It’s 1995. There’s a vast blue sky with a full sun in the village of Yammama, in Katsina State, Nigeria. An equally vast cotton field rolls across the ground, almost too dazzling to the eye. A dozen brightly painted lorries are lined up, as labourers troop to load sacks upon sacks of cotton unto them. A little boy of five walks towards the scene, holding tightly to his father’s hands, jubilant as always to come to the farm and almost bursting with curiosity.
In the September of 2015, two decades later and no longer a 5-year-old child, I returned to my father’s farm in Yammama, full of answers and eager to ask new questions, having become an entrepreneur with a social enterprise that supports rural farmers with mobile technologies for sustainable farming and improved food production. I had renewed commitment to pioneer an all-round support platform that helped smallholders and connected them to the entire agricultural value chain, using digital technologies and I believed this was where my idea was born.
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My father was not a smallholder farmer. He had farmed in commercial quantities and was also a licensed buying agent of the defunct Marketing Board. Yet, in solving the problems of smallholder farmers, there was a lot to learn from his time and how he practised agriculture. The major lesson being that farmers must be visible to markets and markets connected to farmers no matter how remote. Once smallholders knew the specifications of a ready market and strived to meet them in terms of quality and quantity, almost everything else will fall in place.
The Marketing Board (which indexed commodity prices and bought farmers’ surpluses at standardised prices) guaranteed that all farmers were visible to the market as it were to them. Smallholders farmed with the certainty of an existing market, which they knew well. The robust structures and networks enabled the easy flow of not only farm input but information and helped bring down the amount of time and money it cost the farmers, cooperatives and even agri-businesses to manage the risk of farming and dealing with unknown partners. Extension and agricultural credit reached farmers through efficient and deliberate efforts and channels. Farmers were even awarded for produce that exceptionally satisfied market requirements.
Currently, most of Nigeria’s smallholder farmers are disconnected from the agricultural markets. They are isolated and stuck in their localities with neither the money nor the voice that the market can hear, and as such, they grow only what they subsist on or trade locally. These same smallholders, even though in a smaller number and with greater challenges, were responsible for the economy that funded many governments before now, including one of the most lucrative imperial campaigns of the British Empire.
However, today’s Nigerian agricultural market has abandoned its smallholders. Agricultural productivity has dwindled and imports have soared through the roof. There are arguments that the market has only abandoned smallholders because the crops they grow and the animal they rear are irrelevant to the market with regard to their volume and quality. So, despite a lot of intensification of money and input by the government (through programmes like the Anchor Borrowers Programme of the Central Bank and other schemes), huge road, processing and other infrastructure, there is still a case of near absolute isolation of smallholders because they do not know the exact requirement of the market or how to meet it. Regardless of what factors are to blame for this smallholder farmer’s isolation, there is a need for concerted efforts toward fixing the information disconnect so that the problems it manifests into will be solved for good. This is why the farms of Yammama have either remained the same or in most cases have become unproductive over the years and it is a similar story across northern Nigeria.
Back in 2015, and even today in 2022, you could see changes that have occurred in Yammama in terms of development since 1995, but these changes are in most cases nominal. More houses have corrugated roofs, but the village still has a high percentage of rural poor people. It has telecommunication masts and mobile connectivity, yet it’s bereft of most value adding financial and other services. It has a bigger primary school, yet has a high number of out-of-school children. It has a primary healthcare centre, but this centre was in shambles of tragic proportions until recent upgrades after a video of it went viral on social media. The farms, the river and the bustling roadside (due to the highway passing through the village connecting Kano and Katsina cities to Zaria and Zamfara, Sokoto axis via Funtua-Yashe road) have either remained the same or gone worse since the 90s. The quality of life has improved, no doubt due to global advances but some old problems still persist. This decadence and its effects on the socio-economic fabric of society is not peculiar to Yammama. It is happening all over Northern Nigeria.
But even with the deteriorating situation of the economy, education systems, healthcare and environment all over North-western Nigeria, Yammama has been relatively very peaceful (apart from small village squabbles and usual Nigerian highway crimes) until this decade when there was an unsolved explosion of an improvised explosive device in 2020, which claimed the life of five children who were herding cattle in a farm where the bomb was hidden. Security reports show that this was a chance occurrence as the still-at-large culprits must have only stored their nefarious device for conveyance to another location.
However, this month, armed bandits stormed the quiet village and abducted three innocent, hardworking villagers in another attack on lives and property that has characterised life in too many parts of northern Nigeria in the last decade. Many of the villagers have already resolved to either leave their homes or live in helplessness and fear for their lives. This attack happened only a couple of days after a security meeting convened by community leaders and the people who have both decided to look inwards for solutions as the imminent plague of insecurity brazenly advances to more homes and yet more villages, unchecked and seemingly unstoppable.