Investigation

Northern farmers: ‘Climate change, COVID-19 pandemic compounded our woes’

As smallholder women farmers count losses

Though Nigeria is a signatory to the Paris Agreement, the international deal aimed at tackling climate change, the issue appears to have held up small scale women farmers in the Northern part of the country as captured in this report by Yekeen Akinwale, who recently toured the region

Susan Godwin and Arah Zainab Isah are thousands of miles apart. The former is in Nasarawa State, North central Nigeria, while the latter resides in Zamfara, a state in the North-west of the country. But they are both victims of the impacts of climate change.

The loss in 2020 that left Godwin, Isah and, indeed, many smallholder women farmers in Nigeria lamenting, is seen as alarming and a sign of what to come as climate change continues to hit harder across the country. Nigerian rural women farmers play vital roles in agricultural production and are key to Africa’s most populous country’s food security. They account for 70 per cent of agricultural workers and 80 per cent of food producers but are at the receiving ends of the negative impacts of climate change at the moment.

There are pieces of evidence of climate change all over the country, said Nigerian Meteorological Agency (NIMET), the government agency that documents weather and climate data. “These pieces of evidence are in the form of rising temperatures, more frequent and persistent heat and cold waves, severe coastal and inland floods and the ravaging wind storms,” the agency said in one of its climate review bulletins. According to one of the world’s most influential climate scientists, Michael E. Mann, the world has “finally reached the point where it is not credible to deny climate change because people can see it playing out in real-time in front of their eyes.”

Sudden stop of rainfall weeks after planting

For 13 years, Godwin, 60, had ventured into farming and raised her five children with proceeds from her farm. But of her 13 years’ experience, Godwin said 2020 stood out as one year with losses for her and many smallholder farmers− it was the year they were confronted by the impacts of climate change. Farmers in her village were happy when the rain started earlier and never suspected it would stop suddenly. So, they mobilised to farms as is the practice each year when rainfall starts. But something happened. For five weeks, the rain ceased and it was after Godwin and many others had cultivated their farm and planted crops.

It was also when the COVID-19 pandemic broke out and movement was restricted. An abrupt stop of rainfall and deadly floods across parts of Nigeria are stark reminders of the climate risks facing Africa’s most populous country. Many states in Nigeria rely on rain-fed agriculture which makes a larger number of small scale holder farmers vulnerable to the negative effects of climate change. Godwin said: “Rain started earlier last year and we planted our crops early. But after planting, the rain ceased for almost five weeks. In Nasarawa State, our land is sandy and for rain not to fall for almost five weeks after we have planted, which means a lot of problems for us.” The mother of five has been cultivating groundnuts, maize, melon and cassava on her different plots of land. And when the crops started germinating, they ended up dying after the rain stopped.

“Melon that we planted early was about to flower when the rain stopped suddenly. It started drying up and eventually died. In fact, there were a lot of losses,” she lamented, unable to quantify her losses. Godwin, however, only knew about planting early and using improved seedlings, but was unaware of climate change. She did not also know its impacts on farmers like her. “We have heard about climate change. We were always told to plant earlier and use improved seedlings. We used the improved seedlings and planted earlier but the rain that did not come made it affect our farms,” she said.

Rising global temperatures, regular flooding and rising water level are parts of the impacts of climate change. With the COVID-19 pandemic, the farmers’ woes were compounded. They were helpless and survival was critical at the time. Because of movement restrictions due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it was impossible for the troubled women to seek knowledge or advice from those that know about climate change. According to Godwin, “Things were very hard at that time; even to see food to eat to survive was difficult let alone to find money to buy another seedling to farm again.

Maybe they could have taught us how to scale through this problem. And since there was a lockdown, we were helpless.” When the rain started falling again, it was already late for the farmers to replant their crops because “the little we had was what we had planted on the farm.” The cost of clearing land and cultivating also jumped up by 100 per cent or more as a result of the pandemic. “What we usually spend N10, 000 to cultivate, last year, we paid between N20, 000 to N25, 000,” the woman recalled. “People from neighbouring states used to come to cultivate our farms for us but last year, they couldn’t come because of the lockdown.”

Tomato, yam farms damaged by heat waves

Before the 2020 unpleasant farming experience, Patience Emmanuel, a farmer and mother of two in Lafia whose specialty is tomato cultivation, had plans and was hoping to save to expand her farm but things failed to work out. Just a week after she transplanted her tomato from the nursery to the main farm, the rain ceased.

