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Five ways we’re supporting farmers in Nigeria

©VSO/Onye Ubanatu

We take a look at how farmers are upgrading their basic livelihoods into fully-fledged businesses, through the support of VSO volunteers in Nigeria. 

The last five years have been very busy for one group of farmers in Minna, Nigeria. Through a VSO project, thousands of them have been trained to improve their agricultural skills as well as their ability to run their farms as serious businesses. Five years since the project started, 1,800 people are reporting an increase in earnings, or have established their own businesses. Here’s how it happened: 

1. Getting a better price

Volunteer Mohammed at Divine multipurpose co-operative meeting in Paikoro, Niger State, Nigeria. ©VSO/Onye Ubanatu

This project has supported 150 farming co-operatives in central Nigeria.

Negotiating a better price isn’t easy for a farmer who works independently on a small farm. 

When farmers come together, pooling their resources in a co-operative, they can get a higher price for their produce by selling in bulk, attracting larger buyers. 

Many of the farmers we’ve been working with in Nigeria were already in co-operatives, but the groups didn’t meet regularly, or individuals did not take on the responsibility on their roles within these groups.  

In the past five years, we’ve worked with 150 co-operatives, supporting them to assign clear roles, such as chairman and secretary, and the groups are now working far more effectively. Volunteers, through coaching and mentoring in leadership skills, have helped new leaders emerge, and helped co-operatives to hold these new leaders to account.  

Farmers now have another way of making additional income, which they can put to household emergencies or their children’s school fees, by processing crops into food items to sell to their community.  

Fatima Al Hassan, a maize farmer in Mokwa, now makes fried masa (a crumpet-like snack made from corn), popcorn and stew.  

“VSO taught me that after I harvested the maize from my farm I could process it. I grind the maize at the mill and then combine it with sugar and fry it with groundnut oil to make fried masa.”

2. Introducing modern farming techniques

Threshing machine with two IMA4P farmers, Fatima Zubairu and Fatima Al Hassan, with volunteer Musa in Mokwa, Niger State, Nigeria. ©VSO/Onye Ubanatu

In the background you can see a threshing machine, used to remove the stalks and husks from soya beans, which reduces the need for heavy manual labour.

Nigeria has a long history of farming, and agriculture is the backbone of Nigeria’s economy. In fact, two-thirds of the labour force are farmers.  

However, traditional techniques and outdated tools were holding farmers back. 

Soya bean farmers in Niger State used to spend days beating their harvested crops with a stick to remove the husks and stalks from the seed. This action, known as threshing, is incredibly exhausting, and there were reports of injuries. 

VSO has trained eight co-operatives how to use and maintain thresher machines, which process soya beans in a fraction of the time it takes to do it by hand. The machines were provided by VSO partner PropCom Mai’Karfi, funded by UK aid. 

One threshing machine in Mokwa has been rented out to more than 150 local farmers, earning the members of the co-operative 136,000 naira (£290) in total, in just three months.

The former chairman of this co-operative, Kudu Muhammed, has seen the benefit of updating old farming practices.  

“The threshing machine is a labour-saving device. Threshing by hand is a health hazard: it tires out the body, and some women injured themselves doing it. This device is making my community’s life easier,” said Kudu.

3. Championing gender equality

VSO staff Mariam speak to a co-operative member at a meeting in Niger State, Nigeria. ©VSO/Onye Ubanatu

45% of people trained through the IMA4P project in Nigeria were women.

It’s common for wives in Nigeria to work for free on their husband’s farm, alongside carrying out household chores and looking after the home. 

The project sought to have this farm work acknowledged, so women could start to influence decisions to do with their business, home life and community. 

In total, 1,800 women were trained in how to start their own farming business – including demonstrating modern farming techniques and how to manage their money. 

Volunteers gave training in gender issues, encouraging husbands and wives to share financial decisions.  

Fatima Zubairu stands proudly in a field during a demonstration day, showing farmers new farming techniques. ©VSO/Onye Ubanatu

“Now, my husband and I will discuss upcoming financial needs," says Fatima Zubairu, a farmer on the IMA4P project.

Fatima Zubairu is one of the farmers who received gender training. 

“Through the project I learnt about gender roles. I had training with a volunteer who asked me some questions that made me think. She asked me if I got paid to work on the farm.” 

“Now, my husband and I will discuss upcoming financial needs but ultimately I make decisions over how my money is spent. I spend it on my children and assist my husband with school fees, medical bills and food.”  

With this new income, women had something to contribute to the costs of running the household, which helped persuade their husbands to include them in financial decisions. In turn, women are able to contribute to costs around the house.  

“It makes me really happy to treat my children,” said Fatima. “Sometimes they just want a snack and now I don’t have to think too hard whether to buy it for them.” 

4. Supersizing crop yields

Two pairs of hands holding soya beans in Mokwa, Nigeria. ©VSO/Onye Ubanatu

A sample of soya beans harvested at a training session in better farming practices.

Access to land is a major hurdle for farmers in Nigeria, so it’s important to maximise yields.  

Using test plots of land, we gave farmers tips and tricks to improve their crop size. By seeing practical demonstrations, farmers like Aisha Usman discovered how to improve their own farms. 

“Before the IMA4P project, people left large gaps between their seeds when planting. The agricultural volunteer taught us that we were wasting the land, and that we should plant our seeds much closer together.” 

“When we started using the new techniques, people were very surprised with the results. People in my community didn’t think it would work, because they’ve been farming this way for years,” said soya bean farmer, Aisha Usman. 

The innovations didn’t stop there. Select individuals in each community were trained in sourcing and identifying good quality fertilisers. This knowledge is invaluable, as it helps farmers get the best results without over-applying pesticides and fertilisers. 

5. Saving for a rainy day

Aisha Usman stands with other co-operative members as they meet and pay off loans ©VSO/Onye Ubanatu

Aisha Usman (right), puts money aside each week with her local savings and loans association.

If there’s no bank in your town, how can you save money? How can you access a loan? For rural farmers in Nigeria, the answer is to join a local savings and loans association. 

These associations have been given advice on how to work more effectively, with steps to take when a farmer doesn’t pay back their loan.  

On an individual level, training sessions on financial management have encouraged farmers to set aside money for the future and to cover emergency costs.  

Now, these farmers have the resources to recover from a bad harvest or a medical emergency.  

“Since the financial literacy training, I now save a third of the money I earn, in case of an emergency,” said Aisha Usman, a farmer on the IMA4P project.  

“It’s important because emergencies can happen at any time.” 

“Now, when I see someone in my village wasting their money, I say, ‘Why are you spending money like this?’” 

“With the money I’ve saved, I’ve started up my own ginger drinks business that I run alongside farming. With the money I make from the shop, I can buy things for myself, clothe my children, and even help my husband when he needs extra money.” 

Improving Market Access for the Poor (IMA4P)

IMA4P is a VSO project that has worked with over 20,000 people in Nigeria, Cambodia, Tanzania and Malawi. 

The IMA4P project ends in 2019, after five years of sharing skills in:

  • Farming: How to plant crops to make the most of the land and get the biggest yields.
  • Adding value to crops: How to process crops into marketable products to get a higher price
  • Group strengthening: Supporting co-operatives to pool their crops to command a higher market price
  • Financial literacy: Providing basic information on income, savings and how to better manage your money.

The IMA4P project focus is on giving people all the tools needed to turn farming into a viable business and to compete in a modern economy.