By Boluwaji Obahopo, Lokoja

Mariam Audu deals in cashew nut in Iyale, Dekina council area of Kogi State. Every year, she looks up to the month of February with hopes of better deals to no avail.

The cashew nut business had helped her to support her family. Presently, Mariam is pregnant and cannot, for now, cope very well with the ups and downs of the business.

As the reporter approached her and some other women under a cashew tree in Iyale, Mariam thought a cashew merchant had arrived. She quickly adjusted herself hoping to make a sale. The reporter engaged them in a conversation, using the little Igala language he understood. And when he posed a question, it was obvious none of the women understood the English Language. The reporter then beckoned on his interpreter to come to his aid. Thereafter, the conversation was without a hitch and smoother.

Mariam explained that she has been in the business for many years. The other women too chipped in one or two words at regular intervals. The cashew business has become the economic tools through which they have been assisting their husbands to cater for their families. But over the years, the price of cashew nut has dwindled due to its rejection at the International market as a result of its adulteration by some unpatriotic persons. Though Mariam and her colleagues did not know the reasons behind the crash in the price of cashew nuts in the state, they only knew that in the past four years, the price has not been encouraging or anything to write home about.

The women all had one general complain, that they are being cheated by the ‘middlemen” who move around their communities with scales of their own and determine the price to pay. This year, the ‘middle men’ have pegged a ‘Mudu’ of cashew nuts at N700. To make matter worse, Mariam and the other women did not even have much knowledge on what the nuts are used for, nor understand that aside from eating the fruit, it has other composite functions.

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Mariam typifies the situation of many of the women farmers in the state who have no basic knowledge of farming as a business. They lack the understanding that farming must be seen and taken as a business. They don’t know much about agricultural production, processing and marketing, and so run at a loss while running this agro-economic business.

Seventy per cent of farmers in Kogi are women, and especially this season of cashew nuts trade, it is not surprising that many women leave the state capital to the rural areas to pick the nuts for sale. The business booms between February and June.

But not far from Iyale is another community known as Anyigba in the same council area, where an organized cluster of women farmers are getting a better deal from the business. They are known as Women in Agric Cooperative Federations, WACOF; a coalition that advocates and supports women farmers, especially those in rural areas. WACOF helps to spur village economic development and increase food production.

The coalition achieves this objective by deepening smallholder women farmers’ knowledge, ensure they demand their rights, ensure that the state lives up to its responsibilities, as well as serves as a vocal and visible pressure group on behalf of smallholder women farmers in Nigeria.

WACOF has chapters across thirty-five states and the Federal Capital Territory. And in Anyigba where farming is central to the means of livelihood, the co-operatives are members of WACOF linked to the national level.

There are numerous challenges facing women farmers in Kogi state, but four stand out: lack of access to capital, lack of access to a market for the goods, lack of modern farming technology, and lack of improved seedlings.

Lack of access to capital: It is often the men in farming that get the most funding; perhaps due to the historical antecedent that the farming profession is for men and even when women engage in farming they only farm less profitable crops.

Lack of access to modern-day farming tools: The lack of labour-saving equipment is also an issue. Without tools such as hand tractors, harvesters and threshers, women are forced to use crude manual implements such as hoes which increase their workload and subsequently affect their health negatively. This has stifled the growth and expansion of their business and also resulted in high post-harvest losses as well as missed opportunities to add value to farm produce that could be sold at higher prices.

Lack of access to markets: The poor rural road network causes an increase in transportation costs, thereby limiting market access for these rural women farmers. Women are more vulnerable to the challenges of transportation than their male counterparts. A female farmer is more likely to be subjected to intimidation and sexual harassment while navigating the rough terrain of the road in a bid to access the market for her produce.

Due to these challenges, their husbands often restrict a lot of their movement to the market.

Some women farmers also suffer from a lack of access to extension services. Without water points in their homes or fields, smallholder women farmers must trek kilometres every day and put both themselves and their families at risk of water-borne diseases.

