© 2018 - International Centre for Investigative Reporting
INVESTIGATION: How rural women are feeding the nation despite unfriendly land tenure, scarcity of labour — and the herdsmen problem
According to the British Council Report 2012, about 60-79 percent Nigerian women live and work in the rural areas, predominantly in agriculture; 21 percent of them are engaged in non-agricultural practices, while only 7.2 percent of women in the Niger Delta region own the land they farm upon. This limits their access to credit, and their productivity and economic prospects. YEKEEN AKINWALE, who recently visited Umukabia Ogodo community in Ngor-Okpala Local Government of Imo State where all the women engage in agriculture, chronicles the challenges facing the rural female farming population.
After 35 years in public service as a Public Health Officer, Eke Comfort cannot think of any activity to engage in after retirement other than agriculture — cassava, oil palm and honey bee farming in particular.
“Farming is the best alternative for me after 35 years in public service as a health worker,” Comfort says as she uproots weeds with a hoe on her cassava farm. “About two years ago, I retired as a health worker.”
Now Secretary of the Aladinma Women Association, a cooperative society in Umukabia Ogodo community, Ngor-Okpala Local Government of Imo State that seeks the welfare of women farmers, the former health worker wants the removal of the numerous obstacles limiting the potentials of women to get the maximum results from their farm.
Farming, to her and over 250 women in Umukabia Ogodo community, is full-time business — they are dominant in planting seedlings, harvesting and processing (for cassava, peeling, grating and frying garri) in local methods for subsistence.
Imo State is ranked among the top cassava-producing states of the country. Nigeria is the largest producer of cassava in the world. In 2016, the country produced between 38 million and 40 million metric tonnes of cassava in 2016, according to Akinwumi Adesina, former Minister of Agriculture.
Their husbands make limited contributions in farming. The bulk of the cultivation rests on the shoulders of the women despite the laborious nature of the work.
“Men do farm here but they have their limits. They only come around during land preparation, but weeding and labour are left to women most times; it’s always a challenge.”
For women in the community, there is no alternative to farming as, according to Comfort, “a married woman cannot live happily in Umukabia Ogodo community if she is lazy especially about farming, because it is a common practice here”.
In order to make a little income, they either sell the products crude or add minimal value to them. This downstream sector of agricultural sector fetches very little income, hence they remain in the poverty cycle.
A tonne of cassava was sold for between N37,000 and N40,000 in 2017, but these rural women have no access to information or links to firms and manufacturers in food and beverage sector who have high demands for cassava derivatives to be used as supplement for sugar.
Cyril Ugwu, Regional Coordinator, IDH-the Sustainable Trade Initiative, says demand for cassava derivatives would grow to 1.8 metric tonnes in the next five years. The women may also not benefit from this boom if they are not connected to the right kind of up-takers despite their efforts.
In 2015, the African Development Bank (AfDB) said Nigerian women contribute close to 70 per cent of agricultural workforce yet get less of accruing returns.
“Farming is the most common poverty alleviating activity in the community,” Ugwu says and the in the same token expresses worries on the challenges confronting members of the women association. The association, she explains, encourages women in the village to do the work that gives them financial freedom: farming.
But the women are not making much from their efforts and are not receiving support from their grownup sons who, according to Comfort now engage in playing lottery that brings instant money.
“We hire people, especially old men to help us make ridges; we don’t see young boys who are interested in farming. They are interested in on-the-spot activity that gives them money. We have a NairaBet centre in the village now and it is distracting them.
“It is a serious source of concern for us because only little boys of 14 to 15 years are the ones available to work on far.”
THE REAL REASONS THEIR POTENTIALS ARE LIMITED
With her sick son strapped to her back, Onyechi Amadi, mother of three is busy clearing the land under scotching sun for this year planting season. She does the work all alone with a cutlass — a very crude and hectic way of land clearing.
She intends to make ridges to plant cassava, corns and water melon – making ridges for plantation is a new farming method introduced to women farmers in Umukabia Ogodo in 2016 by the Foundation for Partnership Initiative in the Niger Delta (PIND).
The clearing could have been done by hired labour but she says it is hard to get a labour to work on the farm.
“Even where you get someone to clear the land and make ridges, it is very expensive to undertake. It costs about N7,000 to clear a half plot of land.”
She may be forced to continue with the zero-tillage, the old method that yields little produce, due to non-availability of labour.
Amadi says she has been able to support her husband with the proceeds from her farm, but the absence of labour has been a major obstacle to expanding the business. Despite selling her produce in crude form and thus making little profit, she insists farming is profitable for her.
“I’m enjoying farming because it is giving me much profit. With the new methods PIND people taught us two years, we are doing fine; they taught us good ideas,” she adds.“I use the money I make here to support my husband. We sell and also eat out of the produce.”
Also, Veronica Njoku, a member of the women association corroborates this, saying “it costs a lot to prepare land, especially making ridges”.
“It costs as high as N7,000 to make ridges on a half plot of land. That’s why some people don’t make ridges,” she adds.
A farmer of over 20 years experience, Njoku also admits that the coming of PIND two years ago made the difference in the life of women farmers in the village.
“It was in the year 2016 that we were introduced to new methods of farming. I can tell you there are a lot of differences between our old ways of farming and the new method introduced by PIND. Our local cassava does not yield much like the improved variety they introduced to us, and we plant on ridges now.”
Revelling in the success she has recorded in the last two years from her farm, she says farming families, including her own, were only getting food to eat due to their old and crude ways of farming.
“But now I can harvest my cassava, sell and pay my children’s school fees. I have 14 grandchildren that I’m helping through this cassava planting. My children are all out of school,” she reveals. Many of them, like Comfort, also earn income from sale of improved varieties cassava stems for planting.