“There was no drop of water for a week. It affected tomatoes and the yields were very low,” Emmanuel said. From the same piece of land where she used to harvest between 70 to 90 baskets of tomatoes, only 17 baskets were harvested last year at a time the price also crashed to a record low of between N1,800 to N1,500 due to the COVID-19 pandemic as against between N2, 500 to N3,000.

“This loss really brought down our income and the money at hands couldn’t meet the family needs,” she added. Emmanuel, however, said women in this category need more education on climate change much as they needed the government’s intervention to continue with their farming job. “We need enlightened leaders who can help us in this kind of situation before the coming of the next planting season,” she pleaded. Monica Aleku, whose farm is also in Lafia, is mourning her loss from the 2020 farming experience, having lost more than half of the yam she planted when the rain did not fall as expected.

“After I planted my yam, the rain didn’t fall for a couple of weeks and there was too much sun, which destroyed yams in the heaps. I planted up to 2000 heaps of yams but I couldn’t harvest up to 600 tubers of yam,” Aleku told this reporter. According to her, sales from her annual harvest from the farm could be as much as N180, 000. But now she struggles to feed her family.

A looming hunger

In 2019, 34 million people globally were acutely faced with food insecure due to climate extremes. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said the humanitarian impacts of climate change will be far worse in the decades to come if there are no radical efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Given the experiences of these women, who form the fulcrum of the workforce in the agricultural sector, Nigeria, experts said, faces a serious food crisis except the government takes necessary action.

The impact of these changes without adaptation could cost between six per cent and 30 per cent of Nigeria’s GDP by 2050, amounting to between USD100 billion and USD460 billion, noted the Federal Ministry of Environment, quoting a report by the Department for International Development (DFID). Several experiences from across the world on climate change have shown that women are more vulnerable to its impacts. The household head finds it difficult to feed their families because most of their investment goes into farming and it is a seasonal trend.

“If the government did not take necessary actions, there will be serious hunger,” Godwin raises the alarm because, like her, many other women such as Isah, the coordinator of Smallholder Women Farmers of Nigeria (SWOFON) in Zamfara State, have lost huge investments in farming in 2020.

As an integrated farmer after the strange experience of last year, Isah believes that climate change is already resulting in low production and food scarcity coupled with insecurity. “Now we don’t have much to feed or meet our demand,” she said, with little or no hope that things may get better as the governments are not really facing the reality. “We are battling climate change because we experienced a delay in rainfall. There was a draught at the point we were expecting rain and about to apply fertilizer.

It seriously affected all the crops,” added Isah whose state, Zamfara, is one of the most affected by insecurity plaguing Nigeria’s Northwest zone. Her farms at Wanke, Sadau and Mohali were most affected by both irregular rainfall and floods. She recalled how, after the drought came flood, that washed her beans plantation leaving her with little nothing to harvest. Putting her loss in the region of N200,000, Isah lamented that the rain was just too much in the year 2020. She said: “For my beans last year on the same piece of the farm before the flood, I harvested 15 bags but this year due to the flood I got just seven bags.”

Just like Godwin and Isah, Hajia Safiyah, whose rice farm was washed away in Lokoja, Kogi State capital, after the 2020 flood, told this reporter there may not be any food security except if the government intervenes. Her experience is not different from those of others about the irregularity of rainfall. According to Safiyah, “we had multiple problems last year.

It’s not only COVID-19 that is farmers’ headache. We also had a rain issue as we expected rain to start, but it didn’t start and we had to embark on prayers. “When it finally rained, it resulted in heavy flooding in Kogi State. The floods swept away our rice farms. Even our cassava farm was flooded. There is likely to be food crises because right now, prices of foodstuffs are going up even in the so-called ‘bush markets’ in the villages.

There may not be any food security with what we are experiencing and if the government did not come to our aid. We expect the government to assist us with inputs since floods have carried away our farms.” Isah also pleaded: “We farmers are looking forward to the government supporting those of us that can do dry season farming so as to help reduce hunger. For us in Nasarawa State, we don’t practice dry season farming very much, especially women. We are not into it. “That is one of our charters of demands, that, if it is possible, we want the government to give us a big plot of land that can be used as a cluster farm. If the government fulfills that, we can farm as a group; everyone can farm whatever they want.”

