By Chinasa Asonye
LAGOS, Nigeria, Jun 10 2019 – As a wife and mother in Nigeria who wanted to support my family and my community, I began my own farm in 2006. When I began, I never could have dreamed that just cultivating the earth would someday lead to my meeting government leaders, and traveling to meet other women from around the world doing their part to make a difference in their own communities.
Years of hard work, learning and women’s solidarity built to my recent trip to New York City, where I participated in the Commission on the Status of Women. I was there to talk about my work in Nigeria, and my journey from being one individual small-scale farmer, to this international stage.
It was an amazing opportunity that was all new, yet also brought me full-circle and made me realize I am on the right track. Now, as I head home after further travels, my time in New York feels monumental and my passion for this work is stronger than ever.
What brought me is Chileofarms, my farming company that produces, processes and packages rice, fish, poultry, and vegetables like tomatoes, peppers, spinach, pumpkin. To help build up my farm, and the good it could grow, I entered a competition and development program in 2014 called Oxfam’s Female Food Heroes, which gives resources, training and exposure to female farmers.
I was given an award as a Female Food Hero in a ceremony attended by the Governor, Commissioner, Permanent Secretaries and other guests. It was the first time I started to realize how much impact I could really have as a Small Scale Farmer and it was the assistance of Oxfam that made it possible.
During the award presentation, the Director of the Gender Desk from the Federal Ministry of Agriculture in Nigeria, Mrs. Karima Babaginda, asked me what they could expect to see as my achievements in the next 5 years. l told her that in five years, Nigerian female farmers’ voices will he heard both locally and internationally. I knew I had to get to work to live up to my promise.
l went back to my community to see how l can contribute to helping other women and l formed a Cooperative called Ogbonge Women Multipurpose Association, where women with like minds came together to discuss the progress of our farms and how we can help each other.
l constructed a smoking kiln with my Female Food Hero award money in my community where my fellow women could come to smoke their fish, package and sell it. This simple equipment was important, especially when we are having post-harvest losses, because with the smoking kiln, the shelf life of dry fish is extended to 6 months.
We also started farming mushrooms together, and donated a portion of the profit to help widows, displaced and other vulnerable people living in our community. There are many women who cannot go to their farms because of the fear of been raped or killed, or their farms were destroyed with nothing to fall back on. We are lucky we are even safe and able to farm in the first place – not everyone is that lucky.
We then started to tackle the issue of loans because our women are always having problem accessing loans through banks. With Oxfam’s help, 42 women from around our state were trained in Village Savings and Loans (VSL), which is when 25 to 30 women come together to save, give each other loans, and share the interest.
This not only brought extra and more reliable income, but it brought so much happiness to our women. l started a VSL group with 25 members in 2017 and today we are 500 women with more still waiting to join. Because of this program, our women can now feed their children and send them to school, without have to wait for the money they make in harvest season.
We also advocated for farmers all over Nigeria – all women farmers decided to come together to present a Farmers Manifesto to the Gubernatorial Candidates before the Concluded Nigeria Election.
We asked candidates to sign this manifesto that agreed that farmers be recognized, and our demands must be met if they want us to vote for them. We have also pushed to change land ownership laws that have not allowed women to own and inherit land.
COMING FULL CIRCLE IN NEW YORK
During the Commission on the Status of Women it was an unbelievable honor to see the experiences and knowledge from women from different countries together in one room.
We shared ideas and what we wanted most, with one issue of common interest being the issue of women being denied American visas to attend the conference., l was overwhelmed with joy discussing issues like land rights for women, challenges facing displaced women and families and more.
l told myself that l have to go back to my country and pass the knowledge to my women and also see how we can get more women from Nigeria to have this amazing opportunity to join this conversation with women from around the world.
I was overwhelmed and honored to be included as a panelist representing Oxfam as the Female Food Hero to discuss economic empowerment as a means for social protection for women in agriculture. Here I was, a woman from a rural area in Nigeria, now having the chance to speak at this global forum in New York.
I gave my presentation in the United Nations building, and to my surprise, there was the same Director of the Gender Desk from the Federal Ministry of Agriculture in Nigeria, Mrs. Karima Babaginda. l was able to ask her: “Have l fulfilled what l have promised to achieve over five years?” and she laughed and said “Well done, Ogbonge Woman.” I was right on schedule, five years later with my voice at an international forum sharing the stories of my Nigerian female farmers.
My time in New York motivated me to do more and keep pushing. As an Ogbonge woman trying to contribute my part towards the growth and development of my community, I would like to work more to bring in more women to the Village Savings and Loans groups, and will also remind women that we need to work on ourselves, because the government can’t do it all for us.
We need to face the problems as they come and that we can jointly speak with one voice. Women’s collective efforts and solidarity are key to make the changes we want to see, in partnership with our leaders.
We are also pleading for more donors and NGOs to come to our aid, because even with a strong, united group, the women farmers really need help. I will continue to advocate for my fellow female farmers, because we each deserve a chance to work hard, feel safe, make promises and fulfill them.