INVESTIGATION: Food shortage looms as Covid-19 threaten women farmers across Nigeria
* COVID-19 effects threaten food security, increase vulnerability, women farmers raise alarm, a survey by Ibukun Emiola, News Agency of Nigeria (NAN).
NEWSMAN, Abuja – Mrs Motunrayo Ajagbe, 55, is a smallholder farmer in Ibadan. She has a farm at Oluyole Local Government Area. She and members of her family depend on the sale of the farm produce for survival.
During the initial five weeks of the lockdown occasioned by COVID 19 pandemic, she lost 70 per cent of her crops and vegetables because she could not go to the farm to tend to them.
She observed that more than 70 per cent of the crops and vegetables were lost due to lack of movement to take care of the farm.
She said: “We were caught unaware, so not going to farm had a serious impact on the family; and although I work with a private school, schools were also closed and no income came in for me. We became somewhat vulnerable.
“It affected my children because we only eat one meal a day and eat anything we find in between meals like a refreshment.
“Already, we have incurred more than 70 per cent revenue loss due to COVID-19 pandemic and the lockdown has hindered movement and we couldn’t sell the little harvest we got. The situation becomes frightening.
“Not only this, we are unable to move freely to go to where our farm is located because the farm is far from where we live — about a two-hour walk.
“Due to this, many of our plants were destroyed, many of the crops dried off even as climate change affected farming this year because the rain didn’t fall as expected.
“Besides this, we have our own method which is irrigation but were unable to apply water to the crops to make them grow because there was no movement.
“We were unable to prepare the vegetables in the nursery bed and then transfer them to the field as well as do other necessary things to keep the plant healthy and ensure growth. This has caused damage to the crops’’.
This is just the experience of one out of numerous women farmers across the country whose farming activities have been sustaining food security even at subsistence level.
Unarguably, before the outbreak of COVID-19 in late 2019, rising food prices, inadequate investment in subsistence farming, climate change and lack of capacity, especially for women to acquire land for farming, among other social factors, posed serious threat to farming.
Investigations reveal that farmers, especially women, have on many occasions, expressed concern about the impacts of COVID-19 on farming activities, observing that the situation can result in a food crisis and increased vulnerability if the authorities don’t do the needful.
For instance, smallholder women farmers in some parts of Oyo State express fear over food shortage due to the effect of lockdown occasioned by COVID-19, climate change and inability to get government palliatives, among other factors.
The women, on the platform of the Small Scale Women Farmers Organisation in Nigeria (SWOFON) in some local government areas of Oyo State, spoke in separate interviews with the News Agency of Nigeria (NAN).
According to them the initial lockdown for five weeks in the country and particularly restriction of movement to Lagos and Ogun State have cost them to lose revenue between ranging 50 per cent and 70 per cent.
They note that inter-state travel ban has had adverse effects on their business which is their means of livelihood.
SWOFON is a coalition of Women Farmers Associations and Groups across Nigeria that, over the years, has championed advocacy and garner support for more than 500,000 grassroots women farmers in Nigeria.
The association has continued to witness myriad of challenges in its quest to provide for their households and ensure food security for the nation.
In many rural areas of Oyo State visited by a NAN correspondent, the harrowing experience of smallholder women farmers continue to echo as the challenges bedeviling these women remain unabated even with the outbreak of COVID-19 pandemic.
The common denominator for all smallholder women farmers in the state remains lack of funds and inability to access grants and loans from the government as well as lack of modern farming implements, access to chemicals to control pests and insects and fertiliser.
While this group falls into the most vulnerable in the society, their contributions to food production and security in Nigeria cannot be overemphasised in spite of the challenges.
With the diversification programme of the Nigerian economy to non-oil sector and in agriculture notwithstanding, smallholder women farmers are clinging to the hope of receiving deserved attention from the government.
Women farmers recall that the Federal Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development had its first draft of gender policy in agriculture in 2014 to fill the gaps of gender integration and responsiveness identified in the Agricultural Transformation Agenda.
The document was revised in August 2016 to reflect the vision of the present administration entitled: “Agriculture Promotion Policy and Strategy, the Green Alternative’’.
But smallholder women farmers say they have yet to benefit from the initiative set up to underscore the vital role of agriculture in achieving Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) one, two and five.
The goals are set to eradicate poverty, end hunger and achieve food security, as well as improved nutrition anchored on achieving sustainable agriculture, gender equality and empowerment of women and girls.
Women farmers note that the goals may not be achieved because of poverty and lack of mechanised resources that have made them to remain at the lower rung of the ladder in society.
A visit to their farms shows a level of struggle and neglect as these women, who are mostly the breadwinners in their families, have continued to farm to keep up their families and feed the nation in their own way.
The women, however, alleged that they have continued to use manual and archaic farming methods and practices while being at the mercy of loans and climate change for survival.
In Lagelu Local Government Area of Oyo State, Mrs Jolaoye Mujidat, 45, a smallholder woman farmer at Iyana Offa, says the impact of the lockdown occasioned by COVID-19 is enormous, affecting the welfare of her family.
“Exporting of farm produce has been halted due to an inter-state travel ban. Income has greatly reduced. We only sell to people around and that has reduced the cost of the produce by half and we sell below market prices.
“In the planting season due to the downturn in our income we are unable to expand our farm; although there is enough land to farm on, no money to farm on the existing land.
“We do the labour work instead of contracting it out due to paucity of funds. I am unable to do farming work as I want to due to lack of funds. I need the money to buy inputs and pay for labour on the farm.
