A 60-year-old woman wipes her face with the back of her palms to clean a simmering sweat before tightening a bundle of pumpkin leaves for a customer.
Victoria Uzo has been in the business for five years, using it to sustain her family through that period.
But in recent months, her sales and profits have plummeted amidst worsening economic landscape. The prices of pumpkin seeds, which she needs to grow Nigeria’s favourite vegetable, have increased even amidst low patronage.
Yet, Ms Uzo says demand and supply crisis is the least threat facing her business.
“The number one thing that is our poison is the invasion of our farmlands by cattle,” the sexagenarian told PREMIUM TIMES. “And we are not even allowed to talk about it.”
“We cannot afford the seeds of ugwu (Igbo word for vegetable) anymore. We used to get our seeds from our farms, but now, before you know it you would run out of farmlands because of herders,” she added.
Ms Uzo is one of several vegetable traders and farmers in the federal capital territory whose livelihood has come under threat from foraging cattle, which in turn puts them in perpetual clashes with herders.
In Sofo Toge community, along the airport road, Bello Ibrahim grows vegetables in commercial quantity to feed his family. But the 29-year-old told PREMIUM TIMES his business has ”been hit by the invasion of cattle herders” in recent months.
Danladi Iliyasu, 35, also of Sofo Toge, decried the worsening insecurity around his farmlands, which has rendered his business stagnant.
A couple, Mr and Mrs Chukwu, also told PREMIUM TIMES of repeated breach of their farmlands by cattle.
In one instance late October, herders allowed their cattle to stray into the farmlands of the Chukwus in the afternoon, inflicting serious damage on their vegetable, the farmers said.
The residents blamed the police for failing to protect their farmlands from herders and their cattle. Instead, they accused the police of playing an active role at forcing them to remain quiet about the matter.
“I’m suspecting they have a connection with the policemen around us,” Mr Ilyasu said. “If we report them to the police, they would ask us to get them ourselves and will not follow you to the scene.”
The herders “have more connection with the police than we the farmers,” Mr Iliyasu said.
Mr Ibrahim said the police have asked him and other farmers in Sofo Toge to collect N3,000 or N5,000 and stay quiet about cattle encroachment into their farmlands.
“The police would ask the herdsmen to pay either N3000 or N5000,” Mr Ibrahim said. “Meanwhile, they (farmers) usually spend more than N50,000 in planting this commodity.”
Abuja police commissioner, Bala Ciroma, denied allegations that officers were derelict in their duty to protect the farmers and often broker deal that the farmers found largely lopsided in favour of herders.
“We do not take sides between the parties,” Mr Ciroma told PREMIUM TIMES.
Also, Frank Mba, the chief police spokesperson, told PREMIUM TIMES he was not aware of the specific incidents involving the farmers in Sofo Togo and other Abuja suburbs, but said the police generally take issues relating to the destruction of farmlands by cattle seriously.
“We are working very hard to tackle them,” Mr Mba said. “It requires a wide range of collaboration and huge investments by both federal and state authorities.”
“It goes beyond just law enforcement,” he said.
Great potential, weak intervention
Nigeria’s rich soil helps farmers to grow vegetables in large quantities, which could help boost the country’s food supply and agricultural exports. But experts said the perennial crisis between the farmers and herders has helped to stall that potential.
Nigeria has for years grappled with the confrontation between farmers and herders in the country’s north and central regions, with thousands of lives being lost in the last few years.
In recent months, the herdsmen violence that gripped the northern regions has subsided and farmers have been returning to their lands. But farmers say the problem remains in some parts of the country, although at a relatively low scale. Also, they complain about the lack of attention from the government.
“Nigeria can emerge as vegetable export giant if the Nigerian government can provide policy direction and put structures in place to empower subsistence farmers,” said John Okapku, a logistics expert who runs an agro shipping firm in Lagos.
Mr Okapku said Nigeria has yet to obtain certification of the Global G.A.P., an alliance that sets standards for agricultural and farm management practice based in Germany.
“While Nigeria has zero certification, Kenya has 1, 879 certifications, South Africa has 1, 797, Egypt has 761 and Ghana has over 200,” Mr Okapku said, adding that the certification could bolster Nigeria’s vegetable exports to billions of dollars in annual sales.
The security challenges have hit supply of seeds from the National Agricultural Seed Council (NASC), leaving farmers to produce on an insufficient scale.
“Those who produce on a large scale are not properly coordinated,” Folarin Oketola, a spokesperson for the NASC, told PREMIUM TIMES.
The scarcity has inevitably led to high cost of pumpkin vegetables, which is in high demand in Nigeria.
“That ugwu is pre-germinated before it is sold, also is a reason for the hike,” he said.
Anchor Borrowers’ Programme
While Ms Uzo and other vegetable dealers around Abuja could see an uptick in their business returns if the crisis with herders is resolved, their ability to grow vegetables in large quantity is largely hinged on the amount of financial support they could get, experts said.
In 2015, the Nigerian government initiated the Anchored Borrowers Programme to create a link between companies and small-holder farmers.
The programme, which is coordinated by the Central Bank of Nigeria, has been advancing small and medium-scale loans to farmers in order to boost agricultural output and reduce pressure on food prices.
Obiora Okafor, a senior member of All Farmers Association of Nigeria (AFAN), said vegetable dealers should receive prioritised attention in the implementation of anchor borrowers’ policy, even though they were not initially captured in it.
Mr Okafor said such support would help Ms Uzo and other farmers recover from the losses they suffered from the destruction of their farmlands.
“There is a need to promote the vegetable value chain for food security, nutritional security and for healthy living,” Mr Okafor said, urging the government to encourage the farmers, especially the women who are vulnerable.
Isaac Okorafor, a spokesperson for the CBN, did not return requests seeking comments about whether or not the bank would support vegetable farmers as part of its efforts to boost production in the agricultural sector.
In the meantime, residents of Sofo Toge and other Abuja communities affected by cattle grazing have taken measures to foster peaceful co-existence against government dithering.
Isah AbdulKarim, a Fulani leader and chairman of the local farmers’ cooperative, said it was unfortunate that herders were disrupting farming activities in the communities, but said violence would not be a solution.
He told PREMIUM TIMES his vegetable farm had also been destroyed by cattle and wondered why herders would ”hurt one of their own”. He said the communities have a vast diversity of vegetable farmers from all over the country.
“We grow vegetables such as ugwu, bitter leaf, ayoyo (Jute leaf), and alefo (amaranth), among others,” saying he had been filling the gap as a mediator to avoid an outbreak of conflict.
Other local farmers said they would continue to embrace any measure that would engender peace for all residents, but urged the government to take urgent steps to avert further setbacks to their economic situation.