Women farmers speak with one voice
Nigerian smallholder farmers are fighting to shape the narratives around the relationship between agriculture, economic recovery and food security – even during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Hannatu Soni didn’t grow up a farmer. But when she got married and moved to her new home in Nigeria’s northwest Kaduna state, she discovered a new passion: tilling the soil
“It is a farming community,” she explains. “Every family plants something, so I wanted to give it a try. Soon, I was growing maize, soya and rice during the rainy season and some vegetables when it’s dry. I love watching what I plant grow!”
Five years ago, however, her hobby had to become her business as well. Her husband who came from a farming family, encourages her by supporting her with the inherited farmland. “His health challenge did not stop him from visiting the farm once in a while to encourage me the more.”
The biggest challenge she faced was scaling up. Soni had relied on seeds from her previous year’s crop, but she quickly learned that wouldn’t produce the yield she needed to support her family of 13—including her aging parents and seven children.
“I need real seed, high-yield seed. And fertilizer,” Soni explains. “But it’s so expensive. The government used to subsidize and sell seed, but now we have to buy from private companies.”
Government participation in open budget signals openness to change
That shift has its roots in the 1950s, when crude oil was discovered in Nigeria. Over the years, as oil began to dominate the country’s foreign exchange earnings, the government invested less and less in smallholder farming. The impact was significant: Local production struggled and Nigeria began to import food—about US$20 billion worth every year.
“The government knows that over-reliance on oil has to change,” notes Austin Ndiokwelu, Nigeria country manager for the International Budget Partnership (IBP). “We’ve had two recessions in the past 10 years because of a fall in the price of crude oil. And of course, very soon, a lot of countries will no longer buy our oil, because people are going green in response to the climate crisis. Our government is being forced to look at other sources of funding outside of oil, and agriculture is an answer. It can ensure food security for our massive population of 200 million along with employment, especially for the huge numbers of youths without jobs.”
That’s one reason why IBP focuses on smallholder farmers—and specifically, women like Soni—through its SPARK (Strengthening Public Accountability for Results and Knowledge) initiative.
“The mission of SPARK is to partner with marginalized communities to harness the power that can be gained by understanding and influencing government budgets,” explains Ndiokwelu. “For women like Hannatu Soni, that means making sure smallholder women farmers get access to subsidized seed, fertilizer and other farming inputs, as well as overall aid programs.”
Samuel Atiku, IBP senior program officer, adds that Nigeria lacks an adequate social safety net. The World Bank reports that Nigeria spends just 0.28% of GDP on social-welfare programs, covering only 7% of the population. Rural women farmers are virtually left out.
‘Crying out with a collective voice’
IBP found an ideal partner in SWOFON (Small Scale Women Farmers Organization in Nigeria). Although there are some big agribusinesses in Nigeria, the most significant production—70-80% of output—still comes from smallholder farmers using manual implements. Seventy percent of those smallholder farmers are women—most of them rural, too often out of sight, out of mind.
“We are working collectively to cry out with a single voice,” says Soni, who joined SWOFON when it was founded in 2012 and has become its coordinator for Kaduna state. “I cannot go as a farmer alone to talk to the government. We have to go as a collective to make sure women are carried along and benefit from all the state activities, national and local. We advocate for affordable seed and fertilizers. We also want gender-friendly equipment (such as power tillers and hand planters, which are easier for women to operate) so we can expand our small portions of land and cultivate and process our crops faster.”
SWOFON’s National President, Mary Afan describes the value of the partnership with IBP’s SPARK team this way: “We don’t want or need an organization to come in and tell us what needs to be done; we know our women and we know our government. But we do need a partner and collaborator that can teach us new strategies and open new doors, so that we can walk in and speak up ourselves. That’s what IBP does. It walks beside us, rather than leading the way.”
Ndiokwelu explains that this approach is deliberate. “SPARK does not come in with an agenda. We come in to ignite the spark that is already there, so it can burst into flames,” he says. “When we first got started, we took our time to identify issues around which there was already organizing and mobilization. We came in and said, ‘We can help you be much more effective.’ For example, we offer analytical tools that help social movements unpack the underlying causes of the symptoms they want to change.”
Almost half of Nigeria’s population lives in far-flung rural areas, with agricultural activities taking up about 78% of the land mass. Thus, to make the partners’ ambitious mission achievable, the collaboration focuses on five of Nigeria’s 36 states. However, women from other states, like Soni, are invited to participate in training sessions so they can spread the learning.
“It’s one way to harvest the full potential of the massive collective agency that SWOFON provides, without spreading ourselves too thinly,” explains Ndiokwelu.
SWOFON’s growing sense of agency in relation to the government budget-setting process, which has been building since IBP and SWOFON joined forces in 2018, offered significant advantages when COVID-19 hit.
In an open letter published on the IBP website, the SWOFON leadership wrote, “In the past, we viewed the budget as something that was not our concern. We thought of it as something strictly for government officials and, as farmers, we did not think we needed to know about it. However, as we began organizing and understanding how government policy impacts smallholder women farmers, we saw how crucial the budget is to our cause. We realized that our elected leaders and other duty-bearers need to let us know what they are planning on doing for us and how they are going to do it.”
Pivoting to respond to COVID-19
Soni and other women farmers have been hard hit by the coronavirus pandemic. She lost most of her tomatoes during the dry season because she couldn’t sell them; few customers were able to travel. Those who came were willing to buy only at a very low price. So, the money she had hoped to earn to buy fertilizer and seeds for the next growing season didn’t materialize.
The impact of the pandemic was exacerbated by cycles of drought and flooding. Drought triggered an infestation of armyworm that decimated what little maize Soni could grow. Other women, such as Larai Yakubu in the central state of Niger, experienced flooding.