Without electricity, they cannot use simple labour-saving technologies such as grinding mills.

Limited access to small irrigation facilities means that rural women farmers are dependent on rain-fed agriculture and cannot plant during the dry season. Low productivity and profitability also result from limited access to inputs such as organic fertilisers, improved seeds and seedlings, as well as inadequate extension services. Without either the knowledge of farm practices that improve yields or the technology that enables them, production remains limited.

WACOF is however bridging the gap associated with these kinds of problems for women farmers in the state.

The National President of WACOF, Audu Comfort, said the organization’s focus is on agricultural production, processing, packaging and marketing.

According to her, the organization also formed a partnership with other donors to aid their ambition as the government alone cannot cater for all their needs. WACOF has formed an alliance with KEDEHEALTH, INKNATIONS and other organizations.

“Presently, we are promoting 18 commodities which include Rice, Maize, Cassava, Cashew, Plantain, vegetable and other crops.”

Comfort said the organization has set up 16 merchant centres across the state to handle the issues of post-production loss. The merchant centres are the warehouses in which farm crops produced by the women are bought and stored for onward transportation to their partners.

“Most of the members are given loans to start their farming, they are also assisted at the merchant centres to process their products so as to maximize profit and are also aided to transport or market it to our partners.

“We have also started Farmers Health and Pension schemes. This is being done in partnership with Inknations. Every month, Inknations credit the farmers’ cluster group with some amount of money, and a certain percentage is set aside by our members as a pension.

“Also, we have provided the market for those whom we helped to raise fund to start their farming. A certain percentage of their gain is also set aside when we buy the produce from them. This percentage is what gives them access to monthly free health cares.”

Comfort said, “Women farmers don’t keep records of all inputs. All they are interested in is just to sell their produce. And if you don’t know how much you have invested from day one, how do you determine how much to sell your produce. That is why the middlemen always cheat the women farmers.

“We have begun a program that enlightens our members on how to determine the cost of production. The program covers from production to marketing. The market is ready as the organization buys these products at our ‘Home Mobile’ or off-takers centres and takes the goods to our partners.”

Aside from the partner agencies, the efforts of female farmers in the state have received the attention of the government; but only on paper. For the past six years, the state government annual budget has made provision for women farmers in the state, but they have not been able to access it. Last year’s budget has N100 million provision for women farmers, the same as this year.

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In spite of this, the organization has continued to encourage women farmers to push forward in farming. They are hopeful that a day will come when a government that will hear the cry of women farmers will be given birth to in the state.

They are however calling on the state government to respect the Maputo declaration of giving 10 per cent budgetary allocation to the agricultural sector. They decried the less than 5 per cent allocation in the 2021 budget of the state; which they termed as grossly inadequate.

They are also advocating an increase in the number of female extension workers to interact with the women farmers.

The group is weary that, government agricultural scheme does not reach the real farmers, as ‘political farmers’ are most often the beneficiaries.

WACOF’s intervention has shifted political and community dynamics. Their engagement as a group has given them a voice to engage collectively on their own issues. The results include increased access to funding. They have encouraged women to share knowledge with their peers. Because of the benefits of the training, the smallholder women farmers’ productivity started improving and their peers that were not in cooperatives were attracted to join them.

These female farmers in the state have recognized their ability to be self-organised. These alliances has grown to become a recognised network and movement for women farmers across the council area of the state. So far, this women farmers group has a membership of 5000 in Kogi.

Mariam also intends to join groups like WACOF; she only hopes that her low-level education will not be a hindrance to her membership.

The advantages of being a member of such groups like WACOF cannot be overemphasized. Female farmers need more organizations. They desire a partnership with other Non-Governmental Organizations, Civil Society groups and other relevant agencies that can help their farming activities to boost their economic potentials and make them home front contributors.

Such organizational programs will go a long way to boost the productivity of rural women and make them a veritable tool of economic development in the state.

Vanguard News Nigeria

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