Naona Usoroh is the director in charge of environmental, social and economic needs at Alluvial Agriculture. She has a background in economics. She works on the gender aspects of the MasterCard Foundation project to support 65,000 farmers over a two year period.
She leads the gender and youth mainstreaming areas of the project. In this episode of our Women in Agriculture series, she tells PREMIUM TIMES how the organisation empowers female farmers in Nigeria.
PT: You have a background in economics, how then did you get into agriculture?
Ms Usoroh: I had a short thing with insurance, then I moved on to working with a nonprofit and from the nonprofit, I transitioned to agribusiness. Nonprofits focused on climate change and environmental sustainability. Basically, I worked in the Niger Delta, where there was a lot of exploration of oil, spillage and environmental issues. So we worked around that. We worked with communities to support them in their fight for justice, just basically helping them in livelihoods, raising awareness of the issues that they’re facing. After that, I moved on to agribusiness.
PT: Your organisation has a partnership with MasterCard Foundation and then you hope to empower 65,000 farmers, 80 per cent of the farmers are expected to be women, Tell us more about it?
Ms Usoroh: We started in June/July 2020 and it is supposed to end June 2022. We have done one year, seven months, and have about five months left on the project.
PT: How would you say this progress has been so far considering the targets you set for your project?
Ms Usoroh: Yeah, it was very ambitious, right? To target working with 80 percent women out of 65,000. Initially, we had challenges with the numbers. Then we changed our strategy. We started approaching the communities differently. When we go to a community, we don’t go and say “oh, we’re here to empower you; to work with farmers, about 80 per cent has to be women” once you say that, the tendency is that most men come and register.
Well, we went and said, “This is a women’s project”. Once we started doing that, we would increase the number of women. So the community leaders know that they need to bring the women out, they need to help them work with this company that has come. That’s how we were able to reach the numbers, it’s still a struggle. But with that strategy it helped a lot.
PT: What factors do you consider before going to these locations to select the farmers? What regions did you visit, and then what inspired you to get to these regions to empower their women?
Ms Usoroh: First, the project is for eight states. Eight focus states. So in every state, we have farming communities. We employed staff who were experienced on the ground. They advise us about areas that we can go to. We also did a lot of research. We travelled far and wide to metro communities, and communities that were willing to cooperate with us in terms of help in bringing out their women to work with us, we partnered with them.
So it’s basically from people who are on the ground and knew the farming communities, where the irrigation sites were, and from our own research and of course networking. For example, we have a community here with 500 hectares of land and the women are willing to work with you, we go there as long as it’s in those states, and it’s in the three focal crops. The states are Kano, Kaduna, Nasarawa, Benue, Cross River, Niger, Bauchi and Plateau States. The three focal crops are maize, rice, and soybeans. So once we identify communities who are traditional maize farmers or soy farmers in these focal states, we partner with them, and they are willing to work with us.
PT: In our previous series, some of these women mentioned that there is a procedure in which you register them and then you supply them with inputs then they pay back with either cash or part of their harvest, is this true?
Ms Usoroh: Okay, so the main goal of this project is to help the farmers, create sustainable business, transition from subsistence farming to commercial farming, right? Owning and managing a commercial farm business. There was a survey that we did, we had a whole activity towards conditioning their minds to say, look, this is a business, you can progress, you can move forward, you can scale, one of the things we needed to do is get the farmers on track. That’s why we needed to register them. We also worked with banks for financial inclusion. Some of these women farmers particularly had no bank accounts and we were able to help them so the banks came to the communities, helped them to register, helped them get their BVN, and other documents. For payback, it’s the grant we got from MasterCard to assist us provide input at subsidised rates.
The little that they had to pay was paid in produce not cash. It was easier for them and they didn’t have to pay 100 per cent. Like I said, it was highly subsidised. For the inputs they only had to pay about 25 per cent of the cost of the inputs. We converted that to cash. We didn’t even agree on the price at the beginning because we didn’t want a situation where it would be we’re cheating them or they’re cheating us. At harvest, the market prices are what determines how much they’ll pay back the yield they produce.
PT Are there times these women are unable to meet up with the payments?
Ms Usoroh: Of course, there are those challenges but you know, that’s why we want to transition them because see, if somebody is farming on one hectare, right, how much profit really can you make on one hectare of land? How much can that do for you from the seeds we have given them and the inputs we have given them in the right dosage, recommended dosage?
