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Nigerian smallholder farmers think out-of-box as food crisis heightens



Challenges of Nigerian smallholder farmers in tackling food crisis amid COVID-19

As covid-19 continues to ravage the globe, it has also created hiccups in the food chain, leading to shortages in supply of food items. Patrick Egwu spoke to some smallholder farmers in Nigeria who have continued to battle several factors even in a virus-ravaged time to tackle food insecurity in the country


Rosemary Zaan bends down to pick up some maize seedlings that fell on the ground in between ridges at her farm. Zaan, 48, has been working on her farmland since 7:20 a.m. when she left home. This is a daily routine for her.

Two workers are clearing the south-end of the farm in preparation for cultivation. The morning sun is just beginning to settle down in Makurdi, Benue state located in middle-belt Nigeria, but Zaan and her workers still have a long day to go.

Challenges of Nigerian smallholder farmers in tackling food crisis amid COVID-19

Zaan’s farmland which she cultivated some months ago. She cultivates maize, cassava and melon. Photo by Patrick Egwu

“We work for six hours or more everyday depending on what needs to be done,” she says. “Sometimes they [workers] complete their part of the work and leave while I stay back to see how far I can go. I am used to this lifestyle.”

Zaan cultivates maize, cassava, and melon in large quantities. She owns about five hectares of land which she inherited when her husband passed away some years ago. At the end of the farming season which begins between March and April each year, she waits for the harvest period to get out her farm produce and prepares them for sale at the local market which is some three kilometers away from her community.

Benue state, which lies within the lower river Benue, is a farming community widely known as the food basket of the nation for its extensive farming practice which forms a huge part of the country’s food export and local consumption.

“We sell them at our market where traders from other states come to buy,” Zaan who has been a farmer for more than 25 years says. “We know when they normally come so we harvest everything so they can be available for them.”

More than 80 percent of Nigeria’s farmers like Zaan are smallholder farmers and they produce about 90 percent of the nation’s agricultural output, according to PwC.

‘The pandemic has changed everything’

Challenges of Nigerian smallholder farmers in tackling food crisis amid COVID-19

Rosemary Zaan, 48, is a smallholder farmer in Makurdi, Benue state, middle-belt Nigeria. She says the pandemic has affected her negatively especially in the spike of labour and fertilizer. Photo by Patrick Egwu

The disruptions caused by the coronavirus pandemic has degraded the 2020 farming season and is having a negative effect on Zaan and thousands of smallholder farmers across Nigeria and causing economic shocks. There has been decline in income due to the lockdown and spike in prices of fertilizers, seedlings and pesticides which has made some of the farmers abandon the farming season.

“If we don’t cultivate anything, we won’t have anything to sell or feed our family with,” she says. “This thing [coronavirus] has changed everything about our farming practice.”

Nigeria currently has more than 58,000 cases of the virus as at September 26 with 1,108 deaths and over 43,000 recoveries, according to Nigeria Centre for Disease Control which is responding to the pandemic alongside the ministry of health.

Food insecurity has become a major concern not only in Nigeria, but around the world. Before the pandemic, food insecurity had been a concern in sub-Saharan Africa which are largely driven by climate change, conflict and economic issues in the region. In 2018, the Food and Agriculture Organization [FAO] reported that 239 million people in the region were undernourished.

The World Bank predicts that if current trends continue, the region could face a severe food security crisis with agricultural production expected to contract between 2.6 and 7 percent respectively especially with trade blockages caused by lockdown restrictions and border closures.

Additionally, the United Nations World Food Programme warns that by the end of 2020, COVID-19 could push the number of people suffering from acute hunger to more than a quarter of a billion—many of them in Africa. The World Bank predicts the pandemic will drive Africa into its first recession in 25 years and perhaps also spark a food security crisis on the continent because of declines in food imports, higher transaction costs, and reduced domestic demands. The Bank also estimates that the pandemic could cost the region between $37 billion and $79 billion in terms of output losses for 2020.

