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Smallholder women farmers and challenges of attaining food security in Nigeria

Nigerian women farmers are known for their active involvement in agriculture, which has contributed a lot to ensuring food security in the country. However, these women, particularly the smallholder farmers, are now being confronted by numerous challenges militating against their farming business. NURUDEEN ALIMI visited smallholder women farmers in five Local Government areas of Oyo State to find out if they are getting any help from the federal government, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic.


IT was lamentation galore as Yetunde Adetona, a smallholder farmer and mother of two and this reporter journeyed through the bumpy road from Ologuneru to Elenusonso village, in Ido local government area of Oyo State, where her farm is located.

“This is what I experience each time I go to the farm. As you can see the road is very bad and the only affordable means of transportation for me is okada,” she said, noting that “even when the rain starts during the journey, we just have to continue as there is no place to hide.

“Imagine going through all this hardship and you get to your farm one day only to find out that weeds and insects have eaten up virtually all the crops. Last year, weeds and insects took over my farm and consumed almost everything on the cassava, maize and watermelon farms. The damage could have been prevented if I was able to afford the needed apparatuses to put weeds and insect to check.

“I lost all the financial resources and human efforts invested on the farm with no help coming from any quarter. I have tried to access loans in the past to no avail. I manage to do what I am doing on my farm with financial help from my immediate family members and friends but you know there is a limit to what they can do,” she told our reporter.

If Adetona had enough funds, she said she would have bought chemicals to stop the insects from destroying all her investments. But she has run out of funds and is very distressed about the loss of her farm produce.

“Another problem is getting to pay the labourers we engage to clear the farm. This entails taking care of their feeding, accommodation near the farm as well as other allowances which will make them function effectively.

“Also, during the dry season, there is no adequate water for irrigation. What my colleagues and I normally do is to resort to fetching water from a well, which is located some kilometres away from the farm. So, these are just some of the challenges we are facing as smallholder women farmers. Though the list is endless.

“If these challenges continue, there will be no food which would translate to famine. Aside from selling these farm produce, we feed ourselves from it as well,” she said.

Adetona believes that it is only the government that can come to the aid of women farmers by giving them maximum support in order for them to be more productive as food production remains the top priority of the government.

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According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), women smallholder farmers are faced with multiple constraints beyond those of men farmers.

Women, FAO noted, tend to be invisible to policymakers because they are not seen as ‘productive’ farmers. They are often expected to provide unpaid farm work, and bear a disproportionate burden of care and reproductive roles within the family and community. They are deprived of access to markets, key assets, and inputs, and are frequently excluded from decision-making.

Women are even disproportionately impacted by poverty and hunger, including having less access to education and health care facilities.

Donors agencies and international institutions have taken a renewed interest in both agriculture and smallholders recently, especially in Africa, but women farmers continue to be systematically neglected by agricultural policies.

Recently, the African Development Bank (AfDB) announced a provision of $10 billion to implement a strategic roadmap of projects and programmes of immediate and longer-term measures to tackle nutrition and food insecurity in Africa.

It is part of measures to assist Nigeria and other African countries mitigate impacts of COVID-19 pandemic on the agriculture sector.

The AfDB Feed Africa Response to COVID-19 (FAREC) is part of the bank’s comprehensive intervention to build resilience, sustainability and regional self-sufficiency in Africa’s food systems and help farmers cope with COVID-19-related disruptions to the agricultural value chains.

Meanwhile, the Nigerian government, as part of efforts geared towards encouraging women farmers came up with a gender policy. A comprehensive review of available information and data shows that males absolutely dominate the sector in terms of access to land, inputs, outputs, benefits, earnings, and support services.

This is despite the fact that women numerically outnumber men who work in the agriculture sector. The implication is that the sector is not operating in its full capacity since about one half of the population functioning at various segments of agriculture value chains experience setbacks in various aspects of their operations.

In order to support food production in the country, the federal government of Nigeria, recently introduced what it called FarmerMoni.

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FarmerMoni is a Government Enterprise and Empowerment Programme (GEEP) Initiative created to boost the Nigerian economy through leverage and access to finance for farmers.

FarmerMoni is designed to help petty traders expand their trade through the provision of collateral-free loans. The loans are repayable over a period of six months.

Under the scheme, beneficiaries can get access to a higher facility ranging from N300,000 to N2,000,000 when they repay within the stipulated period. The scheme is to provide 1.66 million micro-lending for businesses at the bottom of the financial pyramid-traders, women cooperatives and market women; enterprising youth, farmers and agricultural workers with no collateral or interest element.

The Bank of Industry, BoI, management software validates the loan application. The loan is paid within 48 hours to a mobile wallet account, which can then be cashed out.

Despite the introduction of the scheme, many smallholder women farmers that our reporter spoke to in Oyo State are yet to benefit from it in whatever form.

