In a flowing cream hijab, Karima M. Imam walks through her fields in the bushland of northern Nigeria as workers harvest a gnarled brown root that has turned gold since the COVID outbreak: ginger.
“If I had the capital, I would plant more. People are looking for ginger now, and there isn’t enough,” she said on her five-acre farm on the outskirts of Kaduna.
As the pandemic rages, people around the world have tried to protect themselves from disease by turning to what are known as halo foods. While scientists on social media have denied many claims about how superfoods can fight off the virus, their positive role as part of a healthy diet is widely recognized.
As the demand for halo foods rises, prices for ginger in Nigeria and acai berries in Brazil have risen, while exports of Indian turmeric and Chinese garlic have skyrocketed over the past year.
“The demand for ginger is high because they use it as medicine,” Imam said, adding that during the lockdown, she cooked ginger with turmeric and garlic for use as a medicine.
Increasingly health conscious consumers have further boosted an already buoyant global spice market during the pandemic and increased investor interest in the sector.
Singapore-based Olam International (OLAM.SI) completed the purchase of major US spice manufacturer Olde Thompson last month, while Norway’s Orkla (ORK.OL) acquired a majority stake in Indian spice exporter Eastern Condiments in March.
In Nigeria, a 50 kg sack of ginger, which can help the body fight off germs and used as a cold medicine, now sells for 15,000 naira ($ 39), up from 4,000 to 6,000 naira two years ago.
Thanks to the ginger rush, Imam was able to start building a new house in nearby Millennium City that has a small warehouse attached, where she can store and sell fresh ginger that costs more than it would if it was cut and dried.
Prices started rising last year, but have been rising since January due to pandemic demand, said Florence Edwards, national president of the Ginger Growers, Processors and Marketers Association of Nigeria.
She said there was demand from around the world, citing India, China and Europe as popular markets.
‘PEOPLE JUST GOT INSANE’
The demand for acai, an antioxidant-rich fruit that is touted as a superfood, has also increased significantly. The Amazon state Para in Brazil is the largest cultivation area in the world.
Paulo Lobato, a 52-year-old acai producer and trader in Para, had to withhold part of his harvest for long-term customers because supply could not keep up with increasing demand.
According to the state export association CIN / Fiepa, prices in April were 4.14 reais (78 cents) per kg, 53% higher than in the same period of the previous year.
“I’ve worked with acai for 32 years and have never seen anything like it,” said Lobato. “During the pandemic, people just went nuts.”
Para is responsible for more than 90% of Brazil’s acai production, which thrives in its moist soil and constant heat.
The purple round fruit is mostly produced by families, with cooperatives organizing the harvest. Lobato has 20 families who work on his farms, with whom he shares half of the proceeds.
Acai is part of the culinary tradition of the Amazon and is eaten as an accompaniment to fried fish and typically as part of lunch and dinner. However, as export demand has increased, it has become more difficult to find the fruit in local markets.
“Local consumers are the first to be affected,” said Florence Serra of Conab, Brazil’s food and statistics agency. “Some people would go to the street festival and find none.”
Like ginger, garlic has ingredients that can help the body fight off insects, and it’s in demand too. According to customs data, China exported 2.18 million tons of garlic bulbs in 2020, 30% more than the previous year, with large buyers such as Indonesia, Vietnam, Malaysia, Pakistan and Bangladesh.
The demand for the spice turmeric, which can help treat pain and inflammation, has also received a pandemic surge.
Indian turmeric exports rose 36% in 2020 to a record 181,664 tons and shipments continued to grow in 2021, increasing 10% to 24,813 tons in the first two months of the year, according to data from India’s Ministry of Commerce.
“The concept of immunity boosters is very influential these days, not just in India but around the world, and turmeric is a natural immunity booster,” said Abhijeet Banerjee, spice analyst at Religare (RELG.NS), an Indian financial services company.
“The government and Ayurveda practitioners recommend consuming a certain amount of turmeric daily for better management after COVID,” he said, referring to traditional Indian medicine.
Turmeric futures are up more than 30% so far in 2021, hitting a five-year high of 9,522 Indian rupees ($ 130) per 100 kg in March.
Farmers like Ravindra Dere, who grows turmeric on two hectares in the western state of Maharashtra, are happy.
“After many years we are making a decent profit. I hope prices remain stable,” he said.
Back in Kaduna, Nigeria, Hebile Abu sees no end to the ginger rush. He is the commercial director of a company that provides loans, fertilizers and tractors for a cooperative of around 1,500 smallholders – and then markets their crops.
“No matter how many tons you have, they’ll buy it,” he said. “People come for it and can’t get it.”
($ 1 = 381.0000 naira)
($ 1 = 73.3090 Indian Rupees)
($ 1 = 5.3157 reais)
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