Trading the Future for Loaves of Bread

How Poor Energy Policies mean that Nigerians Have to Destroy the Environment to Make Food

Bread is a Nigerian staple – consumed as an essential part of breakfast in rural and urban homes all across the country. To satisfy the resulting huge demand for bread, there are thousands of bakeries operating in almost every community across Nigeria producing, distributing and selling bread on a daily basis. It is generally a profitable business.

But what is good for business and the stomach might not be necessarily be good for a sustainable future. Traditional bread making, as routine as it appears, poses a huge threat to Nigeria’s environment.

Most of the bread in Nigeria is baked in wood-fired traditional ovens. Before a batch of bread loaves can be baked, these traditional ovens are typically pre-heated for, at least, three hours to create the right temperature in the baking chamber. This process, in addition to creating uncomfortably high ambient temperature and unbearable indoor air pollution within the bakery space itself, consumes a lot of wood. A whole lot of wood!

A recent study in Jigawa State identified over 300 registered bakeries in the state. Each bakery was estimated to consume, on the average, one tree trunk a day as fuel wood. If each bakery did business as usual every day for one year, that’s 108,000 trees going into baking bread alone!

Bakery owners admit it is becoming harder to obtain firewood. They often have to go longer distances in search of firewood or source from suppliers at higher costs. This inefficient consumption of wood exacerbates the twin environmental hazards of deforestation and desertification. Diminishing wood supplies also threatens their source of livelihood, which may eventually leave families and communities desolate.

But wood guzzling bakeries are just a symptom, not the cause of the problem. In fact, the energy challenges of traditional bakeries in Nigeria help highlight the cause – providing one of the best illustrations of how seemingly innocuous activities inevitably contribute to deepening Nigeria’s environmental crisis in the absence of an effective energy policy.

Poor access to modern energy sources all over Nigeria has resulted in a majority of Nigerian homes and small businesses relying heavily on energy from fuel wood. According to the IEA, fuel wood still accounts for up to 80% of Nigeria’s energy consumption. This fact, combined with a large and rapidly growing population translates to an enormous amount of pressure on Nigeria’s forest resources.

As a result, forest and green vegetation have become Nigeria’s most endangered natural resources. According to the World Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), Nigeria lost almost half of its forest cover in the 20 years between 1990 and 2010 (47.5%). In 2012, Verisk Maplecroft – a global risk analysis market leader – ranked Nigeria as number one among countries hardest hit by deforestation. Today, deforestation in Nigeria continues at an alarming rate – accounting for the loss of forest cover equivalent to four times the size of Lagos State (4,000sq km) annually.

In Northern Nigeria, the rapid advance of the Sahara Desert is perhaps the most devastating impact of Nigeria’s deforestation crisis. Experts say that the Sahara now encroaches southward at a rate of 6 kilometers every year, converting 2,168sq km of previously arable land to hot, dry desert. This desert encroachment has been closely linked with food shortages, insecurity, poverty, climate related migration and communal clashes.

Perhaps, one could argue that longer and more frequent droughts in the north and floods in the south – occasioned by climate change – are the major driving forces for the devastating environmental changes we are witnessing. But human activity sure has played its part. The felling of trees in such quantities for use as firewood destroys our natural defenses against desertification and erosion. It is therefore no surprise that the Federal Ministry of Environment has attributed the acceleration of desert encroachment in the 11 Frontline States in Northern Nigeria to “uncontrolled logging and tree felling”. Given the fact that registered bakeries in Jigawa state alone (one of the 11 Frontline States), consume over 100,000 trees annually, it is hard to argue against this assertion.

Nigeria’s worsening environmental crisis is indeed also an energy problem.

Therefore, in addition to the regulation of tree felling and the planting of trees in desertification frontline states, it is imperative that the Federal and State Governments develop and implement a holistic energy policy that will transition majority of Nigeria’s population to safer, efficient and more sustainable energy use. With a broad spectrum of energy alternatives available for domestic and commercial use – ranging from clean cook stoves, liquefied petroleum gas and renewable energy sources – such a policy would improve the efficiency and effectiveness with which Nigeria utilizes its energy and natural resource. It will also have a high chance of success.

The incentives for implementing a national energy policy are immense. Nigerians would be thankful to use energy in safer, healthier and more affordable ways. Also, if we continue the way we are, we are digging ourselves deeper into a mess that we might not be able to reverse.

In the meantime, when next we buy that loaf of bread, perhaps we should start seeing the price as higher than what we paid for it over the counter. And when we settle down to have it for breakfast, we might just be taking a bite out of our future.