It was a drizzling Thursday in Shazhi village, a community in Kuje Area Council in the Federal Capital Territory (FCT) when PREMIUM TIMES visited.
Heavily pregnant Christiana Ibrahim balances on her head, a handmade calabash with eight pieces of firewood neatly arranged for sale.
Mrs Ibrahim, who came to check on her wares where she and other women store their firewood for sale, looked tired.
She told PREMIUM TIMES how she treks for two hours every morning to Kuje market to sell her firewood to make ends meet.
Women in Shazhi village are predominant firewood sellers and farmers. Mrs Ibrahim explained that despite the distance they cover with the load, “they have trained their necks to bear the burden, a tradition akin to the Gbagyi tribe”.
“You know our head is sacred and like a god! So we do not put load on it. We carry our loads on our necks.
“We all trek for almost two hours to Kuje every morning to sell these pieces of firewood. Although there are days we go to our farms, we only get people who come to buy in bulk once in a blue moon,” Mrs Ibrahim said.
Like Mrs Ibrahim, many women in neighbouring communities like Wumi, Tondo, usually take the four-hour trip from their villages to Kuje market to sell and feed their families. Many of their husbands are also farmers.
The 30-year-old mother of three later complained bitterly about the poor living conditions of farmers and firewood sellers in the different agrarian communities around Kuje in the Federal Capital Territory.
“We walk from morning till evening almost every day here, go to Kuje to sell the wood and some of our produce, but there is very little to show for it, people buy this calabash for N400 only. We only get lucky when they come to buy in bulk,” Mrs Ibrahim said.
Kuje is one of the six area councils in the Nigerian capital. With a population of about 100,000 people (according to a 2006 national census), it covers a landmass of about 1,644 km².
“The situation is even worse for farmers in smaller villages like ours,” Mrs Ibrahim said lamenting that women in the rural Abuja communities do not benefit from any government scheme.
Another farmer, Bulus Alheri, corroborated Mrs Ibrahim’s position in a separate interview with PREMIUM TIMES.
“Our firewood and produce are bought at poor prices and no one cares about us or how we survive,” Mrs Alheri said.
Both Mrs Ibrahim and Mrs Alheri identified poor knowledge of financial management and lack of access to financial services in rural communities as part of the underlying causes of poverty and frustration in those areas.
“All the banks are in Kuje. Before we trek to Kuje to open a bank account, we use what we make to eat and cater for the family so how do we save.
“I doubt if we are part of the federal government’s financial plan,” she said.
How to get poor Nigerians like Mrs Ibrahim and Alheri in the financial inclusion bracket has been of concern to the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN).
CBN’s Financial Inclusion Commitment
In 2010, Nigeria made a commitment to reduce the adult financial exclusion rate in the country from 46.3 per cent to 20 per cent by 2020.
According to the strategy document, the NFIS was built on four strategic areas of agency banking, mobile banking/mobile payments, linkage models and client empowerment.
It also identified four priority areas for guideline and framework development. They included Tiered Know-your-Customer (T-KYC) Regulations, Agent Banking Regulations, National Financial Literacy Strategy and Consumer Protection.
A major aspect of the financial inclusion strategy is its focus on the end-users of financial services.
The end-user, the CBN said, refers to the adult population in the country, including Micro Small and Medium Enterprises (MSMEs), farmers, artisans and all economically active people, particularly those in the informal sector.
The CBN also explained that financial inclusion is designed to support these set of people to engage in economic activities, manage risks and improve their standard of living.
Poor Pricing; No profit
Women farmers in rural Abuja, like Asumi Jibril, are, however, unaware of the CBN policy.
Mrs Jibril, a 23-year-old mother of three, is a farmer and firewood seller in Tondo community of Kuje. She spoke of how she uses proceeds from her farm and firewood sale to take care of her family.
Mrs Jibril also spoke about her non-use of financial services. She said though she has a bank account, she has never used it.
“It is one woman that opened it for us because she wanted to help us with skill acquisition and we have finished the programme; now we are farming. I learnt tailoring there,” she said.
Speaking of why she has never used her bank account, she said the little profit she makes from her business is barely enough to sustain her and her children.
“I pay a tipper truck N30,000 to N35,000 to transport these logs of wood to my village but buyers come with Nissan pickup (vans) to buy for N15,000. There is no profit at all. Most of them lament after each sale but what will we do? Our children must eat,” she said.
In the revised edition of its policy document released in October 2018, the CBN said MSMEs—-including farmers – face a mix of challenges including poor access to markets and skills which negatively impact their businesses.
A financial analyst, Jide Ojo, said the government needs to incentivise the rural communities if they want them to be financially included.
“We all know these people are not high savers and that is why the government is not looking much in their direction.
“Somebody who lives on cracking nuts or farming, then it has to be stress less if you want them to really be financially included,” he said.
In many parts of Nigeria, micro-finance banks have stepped in to assist low-income earners open and operate bank accounts.
Despite their presence, however, millions still remain unbanked.
“These people are scared because once a microfinance bank folds up, they might not get their money due to some corrupt practices,” Mr Ojo said.
