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SPECIAL REPORT: Despite successes, payment hitches, insufficient cooks, others slow Buhari’s school feeding programme
By Josiah Oluwole
THE excitement at Eva Valley Primary School 1, Enugu, on a recent Thursday morning was palpable. The pupils could not wait for the food vendor, Agochidima John, to serve the food herself. While she prepared to serve the meal, which happened to be okpa (a staple delicacy widely eaten in the South-east), the older pupils helped in washing the watermelon, which would accompany the meal for the day.
The pupils, numbering 159, had become used to the daily meals served by medically-screened cooks since February 8, 2017 under the National Home Grown School Feeding Programme of the federal government. Mrs John is one of thousands of cooks hired by the government across 24 states where the programme is in operation.
Expectedly, the thrill of a free meal at Eva Valley School resonates with over 7.6 million Nigerian children in public primary schools currently benefiting from the programme, a key policy of the Muhammadu Buhari administration.
The inspiration is stimulating enrollments in schools in the various states, highlighting one of its objectives of providing quality education for Nigerian children.
Varying levels of successes have been recorded by the programme in the last two years, following the continued improvements in its implementation.
However, a PREMIUM TIMES and Buharimeter investigation across three states – Enugu, Oyo and Niger States – shows administrative bottlenecks relating to processing of payments to vendors and suppliers, and paucity of funds, remain a thorny issue in the programme. This in turn has slowed down its penetration even in states where it is ongoing.
Also, in the three states examined, none of them has been able to cover all public primary schools and the process of including the about 30 per cent awaiting inclusion is slow.
NO PAY, NO FOOD
The cooks do not show up at the schools when their payments are delayed. Delays in crediting the accounts of the vendors sometimes result in some schools going on for a week or two without the pupils getting the one meal per day being provided by the government. The vendors say there is nothing they could do as they rely on the funds to purchase food items.
Investigations also revealed some essential components of the menu, such as eggs, beef, chicken, fish and bread, in some of the schools, do not come in their specified sizes and weights.
Vendors complain the products do not always come regularly and when they do, they are small and insignificant.
Some states are still grappling with the issue of engaging aggregators who would ensure food items are supplied in cheap and affordable prices.
THE SCHOOL FEEDING PROGRAMME
The initiative to provide a meal a day for each primary school child was part of the promises of the Buhari/Osinbajo campaign in 2015. Although there was an initial dallying over its implementation, the APC government managed to kick start the programme in a few states later in 2016. More states joined the programme in 2017.
While it is meant to be a counterpart arrangement between the states and the federal government, with the latter providing meals for pupils in primary 1-3, most of the states are still unable to include the other classes in the programme.
The initiative was projected to provide 1.14 million jobs across the country, with the engagement of community women as cooks; boost food production and stimulate an investment worth N980 million annually.
The federal government claims that about 7.6 million children are being fed daily in about 40,000 public primary schools in the states where the programme has taken off. The programme currently covers only pupils in primary one to primary three classes, leaving out classes four to six, as well as the two classes in the nursery; mainly due to the states failing in their own parts of the task.
Its objectives is to reduce hunger and improve the nutritional status of primary school pupils; increase retention and completion rate of primary school pupils; increase pupil enrollment in primary schools and boost production of home-grown foods by encouraging small-scale farming.
ENUGU: THE CHALLENGES
Despite keying into the programme since 2017, only 60 per cent of the about 1,240 public primary schools in the state are currently covered by the programme, with about 109,000 school children as beneficiaries.
According to the programme manager for the state, Ifeayin Onah, the benefiting schools are serviced by 1,614 cooks. Mr Onah told PREMIUM TIMES the rate of coverage would have been close to 100 per cent but for the problems involved in processing Biometric Verification Numbers of the cooks, with hitches occurring to hinder deployments.
“Presently, we have about 1,614 cooks feeding the children. That is not to say that the number is enough. What happened was that the remaining cooks we recruited had issues with their BVN documents and other bank details,” he explained.
