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Fear of hunger mounts: How Covid-19 is ravaging farmers’ efforts

The restriction of movements by federal and state governments in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak in the country appears to have hampered progress in the agriculture sector, thereby constituting a veritable threat to the nation’s food security drive. Innocent DURU, who visited smallholder women farmers in different communities in Lagos State, reports that the COVID19 palliatives announced by the government to help farmers stay afloat has not been the target women.


WHERE is the monetary palliative announced by the federal government to help farmers cope with the challenges posed by the novel coronavirus pandemic? That is the question on the lips of members of the Smallholder Women Farmers Organisation (SWOFON) in Lagos State, as they seek reduction in the huge losses they have recorded on their investments as a result of the global health crisis.

SWOFON is a coalition of women farmers associations and groups across Nigeria, representing over 500,000 grassroots women farmers in the country. Their goal is to advocate for and support women farmers, especially those in the rural areas, to spur rural economic development, increase food production through capacity building of smallholder women farmers to demand for their rights and privileges from the duty bearers, while serving as a vocal and visible pressure group on behalf of smallholder women farmers in Nigeria.

Many of the smallholder women farmers set out early this year to expand their businesses and contribute to the government’s food security plan, but the lockdown shortly after, made it impossible for their customers from within and outside the country to patronise them.

A fish farmer in Ejigbo area of Lagos, Madam Oluwatoyin Odofin, who is specifically into hatchery, is in a quandary about how to deal with the discomforting corner the pandemic has boxed her into.

The fingerlings she ought to have sold have continued to feed and grow into big fishes in her ponds because her customers could not come from their various locations as a result of the lockdown.

“Before the lockdown, people were coming from Cameroon, Akwa Ibom, Cross River, the north and parts of Southeast to buy from us. But since the lockdown started, they have stopped coming.

“We are cash-strapped. The fishes have been eating and getting bigger. That is a huge problem for us.

“The feeds for fingerlings that we deal in are more expensive than the ones for bigger fishes. If you don’t feed them very well, they will start eating each other, and that will bring about a bigger loss,” Odofin said.

A catfish farmer, Mrs Olufunmilayo Aluko, was bubbling with zeal and energy at the beginning of the year to expand her business and make better profit as a result of the boost the federal government’s school feeding programme gave her business, but the pandemic and the attendant challenges have robbed her of that dream.

She said: “I set out this year to make some good profit, but lo and behold, this uncertainty befell us. Presently, the expectations are low. I came out in 2020 with high hopes and mapped out strategies on how to go about the work. When government came up with school feeding, I said I was going to do more of table sizes that are 700 grams and above. Now schools have been shut since March.

“While the school feeding programme was on, we had some vendors buying from farmers. As a result, we didn’t have challenges with selling.”

Aluko continued: “It was good last year, and that was why someone like me could work with that projection. Now, it is not only schools that are shut, restaurants are down, and there are no social gatherings. That means nobody is buying the fishes we have heavily invested in. Egg and meat producers are also crying.

“I have up to two tons in the ponds, which have grown beyond the age I was supposed to sell them. I am talking about 3,000 fishes and we are still feeding them at my own cost. How do I know when the fishes will be leaving when schools are shut, restaurants are shut, and there are no parties?

“Do you think it is easy for farmers to continue to keep these fishes with them? We really need help at this point.”

She told this reporter how, in frustration and in a bid to avert a major loss, she packed some of her fish and went to sell them cheaply just to get some money.

“I sold them below the normal prices because at that time, our vendors had challenges associated with the restriction of movement. It was difficult for them to move around. They had to do some settlements to get here and that discouraged them from coming.

“There are some fishes in this farm that I should still continue to feed with grower ration, but because of the present state, I have to just feed every one of them on the finisher ration because it is cheaper.

“But the effect is on the growth rate, which I don’t have a choice but to cope with.”

Aluko also expressed concern over the rising cost of feeds and the consequences for her investment. She said a brand of feeds that was selling for N8,800 now goes for N10,500.

“How do I cope with that? Our milling has also gone up. Our feed millers have to import some parts of their machines, but because of the border closure, they can’t get those parts into the country.

“The implication is that the cost of production is higher. In fish business, you can’t determine the price. You are at the mercy of the vendors. When your cost of production goes up, you can’t increase price.”

Mrs Asonye spreading harvested rice

The Coordinator, SWOFON, Lagos State chapter, Mrs Chinasa Asonye, has also had her projection for the year battered by the pandemic. She said business was good before the Covid-19 outbreak and she had special plans for her business at the beginning of the year.

