For Cecelia Anahobi, a single mother of two, grocery shopping in 2022 meant navigating steadily rising food prices. As inflation in Nigeria crossed 20%, Anahobi, a resident of Calabar city in southern Nigeria, saw bread, milk, cereal, meat, and vegetables become costlier with each trip to the store. So, when a colleague told her about bulk shopping via WhatsApp, she couldn’t wait to try it.

In November, Anahobi joined a WhatsApp group called Calabar Grocery Group, whose 590 members source items in bulk directly from producers, and share among themselves. “We bought a bag of local rice for 28,000 naira [$60.90] in December, whereas it was selling for 36,000 naira [$78.30] at the market,” Anahobi told Rest of World. “So this [food group] gives me more value for my money because the food is bought in bulk, which is way cheaper than if you were buying in bits.”

Such bulk-shopping WhatsApp groups are becoming vital for middle-class Nigerian families, who spend 56% of their income on food. In January, the food inflation rate in Nigeria was 24%.

Between March 9 and March 15, Rest of World tracked nine bulk-buying WhatsApp groups spread across Lagos, Calabar, Uyo, Port Harcourt, Enugu, and Abuja, and found that the food items they sourced were up to 22% cheaper than in regular markets. These groups, several of which have over 500 members, save costs by bypassing intermediaries and procuring items directly from farmers or producers. In some cases, items cost almost half their market price.

“A bowl of honey beans costs 1,800 naira [$4.2] or sometimes less on my group, while the same goes for 2,600 naira [$5.65] at the market,” Precious Ikeagwu, a member of a bulk-buying group in Port Harcourt, told Rest of World.

Food prices in Nigeria have been rising due to the naira’s depreciation against the dollar and the ripple effects of the Russia-Ukraine war. “Rising food prices in Nigeria highlight the problem of the naira depreciation and our increased import,” Umaimah Abdullahi Umar, an economist at Federal University, Dutsin-Ma, told Rest of World. “Nigeria is an import-dependent country. So, whenever the domestic currency falls relative to the dollar, this inevitably raises the prices of imported things, which leads to food inflation as we have today.”

Across Nigeria’s northern region, where most of the country’s farmlands are located, terrorism and insurgency have largely restricted farming, deepening the food shortage. Analysts reckon the situation may worsen. “On top of energy-related factors, flooding and insecurity make it hard to produce or transport food in Nigeria,” Glory Etim, senior analyst at Nigeria-based consultancy SBM Intelligence, told Rest of World. “Farmers have either left their farms or pay tax to bandits to cultivate their land.”

Eyamba Goodness, a 31-year-old homemaker in Uyo, moderates a bulk-buying WhatsApp group that has 243 members. Each weekend, she uploads photos of food items — such as pepper, fish, and palm oil — with their prices. Interested members share a list of the things they want, make upfront payments to a designated bank account, and share receipts of the money transfers. “There’s a bank account for payment in the group bio,” Goodness told Rest of World. “Usually, we share the price of the foods equally, in which case everyone pays the same amount and receives the same ration. Sometimes, when we pay for, say, 1 kg of fish each, we could end up sharing 1.4 kg or more among ourselves, depending on the number of people involved.”

Group moderators like Goodness communicate with food producers or suppliers to negotiate prices and also oversee deliveries to members.

For Nchewi Anohobi, a resident doctor in one of Nigeria’s teaching hospitals, going out to shop for groceries had become “frustrating,” she told Rest of World. “You’d go to the market and find that the price you paid for something yesterday was not the same again today,” Anohobi said. “And then I heard about these platforms. I was so curious.”

Although she liked the idea of group shopping, Anohobi had initially feared the food items might not match the photos shared on WhatsApp. “You know the typical online shopping experience. I wasn’t so sure about the food quality,” she said. “But my first purchase was really good. [Now] I rarely go to the market except for little things.”

Food inflation took a heavy toll on Enugu-based restaurant owner Aloysia Njoku’s savings until she joined a WhatsApp group called Share With Me. Pooling resources with other shoppers has significantly offset her business costs, she told Rest of World. “Except for veggies, I literally buy all my foodstuff from the group, from garri [cassava flakes] to meat and even bell pepper,” Njoku said. “WhatsApp makes it so convenient and stress-free too, especially with the [cash] scarcity going on now.”

In November 2022, the Central Bank of Nigeria announced the redesign of its top-denomination currency, advising citizens to deposit the old bills before a stipulated deadline. This has resulted in a cash crunch across the country, with just a few redesigned bills circulating.

Despite her positive experience with the bulk-shopping WhatsApp groups, Anohobi’s concerns about the quality of the food items aren’t entirely misplaced. Some other members also told Rest of World that there is a risk of receiving rotten produce.

“One time, we ordered onions, and they all rotted before they reached us. That was a terrible loss for us all,” Anohobi told Rest of World. “That aside, these groups have been a relief in these hard times, and I’m now so used to everyone there. It’s making families out of strangers.”