In a bid to make the voice of smallholder women farmers heard, the Small Scale Women Farmers Organisation in Nigeria (SWOFON), a coalition of smallholder women farmers’ associations and groups across Nigeria was founded in August 2012. It was started with the support of Action Aid Nigeria to advocate for and support women farmers, especially those in rural areas, to spur rural village economic development and increase food production.

It does this through deepening smallholder women farmers’ knowledge of and demand for their rights and the state’s duties, as well as serving as a vocal and visible pressure group on behalf of smallholder women farmers in Nigeria. SWOFON has state chapters across 36 states and the federal capital territory.

Cruxes of the challenges being encountered by smallholder women farmers include adequate water supply for irrigation during the dry season, transportation of harvested farm produce to point of sale, access to finance in form of loan to procure farm inputs, chemicals for weed control as well as paying for labourers who help the women with the clearing of the farm.

Responses from all the smallholder women farmers in the five local governments -Ido, Oyo East, Egbeda, Ona-Ara and Saki West- interviewed for this report on the stimulus package rolled out by the federal government to mitigate the effect of restriction of movement occasioned by the coronavirus pandemic revealed that none of them received any form of relief package as widely publicised.

They said, if such had been done, it would have helped them to cushion the effect of the restriction of movement, which had caused a lot of setback in their farming activities.

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A recent statement from the Federal Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development signed by the Director of Information, Theodore Ogaziechi, stated that the federal government had begun the distribution of inputs such as rice, maize, wheat, and palm seedlings in Kaduna State.

This, the ministry said, was part of measures to mitigate the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on farmers’ finances to afford seeds for 2020 farming season.

A visit to Mrs Kemi Odedina’s farm, another member of SWOFON in Oyo State, located in Ona-Ara Local Government, about 20 kilometres from the city centre, shows that problems being faced by smallholder farmers are enormous.

Taking the Nigerian Tribune correspondent round the maize, cassava, vegetable and banana farm, Odediran, drew attention to how weeds and insects have ravaged the maize, cassava and vegetable on the farm because she and her colleagues working on the farm could not afford the chemical and the equipment needed to fumigate the farm against weeds.

She told the Nigerian Tribune that to rent a sprayer costs N5,000 and the chemical costs between N3,500 and N4,000.

“And we can use up to five containers of chemical if we are going to properly treat the farm against weeds attack. After battling with weeds and other major obstacles attached to our farming business, we also have the issue of transportation to contend with.

“As you can see that this place is very far from the city centre, moving our harvested farm produce to where it would be transferred to potential buyers is also a very difficult task as the cost of transporting the goods is always on the high side.

“Even those who buy these farm produce from us buy at a very ridiculous price because we could not afford to take them to where we could sell and get reasonable profit. If we can get a vehicle which we can be maintaining as a group such that if any one of us has goods to move to the market the vehicle can be readily available to transport it without much stress.”

Speaking on the seven acres of land being used for farming, Odediran told the Nigerian Tribune that she and her colleagues pay not less than N40,000 per acre annually which she said is not really profitable for them considering the amount of money they realise as profit.

“It has not been easy sustaining the rent being paid on this land. If we compare the amount of money we pay on this land to what we make as profits, it is actually nothing to write home about. I think the government can help us in this regard by making funds available to smallholder women farmers so we can purchase our own land and practice agriculture without the yearly headache of paying landowners.”

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Odediran, also noted that availability of farm inputs is another factor militating against the smooth operation of smallholder women farmers stating that: “There is one acre of land over there that we have just cleared but there are no farm inputs to plant due to non-availability of funds. The long and short of what I have been saying is that we need money to continue to function and very well.”

During the Nigerian Tribune tour of her farm situated at Areke, Oke-Omi in Egbeda Local Government Area of Oyo state, Mrs. Elizabeth Oyebisi Oladeji informed that due to lack of funds she could not afford fertiliser to apply to her farm.

Oladeji, alongside her co-women farmers, cultivates vegetables, cassava, maize, and also do pig rearing.

“I cannot cope with the stress of most of the work needed to be done on the farm. But if there is a tractor to work with, the money being spent on labourers will be used for another purpose as far as the farming process is concerned.”

While sharing her experience during the dry season when the farm needs constant irrigation, Oladeji said:” The experience has not been palatable. We walk many miles to get water for irrigation during the dry season. But I think if there is a source of water such as borehole. The irrigation process during the dry season would be seamless.

“As smallholder women farmers, we cannot afford the money to put this in place, but with support from the government, I believe it can be done. It is a known fact that we find it difficult to access loans but if the government can wade in, the story of women’s participation in agriculture will change for good.

“I want to posit that considering the importance of women’s role in the development of agriculture particularly targeted at ensuring food security, there is nothing too much to do by the government at all levels to encourage women in order to continue to contribute their quota to agriculture development in Nigeria.”