It helped them at least get more yield than previously. But it still is not enough, especially coming out of COVID-19 still not enough. So yes, we had situations with some farmers.
To recover was a challenge because I mean, it’s difficult if you have a set income and they are farming most of the time once per season. If they are able to scale, which is what this project wants to do, at the end of post intervention, we should be able to get banks to finance some of these farmers and give them credit for inputs not just for one hectare for two hectares.
So with that scale, paying back will not be a problem. But if they have enough they will have enough revenue to pay even if they eat. They will not be inundated with bills and you know just surviving.
Yes, we have challenges with people. Well, so far, so good, we are still trying to manage that. Usually a lot of it comes from trust. Trust, they are used to being free, but we are trying to make them see the benefits of working with an organisation like ours, we cannot be free forever and for you to grow and scale, you need to be able to prove that you are trustworthy.
Then for them to trust us, they need to believe that we are not just there for the short term, not just for this one year, two years, we are here for the long haul. If you’re here for the long haul, you would not want to not repay, because “if I don’t repay, I can’t benefit from them next year”. So, I think when we build that trust, our working relationship will be far more profitable for both parties and better . But yes, it’s a challenge. Well, you see, we see good progress as we are there, the second year is slightly better than the last.
PT: Are there specific sanctions when they are unable to pay back?
Ms Usoroh: The sanction is that you can’t benefit again. You just can’t benefit again. Then you see your colleagues, your other farmers benefiting and you will not qualify for credits. So it doesn’t make any sense to not fulfill your obligation really.
PT: Can you put a particular figure to the number of persons who are benefitting presently?
Ms Usoroh: For now, we have about 41,000 farmers. Between when we started and now but it’s more women.
PT: Do you have a particular reason why you’re giving preferential treatment to women, why you consider them more in this project?
Ms Usoroh: We are closing the gap, I don’t think it’s preferential. It’s just we are creating opportunities for women. See, in some of these projects and a lot of work we do, if you’re not deliberate about including women in whatever you’re doing your operations, your work, the gap is going to widen further in corporate spaces, if you’re not deliberate about hiring women, As long as a woman is qualified, you give her a chance. You have to be deliberate. That’s why we set this target. There’s research to back up that when you empower a woman, the multiplier effect is greater, and returns on investment may be higher. If I say so myself, even women are better creditors or debtors, they’re serious about growing their business.
They’re serious about paying back, but they’re serious about growing their business so they will do whatever it takes. That means cooperation with the company has come to support you, even when we have our training sessions they participate, they listen and you know they cooperate with us a lot, it’s easier to honestly work with women. It’s easier to work with. That’s my opinion.
PT: There are various crops grown in Nigeria, why do you consider three crops? What factors did you consider when choosing the crops?
Ms Usoroh: It’s kind of obvious. I mean, we import rice. We are a rice consuming country. Check the statistics on how much we consume and how much we produce. This is a huge disparity. Then the maize as well, the poultry industry depends a lot on the maize, we also do not produce a lot of maize for internal consumption.
PT: The women, you have empowered now, can you tell us the specific progress you’ve recorded in their farms and as an institution. I think you should take some kind of records and how they started and how it is going. So kind of progress you have recorded.
Ms Usoroh: Good progress, because it’s not just the input that we’ve given them. We’ve also helped them market their products. So that’s one big thing, you know, she has all these inputs now. 40 bags and she now starts going around looking for who to buy. We buy it at market rates. She doesn’t have to go far. She just brings it to us and we buy it at the market rate. It’s fair for her. So market access is one of the things we’ve helped them and getting their money in bulk at the same time. Rather than a triple through an account that she has opened.
That makes a lot of difference. We’re not just doing the MasterCard Foundation project, there is another project. There’s a story we heard the other day and it was very moving, she was able to finish her house. Yes. From the support that she got from us in partnership with the sustainable trade initiative. So like I said, it’s not just the input, we have also trained them in better agronomic practises. We’ve also trained a lot of them. There is this system where we train, we call them our women change champions, which we train them to as master trainers to train the remaining farmers, the remaining farmers train the farmers in their classes and their groups.