DELAYED PAYMENT TO VENDORS
The second term of the current academic session in Enugu State began on April 16. But feeding of pupils began on April 17, which was the day after resumption and continued until April 29. The cooks did not show up on April 30, just two weeks after resumption, and feeding did not resume until May 8. This has been a trend in the programme implementation in the state.
This occurred at Ekulu Primary Schools 1,2,3 and 4, as well as Market Road Primary School. It was the same story at Eva Valley Primary Schools 1 and 2.
At Ekulu Primary School 1, Head Mistress, Jackinta Ekeowa, keeps a log of the feeding activity of the vendors. “When they cook, we log, and when they don’t cook, we also log,” she told PREMIUM TIMES reporter.
Mrs John, serving 79 pupils at Eva Valley School 1, said there was no cooking for a number of days because payments were delayed. Her colleague, S. Okoro, said, “We did not cook because last week money was not paid, but we have resumed cooking now that money has been paid.”
Mr Onah confirmed that there were administrative bottlenecks in releasing funds by the federal government.
“Unfortunately, there are some hitches here and there and in some cases, after feeding for two weeks, you normally have like two or three days gap before the next payment will come,” said Mr Onah.
“The children and the head teachers do not know these things, once they don’t see the payments they begin to cry out as if the funds were diverted.
“It is not something the presidency begins and concludes within itself. It will go through the Ministry of Finance, Accountant-General and Nigeria Interbank systems. They need to start the process on time.”
The good news is that the payments now come in monthly, but Mr Onah believes that unless the administrators at the centre ensure that payments are made a day or two before the expiration of the previous payments, there will continue to be problems.
NURSERY CLASSES EXCLUDED
The cries of nursery classes’ children at meal time have become regular at Eva Valley Primary schools, desiring to be part of feeding. Moved by the cries, the teachers devised a means such that the little kids could be part of the break time.
Agu Fidelia, the Head Teacher, Eva Valley Primary School 2, lamented the burden of managing the nursery classes when the other classes were feeding. She said the vendors had to carve out something for them in order to avoid further agitation from the kids.
Mr Onah agreed that this was a serious problem. “It is an issue feeding primaries 1-3 and leaving the nursery classes behind,” he said.
“Every day when the cooks get to the schools to feed the children, there is this regular challenge of how you will control the cries of the children in the nursery classes. But unfortunately, federal government said it is from primary 1-3.”
He added that states were not financial prepared to begin to provide meals for other classes given the huge financial commitment required to run it.
VENDORS DEMAND MORE MONEY
With N70 as the value of the meal per child per day, the vendors and other stakeholders are insisting it is not be enough for the quantity and the quality of meal expected of them. They are asking for, at least, N150 per child.
Officials insist there is increased school enrollment, even though there are no clear statistics to ascertain the rate of new registration in the schools.
“We are recording high attendance in the rural areas, where children otherwise do not go to school during the raining season,” said Mr Onah, who is also the Secretary of the Steering Committee on the School Feeding Programme in Enugu State.
However, Mrs Agu, of the Eva Valley Primary School 2, told PREMIUM TIMES there are other factors such as qualified teachers and free education, affecting enrollment in the public primary schools.
Also, getting the aggregators in place to get the food is still a major challenge in the state. Vendors get the money and proceed to buy in the open market. Mr Onah says the vendors and those involved need to be sensitised on the need to belong to cooperatives to create synergy and harness opportunities of cheap foodstuff.
THE OYO EXPERIENCE
The programme effectively started in Oyo State in January 2017. It began with a total of 107, 983 pupils in primary 1-3 being fed by 1,372 vendors across 1,277 primary schools. Presently, the figure has drastically increased to 235,747 pupils, 2,363 vendors across 2,223 primary schools in the state.
Officials confirmed that about N1.5 billion has so far been received from the federal government for the implementation of the programme in the state.
Despite the successes recorded, about 200 schools are still left out of the programme. The Commissioner for Education in the state, Adeniyi Olowofela, said the coverage was about 80 per cent.
He said at the initial stage, most of the vendors had problems with their Biometric Verification Number (BVN) which created hitches in getting the required number of vendors.