“Everything is now very expensive, we get our maize seedlings from the north and some other crops. To plant maize is very difficult now because of the lack of seedlings.
“Cassava stems are so costly now, we can’t even get around this place if we want to. What we do is that we cut cassava stems from the ones we have planted before, that’s how we have been managing.
“Before the lockdown, maize produce was taken to Lagos and other states and people from other states came to buy from us as well but that had changed.
“Due to low income, we are unable to buy the needed chemicals to prevent our crops from being destroyed by insects.
“We have been trained on how to apply the chemicals to stop insects from destroying our farms only that we have no means to do this, so we are soliciting help on this.
“We want them to provide us with pesticides and power tillers such that they will be of great assistance to us in farming. It will even aid the expansion of our business’’, she said.
In Ibarapa Central Local Government Area, Igboora, Oyo State, Mrs Funmilayo Olaniran, 50, a smallholder farmer notes that farming ought to be very lucrative venture and women can be supported to boost food production.
“Six of us came together to farm as members of SWOFON due to old age and lack of support to expand this farming business.
“We plant maize, cassava and melon on five hectares of land but the effect of COVID-19 has had a negative impact on our business.
“The lockdown occasioned by the virus prevented inter-state travel, meaning our produce could not be transported to where it would be sold.
“People who buy our produce could not do so because movement has been prohibited, so, our produce spoil in the store and this has really affected us.
“We want to expand our business and we want to do farming as it should be done and we want the government to come to our aid,’’ she explained.
Mrs Maria Adegoke, 35, in the same local government explains that she began farming when she was 20 years old but she has never experienced a lull in farming business as the COVID-19 has presented recently.
“Lack of transportation to move our goods which affect our sales. Business is not going smoothly. We have lost a lot of money with this coronavirus.
“We are expecting the government to help us so that we can improve our businesses;
because of our losses, we are unable to plant as much as we would during this farming period.
“The little amount we gathered was from microfinance bank. This loan will affect us because we are to repay it in time.
Similarly, Adijat Olayinka, 33, said: “We bought the chemicals used for controlling pests in the farm, we borrowed money to do this.
“Government should please provide us with modern farming implements to make our job easy and also reduce the cost of farming.
“Since the advent of COVID-19, the labourers, who come to work for us from all over including Togolese are unable to come.
“They are prevented from entering Nigeria to work on our farms. This has brought a set back to our business.
“We tried to reduce the cost of labour by slashing down on the amount we give to labourers but they refused to accept this reduction.
“Their reason for refusing to collect pay cuts is that prices of food items have increased with other things they need to take care of in their homes’’.
Stating the effects of the lockdown on farming, Mrs Olayiwola Bridget, a resident of Ibadan and a farmer, notes there are no sales since movement is restricted.
“We want the government to give us tractors, we need pesticides to spray on our crops as they are being ravaged by insects.
“We bought some of the seedlings we planted or we picked from the last harvest we had; we don’t have large storage facilities; we only build some huts to put our harvest.
“We want off-takers too as this will boost our business. We will appreciate it if the government can build storage facilities for us as well,’’ she pleaded.
But Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development Audu Ogbeh insists that the gender policy on agriculture is expected to drastically reduce the vulnerability of women’s biases in agriculture.
He observes that the policy will also boost women smallholder farmers’ contributions to farming activities.
Agronomists note further that the policy document will enhance the platform for building an agri-business ecosystem to meet both domestic and foreign demands for achieving food security and accelerated development.
However, concerned citizens have been asking why such initiative is not achieving the desired result to improve the conditions of smallholder women farmers in Nigeria; even with the Central Bank of Nigeria palliatives on agriculture to cushion the effect of COVID-19.
The palliatives include a N50-billion credit relief package which is to serve as a relief package to businesses along the agricultural value chain.
Another is the N1.1-trillion credit facility package targeted at supporting the manufacturing sector, out of which N1 trillion would be used to support the local manufacturing sector and boost import substitution.
Another loan is targeted at farmers with a three-month repayment moratorium for all TraderMoni, MarketMoni and FarmersMoni loans under the Social Intervention Programme (SIP).
Apart from these, there are loan facilities from Bank of Agriculture, Bank of Industry and Nigeria Export Import Bank with the same moratorium to repay.
As inspiring as these initiatives are, smallholder women farmers in Oyo State insist they have yet to benefit from the palliatives.
The women plead to be supported by the government at all levels, especially now that COVID-19 pandemic has further devastated their means of livelihood.
In some of the local government areas visited in Oyo State, farmers and women farmers in particular, were not aware of the various government palliatives which are measures to cushion the effect of COVID-19 on agriculture.
Some of them say they have continued to rely on loans from microfinance banks and some of them say they are even indebted and are unable to service their loan due to the effect of lockdown occasioned by COVID-19.
Many of the smallholder women farmers note that they are surviving on the resources made available to them by family and religious organisations while some feed on their harvest.
Some of them, who plant cassava, maize and vegetables, note that although more than 70 per cent of their produce are lost to spoilage, they also have been feeding on the harvest to survive the pandemic.
All in all, experts note that although COVID-19 is a health crisis, it can result in a food security crisis if proper measures are not taken as the world is gradually facing food and nutrition security challenges.
They recommend a close monitoring of food prices and markets to ensure transparent dissemination of information that will strengthen government management of the situation, prevent people from panicking and guide farmers to make rational production decisions.