Women have over the years played important roles in agriculture and food security — they are found in all the stages of agricultural value chain— making them very important stakeholder in the sector.
Zainab Isarah, a smallholder farmer in Zamfara State, is not exception. The 52-year-old and a mother of seven cultivates a variety of crops.
In this report is an interview Oge Udegbunam of PREMIUM TIMES had with Ms Zainab Isarah where she shares her experience as a woman farmer.
Oge: What crops do you cultivate?
Ms Isarah: In fact, I am an integrated farmer. I have a beautiful herbal farm and I do fishery, poultry and grains like soybeans, rice and sorghum.
Oge: How long have you been farming?
Ms Isarah: I was born in the farm, so throughout my life I have been on the farm. My father has been my mentor and I did it along with schooling.
Oge: Women in Nigeria have problems with access to land, whose land are you using?
Ms Isarah: I use my personal land, that’s the joy of being a northerner. Here in the north we do not have the most challenge of land because we can buy, we can inherit or even lease without much challenges.
Oge: Did you inherit or buy the land?
Ms Isarah: When you talk of farming, land is a major factor and for a woman to be financially independent and disciplined, one need to own a land. I have the one I inherited and the one I own. I also make use of lease lands because I am into so many cultivation, I have a variety of crops that I grow.
Oge: What is the size of your land?
Ms Isarah: My biggest land is one hectare, which is my personal land. But the ones I lease are usually in groups with other farmers, mostly cooperatives.
Oge: Seeds are difficult to get for Nigerian farmers, especially improved seeds. Where do you get your seeds from?
Ms Isarah: There are two types. Because I do more of organic farming so I have a sort of seed bank from my own farm. The second one I use modified seeds sometimes, but we know the impact now so we are moving towards sustainability.
But with the challenge of ecology, we are advocating for short term seeds that we can plant and harvest early before floods and change of season.
Oge: How do you select the crops you cultivate?
Ms Isarah: From the seed bank, at the maturing stage we pick and store. I have beautiful bottles where I put them and I also have some shelves for maize, vegetables and others. So since we are advocating for organic crops, we will make sure we practice what we preach.
Whatever we do, we consider our customers and consumers. Like some of my customers are diabetic patients, aged parents, young and lactating mothers, so with that I give them everything of organic. So I need to preserve those seeds I need to protect the shelf life of the products that I produce.
Oge: Mechanisation is the talk of the day for farmers, do you use machines?
Ms Isarah: That is a challenge. As a smallholder farmer, we are advocating for gender-friendly machines. In the north where I come from, we use animals to cultivate. I have cows that I use to till the land but there are others activities.
The work we do is manually . We want the government to provide gender-friendly machines so that women can compete globally and produce high. It will reduce the issue of food scarcity and help meet the demands of the target population.
Oge: Do you use your children as labour on the farm?
Ms Isarah: Farming is a family business so we do mentor-ship the way my father mentored me to grow up as a farmer. I also need the support of my children, especially the girls because I come from a community where women are seen, not heard.
It is something that everybody does. In every household we have animals like sheep, goats; so whether we like it or not farming is a family venture in the north. We do it and children participate. Sometimes I also pay for labour to complement the family efforts.
Oge: Do you sell or consume your produce?
Ms Isarah: I sell them, farming is my business.
Oge: In which markets do you sell your produce?
Ms Isarah: Local markets. We have a local market in Gusau and a national market. People come from as far as Lagos, Ibadan to buy our food and even the animals we rear.
In Nigeria, SWOFAN (Small-scale Women Farmers Organisation) exists in the 36 state of the federation, including the FCT Abuja, so we do networking, we source for market, we do WhatsApp, we’re have so many ways of advertising our goods. We’re doing a sort of interstate business.
Oge: How do you preserve your goods?
Ms Isarah: Storage facilities are another challenge for farmers. We do this local storage type where we store our goods locally, using what we call “Rambu” in Hausa.
It is a store we built and we are also advocating for government to provide us with modern storage system because in the north we are faced with insecurity and most of our food storage reserves were destroyed.
If we have this modern systems, we can store successfully and have more of these food in time of need.
Oge: Does your husband support you, if so to what extent?
Ms Isarah: Yes, he’s my pillar of support because before I ventured into farming totally, I exercised leverage on his farm. Whenever he cultivated yam, then I would put little vegetable beside it and I also do multi-cropping. I started like that before I expanded my business.
Oge: The government has rolled out some schemes for farmers, have you benefited from any of them?
Ms Isarah: Yes. I sell products to the government. They have a little bit tried but we are advocating for more, most especially timely release of fertiliser. Up to now, we have not seen fertiliser as expected. Also, we are advocating for information. This global climate change, Nanette was mentioned.
The technicality and language involved are too big for the farmer to understand. We need to have a sort of stipulated time for rain, number of months it will cover, when is flooding coming; these pieces of information are key to the farmer because timing is the life of a farm.
Oge: Do you experience discrimination from male farmers?
Isarah: Yes, even from this information, sometimes when you go out because of the stigma or I don’t know, they feel that is their field; why should a woman be there? Therefore they have dominated all sectors of farming.
Even some boasting to be big farmers hide information from us in terms of markets, access to fertiliser and access to quality seeds.
Oge: Have you being harassed as a woman farmer?
Ms Isarah: No.
Oge: What will you describe as your biggest challenge?
Ms Isarah: Lack of mechanised tools. With the opportunity, I’ll produce triple of what I’m producing now, and I have a dream which is to compete globally, to export my products. But how do I do that when I gave limited access to machinery? We experience a lot of wastage, post-harvest loss because we lack the machinery to process, as I am into processing.
Even when we cultivate, we need machinery to really compete. Many times when I see on TV how farmers are progressing, most especially women.
We cannot compare Nigeria to Rwanda or Uganda, we cannot compare Nigerian women farmers to other African women farmers who are being supported by the government with grants and access to loans and fertiliser at subsidised rates.
They are part of the policy-making process where they indicate their needs and those needs are being followed up. We also need timely release of all these things.
The process of accessing loans, asking a woman farmer to provide her light bill, most of them are in the grassroots, we don’t know anything about it and we don’t even have the light.
We talk about guarantor; what have you to give as collateral? All those processes make it difficult for us to really increase our productivity.
Oge: What do you want?
Ms Isarah: I want machinery. Now in my community if I should have a machine we will come out as a cooperative to really work with one voice to enhance food production in my community.
Then with that we are contributing our quota to the SDG goals, our quota to food security and also contributing our part to end poverty in Nigeria.