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Niger women farmers help each other when banks fail them

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As smallholder women farmers in Niger State face difficulties in accessing loans from banks and approved agricultural institutions, they have learnt to lean on each other for financial assistance. JUSTINA ASISHANA reports on the creative ways the women farmers are devising to support themselves with funds for their farming enterprise.

In the quiet town of Tayi B in Bosso Local Government Area, Rabiatu Abdulmalik uses a shovel to dig up the sand from a dried-up stream and pours it into a big bowl.  She then carries it on her head and walks to a spot some metres away to drop it on a heap of sand. She does this several times for two weeks, so the sand can be enough to fill a pick-up truck, ready to be sold.

Abdulmalik has an incredible story to tell: she is a farmer forced into selling sand in order to make both ends meet. She also wants to use the proceeds from the sand business to fund her farming enterprise.

Turning to this reporter, Rabiatu says: “We now scoop sand for sale because there is currently no farm work. For that reason, we do not have money. After we sell the sand and firewood, we all join the proceeds together and share amongst ourselves, so we can prepare for the farming period and have some money to buy seedlings. We also use part of the money to pay our farmworkers.”

She and other women in Tayi B community engage in selling sand to finance their farming activities, as they cannot get any loan or grant from the government or banks.

Recently, they formed the ‘Tesallasi Women Cooperative’ with over 50 other women who engage in either cutting of wood for domestic use or fetching sand from the dried stream to fund their farming.

SWOFON Women in Tayi Community in Bosso LGA
SWOFON Women in Tayi Community in Bosso LGA

Lack of finance has sometimes left the women and their families at the mercy of hunger, as they claim that they go without food for days, especially during the dry season until the sand gathered is sold.

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Niger State has the largest landmass in terms of agriculture, which contributes significantly to the state’s and nation’s economy. Women smallholder farmers make up nearly 70 per cent of the number of agricultural workers and they play an important role in the aspects of sustainable development. This includes being a bulwark against hunger and poverty in rural areas.

Despite their huge contribution to agriculture in the state, the majority of them still struggle to access affordable financial services to help them develop their farming operations and livelihoods. While there are schemes by the Bank of Agriculture, Bank of Industry, the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN), Nigeria Incentive-Based Risk Sharing System for Agricultural Lending (NISRAL) and the state government, none of these seems favourably disposed to advancing credit facilities to these smallholder women farmers.

This development has made the women farmers in different local governments across the state give up hope of securing finance from banks, relying on themselves and their ability to raise funds and give out credit facilities to aid their farming business.

How Niger State women farmers raise money for farming

“You can’t imagine that we scoop and pile sand for a month before we get the size of heap that can be sold for N3,000,” Amina Garba tells this reporter. She says they are only able to succeed in fetching the sand because there is no water in the stream anymore.

“The river is far from where we pack the sand. So, we dig up the sand with hoes and put it in our rubber and begin building our heap. We go there daily because we need money to eat and begin farming.”

The women say they have never tried getting loans because of stories of collateral they’ve heard from other women in other local government areas.

Garba says, “We have not gone to collect the loan because we do not have anything as collateral. The land where we farm is not our own. They are rented and we cannot give it as collateral to the interest which would be demanded.”

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She further explains that they do not farm during the dry season because there is no water and they have no borehole or money to get one to irrigate their plants.

Studies have shown that financial resources can help smallholder farmers improve agricultural productivity to better handle risks associated with climate change, and allow them participate in non-farm activities.

In the Ija Gwari community in Tafa Local Government Area, the Hayenaje Cooperative Society is a group of smallholder women farmers who join hands to contribute money to help their farming.

According to SWOFON Coordinator and Secretary of the cooperative Hannatu Yisua, members are divided into various groups; some contribute N500 while another group contributes N300.

“We gather the money weekly and give it to a woman for two months. After two months, she repays the money with an additional N500, which will be the profit of the association.

“At the end of the year, we use the money to buy some food and other materials to share with our members. We also have the chair and canopy borrowing arm of our cooperative, which is for business only. We bought chairs and canopies and renting them out. We add the proceeds to the money being loaned to our members.”

