Struggles and triumphs: Abuja women making strides in cassava processing

IN the face of economic uncertainties, some women in the FCT, through their laborious yet ‘profitable’ cassava processing business, are navigating various challenges to empower themselves, provide jobs for others and sustain livelihoods. The ICIR’s Mustapha Usman reports on how they go about it.

Mama Favour, as she is fondly called, had her hands firmly on the sack under the morning sun on one Sunday in late 2023. She had just spent two hours on the job that morning, but her face said otherwise as she continued filling the sack stacked with cassava.

Mama Favour’s determination shone through as the morning sun beat down relentlessly. With each step she takes, it is evident that she is in the midst of an arduous task. But then, she expressed delight amidst the stress when she began taking The ICIR through their world of cassava processing in Sheda, a suburb in Kwali an area council in Federal Capital Territory, Nigeria’s capital. 

A whiff of heavy cassava odour fills the air as both young girls and old women strive to get the portion of their work completed.  This is how the women, who are mostly the breadwinners, fend for their families.

Just like Mama Favour explained, there are different sections of girls and young women clustered in sizeable buckets filled with cassava, with their hands embedded in it washing the cassava tuber. Meanwhile, another group of women sit on sacks peeling cassava, while others use mallets to pound it repeatedly.

In a small shop made of corrugated metal sheets, behind the large group of women peeling cassava, are the different types of machines used to process cassava flour (locally called  Lafun), another end product of the cassava.

Cassava flour making machine at the processing site. Photo: The ICIR
Cassava flour-making machine at the processing site. Photo: The ICIR

Cassava, grown almost exclusively by smallholder farmers, contributes significantly to Nigeria’s agriculture sector, with the country being one of the world’s largest cassava producers. It is one of the few staple crops that can be produced efficiently on a small scale in the country.

According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) 2018 report, as of 2018, world cassava production stood at about 278 million tonnes, and Africa’s total production was about 170 million tonnes (about 56 per cent of world production).  Out of the 170 million tonnes, Nigeria produced about 60 million tonnes.

Cassava is the only business that moves around this place. They can’t patronise you in other businesses as they patronise you here,” Mama Favour says as she pounds on the cassava inside a small sack. This, she says, breaks down its fibres and loosens the peel. 

After the whole process, she explained to The ICIR that she makes a profit of about N30,000 monthly, which she uses to help her family. “When they bring the cassava, we peel it, and after peeling it, we put it inside our black rubber for four days, and after four days, we wash it, after that, we put it inside sack to drain it and then package it for sale,” she explained.

Women in the business said the processed cassava is sold per load for N19,000, with six pieces of sack making one load. The remnant, being the chaff, is also sold to those in the flour-making industry at the same site.

The ICIR gathered that a full pick-up truck of cassava from Kogi state, where they mostly farm it, costs N140,000, while a full Golf car goes for around N45,000 to N50,000. 

Meanwhile, the profit differs for most women who work at the plant, as some make as much as N50,000 or more in a month, depending on their workforce.

With over 133 million Nigerians living in multidimensional poverty, the business has saved many, particularly women, from being unemployed, earning well above the country’s minimum wage monthly.

Grace Enoh with process cassava. Photo: The ICIR
Enoh Grace with processed cassava after draining excess water. Photo: The ICIR

Enoh Grace, 40, a Gwari indigene who lives in Sheda, explained that in a month, she gets as much as N100,000 from the business after paying all menial workers.

“We are up to 50, and if you must join us, you have to pay N5,000. It is the government that gave us the land. Since I chose the cassava business, I am no longer hungry. Because if we put cassava for water, you go get Elubo, Akpu, and garri,” Grace, who is also the Secretary of the hub, stressed. 

Also, in the midst of this booming business are young girls who, by helping their parents, grandparents and themselves, juggle education with the cassava processing.

At the time of the reporter’s visit, schools were on holiday, and many children were seen either manning a bucket filled with cassava or peeling it. It’s from this menial job that they earn as little as N800 for for a few hours of work, though this amount could vary based on their strength, the time invested and how much they can go.

