Women in Agriculture: ‘How poor electricity affects my garri processing firm’
By Oge Udegbunam
Joy Itamah, who grows crops and rears goats in Oyo State, has a difficult experience with Nigeria’s perpetually poor power supply and many other challenges.
Joy Itamah, a farmer, grows crops and vegetables and also rears goats in Oyo State. She also processes cassava into garri. She farms on 300-hectare land using both human labour and machines. She speaks to PREMIUM TIMES about her successes and challenges, especially as regards electricity supply and insecurity.
PT: Can you put us through your journey in agriculture?
Ms Itamah: I started agriculture in 2016. But before then as a child, because I had my farm at the back of the house, I have always been interested in farming, coupled with the husband that I married. He has always said that it’s an area he is interested in so in 2016 we decided to own a farm. Between when I was much younger and as an adult, one of the major challenges for me was, as a chemist, we left farming to not too educated people in Nigeria.
So, when it comes to the application of fertilizer, application of other things, we leave what it takes. The Northerners are the ones that are really into farming. If you look at people who really farm, most of them are not really educated. If we are educated and really care about what we put into our bodies then I felt this is something that I need to go into and be able to take up that challenge. That is, if I am going to put anything in my stomach, I should have an idea of what is being fed to the soil.
So that is how we started the journey in 2016 and I actually was interested in plantain and all that. However, as a chemist, we did the soil analysis and discovered that it was not good for what we had in mind then we looked around and saw that it was very good for cassava, cashew, so that was how I went into cassava majorly and then some cashew, maize and rearing of the local goat which is called Obukor.
That is the journey so far. In 2017 of course I started processing using somebody’s factory until 2020 when we had our own facility to process everything about cassava. That is the journey so far.
PT: Aside from the cashew, maize and goat you rear, what other produce do you have from your farm?
Ms Itamah: I do pure honey, we have beehives, we do pure honey, the cassava, those are majorly what we do. We do a bit of vegetable too but we are not really big on that.
PT: Tell us about the beehives and honey production. What is it like in Nigeria producing honey knowing that we have a lot of fake products in the market? How has it been for you?
Ms Itamah: Well, it’s been very good for me. Before I even harvest, I already have people buying it because they know that, I think people are getting more interested in what they eat right. A lot of people when they know that the source is right, before we harvest, we already have buyers that are buying. I encourage people to go into it.
Again, for us, it’s so interesting that the honey production wasn’t even what we had planned from the beginning. However, when we started planting vegetables, we discovered that once their flowers are booming, bees are always there so we just took on that opportunity to get beehives and to get honey. So that is what led us into honey production.
PT: Going to school to study chemistry, at the time, there were institutions offering agriculture. Since you already had a passion for agriculture, why didn’t you study agriculture?
Ms Itamah: That is a very good question. If you look at chemistry and agriculture, there is a kind of a bridge. Even though I have a farm now, I still carry out those analyses, so I think there is a relationship between chemistry and agriculture. Because agriculture is really very wide. Again, what most of us just think is that in agriculture you have to till the ground and put things there. But for us as chemists, beyond that, if you notice I said the first thing is to test the soil. So even though this is what you want to go into, is the soil good for you and all that. Chemistry looks at all those parts as well so I think there is a relationship between those two.
PT: You talked about soil analysis, how do you think poor soil has affected food production in Nigeria?
Ms Itamah: I think it has really affected us negatively because a lot of people just jump into agriculture or buy land and have what they want to do in mind and then just take it and then just go. At the end of the day, you find out that after so many years, some do not even survive the first year. But if you do the right thing like you get land, you survey, you have an idea of what you want to plant then you take that pain to look at whatever I am going to put here, how is it going to do?
You take it to the lab and they give you the feedback. That will help us but because a lot of us have left agriculture as I said, we just feel it’s for those that didn’t go to school. It’s just now a lot of people are waking up. We have always left it in the hands of older people/generations that were not educated and that has affected us so much over the years.
