce were attributed to the losses.

According to experts, onion losses begin with the farmer’s choice of seeds. For instance, according to WorldVeg research, onion farmers in Sokoto typically cultivate local landrace varieties, which allow transfer of undesirable traits to successive crops.

The fields showed much diversity in the local varieties, with bulbs of different colours, shapes and sizes.
It was discovered that poor irrigation, lack of information on proper fertilizer formulation, and other gaps in farmers’ knowledge reduced onion quality and yield.

Poor management practices such as harvesting bulbs at an immature stage (which causes the plant to develop a thick neck prone to disease in storage), neglecting to properly tap the plants (cutting too close and injuring the bulb), drying the onions in the open field (exposing the bulbs to sunscald or sunburn), and inadequate storage facilities are also major factors contributing to high losses, as onions handled in these ways are prone to rot.

Due to this challenge, which seems to be escalating year-in, year-out, stakeholders are advocating value addition to the entire value chain, especially the need to embrace production of onion powder for domestic use and export.

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Onion powder is a dehydrated, ground onion that is commonly used as a seasoning. It is a commercially prepared food product that adds the same flavor as fresh onions. It is used in diversified food products such as soups, sauces, pizzas, canned food, sea food, salads, meat, and others.

Commercial onion powder is prepared by using methods such as freeze-drying, flow drying, vacuum-shelf drying and dehydration. Onion powder saves a lot of time while cooking as it doesn’t requires chopping. It is easy to store and is lighter in weight. Wide application of onion powder as a seasoning and food ingredient has resulted in the expansion of the onion powder market.

The global onion powder market is driven by increase in demand for ready-to-eat food products. It is in great demand as it is used as culinary onions by large catering, institutions, and industrial canteens.

Based on research, Egypt leads the pack of major players operating in the onion powder market in Africa, as Nigeria lags behind in that area.

Experts claim that as one of the leading producers of the vegetable, Nigeria has a good ecology for onion powder production, to tackle post-harvest losses and also tap from the opportunities presented by the export market, to generate foreign exchange.

They opined that government needs to fund, establish or encourage Nigerians to invest in onion powder production and packaging plant in Nigeria.

A farmer, Julian Akinremi, the CEO of Fourteen Farms, Ifeware/Ife, Osun State, told The Guardian that post-harvest handling is the way to go to address the challenges.

“If the excesses from the first quarter of the year are preserved or processed to increase their shelf life then we can reduce the price hike caused by flooding later in the year.”

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To achieve production of the onion powder, Akinremi said funding for agropreneurs must be made available by not just international organisations, but also by government and local organisations.

“And the local market space should have policies that enable small businesses thrive. Getting National Agency for Food, Drugs Administration and Control (NAFDAC), Standard Organisation of Nigeria (SON), business registration, corporate accounts, among others should be made easy for small organisations. Tax waivers should also be given to start-ups to enable them bear with the instability in the economy. Also young people in agribusiness should have a say when policies affecting how agricultural products will be grown and sold are made.”

When asked if the business could survive in a country like Nigeria that has been beleaguered with power and infrastructure challenges, Akinremi said though it is a major issue, but expressed optimism that with vibrant young agropreneurs who are set to change the narrative, the initiative will scale through.

He said: “If Nigerians heading organisations outside the country can do well, then we can do better here in Nigeria. What we need is a business space that enables local processed goods to thrive.

“When imported goods come in and are more affordable than local goods because of poor local technology, high cost of importing machines, tax, poor power and lack of good road networks from farms to factory, local prices would always be high and ability of local companies to scale will be reduced or cut off completely.”

But an onion farmer/seller, who is also founder of Menitos Farms, Tolulope Daramola, differs on the sustainability of the onion powder production. She noted that as long as power remains epileptic, the dream will continue to be a stillborn.

“Onion needs more than a day in the dehydrator. Most farms run on solar for pumping, so add logistics and alternative power, the product would be very expensive.”

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