Nafisat, alongside other young girls washing out chaff from fermented cassava. Photo: The ICIR
Nafisat, alongside other young girls washing out chaff from fermented cassava. Photo: The ICIR

Ten-year-old Idris Nafisat, mainly helps her grandmother to peel cassava and wash it tuber. She has been doing it since she was nine, and even though she works all through the week with her old guardian, she has never missed school.

Nafisat, who is also from Sheda, explained that she gets N1,000 every day and uses the money to pay her and her younger sibling’s school fees.

“I go to school, and after I come back from school, I come here to wash Casava. I wash Casava, peel and pack. They pay me N1,000 every day. I use the money to feed and take care of my siblings. I have one junior sister. We are three, I have an elder sister who also peels cassava. I give my grandma the money, and it is from that money that we eat and buy all the stuff,” Nafisat said.

The ICIR gathered that washing a 120-litre bucket of cassava goes for N100 while two goes for N250. Most of the young girls at the place disclosed that they wash as many as eight buckets in a day, thus earning N1,000.

Children seen offloading cassava from a golf car. Photo: The ICIR
Children as seen offloading cassava from a golf motorcar. Photo: The ICIR

In the case of Emma Joy, 15, her mother sews clothes, but due to the rising inflation, Joy says she engages in washing cassava every Monday and Friday to assist her parent.

“I come here to wash so I can earn. I wash eight buckets per day. One is N100, and two is N250,” she told The ICIR as she deeps her hands into the bucket. She continued, ‘My mother does another business; she is a tailor. And she takes care of me…I am in SS3, and it does not really affect my academics.”

Both Nafisa and Joy and a few other young women hope to own their cassava plant, where they employ people to process it into various end products.

Behind the processed cassava are women waiting for customers to patronise them. Photo: The ICIR
Behind the processed cassava are women waiting for customers to patronise them. Photo: The ICIR

Scaling up the business has been challenging for most of the women at the cassava processing site for several reasons, especially over the last 12 months. Like many other small-scale businesses in the country, the business has felt the impact of scarcity and the effects of fuel subsidy removal in the latter half of the year.

Women say the negative impact of fuel subsidy removal has significantly reduced the number of customers that patronise their site and consequently affects their income.

On May 29, the new President, Bola Tinubu, declared in his inaugural address that his administration would be removing the fuel subsidy.

The development has, however, led to a sharp rise in the cost of transportation on the different routes as commercial cab drivers transfer the additional cost of petrol on passengers, consequently impacting the prices of farm produce.

“The cash scarcity affected us. Some cassava farmers do not have account numbers and would refuse to sell us cassava. Likewise, some drivers also had the same problem, affecting our business. We go through a long process to get some of these things.

“During this fuel subsidy removal now, if we call the driver to carry your goods to the town, like the one that normally carries four loads before have refused to carry that, adding that it won’t pay him because the fuel price hike,” Mama Favour explained.

This consequently affects the price of Akpu and other end products of Cassava. The ICIR gathered that in the rainy season, Akpu is supposed to be cheaper but is not because of fuel price hikes.

    Mama Favour, who has also experienced these limitations, said, “We only hike Akpu price during the dry season. During the rainy season, the casava has enough high starch but it is different during dry season.”

    Despite the challenges they face in transporting cassava from Kogi to the capital city and the rising cost of the tuber, rather than increasing the price for the Akpu makers and wholesalers, they have chosen to lower the price to attract customers.

    “Fuel subsidy removal affected us because before, customers used to come here but could not come here again because of transport fares. Like last year, by this time around, we sold a sack of Akpu for N4000, but now we are selling it for N3300 because of the fuel hike.

    “We reduced the price because they were complaining that they don’t get their own gain because of the fuel price. So we are also facing the brunt, instead of us increasing it, we are reducing it so as to bring the customers closer,” Joy, the secretary, said.

    Usman Mustapha is a solution journalist with International Centre for Investigative Reporting. You can easily reach him via: [email protected]. He tweets @UsmanMustapha_M

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