The number of undernourished people in Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country was estimated at more than 25 million in 2018 – up by 180 percent over the past decade, according to the FAO. This could become worse with the United Nations estimating that the country’s population could double by 2050.

In March 2020, Nigeria was listed as one of the countries globally that require external food assistance. The FAO further says the majority of the country’s population is unable to procure food from local markets due to very low incomes, high food prices and bottlenecks in the distribution of agricultural products within the country as a result of lockdown restrictions.

“The situation has actually worsened with the pandemic,” said Amina Mustapha, a professor of agricultural economics at Bayero University, Kano. “Farmers were getting ready for the farming production when coronavirus came with subsequent lockdown restrictions and because of this, farmers could not have access to the basic inputs in production like improved seeds, fertilizers, agro-chemical products.”

Challenges of Nigerian smallholder farmers in tackling food crisis amid COVID-19

Zaan works on her farmland everyday alongside two labourers whom she hired. Photo by Patrick Egwu

Amina who is the deputy director at the Centre for Dryland Agriculture in the northern region says that since these agricultural products were coming from the urban areas, farmers at the rural areas were having difficulty accessing them for the farming season.

“This might affect the quantity and quality of agricultural output for the harvest season,” she adds.

report by PwC says Nigerian agricultural sector holds the key to the country’s drive for economic diversification because it plays a key role in ensuring food security, promoting industrialization, providing jobs, stimulating strong resilience to external vulnerabilities and fostering shared prosperity. But the coronavirus pandemic could affect the attainment of food security in the country and this is already felt through rising food prices. By April 2020, food inflation had risen to 15 percent compared to 14.7 percent in December 2019, the report says.

There is high level of poverty in Nigeria. A new report about poverty and inequality in the country from September 2018 to October 2019 by the National Bureau of Statistics [NBS], said 40 percent of people in the country lived below its poverty line of 137,430 naira [$381.75] a year. This represents 82.9 million people. The report was based on data from the Nigerian Living Standards Survey [NLSS] conducted between 2018 and 2019 in collaboration with World Bank’s Poverty Global Practice. The NLSS is the basis for measuring poverty and living standards in the country and is used to estimate a wide range of socio-economic indicators including benchmarking of the Sustainable Development Goals.

Zaan’s case is not isolated. Other smallholder farmers across the country are feeling the shock caused by the pandemic. Ugochi Ikechukwu, 30, is a farmer in Enugu, Nigeria’s southeast region known predominantly for production of important cash crops like cassava, groundnut, palm oil, maize and cashew. Before the pandemic, the cost of fertilizers and other farm seedlings were stable and affordable. But this has changed since April when the farming season began including the price of labour. For example, a 100kg bag of maize seedlings which previously sells between N8,000 [$21] – N10,000 [$27] has increased to N22,000 [$53] while a 50kg of rice seedlings now sells for N23,000 [$60]. Local labourers who charge about N10,000 [$27] to cultivate a plot of land have increased their fee to N22,000[$53].

“Now, I do most of the works all by myself because I cannot afford to hire labourers due to the fee they charge,” Ikechukwu said. “This has reduced the work flow and the output of produce and harvest.”

The prices for fertilizer have doubled too. Ikechukwu normally buys three bags of fertilizer for her farm but now she only buys two. “We bought fertilizer previously for N2,800 [$8] but this time it’s N4,800 [$13] So, these changes have really been affecting us.”

Ikechukwu got her own farmland on lease. Each month, she pays N9,000 [$24] to the land owners as rent to be able to use the land.

“We normally pay labourers to help us plant maize and we pay them N1000 [$3] or N2000 [$6] for example. But now, everything is different, they ask for N5000 [$14] instead,” she said. “It is sad because I have a family to take care of and my children are still in elementary school. We just have to survive because the farm business is no more as lucrative as it was before the pandemic.”

When these prices increase, the demand will reduce and then the purchasing power of the consumer reduces. This can affect how a poor family feed and become food secure under the present reality, Mustapha said.

Zaan says she has suspended farming on certain vital crops like yam and cassava this year because of changes in market structure and prices of seed crops.