We groomed the women on keeping financial records, how to calculate how, when or how much profit she makes, how to keep records, those kind of skills, you know, and we’ve sent a woman change champions to go back to the field to get feedback on how that small training “What it has done for them” and the impact, the testimonials are quite moving. She’s able to have a book and register how much she’s spending for inputs, or how much she has gotten, labours, inputs, etc. The total, how much she spends throughout and then how much she will get if she gets this year, and then the profit margin, etc. It’s that knowledge has helped them to even save, to understand if they’re making a profit, or if they will make a loss. It’s really helping them. I think because of that they’re able to understand what Alluvial wants for them, and intend to do.
What the goal is, which is to help them become profitable farm businesses. For the lay men, I can say the impact has been I wouldn’t say great, because the time frame is too short, the outcome, the intermediate outcome from that has been encouraging. It’s encouraging, because usually they don’t have the support. They don’t and now there’s this company that is coming to support them not just giving them this but providing training, you know, and they value that a lot. We train them on how to drive/operate tractors. With this skill, they are able to operate a tractor for their own benefit without the need to hire a tractor operator. We are also through the trainees, facilitating increased access to mechanisation services as we are in the process of qualifying some of the Female tractor operations training (FTOT) trainees to receive tractors on a lease-to-own basis.
PT: You mentioned buying these products from them, what do you do to them?
Ms Usoroh: We have an agreement with offtakers and processors as well. We have middle men because of our interactions and our partnership with the farmers as we regard them as our partners.
PT: You said they’re paying back some of the inputs with their harvests? So basically you buy it from them?
Ms Usoroh: Yes, the inputs are paid to the input companies. We buy the inputs at the market rates so whatever the balance is from the 25 per cent the farmers contribute which is the agreement between us and the input companies.
PT: Now, even though there is some agreement, do you make any commitments towards security considering that they have issues with security and other threats in some of your focal states, do you consider all this?
Ms Usoroh: Of course we don’t work in volatile areas. We have workers and the farmers won’t even farm if it’s risky. We’re not telling them where to go as you are farming on your own farm. We are not saying go and farm, No. It’s, we are here if you want to work with us, come and farm. So I don’t think there’s any farmer that would willingly go to work where there’s high security challenges,
These places are not considered as places with high security challenges but the thing is these herders go anywhere and even come to your house.
The truth is, since we started working we haven’t had any reports. We are very careful about where they work as we have wonderful staff on ground that are indigenes of the communities. We didn’t send people from other places; everybody working lives within the state so they know the terrain.
PT: Being in agric business as a woman, what does it mean to you to make significant differences considering farming and other factors attributed to agriculture?
Ms Ushoro: When it comes to farming, and according to statistics, women make up the majority of smallholder farmers, right. Then when it comes to the top, the business of agric, trading of commodities, corporate agriculture, there is the lack of female representation, you know. So, as a woman in this space there’s a lot riding on me being successful. There’s a lot riding on me also paving or helping other women come into this space and I do that personally. Aside from my work with Alluvia. I feel that I’m not just here for myself. There are opportunities in this space.
As much as I can, I can show other women those opportunities, and also bring more women into the site. That’s a responsibility that I need to have. I have to be deliberate about it as well. So it’s in my conscience and I try to get as much as I can.
PT: You’re a middleman, you give them inputs, that is, herbicides and all the agro chemicals they need and then also mechanisation services as well. How can we break the logjam between fertiliser procurement and the system of distribution in Nigeria as you know, you make it easier for these women actually when you buy and you give to them. Without you, some of them you don’t have access to good fertilisers. How well do you think we can minimise or even mitigate the challenge?
Ms Usoroh: The challenge for me is logistics. Moving products from one point to the other, from the fertiliser plant to the communities that actually need and then as economies of scale, if there are 400 farmers and they need fertiliser, is it profitable for a company to supply them? It may be difficult for some but to a large extent farmers do go to the market and buy these things, fertilisers particularly.
There are some locations where they need help bringing them in as they need to buy it and transport it and may not have that money in bulk to buy it. One of the things we tell the farmers is if you come together as cooperatives, not just as individuals, that helps, so you can purchase in one bulk and it’s delivered to your community as opposed to go in travelling all the way to the nearest town or the nearest city where they have fertiliser stores, and buying four bags, five, three bags, etc.
It is a logistical challenge, an infrastructural challenge and one that is bigger than any company in the government. But there are ways around it, like I said, coming together by helping them understand the dynamics and the advantages of being in groups and the economies of scale buying produce in large quantities. That’s one of the ways of helping.