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In the face of crisis, female farmers grow in Nigeria

In northeast Nigeria, where agriculture forms the backbone of rural communities and livelihoods, the militant group Boko Haram has forced millions to flee their homes and take refuge in crowded settlements on the outskirts of the region’s largest cities and towns. They’re leaving behind not just their homes, but their ways of life.

In the region’s largest city, Maiduguri, an estimated 130,000 displaced people have settled into urban and peri-urban camps – part of more than 1.4 million displaced people living in camps throughout Borno State alone.

Many in the camps are farmers, cut off from their lands and communities and unsure of when they will be able to return home, get back to their fields, and earn a living again. And a significant portion of these farmers are women, many of whom face obstacles because of their gender.

Amid these dire circumstances, a program is helping displaced Nigerian farmers create income opportunities and plan for the future by providing gender-responsive training, education about best agronomic practices, access to land and seed, and marketing opportunities.

“We’re now trying to educate them, trying to explain to them that both women and men are equal in terms of whatever they are doing, so they shouldn’t be denigrated.”

Kachalla Kyari Mala

“The idea is for them to have the knowledge, for them to know what they are doing when they go back to their homes so that they will be self-reliant,” says program leader Kachalla Kyari Mala, a researcher at the Lake Chad Research Institute, part of the Agricultural Research Council of Nigeria.

The institute initiated the training program in 2018 to assist displaced wheat farmers living in the camps. The project launched after Mala and his team received training in gender-responsive agriculture research methods starting in 2017 through the Gender-responsive Researchers Equipped for Agricultural Transformation (GREAT) project, a joint effort between Cornell’s Department of Global Development and Makerere University in Kampala, Uganda.

Mala, a wheat breeder with degrees in botany, genetics, and crop breeding, is working toward a Ph.D. in crop breeding. The research center where he works as a national mandate to aid farmers by breeding for genetic improvement of wheat, barley, and millet.

He never expected to be working in camps with displaced people so heavily impacted by political and social issues. But now his work demands it.

Mala and other researchers on the project had to learn to engage communities in different ways and collect data that could help them better understand how men and women relate differently to crops, in the field and beyond. This meant learning to use methods like key informant interviews and sex-separated focus groups – tools more frequently used by social scientists than plant breeders. It also meant spending significant time within the camps and understanding that the crop couldn’t be separated from the community.

“Because of the insurgency, we couldn’t even access some of our outside stations,” Mala says. “We felt [that working in the camps] is necessary, since so many of our target beneficiaries are in the camps: Why not now focus our attention on them?”

Women in the camps face negative stereotyping and discrimination at nearly every turn, diminishing their ability to farm and benefit from the program.

Mala described an incident last year in which the scientists cleared and allotted land for a group of men and women to farm. Before long the scientists received complaints that the men in the group had taken control of all that was produced.

“[Women] don’t have access to land; they don’t have access to seeds. Even if they produce … the men actually get control over [their crops], due to the traditional aspects and the religious belief that women are always inferior to men,” says Mala. “We’re now trying to educate them, trying to explain to them that both women and men are equal in terms of whatever they are doing, so they shouldn’t be denigrated.”

The spread of COVID-19 has only worsened the situation. The collective fear has had a paralyzing effect on the agriculture activities and interpersonal interactions that are critical to achieving the goals of the program.

“The farmers are somewhat skeptical about meeting us, and we are somewhat skeptical about meeting them, due to fears of contracting the virus,” Mala explains.

Remote meetings are not a possibility, because the displaced farmers lack internet facilities, mobile phones, and tablets.

And even if they did have the communications technology, some activities just cannot be done remotely. To grow crops, one must go to the field.

They are slowly adapting to new challenges. “We don’t engage more than five or six farmers at a time,” Mala says. “We keep a distance of 2 to 3 meters. We use face masks. So we are able to overcome the fears.”

Despite the strict social distancing measures and challenges of living and working in the camps, Mala says the program has had successes, which gives him hope to continue working. He wants to pass on best agricultural practices, implemented in a gender-responsive manner, to benefit people for many years to come, he says.

“They are now waiting for the insurgency to be over so that when they go back to their villages they can produce in large quantities,” Mala says. “They’ve adopted all of the best practices, so they can now produce by themselves.”


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