In New Bussa, Borgu Local Government Area,  a rice processor Bilikisu Illiyasu is part of the Nasara Women Cooperative, where they contribute money monthly and give to two women in the form of loans, after which they return it with a small interest – which forms the profit of the cooperative. The interest is an additional N300 for money below N10,000 and N500 for money above N10,000.

Rebecca Yahaya in Tafa LGA
Rebecca Yahaya in Tafa LGA
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In Rijau, a smallholder farmer Jumai Usman currently sells bed sheets, duvets and pillowcases as an alternative to farming, but she says that the business is not bringing as much money as farming does, noting that her case is further worsened by the fact that people buy on credit and take time to pay, leaving her sometimes stranded.

Our challenges in assessing loans

Some of the smallholder women farmers tell our reporter that they have not received any loan or grant from any government or agency, state or federal.

While some say they do not know the process of obtaining loans, others claim they tried but got frustrated and have thus decided not to venture into it  anymore but rather rely on the small money they receive from their cooperatives, which comes without any formality.

Maryam Alhassan in Borgu says she does not know where and how to access loans. “Most often, we hear it only on the radio or television but it does not reach us at all. As for me, I don’t even know who to meet or where to go to get this loan.”

In Tafa, Hannatu Yisua says her cooperative has applied for loans so many times but its applications never seem to scale through.

“They do not tell us what we should do. So most times when we hear about loans, especially in banks in Minna, we apply but we do not get anything. We do not know why.”

For Rabiatu Abdulmalik and other smallholder women farmers in Bosso, they do not know where to go to apply for the loan. “We have not got money from the government because we cannot meet them, we do not even know how to meet them.”

In Rijau, Fatima Mu’azu and her cooperative, Rijau Himma Women Cooperative, say  NISRAL asked them to open an account in anticipation of receiving a loan but after opening the account, nothing was heard from the bank.

“Two years ago, we went to Minna to open an account with NISRAL but nothing was done until today. They invited us to open the account, with the intention of using the money we receive to rear animals and improve our farms but we have not heard from them till now.”

Impact of unavailability of loans to the women

When our reporter visited the women in April, the majority of them were not farming, as they said that they had no money to farm.

For the women in Rijau, everything is still locked down despite the lifting of the COVID-19 lockdown by the government as they claim they have nothing to fall back to.

Mu’azu says she has exhausted all her money and cannot farm because the stream where they usually farm has dried up. This, of course, means there is no means for them to water their crops even if they want to plant.

“Everything is still locked down! We have nothing left. What we used to save, which we would have sold or used for farming at this period, have been exhausted. We eat both the seed and the final produce because we do not have any support from the government or any other person.”

She says her husband, a civil servant, has been the one keeping the family together, explaining that it has not been easy on him, unlike in the past when she would have assisted.

“We are looking for money to borrow to start up again but we do not know where to go. We need assistance. The majority of our members are now defaulting in their weekly contributions because they have no ongoing business through which to make money. Even our savings in the cooperative is depleting. Those who have collected used it for feeding, rather than for farming because the streams have become dry.”

Also in Bosso LGA is Rose Joseph, a farmer and widow, whose son goes to a tuition-free public school. Were it not for that opportunity, her son would still be staying at home while his peers are in school.

She says that if she gets a loan, she will be able to buy a pumping machine to engage in irrigation farming during the dry season, but for now, she has joined the other women in cutting firewood for sale to get the money to contribute to the cooperative society.

In Munya, Asabe Mathew is thinking of selling the grains she keeps as seed for the planting season to get money to give to her son to return to school. This, she says, should be different if she has got a loan to finance her farming.

“Right now, I don’t know who to turn to. My son has to return to school but I don’t have money to give him. I am thinking of selling some of the grains I have saved up as seeds to get money to give to him for school. Even if it is his transport and school fees I can get, he will go and manage in school like that”, she says.

Asabe’s case is different because her local government, Munya, is infiltrated with banditry and kidnapping, which have made farming difficult – as the majority of them claim they have lost lots of their farm produce to the bandits who either destroy or cart them away.