Amid COVID-19, herders’ attacks increase on farming communities

Challenges of Nigerian smallholder farmers in tackling food crisis amid COVID-19

Labourers work on Zaan’s farmland. The labourers are paid about [$53] to help in cultivating the land. Photo by Patrick Egwu

Nomadic herdsmen from northern Nigeria have a long history of invading and attacking farming communities in Nigeria over conflicting grazing routes. For decades, the middle-belt region has been a hot-bed for conflict between local farmers and cattle herders.

Climate change issues have also heightened tensions between the host communities and the herders. Faced with desertification, drought and desert encroachment in their region, these herders regularly migrate with their cattle to the southern part of the country which has arable land to graze and provide water for their livestock. Over the years, this migration has caused violent confrontation between the farmers and herders who accuse them of invading their ancestral lands and destroying their farmlands.

The attacks have increased since the lockdown restrictions started on March 30 and Nigeria’s middle-belt region is worse affected. More than 20 people have been killed since March through farmer-herder clashes.

Back in January 2018, 73 people – mostly local farmers in Benue were killed and about 100,000 displaced. The number of displaced people has spiked to about 500,000 according to the International Organization for Migration and local emergency agencies which respond to the humanitarian needs of the displaced people in about 20 of the camps in the state.

Challenges of Nigerian smallholder farmers in tackling food crisis amid COVID-19

Ayila Doom escaped with her children when nomadic herders invaded her community and destroyed her farmland. Photo by Patrick Egwu

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees says the conflict is worsening the displacement crisis in the country. The humanitarian crisis across IDP camps have been exacerbated by food insecurity and severe malnutrition. From 2009 to 2018, the number of IDPs in Africa grew from 6.4 million to 17.7 million. More than 2.5 million of them are in Nigeria. According to the agency, sub- Saharan Africa also hosts more than 26 percent of the world’s refugees—6.3 million in 2018, compared to 2.3 million in 2008. This is partly due to ongoing crises in Nigeria, the Central African Republic, and Sudan.

“Our village was destroyed and people were killed,” Ayila Doom, another farmer who survived the attacks and escaped with her children, recalls. “Even now they still come at night to attack.”

According to the International Crisis Group, the herder-farmer conflicts in Nigeria have at times been deadlier than the Boko Haram insurgency in the country’s northeast. In 2016 alone, an estimated 2,500 people were killed and tens of thousands displaced across the country. A recent report by the group said the attacks have increased tension between the cattle herders and farming communities with over 8,000 people killed since 2011 and displaced more than 200,000 with many seeking refuge in neighbouring countries.

Open grazing – a practice of allowing cattle graze in open fields for pasture, is a controversial issue in the country and often takes political and ethnic dimensions. Cattle destroy crops, and many people, mostly local farmers, have opposed open grazing on their lands with some pushing for anti-grazing laws and calling for the construction of ranches instead.

The conflict also has some economic impacts as a result of financial losses from agricultural income in the region. A 2015 report by global aid organization, Mercy Corps, says Nigeria’s economy is being threatened by decades-long disputes between farmers and pastoralists in the region and up to $13.7 billion in annual revenue could be made annually if the crisis was eliminated.

The agricultural sector is the largest employer of labour in the country, providing jobs for more than one-third, about 36.4% of the Nigerian labor force, the highest over the past 28 years – 1991 to 2019, according to International Labour Organization. Its contribution to GDP averaged 24.6 percent over the five years from 2015 to 2019.

Zaan’s farmland and produce which she had harvested from the previous farming season were destroyed and razed during the attacks. The herders razed barns and millet storage houses.

“Nothing was left,” she said. “We were happy we came out alive.”

Zaan currently lives with her children and other villagers in her community at a makeshift farm settlement. Others have moved to a displacement camp set up by the government in Makurdi, the state capital after the 2018 attacks.