That is why you find out in the market for example this is the season for tomatoes, this is the season for that. Knowing that tomato is not eaten in a particular season, it is eaten throughout the year. Knowing what to do as an educated person and making that planning, starting from that soil will make you able to produce throughout the year. I feel that is where we need to start, the planning, the soil, doing the right thing and beyond this soil. Sometimes you find out that when people don’t do the planning from the soil, you find out that you plant and the plants are not doing well, some even die, and a whole lot of money is wasted.
PT: You talked about training people on things like soil analyses for good food production. Can you recommend areas the government should pay attention to when it comes to food production? Can you recommend how or what steps the government needs to take to make sure there are improved soils for food production?
Ms Itamah: I think it is education. I think we have agencies that are doing this but there is not enough awareness. A lot of people are really not aware. I think a lot has to do with educating farmers. Because a lot of people are interested in okay, “I want my product to be big or to make money or I want it to be very productive”, but at the end of the day for example, if your soil is not good, we keep on buying chemicals spending more to achieve those things whereas it could have just been something like oh there is this particular area good for this particular crop.
If you are in that environment, you should be going towards what really works in that environment so you don’t spend too much. Everything is not just about fertilizer. Again, if you look at the Northern part, the onions, for example, it does so well. In the South, we have other things doing so well. so those are some of the things that even people that didn’t really go to school can have an idea to say okay look around there are some things that do well in the area. I think there is a lot of awareness.
If the government can have labs, functioning labs ready for such tests then I think it helps both the farmer and the government. There is no need to waste so many resources on fertilisers because a lot of us farmers are just quite interested in getting more fertiliser to make their product yield properly. Sometimes, that is even the last thing you want to do. A lot of awareness would help.
PT: You use machines on your farm, what kind of equipment and how do you source them?
Ms Itamah: We have the tractor, then for the processing, for example the garri that we fry, or the flour, we do cassava flour as well, we do the animal, the peels that people throw away, we process it as a raw material. We use machines for that. It is something we acquired for the farm. We started by renting between 2016 to 2018. Then in 2018 we got our tractor; we have one tractor.
PT: Tell us a bit about capital, raising capital to start a business is really a difficult task, especially in Nigeria. How did you raise the capital for this business?
Ms Itamah: It was the most difficult part of the business, very difficult. Most challenging. Like I said when we started, we had the short-term plan, the mid-term and the long-term plan. For us, the vegetable was the short-term plan which was between two-three months. The mid-term for us was cassava which takes about 12 months. Between 10 and12 months. The long term is the cashew. For the first year when we started, we just planted and then as we sold the vegetables, we poured in back the money and then after that the next year we decided to process on the farm, making sure that we don’t just sell cassava but we started turning it into garri. I was open to learning as well. What I did was I had other training in converting waste to wealth. Before now, we just peel our cassava and throw the peels away.
One of the training sessions I had was on how to convert it to other products. Then I had a mentor who was willing for me to bring my cassava to his factory to process and it was just gradually and a lot of savings went into it as well until I grew to a place where I had one or two companies I was supplying and they were ready to help in terms of paying ahead for me to do some certain things for them. It is still a journey we still need some capital but this is how we have been able to grow to make sure that those wastes are now converted.
If you remember I told you we were doing some vegetables and we discovered that bees were always coming, so we decided to use that opportunity to build beehives to get honey. These are some of the things we did and it was more of family and friends.
PT: For the workforce, how many staff do you have on the farm?
Ms Itamah: I have a farm and a factory. So currently for the farm, we have six permanent staff and then for the factory, we have 13. Then we have six corp members right now so 19 but the corp members are not my staff.
PT: Let us talk about your processing, garri processing. Tell us how, first of all, do you export this product?
Ms Itamah: Personally, I don’t, currently I don’t but I have people that sell abroad, that buy it from me and repackage it.