What we want

Amongst its numerous demands, the Niger State SWOFON Charter of Demand seeks easy access to soft loans from the government.

Others include a local government committee to tackle the farmer-herder crisis, provision of gender-friendly machinery for increased productivity which includes hand sprayers, tillers, ploughs, and planters, among others. etc.

They also want supply and access to free or subsidised farming inputs, fertilisers, chemicals, pesticides, hybrid seedlings, capacity-building training on best agricultural practices, construction of good road networks for easy access to markets and engagement of smallholder women farmers, amongst others.

The organisation also seeks involvement in state budget preparation for the agriculture sector, building of central storage facilities in communities and frequent consultation and town hall discussions between duty bearers and smallholder women farmers.

Interviews with the women farmers across Niger State show that access to soft and low credit loans tops their demands; with the second being provision of inputs.

“I want money from the government to buy some of the things I need in my farm like fertilizers, seedlings, pay workers to clear the farm and harvest the produce when the time comes. I also want training because the farming I am doing is what I learnt from my parents.”

On her part, Rebecca Yahaya in Tafa Local Government needs money to get land for her farming.

Possible loans women farmers could benefit

There are several programmes and projects that can benefit smallholder women farmers, but most of them are not aware of these programmes or projects.

The Anchor Borrowers Programme (ABP), which was launched in 2015, is intended to create a linkage between anchor companies involved in the processing and smallholder farmers of the required key agricultural commodities.

The thrust of the ABP is the provision of farm inputs in kind and cash (for farm labour) to smallholder farmers to boost their production, stabilise inputs supply to agro-processors and address the country’s negative balance of payments on food. The fund was provided from the N220 billion Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises Development Fund (MSMEDF).

Another scheme introduced by the Federal Government, which would have benefited the smallholder women farmers, is the Commercial Agriculture Credit Scheme of the CBN,  meant to promote commercial agricultural enterprises in Nigeria. The scheme is financed from the proceeds of the N200 billion three-year bond raised by the Debt Management Office (DMO).

This scheme’s only disadvantage is that only limited liability companies with an asset base of not less than N50 million and a prospect to grow the net asset to N150 million in the next three years and complies with the provision of the Company and Allied Matters Act (1990) with a clear business plan are qualified to access these funds, thereby leaving out small women farmers.

Another scheme is the Nigeria Incentive-based Risk Sharing Agricultural Lending (NIRSAL) that fixes the agricultural value chain so that banks can lend with confidence to the sector. The scheme has five pillars that would be addressed by an estimated $500 million of CBN money.

An aspect of NIRSAL, which could benefit the women, is its Technical Assistance Facility, where banks would be equipped to lend sustainably to agriculture producers to borrow and use loans. This is expected to increase the output of better quality agricultural products.

Agricultural Credit Support Scheme (ACSS) is another initiative of the Federal Government and the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) with the active support and participation of the Bankers’ Committee. The scheme has a prescribed fund of N50 billion.

The scheme was introduced to enable farmers exploit the untapped potential of Nigeria’s agricultural sector, reduce inflation, lower the cost of agricultural production, generate surplus for export, increase Nigeria’s foreign earnings as well as diversify its revenue base.

But to access loans under ACSS, practising farmers and agro-allied entrepreneurs, are to approach their banks for a loan through the respective state chapters of farmers’ associations and State Implementation Committees, respectively. Mostly, however, it is the large-scale farmers who are accessing these loans, leaving out the smallholder women farmers that are just getting to organise themselves into cooperatives to have the strong base to apply to banks for loans.

On its own, the Bank of Agriculture offers a long range of credit products and services but only the Grow and Earn More (GEM) programme is meant for women farmers. GEM was developed to encourage Nigerian women to key into agriculture and take it as a business.

The maximum loan limit under these products is N1 million per beneficiary, subject to technical determination of the scope and the input requirements. The requirements for this loan is that the beneficiaries must be smallholders with the required land for cultivation or any of the value chain products.

To this end, the beneficiaries are not needed to have collateral, but there will be collateral substitutes such as adequate and acceptable guarantors with verifiable income, NIRSAL Credit Risk Guarantee to cover 75 per cent of loan delinquency. The loans are accessible by individuals or groups. For groups, each individual member can get N1 million each with an interest rate of 12 per cent.