Responding to the harsh COVID-19 reality

Challenges of Nigerian smallholder farmers in tackling food crisis amid COVID-19

Jeremiah Ayem Mlanga says before the pandemic, a bag of maize was sold for $21 but has increased to $53 now. Photo by Patrick Egwu

Zaan is intensifying efforts to cultivate her land for the harvest season. While the pandemic has had a toll on her farming practice, she says the post-farming season might hold some promises for her and other farmers when they start harvesting their crops for sale at local markets.

Agricultural extension workers and volunteers from the urban areas are providing support to the farmers with awareness programmes on how to adapt to climate change issues and improved awareness programmes, and specifically, how to transition to genetically improved seed varieties and setting-up channels for farmers to sell their yields to urban buyers at greater profits.

“They have been educating us on what we need to know on how to have a great farming season,” she said.

The government has also provided support to smallholder farmers across the country to alleviate the impact of the pandemic on the agricultural value chain. For instance, the government distributed about 70,000 metric tons of grains from the strategic food reserve across the country, and reduced fertilizer prices from N5,500 [$15] to N5,000 [$14] for a 50kg bag. Nigerian rural farmers rely on subsidized seedlings, fertilizers and irrigation and storage facilities to cut post-harvest losses.

The Central Bank of Nigeria [CBN] has increased intervention funding for the sector and reduced interest rates on existing intervention funding from nine to five percent. The CBN has also raised access to finance for farmers by approving the disbursement of a N75 billion [about $200 million] loan

guarantee scheme under the Nigerian Incentive-Based Risk Sharing System for Agricultural Lending [NIRSAL]. Through this programme, funds are made available to smallholder farmers which they can access and have improved seeds, fertilizers, agrochemical and even some cash for labour.

“It covers all crops and livestock activities in Nigeria, while driving improved investment outcomes and job creation,” said Jude Uzonwanne, the implementation officer of the funding scheme. “It is also building on a legacy of previous CBN interventions in agriculture that has helped create thousands of jobs.”

Zaan who was a beneficiary, says the distribution has brought some form of relief to help her cope. “This would have been difficult for us to handle alone,” she said.

However, Mustapha says there is a problem in the distribution process as some farmers did not receive fertilizers or other government COVID-19 packages.

“We always have problems with implementation because farmers are still looking for fertilizers and buying at a high price when they find them,” she says. “One thing about government is that sometimes they have good intention but there is no proper monitor of the distribution channels. Many of the farmers are in the rural areas and sometimes some of these palliatives end up with urban people who go back and sell it at the black market so that farmers can buy at high prices.”

Challenges of Nigerian smallholder farmers in tackling food crisis amid COVID-19

Jeremiah moves in between ridges to plant maize on his farm. He said he doesn’t have money to buy fertilizer and did not receive government’s relief supplies. Photo by Patrick Egwu

Ikechukwu was one of the unlucky farmers. She said government’s relief package was not distributed to her and other smallholder farmers who share a farm settlement with her.

“They are not helping us because if they are really interested in small scale farmers maybe they would provide fertilizer free for us,” she said. “I used my money to buy the fertilizer I use and even some protective kits for myself so I can be able to protect myself.”

Jeremiah Ayem Mlanga who cultivates mostly maize on his farmland said government’s support has not been enough to reach every farmer affected by the pandemic.

“We can defeat this challenge and produce more food if the government helps us with what we need to boost our farm production,” he said.

The PwC report advises the government to consider offering more palliative to farmers in the form of improved seedlings, basic farm implements at highly subsidized prices, and free or more affordable farm extension services to help maximize output.

“Many of the rural farmers are not aware of these relief packages from the government so there is the need to raise awareness about what the government is doing and how the farmers can access them,” Mustapha said. “Farmers need to be encouraged with more relief packages because this will encourage them for more farming production and improving food security.”

Zaan hopes the harvest season would be an opportunity to recoup losses incurred as a result of the pandemic. But increase in rainfall which has caused flood to wash away farmlands in some regions might affect the future prospects of these farmers for the harvest season.

“That is the only opportunity we have to prepare for the next farming season,” she said. “We have lost a lot this year because of the pandemic and if it goes away next year, we will have a better farming season.”

This work was supported by the National Geographic Society’s Emergency Fund for Journalists…

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