PT: What are the basic challenges you face in the processing of your product?
Ms Itamah: Currently, a lot of people use prime, we use stainless steel. The machines use diesel, as yesterday we bought diesel at N850 per litre, there is no light. A lot of people that do the hand frying, they don’t even need light (electricity) and you are going to go to the same market especially things like garri that everybody takes.
You get to the market, one is selling for N1, another is selling for N3. We all know the situation of the country right now; everybody is trying to save right? In terms of light, it is a big issue for us. There is no light. In terms of workers, it’s been challenging getting workers to do the job. Electricity and logistics.
PT: Can you tell us how much you spend on diesel in a month for production?
Ms Itamah: For production, if there is light, we spend about N400,000–500,000. If they bring light for some hours and then they take light for some hours, we use about 100 litres because we have other things apart from garri that we do. Apart from the same cassava, we use it to produce flour, cassava flour. We process the peels of cassava that is thrown away into three varieties. In fact, we buy peels as well. Also, we use light in drying the peels of that cassava, we do the flour, the animal grid, the food grid and then sometimes we do starch, industrial starch if we have someone that wants it. And then we do the vitamin A garri which is different from the regular garri.
PT: So, in the situation where there is no light, say the grid collapses and there is no light, how much do you then spend? Or are there times there was no light and you just had to depend on the generator for a long period of time?
Ms Itamah: Not too long but this last week and this, we are getting there because like for three days now no light. In fact, we have started saying maybe some of our staff should start using their hands to fry. Like I said, yesterday we needed 100 litres, that is already N85,000. So, we are going to be looking at what we are producing so should our garri be going on hand frying? This is the rainy season right, the peels that we process will take time to dry so those are some of the things we are beginning to look at. Again, we are doing night and day but we discover without light, we can’t run the night shift because it will be too expensive. This is a trying period really.
PT: How has it been for you as a woman farmer, being a madam, supervising I guess men on your farm?
Ms Itamah: Initially when I started it was like that where even in the community it’s the man’s thing but once you have that in mind before you even start, a lot of men are in this field, it kind of helps. For me when I came, I met the Oba and I said I would like to have women included. Beyond my farm, we have what they call contract farming, where GIZ came in and said we should involve the community as well to plant and we buy from them.
There is an arrangement for that. One of the things we did was, I wanted it to be 50/50, 50% men and 50% women. We got about 30% of the women and the fact that we got the women to do the peeling even though we have the peeling machine is something. You know I had to educate them, if you want to live longer as a man, and all the expenses are just borne on you, then you have a woman that is willing to bring 5 kobo.
You know if the children are crying and your wife is able to buy a biscuit, she is not going to disturb you every time you know, you are going to live longer, you are going to have a backup. It’s not that you want to work until you drop dead. You know having it at the back of your mind that your wife is doing something.
We pay them daily; we pay the women daily. So at least she has gone out, she is bringing in something even when the woman does not release the money. I did a lot of education. One of the women, the vice president of contract farming, again what I do for the women is I kind of soften the pedal. When I say so I mean so we have one or two that have given birth, they can always still come back. Some of them can work from home. When I mean work from home, so we buy peels beyond what we use, it is not enough so we still buy these peels. We just say don’t worry, you don’t have to come to work, all you need to do is make sure you source for peels for us and let us know and we just come and pick it. We just said “source for 200 bags, right now it is 200 bags, how many days 2–3 days? That means she is not coming to work but she will still be paid. Those kinds of things are really now making them relax. Initially, it was a tough one.
PT: Tell us about the GIZ and IITA support and how it has helped your business?
Ms Itamah: For the GIZ, the training has been so helpful in terms of including the community. Not just coming to a community and you are seen as “oh you just want to exploit them” and all that, seeing it as partnership. So beyond us just doing it alone, we have the community, they are able to do their own farming. Just last year we started, they are able to farm on the land as well and then we are able to get back the product from them and we agree on a price before we start.
