Nigeria isn’t in want of waterbodies inhabited by vast numbers of fish. The Atlantic coastline teems with hundreds of millions of them; the rivers and lakes further inland are home to significantly large stocks as well; and there are the ever popular fish farms, which make huge gains from bridging the gap in the supply of affordable protein sources in the country.
But it seems as though all of this isn’t enough for Nigeria. We still wind up importing more fish from beyond our borders. Last year, the bill for these imports was about $691 million; no small change by any account, and probably too big an amount to part with in these times. And if you’ve ever consumed stock fish, you’ve helped boost this outward flow of scarce cash.
The Norwegian connection
Unless you’re quite knowledgeable about Nigeria’s agricultural imports or have been involved in the fish importation business, it’s likely you don’t know that your stock fish isn’t ‘made in Nigeria’. The tough dried shreds of late sea dwelling creatures that have become a regular ingredient in our soups is, in fact, not totally ours. We have Norway, thousands of miles north of us, to thank for the delicacy.
In fact, Norway gains $125 million annually from fish exports to Nigeria (fish sales to other countries rakes in more income for Norway than its other exports except oil), and much of that is from dried cod shipped down the Atlantic to the West African coast, and sold to local markets as stock fish. They have no big local producers to compete with. It’s their forte, and they do it like they’re bosses.
A brief history of the stock fish business
Bosses they certainly are. Norwegians been drying cod as far back as the days of the Vikings, over a millenia ago. On the other hand, Nigeria’s experience with stock fish has lasted only a century, and didn’t get serious until five decades ago. Beginning in the 1920s, the British traded stock fish with Nigerian locales for valuable items, but it was in the years following the civil war that it really caught on. Norway’s key contribution to feeding the war’s hungry victims was stock fish. It gradually transformed from an insurance against starvation to a sought after staple for many households in these parts.
Nigeria’s government attempted to conserve scarce foreign exchange by banning stockfish imports following the economic collapse of the 1980s. But the craving for the rich taste of a moistureless edible overcame the might of military decrees. Today, our appetites are as wedded to Norwegian fish as they’ve ever been.
It could be that there’s something to learn from our adoption and holding on to a commodity that isn’t ‘made in Nigeria’, and treating it as though it’s part of our national identity. Importers are doubtless making a killing of it. Norway knows how much we value its chief export to us, and is certainly hoping that we go on smacking our lips to its savoury flavour.
If there’s anything like an opening for progress in this for Nigeria, it’s the expertise that Norway has in aquaculture. We might not be able to outdo them at making and selling stock fish (their cold dry weather is a natural advantage, as is the abundance of cod in their waters). But they could help us with their knowledge of other aspects of fishery in which Nigeria could be self sufficient.