The women farmers, however, insist that they are not aware of these loans nor how to get access them.

Economic Sustainability Plan: What did Niger women benefit?

The COVID-19 pandemic and government lockdown regulations further increased the sufferings of the smallholder women farmers across Niger State, as a majority of them had drastic downturns in their farming. Movement from home to the farm was particularly difficult.

When the government responded to the crisis by announcing the provision of financial assistance to businesses and a small number of households affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, it was greeted with joy and high expectation.

The combined stimulus package of about N3.5 trillion that was adopted comprised a three-month repayment moratorium for all TraderMoni, MarketMoni, and FarmerMoni loans, a Targeted Credit Facility (TCF) of N50 billion to businesses affected by the pandemic, and N500 billion COVID-19 Crisis Intervention Fund.

One of the projects in the Economic Stimulus Plan focused on agriculture is the ‘Mass Agricultural Programme,’ which has an estimated cost of N634.98 billion and is expected to bring between 20,000 and 100,000 hectares of new farmland under cultivation in every state in the country through a multi-layered approach.

Smallholder farmers are expected to receive support directly through out-grower schemes and this will be by way of services and inputs, including land-clearing, ploughing, provision of seeds, saplings, fertilizers, pesticides, as well as extension services, storage to mitigate post-harvest losses and equipment. The farmers are also expected to be linked to low-interest input financing.

Unfortunately, the plan does not clearly indicate how smallholder farmers, particularly the women who are the largest farmers in rural areas, can benefit from the programme and does not factor in projects that will involve the introduction of technology to expand production and output.

Another aspect of the palliative measure that would have benefited the smallholder women farmers is the re-introduction of the Conditional Cash Transfer, which was meant to support the poor and vulnerable with N5,000 per month to improve consumption, reduce poverty, prevent the vulnerable households from falling further down the poverty line and build their resilience to withstand shocks.

This reporter’s visit to five local government areas of Rijau, Tafa, Borgu, Munya and Bosso  shows that out of the 19,898 families said to have benefitted from the Conditional Cash Transfer in the state, none of the women claims to have benefit from either the Mass Agricultural Programme or the Conditional Cash Transfer programme.

The smallholder women farmers all say they have not received any assistance from the government either for their farming or to improve their standard of living.

We link up women farmer groups to access loans – Niger Govt

The Niger State Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development says that it does not provide loans for farmers but links them up to the Bank of Industry or Bank of Agriculture that offers loans to farmers.

The Director of Agriculture Services and Linkages Department in the Ministry of Agriculture Adamu Maikasua Garba explains that the state government had wanted to replicate a programme like the CBN Anchor Borrowers Programme in the state but had to reconsider because it noticed that majority of the farmers who collected the ABP loans could not payback.

The director, who speaks at the instance of the Permanent Secretary, says the state government accessed funds from CBN under the Accelerated Agriculture Development Scheme (AADS), noting that the fund is used for infrastructural development.

“In 2020, we accessed funds from CBN under the Accelerated Agriculture Development Scheme, which we used to rusticate five irrigation schemes in the state to encourage farmers to cultivate all-year-round farming. This also involves women because women are good in irrigation,” he explains.

Regarding the loans to the women farmers, he says that there are Bank of Industry and Bank of Agriculture which give loans, adding that the mandate of the ministry is to link farmers to bank agricultural institutions and research institutions.

“We have Bank of Industry and Bank of Agriculture, where farmers can access loans as a cooperative. When you, as a farmer, fulfill all the conditions required to access loans, come to us and we will link you to the Bank of Industry or Bank of Agriculture. Any farmer group that requires loans should approach the ministry and we will link them up. That is our mandate,” Garba states.

For smallholders, women farmers, especially those in the rural areas, both federal and state governments need to create a special intervention fund to enable them secure their source of livelihood. It is recommended that grants be released urgently to these women to prepare their lands for the coming farming seasons.

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

If you or someone you know has a lead, tip or personal experience about this report, our WhatsApp line is open and confidential for a conversation

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