It is a win-win for us and them. for us, because we have had that agreement before we started, even if the prices fall, we can’t, there need to be an agreement, again for them because a lot of people farm and one of the problems is they don’t see buyers they know that they have a company that can take it from them.
Because they know that this is beyond just one company, they open it again. People don’t go and say we are destroying the farm because they know that we are all in it together. So that has really helped and it will even help further because if we are planting 5 hectares, with the community planting as well, it means that we are going to have more products to work with.
The IITA itself is a bit different in terms of training, in terms of production, in terms of producing to international standard, IITA has been there, in terms of the new variety of stems that are coming out, they let us know as well. Before COVID they come to the farm just to inspect what we do but after COVID, it’s not been like that but we have always had their support in terms of people having an issue. They are someone you can always call and they give their support.
PT: You have benefitted from two international organisations but the Nigerian government has rolled out projects and programmes for farmers. Have you benefited from any of the federal government projects in Agriculture?
Ms Itamah: No. I wish I could, I haven’t, no.
PT: Have you made efforts to see if you can benefit from any of them?
Ms Itamah: I think I have tried once. The policies are there and all that but I don’t see anything forthcoming. We are still hopeful though.
PT: Let’s talk about farmer/herder clashes in farms, have you experienced this crisis?
Ms Itamah: Yes, we have, we have had it twice. I think one this year and the other two years ago. One of them was when a cow entered the farm and destroyed the farm. One of the security guys shot the cow and it became something that was serious.
But because the king in the community is supportive as well, he was able to sort it out the first time that happened. And of course, we are now using Amotekun on our farms because it seems to be what they are scared of. The second one was a fire in the farm and we didn’t know who did it.
PT: Amotekun, do you have any financial commitment to the staff?
Ms Itamah: Oh yes, we pay them. I don’t count them as my staff because we contract them. We pay them N30,000 per month per person. We have five of them on the farm. We actually pay Amotekun N197,000 every month because we have them in the factory as well. The factory is 4 kilometers away from the farm.
PT: The land you purchased at the time you purchased it, how did you go about it?
Ms Itamah: I went by myself with my sister in-law. I had met someone on the internet. Before the internet I actually wanted to rent but I went to the Nigerian export promotion camp. I remember a particular guy who said “oh you are a woman”. He advised me why not get the land and do this. While I was .. I met someone online, he wanted to take us to where we are to buy this land and then we met up in Ibadan. My husband was scared so he said go with a policeman and all that.
We got a surveyor that was supposed to go with us as a man. I think it was even the surveyor that said we should take a policeman if we don’t know this third party. I called my brother’s wife and said oh look at what these guys said. She just said don’t worry, that is just a waste of time. If we are going to be looking at all the land, is that how we will be going with a policeman and that even carrying a policeman might expose us more.
The guy who was supposed to go with us that morning switched off his phone, the surveyor. I guess because we said that night, we are not going with policemen even though my husband said when we get to Ibadan make sure you get a policeman. He just switched off so when we got to Ibadan, the guy was nowhere to be found.
These guys that were supposed to take us there, so i just told them please don’t kidnap us. We just said all we needed to say. The guy just said if somebody needs to be afraid, he should be the one to be afraid because now he is in the midst of two women, what a man can do a woman can do, you know that kind of thing, that was what he said.
We went, checked and then somehow, my sister-in-law collected somebody’s number so we found out that this person who took us there had given us twice the price. At a point, we just divided to deal with the owners of the land and that is how it went. It was directly that we got the land. But I won’t try that now.
PT: What other challenges do you face as a woman farmer?
Ms Itamah : Again a lot of people we work with on the farm are not educated, when you make suggestions on maybe how to plant the casava, maybe from a training we have had from IITA. what they have been used to in that community is quite different and people are not ready for that change. They don’t easily accept change. That is one thing, that is the major thing.