Getting actual figures on increased enrollments was difficult. Officials said they would not have the figures readily until after a proper census was concluded. They, however, asserted that there was an obvious increase in the number pupils being registered especially in the benefitting classes.
The head teacher, Ebenezer Primary School, Ekotedo, Ibadan, Mankinde E., reported that there had been an increase in the number of pupils from 110 when it started to 162 presently. Mrs Makinde added that the school feeding programme had also helped in keeping some truants in classes, who hitherto did not stay in school.
The education commissioner admitted that although the school feeding is largely responsible for the new high in enrollment, other factors such as renovation of schools, reshuffling and redeployment of teaching staff and the injection of funds up to N2 billion by the state government had also drawn parents to enroll their wards in public primary schools in the state.
NO MONEY, NO COOKING
As observed in Enugu State, delayed payments to vendors occur in Oyo, leading to interruption in the feeding programme. While some of the cooks would not want to speak on the issue, one of the head teachers who would not want to be named said the cooks did not come to feed the children in the first week of resumption, and when asked, they told her they were not paid. The term was at its third week when our correspondent visited the school.
“Last year there was a problem of feeding for two weeks, and no cooking for another week; whenever we see them, we will say thank God, you have seen alert,” she said.
But the officials explained that such problems emanated from either errors in the documentation of the vendors or some administrative hitches, arguing the problem was only prevalent at the start of the programme.
At the United Native African Primary School (UNA), there was issue of poor supply of essential items for the meal, such as eggs, bread and meat. The vendors told PREMIUM TIMES that all was well and that they had no problems. But on further probing, they admitted there were times when the supplies were not enough. At such times, the vendors resorted to splitting an egg between two pupils so it could go round. The bread and the meat are also said to be so small, that there are doubts if the meals would really be a balanced diet.
The Oyo State School Feeding Programme Manager, Folasade Adekunle, admitted there were reports of “delayed supply” of eggs, but the suppliers had always been made to “supply double” while making subsequent supplies to make up for the misses. She said the cases were rare and all the vendors needed to do was to make reports so the problem could be rectified.
On the size of the meat, she said the cost of the meat is N20, and “you can imagine what N20 worth of meat would look like.”
All the head teachers in the schools visited lamented the exclusion of the nursery classes, and appealed for their inclusion in the feeding programme.
Adebiyi G.O. is the Head Teacher for the UNA Primary School, at Ekotedo. She complained of the stress she goes through daily in calming the nursery pupils who are eager to be part of the feeding.
Mr Olowofela said the current programme did not capture the nursery classes, but as the programme improves, they might be considered. According to him, incorporating other classes would take some more budgetary planning and financial reorganisation.
It was gathered that a good number of the vendors initially hired, pulled out of the exercise when they learnt they would only get to feed a child with a paltry N70. Mrs Adekunle said although it was a major challenge, the problem had been taken care of with much enlightenment. She also said as some vendors changed location, and because it was difficult to find a place for them in their new location, they had to exit the programme.
THE NIGER ‘SUCCESS’
The Niger State school feeding programme incorporates all the primary categories of pupils, including the nursery classes. The state has about 4,529 cooks, cooking and serving 560, 439 pupils and the government is paying N70 per day for each child.
About N392.3 million has been received so far from the federal government for the programme, including the cooks’ allowances.
At the commencement of the exercise in October 2017, there were problems of the food quality and packaging. Pupils were said to have received their meals in cellophane as there were no provision for bowls or plates. The scheme was later suspended following outcry from major stakeholders over being shortchanged in the allocation of funds by the state office.
Top managers of the programme were later removed by the presidency over allegations of fraud and mismanagement of the programme in the state. A new management is since in place and the programme restarted, coordinated by the state’s Ministry of Education.
Head of the cooks at the Limawa Primary School, Chenchega Local Government Area, Fatima Adamu Baba, who leads other 29 cooks, said the failure at the beginning was a test which helped the cooks and the operators to make a number of adjustments. She said now the feeding was going on smoothly.
