With a rapidly growing population, Nigeria cannot afford to rely on food imports for survival. This is, especially as recent global phenomena such as the pandemic and the sudden war in Ukraine have shown that the global supply chain is in fact fragile and vulnerable to abrupt shocks.
Nigeria currently boasts of the world’s largest youth population with 70 per cent of its population under 30 and 42 per cent under the median age of 15. While this is undoubtedly an asset where productive resources are actively employed, it may well be a liability where unemployment is widespread amidst growing cases of extreme poverty. This reality is attributed to several factors spanning mismanagement of public funds, lack of basic infrastructure and inadequate distribution of basic social amenities.
Despite commendable efforts by the private sector to expand the scope of several industries, especially via embedding technology and innovation, the existing labour market is not robust enough to absorb the thousands of fresh graduates churned out annually by the universities. This is where the agricultural sector comes in because with agriculture, the possibilities are endless.
This perhaps explains why several government administrations have alluded to the need for Nigerians to “go back to the farm”. This simple phrase underlines the multiple potentials for the largest African economy both as a producer and as a market. So far, only the market has been exploited. But it is inadequate as we cannot and should not depend on aid and handouts to feed. Especially as we have about 84 million hectares of arable farmland untapped. Why can’t Nigeria simply cultivate this land and feed itself then?
Food security is an integral part of national security and government, especially since 2015 targeted deliberate policies and plans to boost local food production towards attaining self-sufficiency as is evident in several crop-specific policies and financing available to support local production and handhold cottage industries. The Presidential Fertilizer Initiative for example, tackled the major challenge of inadequate quality agri-input for local production. Certified seeds companies emerged and agri-financing for requisite agri-input was availed to drive large scale farming.
Less than three years later, everyone was happy to be called a farmer. Farming was incentivised. Other segments of the agribusiness value chain also gained momentum. Startups were budding and investors were betting significant resources into local production. Today, Nigeria may well be on its way to self-sufficiency on basic staples it formerly used to depend hugely on imports for. However, excluding a huge chunk of its population in this important economic segment threatens Nigeria’s goal of attaining self-sufficiency as soon as it should. Many agricultural sectors remain largely male dominated.
Understandably, subsistence farming, which still constitutes about 70 per cent of total crop production in the country is labor-intensive, devoid of adequate extension services, agri-input financing, and insurance support. This is in addition to the continuous application of obsolete farming practices by smallholders who have very little access to knowledge on improved agricultural practices.
Today, several projects are underway to support smallholder farmers and bolster local production across rural communities, but beneficiaries are largely men. Very few women get access to this support. Where women are involved, they are restricted to later segments of cultivation activity with very minimal financial returns. They also need the permission of their male guardians and husbands to participate in primary production, which they must combine with childcare roles and household chores.
Beyond subsistence farming, extension work, agronomy and other technical aspects of agricultural activities are also male-dominated. Female field officers are a rare occurrence and this does not help make the case for the capabilities of women to thrive in these roles. Transforming societal norms around agricultural activity requires interventions and programmes to demonstrate possibilities via deliberate women inclusion to evidence inherent possibilities across rural communities.
While it is somewhat easier to embed women in other sectors, agricultural extension services and field roles require physical presence in very remote rural farming communities. Taking into context the familial and social roles many women have; it is an arduous task to get qualified women to work in project locations where they are not resident. This further disincentivises efforts at women inclusion especially with limited resources and time available to complete projects.
And so, there is the deliberate need for allowances to be made where interested female applicants for roles in agricultural activity are not ‘qualified’ per the specified description. Can we teach them and train them so they can take up these roles and contribute to enabling gender mainstreaming and permeation of women farmers across rural farming communities?
Almost 50 per cent of Nigeria’s population are female and all hands must be on deck to attain self-sufficiency in local food production towards enabling job creation across the agricultural sector, improved earnings for smallholder farmers and increased value addition. Enabling women inclusion in agriculture must be bold, deliberate, and willing to accommodate additional incentives to attain a lofty goal of an inclusive sector that is conscious of gender diversity and strengths therein.
Women’s inclusion in agriculture is critical for achieving sustainable agricultural growth and improving food security in Northern Nigeria. However, women continue to face significant challenges in accessing productive resources, training, and financial services, as well as cultural and social barriers that limit their participation in the sector. Addressing these challenges requires a multi-faceted approach that involves working with communities to challenge gender norms, providing women with access to land and financial services, and designing extension services that are gender responsive. By prioritising women’s inclusion in agriculture, Nigeria can and will unlock the potential of millions of women farmers and build a more sustainable and prosperous future for all.
Suleiman wrote through [email protected]