“Many banks have folded up and aside from that, there were also issues around corruption in which some of the staff of the microfinance banks made away with people’s funds thereby creating a lot of doubt in the minds of the people.
“So people have learnt to keep their money under the pillows, in their cocoa farms because they do not want to hear there is no money,” Mr Ojo said.
Not Interested In Banking
Across the villages and farm settlements visited by PREMIUM TIMES in FCT, most of the farmers and local business owners interviewed said they never owned bank accounts.
Most of them said they do not use any account for transactions but rather deal in cash.
The few who owned bank accounts said this was possible either through empowerment by an NGO or village heads who received irregular monthly stipends from their area councils.
Meanwhile, results of the 2018 Access to Financial Services (A2FS) Survey conducted by Enhancing Financial Innovation and Access (EFInA), mobile money usage was predominant amongst already financially included populations while cash transaction continued to hold sway among subsistence farmers and business owners in rural areas.
In Wumi village, some of the farmers said there is no point in taking the little they make to the banks when they can barely feed themselves.
For 40-year-old Ruth Yinusa, opening a bank account would have assisted in saving, “but it is almost impossible from the meagre profit I make”.
She said banks remove a lot of charges “and it will affect the rural farmers so much.”
“Banks remove too much money from people’s savings and someone like me will always be sad if they are removing all those charges from what I am saving. It is not encouraging at all,” Mrs Yinusa said.
Mrs Ibrahim, on her part, said she has never operated a bank account because “the amount I sell firewood and harvest produce is time-bound and the money is usually used for immediate consumption. I sell these pieces for N400.”
“Though I do not get customers to buy large bulk of firewood and farm produce every day but I hawk those pieces you are seeing every day. So I don’t operate a bank account and I don’t do any kind of transfer. I have never lost a customer because of a bank account, I don’t know if I need it, I only deal with cash.”
Most of the women in Shazhi and Wumi also said they have never lost any customer because of not owning bank accounts.
“How much is the money that one would need to take to the bank? We just told you the amount we sell our wares,” the women said in chorus.
The head of Shazhi community, Siman Dankai, agreed that running a bank account could make their work as farmers easier.
Mr Dankai, who owns a bank account, said he knows that owning an account is an ideal practice as it also promotes a culture of disciplined spending.
According to him, there are over 500 farmers in Wumi, Shazhi and Tondo because the three areas are largely agrarian.
He said only a few own bank accounts.
Thrift collection (Adashe)
In 2016, data from the CBN showed that 58.4 per cent of Nigeria’s estimated 96.4 million adults were financially included.
This comprised 38.3 per cent banked, 10.3 per cent served by other formal institutions and 9.8 per cent served by informal service providers.
Nigeria plans to have 70 per cent of its adult population in the formal financial services sector and 10 per cent included in the informal sector in 2020, the apex bank says.
Further analysis also revealed that 55.1 per cent of the excluded population were women; 61.4 per cent of the excluded population were within the ages of 18 and 35 years; 34.0 per cent had no formal education and 80.4 per cent resided in rural areas.
But as more of the rural populace in Nigeria remain financially excluded from the ecosystem, local alternatives have served as options.
“We participate in ‘Adashe’—local contributions—-whenever there is need to address any major financial responsibility,” Mrs Ibrahim told PREMIUM TIMES.
“With that, I sort the educational needs of my children and their feeding. Most of us do monthly, daily, every five days and every market day adashe and it has helped us,” she said.
Also, Mrs Yinusa said she has raised her children by participating in thrift contribution and other traditional means of raising and keeping money.
When asked if they prefer the local thrift system to putting their money in banks, the women said they would operate with banks if they see more reasons to do so, the benefits it would yield.
“It is not like the adashe does not have flaws but we can get our money when we need it and we know who to hold accountable,” Mrs Ibrahim said.
Access, a major challenge
PREMIUM TIMES’ checks in some of the villages close to Shazhi, showed that access to banking facilities remains a major obstacle constituting a setback for inclusion.
Apart from their little knowledge of payments and savings patterns, other financial matters such as credit, insurance, pension and collective investment products are unknown to these local business women.
Checks also revealed that many of the communities do not have Automated Teller Machines or mobile banking vendors.
These people will have to travel for almost two hours to the nearest bank.
In its National Financial Inclusion Requirement document released in October 2018, the CBN said the requirement for financial products “should be simple enough to bring such services within easy reach of all segments of the population”.
The document also said “the services should be broad enough to enable access, usage and specifically include but not limited to payments, savings, credit, insurance, pension and collective investment products”.
Also, PREMIUM TIMES confirmed that the easiest road to these communities have been destroyed by rain, which the community leaders said might dissuade developers or bank agents.
The financial expert, Mr Ojo, said the CBN and the Nigerian government must do more to achieve its financial inclusion target.
“How many of the ATMs in the rural communities are functioning? Banks should reduce service charges. It is wrong for banks to be deducting (cash) when people do not even use the account. Some of these charges are very exploitative,” he said.