“Before the lockdown, I had stocked these ponds here at Maya and those in Ijebu. I had about three ponds which I wanted to sell before the lockdown.

“We had buses that used to come and buy from us. They used to buy as much as 1.2 tons, 2 tons and so on, depending on the number of buses coming to buy.

“With the situation at hand now, we are not able to sell. There is no money coming in, and the little we have at hand is what we are using to feed them.

“I have more than seven tons of fish stuck in the pond. I have been feeding them but cannot sell.”

Asonye disclosed that her major customers were eateries, hotels and people who were coming in from other states. But she said because of restrictions on inter-state movements, the buyers could no longer come.

Mrs Asonye showing how they preserve fishes by smoking them

 

“We are locked down with our fish,” she said in an emotion laden voice

Aside the challenges bedevilling her fish farms, Asonye said her poultry business has also nosedived.

“We used to supply our chickens to eateries but we have not been able to sell since the lockdown started. Instead of going to the market to buy meat, we have been eating the broilers. We are just stuck here.”

The development, she said, is a pure loss for her because “we are now feeding indefinitely. In this business, the customers dictate the price.

“The school feeding programme was very beautiful for us. Then, I sold some because I had fish. I had to go and start buying from other farmers.

“We didn’t have to be calling on the fish mongers because those ones will be buying at ridiculous prices.

“We were supplying the fish every Monday for the school feeding programme. It was a good off-take for the famers.

“I had already stocked my ponds for the school feeding programme this year.”

She also decried the hike in the prices of feeds and other factors of production. The feed millers, she said, are not getting raw materials and are suffering because they cannot bring what they need to work. “They had to increase the prices of the little ones they have,” she said.

Asonye told this reporter that the ravaging effects of the pandemic had forced her to stop rice processing because the ones she had processed were still in her mill.

She said: “I process for farmers around Ikorodu axis. The fear of this Covid-19 made me to stop them from bringing rice.

“This is a crisis that all sectors need to address. If we don’t address this problem now, it is going to cause a big problem subsequently.

“I am not the only person affected. We have clusters of women farmers around whose fishes have stayed beyond the time they are supposed to sell them. Many of them are crying.

“If we don’t trash this problem, it is going to affect us in 2021. This is why we are begging the government to help us to see how they can buy these produce from us.”

More women farmers lament

Roli Afinotan, a young female farmer, has been an inspiration to several young ladies, as her love for agriculture has always motivated them to join the oldest human occupation.

Like the other farmers, she has had her plans and projections for the year destabilised.

She said: “I am into fish farming and poultry. My chickens were already mature at the time the lockdown started and ready for sale, but that was not possible because the buyers could not come. We had to keep feeding them; along the line, we had to kill all of them and freeze them.

Roli standing in front of one of her ponds

“We later ate some, gave some out and sold some at a loss. By that, I mean we sold them at give-away prices because there was no power supply to continue to preserve the chickens.”

Speaking on the effects of the pandemic and lockdown on her fish business, Afinotan said: “Business was quite good before the outbreak of Covid-19. But with the lockdown, a lot of people have lost their jobs and have no money to buy as they would ordinarily. That has affected our income a great deal.”

Ironically, the pandemic appears to have also paved the way for creativity. Afinotan told of how the need to salvage her investment made her to come up with the option of selling online. She said the move helped her a great deal even though she had challenges with delivery.

“To find a reliable delivery company was difficult, and now it is even more difficult,” she said. “This makes income really slow and trickle – unlike before when after selling we had bulk money.”

Mrs. Patience Oshodi, a pig farmer and her colleagues at Oke Aro area of Lagos, on their part, have more than the coronavirus problems to deal with. She and her pig farmer colleagues had their plight compounded in April, when African Swine Flu (ASF) afflicted their farms, killing over 145,000 pigs valued at N4.9 billion.

“I decided that I should expand my business in December 2019 in preparation for this year’s business. The expansion made me to invest more, and that required borrowing money.

“They were supposed to be ready for market by April through May, but unfortunately, Covid-19 and swine flu made all that impossible. I have lost more than 180 animals worth about N5.1 million.

“On a particular day, I lost seven; on another, five, and so on. Everything was gone in a space of three weeks. It is very discouraging but the Bible says we should encourage ourselves and move on.”

She was however able to save some of her pigs.

“We still have some, which we want to salvage. The challenge has no cure, so once we notice any death, we immediately move it out and try to salvage the remaining. We also sanitise and wash the room with disinfectants. My contribution at the home-front has suffered. I don’t have money to spend anymore. It is my husband who now gives me money if I have to go to the farm. The other day, I had to collect money from my husband to buy feeds for the surviving animals.”

