Nigerian restaurants struggle as inflation compounds pandemic impact

FILE PHOTO: Melanie Igbe, head chef at Cafe de Elyon, prepares food in the kitchen at the cafe in Lekki, Lagos, Nigeria January 14, 2021. REUTERS/Temilade Adelaja

LAGOS (Reuters) - Melanie Igbe's restaurant hosted 50 people a day when it opened in Nigeria's megacity Lagos a year ago. Fear of coronavirus has driven most diners away, but Igbe believes inflation rather than the pandemic may kill her business.

The price of basic ingredients has risen sharply since Cafe de Elyon opened in January 2020, just weeks before Nigeria's first known coronavirus case was diagnosed in Lagos. Food inflation stood at 19.56% last month, after rising for 16 straight months.

"This has really, really crippled us," said Igbe, surrounded by empty tables and chairs in the restaurant. She cut her staff from seven to five in recent months and fears permanent closure in the summer if costs continue to rise.

White onions, an ingredient used in many of Igbe's dishes, cost around 1,000 naira ($2.62) each compared with 300 naira when her eatery opened. She said she resisted increasing the price of dishes to retain customers who now mainly use restaurant's takeaway service.

Nigeria is in its second recession in four years, triggered by an oil price crash that hammered state revenues and weakened the naira. That has made imports more expensive, spurring on inflation.

Restaurants and wholesale vendors have felt the impact.

"Prices really spiked," said Tina Shaire, head chef at Zolene restaurant in Lagos, who blamed Nigeria's border closures for cutting off access to cheap imports.

The closures began in August 2019 to combat smuggling and continued until December 2020 to prevent the novel coronavirus spreading. The borders reopened last month, but prices remain high.

Market stallholder Emeka Igwe, standing in a noisy street surrounded by bowls of rice and grains, said he sold more than 100 bags of rice each month two years ago, but that had fallen to around 25 now.

"No-one is happy," he said. "Customers are complaining and feel we're the ones inflating the price of goods." ($1 = 381.0000 naira)

(Reporting by Nneka Chile; Writing by Alexis Akwagyiram; Editing by Alex Richardson)

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