By Martha Agas
Plateau, like any other agrarian state in Nigeria, is faced with many challenges in the agriculture sector which is the major occupation of its people.
Aside being the highest producer of Irish potatoes in Nigeria, the north-central state has the potential of cultivating several other crops like wheat, sorghum, millet, rice, among others.
In his broadcast to mark this year’s Democracy day, Gov Simon Lalong announced that more than 3,000 rice farmers and 5,000 farmers of other crops had been successfully assisted to enroll into the Anchor Borrowers’ Programme of the Central Bank of Nigeria to boost agricultural output.
In a similar broadcast in 2020, he had said that the state government spent N4 million to procure and subsidise farm inputs, and through its partnership with African Development Bank, provided improved seeds and built capacity of farmers on modern production method.
He said that the Potato Tissue Culture Laboratory in Mangu Local Government had been completed to facilitate the production of high quality potato variety and expand potatoes production from eight local governments to all the17 local governments.
The governor also said that 1,500 irrigation water pumps were distributed to facilitate dry season farming of potato and vegetables, while 150 farmers were empowered to commence wheat and barley production.
But, while these efforts appear commendable, small-holder farmers, who are the major producers of food crops distributed to residents in the state and beyond, have decried the hardship they were experiencing in their efforts to sustain the venture as a source of livelihood.
Mrs Mary Afan, National President, Small Scale Women Farmers’ Organisation in Nigeria (SWOFON), believes that the patriarchal system in Africa, especially in northern Nigeria, has made access to land a major challenge of women farmers in Plateau.
“Customs and traditions have denied women the privilege of inheriting land in their families; even when they have the funds to buy land, the transaction is frustrated except they go through their husbands, sons or male relatives.
“Nobody will sell land to you in your name as a woman; it has to be in the name of your husband or son,” she lamented.
Similarly, Mrs Jessica Vonkat, the state coordinator of Country Women Association of Nigeria (COWAN) in Plateau, has said that COWAN had been going on advocacy visits to
communities for increased farm land for women.
“We do this because food consumed in Nigeria and sold in markets are largely from the rural women who cultivate just a quarter of a hectare,” she told newsmen recently.
Ms. Lilian Ogbogbu, a poultry farmer, has also decried the difficulty in accessing land for poultry and livestock business.
She also decried the worsening insecurity that had pushed up the cost of poultry business, especially in the rural areas of Plateau.
“Insecurity in rural communities, particularly the farmers/herders crisis, prevents bountiful harvest which has made access to grains such as maize and soya beans used for chicken feeds and food consumption scarce, and where available, very expensive.
“Women famers are forced to hire men or other security personnel to guard them while on the farm because they are often attacked and raped, while some are even killed by herders, especially those who struggle with them to access water during the dry season farming.
“Another challenge is lack of access to credit facilities and government interventions.
“The challenge is most evident among rural women farmers who are mostly illiterate and suffer hardship because they do not have financial institutions in their communities or even their local government areas, and are made to travel distances to open accounts to enable them access credits and interventions from banks, whose bureaucratic processes are stringent for the farmers,” she said.
The president of SWOFON in Nigeria, who is also the state coordinator for Plateau, is also worried about the bureaucratic process militating against access to credit facilities for the rural farmers.
“It seems that these hurdles are designed to frustrate rural farmers from accessing government credit facilities which are eventually given to `political farmers’ and not the true farmers who need such interventions.
“Bureaucratic processes of opening an account with documents such as electricity and water bills are difficult for the rural woman who does not have such facilities.
“Farming does not need Bank Verification Number (BVN). Since our political leaders can follow us to our communities to campaign for votes in election, if they have any facilities for women, they should follow them and take it to the traditional leaders and cooperative leaders to ease access,” she said.
Similarly, Mr Joshua Bitrus, Chairman, Plateau chapter of the Rice Farmers Association in Nigeria (RIFAN), has said that micro credit facilities would shore up production of rice and encourage its millers to improve its various processes, especially de-stoning.
The need for more access to farm inputs may be a cliché to the public, but stakeholders all agree that Plateau farmers are in dire need of inputs such as fertilisers, improved seedlings and farm chemicals such as herbicides at subsidised rates.
The Chairman, Plateau chapter of the All farmers Association in Nigeria (AFAN), Mr John Wuyep, believes that subsidised rates for inputs would help in addressing food insecurity in the country.
He says that the plight of farmers in the state was further worsened by the COVID-19 pandemic, especially the lockdown directives.
“Small-holder farmers are still counting their losses of food and livestock even after the return of normalcy in movements. The pandemic has exposed the existing gaps in the agricultural system, food supply chain and weakness in absorbing shocks of disease outbreaks or natural disasters.
“Farmers of vegetables and fruits incurred many losses during the lockdown period because of its perishable nature,” he further lamented.
Mrs Mary Afan of SWOFON has also decried the lack of storage facilities, and explained that farmers of perishable goods were usually forced to sell off their produce at very cheap rates to middle men, who take advantage of the situation to make brisk business and extort the farmers.
She also said that the COVID-19 pandemic had thrown small-holders farmers into hardship, worsening food shortage and poverty, when they were caged in their houses during the various bouts of lockdown.
On the climate change caused by persistent shortfall in rain which affects farming in the state, the official said that government should facilitate the harvest of rainfall through the construction of mini dams to facilitate dry season farming whose yields are always better.
“ What you harvest during the dry farming season is 90 per cent better than what you harvest in the wet season,” she said.
She also recommended the resuscitation of marketing and price control boards to address food insecurity and price control by middlemen.
But to boost agricultural yields, stakeholders have called on government to shore up efforts to end the herders/farmers clashes to ensure the safety of farmers and their produce.
They have also called for measures to encourage local production of grains such as maize, rice, wheat and Irish potatoes where Plateau holds comparative advantage over other states, for local consumption and exportation.
Groups such as SWOFON and COWAN have also called for the implementation of the Gender Equal Opportunity Law (GEOL) in the state, to address the difficulties women farmers face in the quest for more land to cultivate.
Martha Agas is a journalist of News Agency of Nigeria (NAN).