But for the lockdown, Oshodi said “Buyers would have come to select the ones they wanted. But the lockdown made that impossible. Even though the government said farm produce can move, the farmers are being harassed on the road.

“So, when they look at the cost of coming and the harassment and other things, they simply decide not to come.”

Farmers yet to get FG’s palliatives

Following the setback their businesses have suffered, one would have expected them to immediately access the federal government’s economic relief package, meant to help them weather the Covid-19 storm, but the farmers said they have not received any such support.

Like other governments around the world, the Nigerian government had introduced various economic measures to help businesses mitigate the impact of the pandemic and save the economy.

On March 27, President Donald Trump signed into law a $2.3 trillion economic stimulus package, the largest of such emergency aid in America’s history, to support businesses in the country. The government also provided $600 billion in loans to small scale businesses with over 10,000 employees, to help them survive the lockdown period.

In the United Kingdom, the government provided nearly $400 billion assistance package to help businesses through the coronavirus period.

On its part, Italy, one of the countries worst hit by the pandemic, announced a €25 billion fiscal package in March to support businesses. The government also extended the 2019 annual Value Added Tax (VAT) return deadline by two months from 30th April to 30th June 2020.

In Nigeria, President Muhammadu Buhari enacted the Covid-19 Regulation 2020, which among other measures, imposed significant restrictions on the movement of persons and goods in Lagos and Ogun states, as well as the Federal Capital Territory (FCT).

Respective state governments also imposed varying degrees of restrictions on movement of persons and goods, including public gatherings and markets within their states.

The effects of these prompted the Federal Government to introduce fiscal and economic stimulus measures to ameliorate the impact on businesses and save the economy from collapse.

Part of the measures included placing a moratorium on all government-funded loans issued by the Bank of Industry, Bank of Agriculture and the Nigeria Export Import Bank.

In an address to the nation on April 13, President Buhari, speaking specifically on plans to enhance food security, announced an initiative aimed at minimising the impact of the pandemic on the agriculture sector. He said he was “directing the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development, the National Security Adviser, the Vice Chairman, National Food Security Council and the Chairman, Presidential Fertiliser Initiative to work with the Presidential Task Force on Covid-19 to ensure the impact of this pandemic on our 2020 farming season is minimised.”

As a follow-up, the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development, Muhammad Nanono, on April 26, inaugurated a joint technical task team on emergency response to the Covid-19 pandemic.

However, nothing specific has been announced on how the government emergency intervention will minimise the impact of the pandemic on farming and farmers.

The Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN), in response to the pandemic, quickly drew up a policy framework covering immediate, medium and long-term measures.

Keeping faith with its stated objectives, on March 17, the CBN announced a credit relief package of N50 billion (about $136.6m) to businesses affected by the pandemic. Godwin Emefiele, the CBN governor, said beneficiaries would be households, small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs), agriculture food chain businesses, airline operators, service providers, hotels and healthcare merchants.

On April 30, the bank said it had identified 3,256 individuals and businesses to benefit from the N50 billion Targeted Credit Facility (TCF) through NIRSAL Microfinance Bank.

However, laudable as these promises appear, the women farmers said they are yet to benefitted from any of them.

Pictures of beneficiaries of the programme could be seen all over the twitter handle of the Government Enterprise and Empowerment Programme (GEEP) of the Federal Government of Nigeria, but not a single smallholder woman farmer in Lagos State testified to having benefitted from the programme. Some of the farmers also expressed their frustration in getting the CBN/NIRSAL Microfinance Bank loan they had earlier applied for.

For example, Asonye claimed that smallholder farmers in the state had not had access to farmer moni, the federal government’s programme meant to enable farmers have access to credit. She said: “I have been hearing about the federal government’s farmer moni palliative, but none of such has come to Lagos State. If it has come into Lagos State, we would have keyed into it.

“The only one we are aware of is the CBN/NIRSAL Microfinance Bank which some of our farmers have benefitted from.”

Mrs Aluko also said she had not received any such support.

“I have not benefitted from any government loan. Why will I not be interested?” She asked almost rhetorically.

Mrs Aluko pouring feeds into one of her ponds for her fishes

“I applied for the CBN loan since two years ago but I am still waiting. I was called for the interview which I attended in December 2018 at the CBN. They told us last year that the disbursement would be done through NIRSAL Microfinance Bank and I had to open an account with them. I am still waiting and hoping.

