Akure, Nigeria – Nigeria has long relied on women for its food: They constitute 70 percent of the country’s farming population and 80 percent of its food producers. But many are stuck in a cycle of poverty, held back by a host of challenges including inadequate financing, lack of training, poor access to infrastructure and patriarchal traditions. Because only 7 percent of women in Nigeria own the land they farm, few have the collateral they need to access credit for growing their businesses.Since 1972, the federal government has been trying to improve the lives of farmers with a series of Agricultural Development Projects (ADP), which are an extension arm of the Ministry of Agriculture. The project has been adopted by all state governments to increase food production and farm incomes, part of which includes providing for women farmers through the Women in Agriculture (WIA) program. The aim is to boost women farmers’ access to agricultural extension services, such as business training and education on new techniques.
Critics of the WIA program say it hasn’t been successful in many states, with little evidence that smallholder women farmers are benefiting from it. They say WIA suffers from a lack of funding, and because it is a rigid budget line within the ADPs, it can’t be adapted to meet the needs of the women it’s meant to help. Researchers at Ahmadu Bello University in Zaria found that 63.6 percent of the ADPs throughout Nigeria have “weak or very weak” funding status.
“Women have been neglected in the area of agriculture,” smallholder fish farmer Benedicta Peter-Ugheoke says.
But Peter-Ugheoke has an advantage over most women farmers in Nigeria: She lives in Ondo state, where the government has decided to take matters into its own hands. In its 2018 budget, for the first time the state created a new budget line specifically targeting smallholder women farmers.
Flexible and Practical
With an allocation of 2 million Nigerian naira ($5,560), the goal of the Agro Women Initiative is to improve the agricultural productivity of women farmers in the state by providing them with funding and capacity building. Research shows that 64.9 percent of women farmers in Ondo state currently live below the poverty line.
“Due to the neglect of women in the sector, we thought about a distinct budget line for women,” says the officer in charge of the initiative, Bolanle Ajibade.
The new budget line was approved after an advocacy campaign by women farmers in the state working with the nonprofit NGO Life and Peace Development Organization (LAPDO). Through a project it launched last year that was funded and supported by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and the Foundation for Partnership Initiatives in the Niger Delta, LAPDO encourages women farmers in the state to have a voice in the sector.
“At the program, we agreed that a new budget line for women would be a good way to redirect support for smallholder women farmers,” says Franklin Oloniju, executive director of LAPDO. “So we did a lot of work and advocacy, and we were able to make it happen.”
A Future in Fish Farming
So far, 50 percent of the budget has been released and the initiative is already helping women farmers in Ondo state, Ajibade says. This year, it focuses on fishing and cassava production. “We want to do things that will put money in the purses of our women so they can have a better standard of living,” she says.
Sixty women from the 18 local governments in the state have already been trained or retrained in fish farming. Many women farmers in the state have an idea of how to farm fish, but the initiative has armed them with updated techniques and practical information to help them earn a living from the activity.
“With the new budget line, women will have relevance in the agricultural sector of the state.”
“I learned how to keep and take care of a fish pond, and how to get a reasonable number of fish after hatching,” says fish farmer Deborah Babalola. “I haven’t always been successful in hatching. But now I am … getting more fish and making more profit.”
The remaining half of the budget is expected to be used to train women farmers to tap into the cassava value chain. The initiative plans to educate women on how to use cassava flour to bake and how to store the flour to reduce its moisture content and increase its shelf life.
And next year, the government plans to make more money available to the initiative.
“I can assure you that in next year’s budget, we are looking at allocating 100 million naira ($277,000) to the initiative because women farmers have not been taken care of in the state,” says Ondo state commissioner for agriculture, Adegboyega Adefarati.
For smallholder farmer Peter-Ugheoke, the women-specific budget is not just a sign that she and her fellow farmers are valued by the state. It’s also a chance for more women to join the industry that keeps the country fed.
“With the new budget line, women will have relevance in the agricultural sector of the state,” she says. “The initiative will encourage other women to come into the sector knowing that their work will not go in vain.”