The power of Nigeria’s enterprising women
Stories of determination and achievement on International Women’s Day
8 March 2006, Lagos, Nigeria -- For almost a century, International Women’s Day has been an occasion for women around the world not only to lobby for equal rights, but also to look back to see how far they have come with their struggle for equality.
FAO, recognizing women’s key role in agriculture and rural development, commemorates International Women’s Day. This year, among the powerful examples of women’s valuable contribution towards eliminating hunger and contributing to economic, political and social advancement, we looked at the role of women in Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country.
Take Tola, for example: raised and educated overseas, she recently returned to Nigeria to try to set up her own food, beverage and hotel business. Her main problem was convincing local banks to lend her the money.
“It was hard at first, getting people to believe I was serious and especially setting up a hotel featuring mainly local art - it was an original concept,” she says. But after several years of knocking on doors and experimenting with traditional styles of art and food, she is now well established with a successful hotel and restaurant, and is part owner of a large art gallery providing local artists with an opportunity to be seen by a wide international clientele.
Progress despite challenges
In a country where two-thirds of the population live on less than US$1.00 a day, and banking and credit are not readily available for those without existing capital, the challenge for Nigerian women is formidable. Yet in this sometimes difficult environment, some women have found a niche and are making enormous strides that could, one day soon, change the face of the country.
Among these are women involved in the Government of Nigeria’s National Special Programme for Food Security. With technical assistance from FAO, the Special Programme aims, through demonstration of irrigation and other farming and processing activities at over 100 sites across the country and through assistance with credit, to reduce hunger and food insecurity in Nigeria.
Adetotun Tomiwa is one such woman. A poor young widow from a small village just outside of Lagos, until two years ago she worked side by side with her husband to make a living from the sale of wooden planks. Though things started off well, they were swindled by their suppliers and their business soon faltered.
Desperate and disillusioned, they applied for a small loan under the Special Programme in 2003. With the loan funds, they purchased one boar and two sows. Within just a short time, the pigs multiplied and could be sold for a good profit. Then just over a year ago, Adetotun lost her husband and was left to pay back the loan and raise her family of two small children alone.
She put all her energy into the pig-raising business and keeping her family alive. Today the results have paid off: she has 37 well-fed pigs and a good number are ready to be sold. She has nearly repaid the original loan and even has the money to pay an assistant to help her clean, feed and market the pigs and to expand the pig pens.
Not far away, in the same village, Victoria Amiekeh took a first loan to raise poultry. Within a short time she was able to more than double her stock of 250 birds producing over 20 crates of eggs each day. Clients come from Lagos city to buy from her, which helps Victoria provide for three children. Though her husband works in the city, his salary was never enough to meet all the expenses.
“Before the loan from the Special Programme we had to struggle, we never seemed to make ends meet. Now we’ve repaid the loan and things have really improved for us,” she says. In addition to raising chickens, Victoria also trained to become a para veterinarian. She now provides veterinary assistance to other farmers in her own and neighbouring villages, including assistance in taking precautionary measures against a possible outbreak of avian flu.
Far away, in Nigeria’s northwest State of Katsina, under a beating sun, so close to the desert that much of the terrain is dry and hardened, wives, mothers and children gather in the women’s compound of a small farming community that is part of the National Special Programme for Food Security. Though it is not easy for the women to leave their houses to work, they have taken a small loan to buy simple spaghetti-making machines. They sell the spaghetti locally, and it is especially popular on feast days and other special occasions. The proceeds, while not a lot, are enough to allow the women to supplement their mainly subsistence incomes in this harsh environment.
Exchanging skills across cultures
Helping such groups, mainly in poor rural areas where access to resources like water, land, firewood and basic tools and skills constitutes a daily struggle, is Ana, a 34-year-old agronomist from China. She came to Nigeria two years ago as part of a South-South Cooperation Agreement between China, Nigeria and FAO whereby Chinese specialists work alongside Nigerian farmers, exchanging their knowledge and skills.
“I really love the challenge of adopting technologies that we use in China to help farmers here, though not speaking the language was a bit of a problem in the beginning,” says Ana, one of only 20 women among the more than 500 Chinese experts working in Nigeria. “What is important is learning by doing and that’s the way I have been showing the farmers. We have a great relationship.”
Working mainly in southern Nigeria, she has been teaching men and women how to tap rubber plants and to improve the quality and yields of pineapples.
Making a difference
Ensuring that both poor men and women are able to benefit from credit and other opportunities through programmes like the National Special Programme is the job of Oluwatoyin Adetunji, Special Adviser on Food Security to the President of Nigeria. Young, dynamic and with first-hand knowledge of agricultural issues, especially those facing women farmers, Mrs Adetunji is determined to ensure that the poor are given a voice and that women, in particular, are given the chance to become drivers of the country’s new economic push.
Part of the original team that met with farmers across the country over five years ago to assess where and how the Nigerian National Special Programme for Food Security could be most effective, she now works to consolidate this and other programmes aimed not only at meeting food needs but also at improving health, nutrition and hygiene in areas of acute poverty.
“Even from the beginning you could see vividly the difference that the opportunities provided by the Special Programme were making,” says Mrs Adetunji. “I was deeply impressed and that was the beginning of my total commitment.”
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