While appreciating the place of loan in helping businesses thrive, Aluko strongly believes that loan is not what they, as farmers, need at the moment.

“The major help we need now is in the marketing area. The government can engage in direct buying, by buying these produce off the farmers, so that we can continue in business.

“I thank God that we have a responsive government in Lagos State, and I believe that when they hear the farmers’ cry, especially the women, they will respond.

Speaking in the same vein, Afinotan said: “I have not benefitted from any federal government loan scheme for farmers since this pandemic started. I am not even aware of any.

“Yes, we always take loans for our business. We have taken loans from cooperatives and individuals with the intention to sell and repay the loan.”

 

Afinotan believes that loans should always be designed in such a way that the business will be able to pay back. But she regretted that “that has not been the case. We have had to call the people we took the loans from to give us more time to pay back.

“We have also been processing loans from the CBN since last year but we’re yet to get it. We are hoping on that to expand the farm. With Covid-19, everything has come to a halt.”

Odofin decried the frustrations that come with taking bank loans. “I would have loved to go for the CBN/ NIRSAL Microfinance Bank loan. I actually applied for it. But when they were calling them for interview, I was not around.

Madam Odofin feeding her fishes

“I had plans to diversify into smoking fish; and that was part of the prerequisite we gave them while applying for the loan.”

The retired nurse added: “When I came back, I went with my sister to NIRSAL Microfinance Bank that CBN is using to disburse the loan. They were telling us that they had a vendor to do the smoking for us. That was not part of the conditions for the loan. We are supposed to be the ones smoking the fish. That caused a lot of problem and they are still on it till now.”

“I don’t want to go for it anymore because the troubles from banks are too much. My sister and I put in for the loan but she was not able to access all the money.

She disclosed that her sister applied for N10 million loan but got only N770,000 as working capital. “The remaining money is still with them. They didn’t disburse it to her. Now they are telling her that she will start paying back the loan by this month (June). Which work did we do up to this time to start repaying the loan? I didn’t even envisage this when I said I wouldn’t want to take the loan anymore.”

Food security under threat

As a result of the daunting setback the coronavirus has caused them, the farmers fear that the country could face shortage of food supply in the days ahead.

“The pandemic will affect food security,” Madam Odofin said, with a measure of conviction. “Right now, we have people on our platform announcing that they have fish to sell, but where is the money to buy? They want to sell off so that they can start producing another one, but where are the buyers?

“How would the people coming from Cameroon get here to buy? Until this house arrest called lockdown ends, I don’t know what to do. Except government genuinely allows people on essential duty to be moving around, this problem will persist,” she said.

Afinotan expressed concern about how farmers can restock and continue production when they are not selling. According to her, “there is concern about restocking. The inflow of income to sustain the business is not there and we are still struggling to repay loans.

“It is realistic for us to restock and look at production in the future. If not, we would have more problems in our hands.

“I imagine that many farmers will be having this same problem. That means that in the future there will be less food. When there is less food in the market and there is more demand, you know what that means.”

Why farmers can’t access our loan —NIRSAL

When our reporter reached out to the Humanitarian Ministry, which is responsible for disbursing the farmer moni, the spokesperson, Hamila Oyelade, said she would find out from the social investment team and get back same day.

However, she was yet to get back at the time of filing this report.

When contacted for clarification on why the farmers were yet to access the CBN loan, an official of NIRSAL Microfinance Bank, Hyacinth Peter, said he would need to know the stage of their applications to be able to respond appropriately.

“There are lots of requirements. Some people just do the online registration and think that is all. Some will do online registration without submitting the documents required. Some submit some documents and leave out others. There are lots of inconsistencies with some applicants.”

On those who got a fraction of the amount they applied for, he said: “We don’t have somebody who applied for N10 million and was given N750, 000. We don’t have such. May be there is a missing link.”

The loan, according to him, is specifically designed for a purpose. He said the loan is not a working capital where people can take money and do whatever they wish. “It is tailor made and well guided.”

The NIRSAL official expressed disappointment at the performance of some of the applicants during interviews. “After listening to some applicants, you will shake your head. But in order not to dismiss them altogether, you just approve something that is minimal just to encourage them.

“Sometimes if you don’t need asset, the loan is not for you. The loan is designed in such a way that asset is 75 per cent and working capital is 25 per cent. Sometimes, some people’s need for asset is just about 10 or 15 per cent. Sometimes it is better to decline a loan or out of charity, you just find a way to approve something very, very significant compared to what the person required.”

This report was made possible with support from the International Budget Partnership (IBP).

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