By Obinna UNAEZE
As the COVID-19 pandemic ravages Nigeria and the rest of the world, the effect on food security may have to be properly addressed by all the three tiers of government to reduce the hardship associated with food scarcity.
Recently, former President Olusegun Obasanjo and ex-Prime Minister of Ethiopia, Desalegn Boshe, warned that 80 million Africans risk extreme poverty if the COVID-19 response is not focused on food security, agribusiness and rural development.
The two statesmen warned that the continent could be the worst hit from the economic crisis unleashed by the pandemic as a result of the disruptions of the food ecosystem.
This scenario is playing out in the agriculture sector in Niger state where members of the Smallholders Women Farmers Organisation in Nigeria (SWOFON) are faced with peculiar challenges in their quest to feed their families and the country.
The women from Suleja, Kontagora, Rijau, Paiko and Lavun Local Government Areas of the state shared their experiences with the News Agency of Nigeria (NAN).
Mrs Mary Hamzaranda, the state Coordinator SWOFON, said that the novel Coronavirus pandemic lockdown was preventing the farmers from going to their farms as security agencies stop and turn them back.
“The COVID-19 has prevented us from going to the farm; you know that some crops have a season. If you don’t cultivate them at the right time, they will not produce any meaningful thing for the season, then the investment is wasted.
“Our children no longer go to school, so they are just at home eating. They even eat more than three square meals per day because they are idle, while our husbands cannot go to work to earn money to cater for the family,” she said.
Hamzaranda, who is also the Coordinator of Kainyuwa Women Cooperative Society in Suleja local government of the state, said that under the COVID-19 movement restrictions, transportation was a challenge as few seen on free days increased their fares.
“We spend more money now transporting labourers, inputs and implements to the farm,” she said adding that the challenges caused by the pandemic have made the daily labourers who cultivate the land for the group to increase their charges.
The State Coordinator said the farmers have not received any palliative as a group or individually from the government since COVID-19 started.
Hamzaranda said that the Federal and state governments’ assistance for members of the organisation would enhance their activities and increase food production not only in the state but the country at large.
“We are poor subsistence farmers that pulled resources together due to inadequate funds. If we get any support from the government, in the form of loans, inputs and equipment it will help us to increase food production for our families and other Nigerians,” she said.
According to Hamzaranda, the women have resorted to farming on plots of land in residential areas as suspected bandits kidnap farmers and demand for ransom.
“The bandits also rape women and sometimes kill their victims when the ransom is not paid,” she said and decried a situation where herdsmen bring their livestock to graze on crops, causing farmers to lose their investments.
“Instead of you to challenge Fulani herdsmen, you run for your dear life. If you question them, you may be attacked,” she said.
The 30-member Suleja group cultivates rice, maize, soybeans and beans.
NAN reports that SWOFON, with over 10, 228 registered members in Niger State, is a coalition of women farmer groups across Nigeria, representing over 500,000 grassroots women farmers.
In Niger, the organisation has representations across the 25 Local Government Areas of the state and it serves as a forum for articulating the challenges and engagements of the women farmers whose contributions have assisted in the drive towards food security and sustainability.
To address the challenges faced by small scale farmers like the women in Niger due to the COVID-19, the federal government promised to provide some palliatives and announced some stimulus packages.
One of the measures targeted at farmers is the three-month repayment moratorium for all TraderMoni, MarketMoni, and FarmerMoni loans. Farmers who receive loans under the Social Intervention Program, SIP, would have a three-month breather before repaying.
Being women and mostly the breadwinners for their families, smallholder women farmers were expected to be beneficiaries of both the food distributed to households and the Conditional Cash Transfer, particularly, the additional one million households ordered by the President to be included in the National Social Register.
However, from the responses of the women, they had not benefitted from any of the support promised by the government and are unable to have yields like in past years.
Hajiya Aishatu Ahmed, Coordinator, Alheri Women Farmers Cooperative, Kontagora local government area said that the 20-member group who engaged in wet season farming waited for the rains to come, but the pandemic and its challenges is now a big threat to this year’s farming activities.
Ahmed said that the COVID-19 lockdown affected the socio-economic lives of the members negatively as the cost of living has increased.
“People cannot move freely anymore to avoid contracting the disease. There may be hunger next year if the COVID-19 is not tackled because our families are at home eating what we produced last season. The free movement allowed by the government is not enough to provide our family needs and also attend to our farms properly,” she said.
According to her, some of their husbands who go out daily to work and support the family and the farming activities can no longer move freely for fear of being arrested by security agencies.
“Some of the men now have no money to take care of their families as a result of no daily job during the COVID-19. What they do in the morning is that they go out leaving the women and children at home.
“No woman will want to see her children crying because of hunger, she must do something. You can see that life has not been easy with women and children under the COVID-19,” she said.
Ahmed said that during the 2019 harvest, suspected bandits and herdsmen stole farm produce from the farms, making farmers to lose their investments.
She said that the women never got any intervention and palliative from both the federal government and the state before and during the COVID-19.
“We were told to apply for government intervention and we did until now we have not seen anything,” she said.
Ahmed said that inadequate funding was affecting their farming activities as family members also feed on their farm produce leaving small quantity for sell.
She said that the women cultivate beans on over two hectares of land and harvests 40 bags of the commodity measuring 75kg each from the farmland.
She said that out of the beans, 30 bags were sold at N8,000 per bag and the proceeds invested in this year’s farming activities, while the balance of 10 bags was shared among members for consumption.
Ahmed said that there was a need to assist women farmers as they produce food for consumption and commercial purpose.
“We want the government to support us so that we can produce enough food for our families and for commercial purpose. We are trying our best as women farmers but we need financial assistance to expand our farmland and increase food production,” she said.