Yakubu farms to support an extended family of 12—her husband, seven children, a daughter-in-law and two grandchildren. It’s a hard life, but she loves it. Her father farmed before her, and now she carries on the tradition—except in addition to soybeans, groundnuts and yams, she started her own new venture: fish farming.
“I like watching the fish rush in a big cloud when I feed them food,” Yakubu says simply. “And they give me health as well as make me money.”
However, Yakubu struggled to buy the necessary fingerlings, the small catfish that grow into bigger ones, and she turned to SWOFON for assistance in getting a loan. When movement restrictions were imposed due to the coronavirus, she and her children were unable to get to their farmland as often as needed. Then, two months ago, the rains came—and along with it, floods.
“The floods caught my fish and covered my land,” she says. “By the time the rain stopped, I’d lost the entire season. The harvest is gone now. I don’t have anything.”
IBP and SWOFON have swung into high gear, quickly adapting their tactics to get cash aid and fertilizer and seed for women farmers.
“We engaged with the minister of budget and planning to report that we were hearing none of the women farmers were receiving assistance. The programs are in place, but the way the funds are being administered, they are not helping the poorest of the poor,” says Atiku.
The government agreed, asking SWOFON to collect the names of people who should be added to the list of beneficiaries. That’s underway now, greatly aided by SWOFON’s strong, two-way channels of communication, from the highest to the lowest levels of the organization.
“Town hall meetings with citizens are very popular here, but the ability to facilitate such sessions during the COVID pandemic is very limited,” notes Ogechi Okebugwu, project coordinator at SWOFON secretariat. “However, we effectively moved the campaign from the ground to the digital space: mostly Twitter, Facebook, Zoom and WhatsApp, the most popular forms of social media in Nigeria. Of course, there are challenges with electricity; that issue has been with us forever. And then there is the inconsistent internet connectivity. When necessary, SWOFON communicates through calls and text messages. It’s a combination of whatever works in whichever circumstances we find ourselves.”
Engaging journalists as storytellers
When the lockdown was at its most stringent, the two partners realized they had to get more creative to gather stories of impact on women farmers, which they needed to keep their cause front and center in the media and with government. The solution proposed by IBP is a collaboration with the International Center for Investigative Reporting (ICIR), dedicated to the type of journalism needed to shine the spotlight on the plight of rural women farmers. Even more importantly, journalists were one of the few types of people allowed to move around freely during the lockdown.
“We always knew the media would be important to our campaign, but we hadn’t planned to engage with them until after a lot more groundwork was done,” explains IBP’s Ndiokwelu. “When COVID hit, however, we had to quickly re-think. The joint mission on which we agreed was to collect firsthand human-interest stories and link them to the findings from our budget analysis. It worked amazingly well, and the learning is that the media can be strategic partners.”
One of the ICIR journalists sent into the field for the project is Justina Asishana, a correspondent for The Nation newspaper in Niger state, where Larai Yakubu farms. Although she had previously reported quite a bit about agricultural issues, she says, “I was not very knowledgeable about smallholder women farmers, so I didn’t use them as sources in my reports. What surprised and disturbed me most during my reporting was the distance a lot of these women have to travel to get to their farms. The majority of these farms take 45 minutes to one hour to get to…But what inspired me was that despite their challenges, the women are not downcast; instead, they are determined in going forward to address food insecurity in the state. I also saw women who were united in purpose and ready to stand for themselves and work hard despite the lack of equipment and resources.”
In a summary report published by the ICIR at the conclusion of the project, the participating reporters had this to say: “They meant to feed the nation, but the impact of the pandemic brought untold hardship, making it almost impossible for [women smallholder farmers] to feed their own families…From Lagos to Nasarawa, Anambra to Niger state, the narrative is total devastation of the efforts meant to assist in realising the goal of food security. The challenge was like a raging flood, with scores swept off their feet, while the government buried its head in the sand. Only a negligible percentage of the over 500,000 of the women, members of the Small Scale Women Farmers Organisation, have had a taste of official support.”
Reaping the benefits
The resulting media coverage, along with direct networking with government officials, resulted in many payoffs.
One example of government response is this testimony by Hajiya Hadiza Idris Kuta, special adviser on agriculture to the governor in Niger state: “Previous programs we carried out featured more men than women, [but now] we have started a special program for small-scale women farmers.”
An unexpected response was a supermarket owner who read about a SWOFON member in Oyo state and reached out to her to buy her crops.
Meanwhile, SWOFON members in Niger state were allocated 3,100 bags of fertilizer at a subsidized cost from the Ministry of Agriculture, although only about 400 bags were eventually accessed by the women. In Kaduna state, women farmers were given 50 bags of fertilizer, with a promise of 150 more. In some states, SWOFON members were given access to the cash-transfer program and sent 20 aid packages for maize farming and five tons of rice seeds. In Jigawa state, 15 women farmers were enrolled in an online program for specialized training and targeted extension services.
Of course, much more is needed. Soni comments, “They say they have done what they can, but how many women will 50 bags of fertilizer cover? We have more than 5,000 women farmers in our state.”
Still, notes Ndiokwelu, pressure created by the partners’ campaign is changing officials’ perception of women farmers, their needs and their abilities. “SWOFON is increasingly recognized and invited to budget decision-making spaces,” he says. “The ability of SWOFON to organize themselves and leverage their collective agency has proven to be an incentive for the government to listen to them and respond to their priorities, knowing they represent not only a large number of women farmers, but also real rural women farmers with real needs across the states.”
Photo credit: SWOFON Secretariat