“On Monday we cook jollof rice, meat and chicken; Tuesday we cook yam and egg; Wednesday we cook rice and beans, Thursday we cook beans with bread and Friday we give them bread, stew and meat,” she explains.
“We also do not have any problems in the payments. We get our pay every two weeks.”
In the Niger State programme, all the food items are purchased and supplied to the vendors. Their role is to just cook and serve the meals. The cooks say they are paid “salaries.” Others call it allowances. Those feeding 100 pupils, get N8,000 and those with 120 pupils get N10,000 per month.
The coordinator of the programme and Commissioner for Education, Amina Musa, who confirmed the development, explained the reasons for the mode of operation.
“Our own modus operandi is totally different. We use aggregators in our own case. Money is paid into the aggregators’ accounts and then when they pay them, we have what we call suppliers,” she said.
“We cannot use vendors; why we cannot use vendors is to checkmate inflation. We have almost 5,000 cooks. If you give them money to go to the market, when they come back tomorrow, you won’t have food for the children.”
She further explained that the state’s mode of operation makes the supplies affordable and ensure the cost of providing the meals was stable.
COMPLAINTS AND IMPROVEMENTS
After an initial reluctance to speak on the problems they face, some of the vendors complained of inadequate supply of yams.
At the Limawa school, Alima Abubakar, a cook, said the yams should either be increased or removed completely. Some of the cooks also complained that the money paid as allowances was too small to cover their labour and transportation.
However, the cooks at the Umar Farouk Primary School, Minna, said they were getting enough cooking materials so that they could feed the children enough.
The coordinator however denounced the complaints. “They are not supposed to incur any transportation cost because they are not supposed to be located far from the schools,” said Mrs Musa.
PREMIUM TIMES encountered a National Verification Officer for Chenchega LGA, Ahmed Ibn Mohammed, who said the complaints of the cooks and the challenges observed in the implementation of the programme had been noted and would be forwarded to the presidency for action.
It was also difficult to get actual status of enrollment since the beginning of the programme in the state. But Mrs Musa said enrollment had doubled since the start of the feeding exercise.
“Everybody is happy and the children are happy with the programme,” she added. “Already registration has ended, but pupils came for registration and we enrolled them,” Hajara Zaramai, Head Mistress at the Dr Umar Farouk Primary School at Keteren Gwari Road, Minna, said.
“You know the economic situation right now is tough and so many parents are relieved in bringing their children to schools.
The Niger State School Feeding programme, like in other states, is yet to reach all the intended beneficiaries as some schools are still being left out. At the time PREMIUM TIMES visited the state in the second week of May, the state had covered 70 per cent of public primary schools.
Mrs Musa confirmed that the nomadic schools which were established for the children of the Fulani herders had also not been covered in the exercise. The government said it will make provisions for them in the next phase of the deployment of cooks.
Generally, teachers and pupils have shown excitement about the programme. Some of the pupils who spoke to PREMIUM TIMES saw the feeding as an innovation that should be sustained.
For them, half loaf is better than none. If it improves, it will be fine, if it remains what it is, they will be grateful. The vendors are happy that they have been employed, even though they are asking for more money.
Given that the programme is centrally coordinated from Office of the Vice President, PREMIUM TIMES sought the responses of the presidency on a number of observations made during this investigation.
But at the time of concluding this report, no response was given to the enquiries. The Senior Special Assistant to the Vice President on Media and Publicity, Laolu Akande, who spoke to PREMIUM TIMES, asked the reporter to send the questions by email. For days, Mr Akande refused to reply to the questions.
A reminder through a text message drew a reply urging our reporter to await the response as he was working on it. However, subsequent phone calls and text messages on May 27 and 28 did not get any response. About two weeks later, the spokesperson was yet to respond.
This article is a product of a partnership between PREMIUM TIMES and #Buharimeter to fact-check the viability or otherwise of the federal government’s School Feeding Programme
#Buharimeter is an initiative of the Centre for Democracy and Development (CDD) with support from the Open Society Initiative for West Africa (OSIWA) and the Department for International Development (DFID).