Despite their resilience, these women still contend with other challenges: each one of them must own a wheelbarrow to transport their harvest from the farm, otherwise they have to borrow one.
“It is a very big challenge. You can hardly see a woman here who does not own a wheel barrow. If you don’t have, you can go and borrow,” says Eke Comfort.
“Someone can harvest cassava and leave it for two days in the bush because you don’t have a wheelbarrow to move it. There are no roads and our farms are far in the bush.”
There are quite a number of limitations against their efforts — the land tenure practice in the community does not allow women to own land.
It is a ‘taboo’ to cultivate a plot of land for more than two years in Umukabia Ogodo. Such farm lands are left to fallow for four to five years before they can be allocated again by their husbands.
Men in the community allocate land for farming.They measure land in ‘Bamboo’. Five bamboos, Comfort says, equal an hectare.
“When lands are allowed to fallow for five years, there are a lot of stumps to clear which can only be done using tractor and we don’t have tractor. This land tenure practice must be reviewed because it does not favour women,” Comfort says, pointing to an example of a fallowed land with stumps.
According to a DFID report, a country’s GDP increases on average at 35 percent and when women have the same amount of land as men and ownership of that land, there is over 10 percent in crop yields.
Even when there are better farming practice, absence of labour still constraints many women to zero-tillage which does not give better yields.
THE HERDSMEN PROBLEM
They also face problem of herders whose cattle have been invading their farms. Despite repeated assurances from the traditional ruler that the problem of herders will be resolved, Comfort laments that “herders have continued to terrorize their stocks”.
The women, and indeed the whole village, were advised not to engage the herdsmen in any fight over invasion of their farm, but they appear helpless “because after several incidents of farm invasion were reported to the police as instructed, nothing was done”.
The women now need a cassava processing plant for their excess harvest. They have not been fortunate to have takers-up to buy their excess cassava which could mean more money for them. The only time that a taker-up bought their cassava was an individual who operates a cassava processing plant. But Comfort says, ‘Mezie’, the taker-off may not be ready to buy in bulk from them all the time, which underscores the need for a cassava processing plant to be owned by the women association.
HOW PIND IS CHANGING THEIR STORY
Aladinma women are happy about being farmers; they want to continue farming because — according to Comfort — “when we harvest, we compare our sufferings with our gains, we find out that despite all that hindered it, we still get a lot”.
It is not only that the women get a lot after harvest, farming, she says has “changed life of women in this community”.
“We are usually regarded as poor in this locality and that is based on our extent of farming and what we produced. There is no other activity here that yields more money than agriculture, you see palm trees and this cassava in particular, every woman plants it for the betterment of their children,” she says.
They owe the success they have recorded in recent times to the interventions by PIND. In 2016, PIND introduced new methods in cassava farming to change the women’s old method of farming. They also got improved cassava varieties such as Vitamin A and Yellow cassava, which mature between six to nine months of planting.
This, Njoku and Comfort confirm, has resultant greater harvest and benefits for them.
“With the improved cassava varieties and new methods, we get as many as 50 baskets from a half plot of farm, unlike between 18 to 20 baskets that we were getting before. Our old zero tillage method wasn’t yielding more,”Njoku explains.
A basket of cassava sells between N3,000 to N3,500, depending on market situation.” .
On a row of ridges now, a basket of cassava is harvested, translating to 50 baskets on a half plot. This amounts to N150,000 for a farmer.
But PIND, in 2017, consolidated its intervention when it organised a two-day seminar for Aladinma Women Association on Group Dynamics and Leadership Skills, and later instituted a commitment to follow up.
“PIND trained us in management skills and capacity building,” says Comfort, who on the day set aside to celebrate women globally, showers praises on PIND.
“With regard to all these visible benefits, permit us to attest that our meeting with PIND is a divine connection by which God is showcasing the Aladinma woman as ‘a warehouse of His goodness and mercy. For this, we are poised to ensure that we would not let down a divine intervention such as this.”
At the elaborate event where women from the community gathered to celebrate themselves, Comfort says the women are delighted to highlight a comparative experience about cassava in Umukabia, with regard to PIND presence.
“Zero tillage was the only generally practised method of cultivation,” she said. “Improved variety of cassava stem was unknown to us; there was little or no application of fertilizer for greater yield; the cost of labour was comparatively high while little or no money accrued to our harvest because the yield was low.”
She adds that the Foundation has expanded its awareness through trainings and workshops, commitment to support and encouragement, noting that they are now motivated to farm with great zeal and interest because “we are sure of the outcome of the harvest”.
Speaking at the event, Sylvester Okoh, Partnership and Government Engagement Manager at PIND, says women are more involved in activities such as farming and that informed why the celebration of the International Women Day was taken to the village.
“We have come to you, to recognize you where you are,” he says, noting that women should always be remembered when decisions are to be taken.
On the theme of the celebration, ‘Time is Now: Rural and Urban Activists Transforming Women Lives, which requests countries to draw attention to the rights and activism of rural women, who make up over a quarter of the world’s population and a significant majority of the 43 per cent of women in the global agricultural labour force, she says PIND agrees with UN on the need to pay both strategic and operational attention to women – and girls – in communities.
He reiterates that the Foundation, with its partners, had joined the global and national call to press for progress declaring that time is now to transform lives of rural women in small businesses and agriculture.
“This is a call to action for all of us,” he says. “While we intend to intensify efforts in this regard, I am happy to inform this forum that PIND has been promoting gender equality in the Niger Delta region through its programmes, projects and operations since its inceptions.”