Building resilience of women farmers against climate change

It baffles both Godwin and Isah that their knowledge of climate change did not immune them from the pangs of destruction that it visited on them. “I had training on climate change. It’s the ecological changes that occur due to some practices,” said Isah of her knowledge of climate change. She believes there should be more awareness creation and sensitisation for grassroots women about the issue. “Now, even with the advancements in the weather forecast, they are just predicting and with the prediction is there any measure on the ground for farmers in terms of information sharing, or provision of seed to aid mitigation?” she asked.

Experts in climate change and agriculture believe that an adjustment to adapt to the changing situation is crucial for a country like Nigeria whose livelihood occupation of the majority of its population is subsistence farming. Olumide Ojo, Resilience and Private Sector Engagement Manager at Oxfam Nigeria, said climate change issues are dynamic and approaches to them too have to be dynamic.

To really address the problem, he argues, knowledge is what is needed for the vulnerable, particularly the women who are directly impacted by the effects of this change. He said: “What is needed to fight climate change is knowledge. The traditional approach has always been to plant early maturing crops, maybe you are expecting a shorter duration of the rainfall and you want your crops to have matured before the cessation of the rainfall. “In planting early, knowledge has to be holistic. We need to push out a holistic body of knowledge on managing climate change. Planting early in itself needs a lot of education because there are false starts of rainfall.”

With the right kind of knowledge, women, according to Ojo, can harvest as much output from a small farm size as what they will get from a large farm size without knowledge. His position is shared by Dr. Mithika Mwenda, Executive Director of the Pan African Climate Justice Alliance, who also believes that “solutions come from the people, not from protocols such as the Paris Agreement.” Mwenda said a bottom-up approach is needed to build resilience. “What works in the Netherlands, won’t necessarily work in the Horn of Africa. People have their own ways of dealing with climate change. A bottom-up approach is needed to build resilience,” he added, while sharing how, in Kenya, his organisation and others led a local initiative in 2020 to combat climate change by introducing sunflower – a fast-maturing, drought-resistant crop in demand for edible oil. Around 3,000 farmers, he said, were enlisted to the project, which majorly focused on women and youth.

“We provided seeds and partnered up with Kenyan Bidco Africa to guarantee a market and a fair price for farmers. “In less than four months, the project had produced results beyond our expectations and some life-transforming impacts that are already visible.

We just need the will, and the spirit of partnership,” he explained. With the near non-existence of extension programmes in Nigeria, rural women farmers can do as much as the extension officers with the right kind of knowledge. “Gone were the days when we used to see them visit us but not now; we don’t have them,” Isah said of the non-availability of extension workers. Even when states and federal ministries of agriculture mount programmes on television, Isah believes such is never enough for rural women, who often don’t have access to television.

“Not enough, what they show on TV, how many have access to a TV? And at the grassroots, we need sensitisation and practical examples,” she said. But Ojo said a homegrown solution to this challenge is engagement at the grassroots. “If rural women are exposed to the same knowledge that a typical extension is exposed to for the same period of time, by the time you are evaluating their performance, the difference is always insignificant.”

He argues that the farmers will understand the concept of extension from the perspective of a core practitioner rather than from the perspective of a service delivery agent that the extension officer is. “A core farmer is combining the knowledge with the practical know-how and she understands better from that perspective. That’s what we should be targeting at the women,” he said.

How Nigeria is responding to the climate change challenge

Nigeria is a signatory to the Paris Agreement, the international deal aimed at tackling climate change. It ratified the agreement in 2017. Through this, it has pledged to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 20 per cent by 2030, when compared to “business-as-usual” levels. This pledge rises to 45 per cent on the condition of international support. In other words, if Nigeria were to follow a “business as usual” pathway, it would expect its emissions to reach around 900 million tonnes of carbon dioxide a year by 2030, the Nigeria’s Carbon Brief profile said. Nigeria has pledged to reduce this to around 720 million, according to the brief, through actions to tackle climate change. And, if it receives international support, it will try to keep its 2030 emissions to around 495 million tonnes.

It was the world’s 17th biggest emitter of greenhouse gases in 2015, the second-highest in Africa after South Africa. While addressing the UN General Assembly in September 2019, Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari said the country “stands resolutely with the international community in observing agreed carbon emission targets which I signed in 2015.”

“We have since issued two sovereign Green Bonds and have added an additional 1 million hectares of forested land taking our total forest coverage to 6.7 per cent through collective national effort,” he added. In 2017, Nigeria made its climate pledge where the government committed to reducing the country’s emissions by ramping up the rollout of solar energy production, improving energy efficiency and ending “gas flaring”. But experts knock the government for not doing much to meet up with the pledge since then.

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