Hajiya Zainab Yusuf, a subsistence farmer in Kontagora, who practices mixed farming, said that she cultivates in both wet and dry season.
Yusuf, a retired civil servant cultivates rice, maize, beans, okra and pepper on three hectares of land where she also established small poultry and livestock farms.
She said that her supportive husband has been bedridden for some time now, while her 25-year-old daughter, Miss Hussaina Yusuf who assists her with farm work was preparing for her final year programme in the university.
“If supported, I will use any help from government or development partners to improve my agri-business in order to sell farm products and make money to meet my family needs,” she said.
The daughter, Hussaina, a final year student of Physics with Electronics Engineering at Federal University Birnin Kebbi told NAN that her mother has been using the proceeds from her agri-business to fund her education.
Hussaina who said that she has been supporting the mother for the past 10 years noted inadequate funds as part of the challenges of the rural women farmers.
She said that the mother only received financial support from her sick father in the past, but none from the government.
Hussaina said that there was a need to help the women farmers with loans, inputs such as agro-chemicals, fertilisers, improved seedlings and gender-friendly equipment such as the power tillers, hand planters and others.
Hajiya Aishatu Usman, Coordinator, Himad Women Farmer Cooperative Society in Rijau local government area said that the 100 members of the group cultivate maize, rice, beans, groundnut and millet on four hectares of land.
Usman, who said that the farmers only practice wet season farming, disclosed that they produce 50 bags of rice and 50 bags of maize measuring 75kg each per annum.
A bag of the processed rice sells for N32,000, while maize goes for N17,500 per bag.
The Coordinator said that the COVID-19 lockdown was affecting them negatively because they have consumed almost all the foodstuffs as a result of pressure by family members.
“The food items we reserved for consumption have reduced drastically. We have exhausted the proceeds made from sales of our farm produce because the prices of foodstuffs and condiments increased during the lockdown. Right now we have no money to go back to the farm unless we borrow,” she said.
She urged the government to increase budgetary allocation to agriculture to provide inputs and implements to farmers at subsidized rates, adding that this would attract other women into agri-business.
“Inadequate funds have been our problem as rural people, then suddenly the COVID-19 challenges worsened it,” she said.
Usman said that the incessant attacks on farmers by suspected bandits has limited them to farm at residential areas instead of going to cultivate the arable land in the forest.
She said that in the past, the group never benefitted from the federal and state government intervention programmes such as Anchor Borrowers Programme, International Fund for Agricultural Development, Value Chain Development Programme and FADAMA programme implemented by some selected farmers in the state.
Hajiya Jumai Bala, Coordinator, Sati Women Cooperative Society, Paikoro local government area, said that 30 farmers make up the group practicing mixed cropping on individual farmlands.
Bala said that out of the 30 members, 10 are in charge of marketing their farm produce, while 20 are farmers, adding that in the wet season, the farmers cultivate crops such as rice, maize, melon and yam.
The Coordinator said that the group has off-takers from Owerri and Onitsha who come to purchase their farm produce before the COVID-19 pandemic.
However, with the COVID-19, they now transact business through the banks and the commodities they ordered would be way-billed to them.
Bala noted that before the pandemic, the farmers had unhindered access to their farms, attended to their crops as at when due, but now the COVID-19 has led to additional challenges.
“The whole family is just at home eating and the little work we do now does not correspond with what we eat and the money we spend because of the lockdown. COVID-19 has compounded other problems faced by the women farmers, many of us may not meet their targets of bumper harvest this year,” she said.
She said that agri-business was capital intensive as the group which depends on daily manual labour also hires tractors at a high rate.
Bala said that members of the group in Aduni have stayed away from their farms recently as suspected bandits occupy their farmlands, kidnapping farmers and demanding for ransom.
“After investing huge amount of money on a farm sometimes we lose the greater part of the investment to animals,” she said.
Also speaking on her experience, Hajiya Fatima Abdullahi, president, Fahab Women Farmers Association, Lavun local government area, said that the group numbering 121 farmers were into the rearing of livestock.
“When four cows out of the five we had died, we sold the remaining one and used the little money to cultivate maize,” she said.
Abdullahi said that the farmers are planning to add other crops such as groundnut and soya beans on over two hectares of land, but said the main challenge is inadequate funds, coupled with the current COVID-19.
“We have been to the state Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development to link us with the various federal government intervention programmes without any good result,” she said.
She said that the maize planted by the farmers need constant weeding and checks to avoid pests and stop herdsmen from bringing their livestock to graze on the crops.
“Depending on the weather, we are supposed to check the crops frequently but we cannot due to the lockdown. The pandemic has made it impossible for our labourers to come over to help us, so I don’t think that we will achieve much this year,” she said.
The Group’s Leader lamented that the farming season has fully commenced and they were yet to access some farmlands owing to COVID-19 challenges and insecurity.
In order to tackle the challenges of all categories of farmers in Niger, the state government on June 4 inaugurated the 2020 farming season and also provided subsidies for essential farming inputs to all farmers in the state including the women small scale farmers.
According to the state governor, Alhaji Abubakar Bello, the government will now provide subsidies for fertilisers, assorted seeds and agro-chemicals to small scale farmers using the private sector.
“The focus of Niger state government this year is to mobilise women farmer groups to achieve their targets. Any women group into agriculture will be supported to get the available inputs and implements,” he said.
He said that for this year’s farming season, 15,000 metric tons of fertilisers made up of 10,000 metric tons of NPK and 5,000 metric tons of Urea would be delivered to designated government fertiliser stores in the 25 Local Government Areas of the state for sell to farmers.
*This report was made possible with support from the International Budget Partnership (IBP)