At Togunde Village, Oyo East local government, where the maize, cassava, cashew, tomato, red pepper, yam and melon farm belonging to SWOFON coordinator in Oyo state, Mrs. Atinuke Akinbade, Nigerian Tribune witnessed how insects and weeds had taken over the entire maize and cassava farms leaving them badly damaged, a development woman farmer described as devastating and discouraging.

Akinbade, whose devastation was obvious said: “There is no way a person will work to see that all he or she had laboured on for months got destroyed such as this and will be happy.

“Is it the financial investment you want to think of or the hard labour of which cannot in any way be quantified. What I can say was responsible for this is the fact that I could not apply the necessary treatment on the farm to guard against the invasion of insects and weeds on the farm.

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“This I must say was not intentional but was due to the fact I cannot afford the money to procure the necessary apparatuses to carry out the fumigation of the farm. This is why we are clamouring for government support as we believe it is only the government that can support women who take time to engage in agriculture.

“I used to involve in palm oil production but I had to stop because of two major reasons: lack of adequate water supply and processing machine. It is a well-known fact that manually producing palm oil is an onerous task.

“To the best of my understanding, there is no way we can engage in successful farming without government support. For instance, to procure seeds to plant is highly expensive and I am of the opinion that if this integral part of food production is adequately taken care of by way of subsidy, it will make agriculture practice easy for smallholder women farmers,”

As the coordinator of SWOFON in Oyo State, Akinbade said she had on countless occasions led members of the group to the Ministry of Agriculture to seek government support but nothing has been received.

“We have been asked to submit our details on series of occasions but we speak, we have not received any form of correspondence from them.

“Another form of discouragement is the fact that seminars and workshops both foreign and local meant to train and guide women farmers are only being attended by who I would love to describe as ‘political farmers’ and wives of politicians and civil servants because of the financial gains involved.

“Until all these issues are addressed accordingly, smallholder women farmers would remain at the backstage of agriculture in Nigeria and this, no doubt portends danger for the future of agriculture in the country and food security in particular.”

Bolatito Abodunrin, a mother of three and a graduate of Primary Education Studies from Emmanuel Alayande College of Education, Oyo, told the Nigerian Tribune that she chose to venture into agriculture because of her passion to contribute to abundance food production in Nigeria.

Though she hails from Saki West local government, she opted to practice her farming in Alaga town, in Itesiwaju Local Government because she could not secure land in Saki.

She, however, emphatically stated that she had no regret not being in the classroom teaching pupils on the rudiments of Yoruba language, but takes pride in the cultivation of cassava, maize and melon as she had been doing for quite some time now.

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While lamenting the loss recorded last year, Abodunrin said she recorded severe damage on her cassava farm because she too could not afford to buy chemicals needed to protect the farm against the invasion of insects attack.

“The major obstacle I’m experiencing is a lack of adequate funds. I have spent not less than N319,000 in the last one year on various needs on the farm. The government may say that I make a profit on what I do as a farmer but it should also be noted that I might have waited for a job opportunity but due to my passion for agriculture and the importance of food security in a country densely populated such as Nigeria, I chose to embrace agriculture.

“I still have plans to spread my tentacles to the poultry sector. Because the poultry value chain is already a major contributor to the Nigerian economy,” She said.

Asked about the large presence of Fulani herdsmen in the Oke-Ogun area of Oyo State where her farm in Alaga is located, Abodunrin, whose farm is within a Fulani settlement said: “The environment here is peaceful. The Fulani herdsmen we have here are friendly, they do not allow their cattle to graze on our farms despite the fact that their presence here is heavy. We have not in any way experienced any difficulty due to their presence.”

Reacting to the lamentations of the women farmers, The Director-General, Oyo State Agribusiness Development Agency, Dr Debo Akande said the state government had just recently announced its support in terms of inputs for 10,000 smallholder farmers in the state which was launched at an official ceremony in Saki.

Akande noted that: “a good number of these smallholder farmers will be women as far as the data I have seen is concerned. But beyond that, we are also opening uplands. One of the critical issues that women have in agriculture is access to land and finance because of the obvious reason of how we are constituted as a nation.

“And that is one of the reasons the governor has thought it wise to say “I can open uplands and then do a cluster farming where some of these women that do not have land can now come and work on our own land.”

“We have ensured that many of the total numbers of people that will be working on these lands are going to be women. So, there is a plan by the state government to continue to support smallholder women farmers.”

On claims by the women farmers that they have been to the Ministry of Agriculture on many occasions to seek support without any response from the government, Akande said: “I can rightly assure you that the government took women farmers very seriously and the Ministry of Agriculture does that as well.

“I have not even seen any of their letters if they said they have written any. But I believe that the Commissioner must have attended to it if it had gotten to his table. Even people that are not as highly important as women farmers have been properly attended to.

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“If for any reason they think their letter of request has not been given adequate attention, they can also write another so I can draw the attention of the Commissioner to it. Again, whether they write a letter or not, there are plans by the state government to support them.”

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

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