Bleeding to feed the nation: The harsh lifestyle of Kebbi farmers

RUTH OLUROUNBI was on the farms of the northern Nigeria, learning farmers’ challenges and their solutions. In this report, she tells the story of dreams that seem far away and a lucrative yet challenge-prone business.


Usman Hassan’s day starts with a call for prayer, three and a half hours long trek to the farm, five hours of work on the farm, a brunch, a prayer and another three and a half hours long trek back home.

Hassan is 18 years old and this has been his routine for the last 12 years. “Farming is the only life I know,” he said on a five-hectare farm he was working on, adding “I probably would want to be a lawyer,” in an answer to whether he had any other dream than being a farmer.

To become a lawyer requires going to school and his father would have no such thing. “If he goes to school, my other children will want to go too and who will help me work on the farm?” the father, Maiwake said.

Awali working on the farm. BELOW: Danjuma Bisi addressing a cross section of rice farmers during their weekly cooperative society meeting. PHOTO: RUTH OLUROUNBI
Awali working on the farm. BELOW: Danjuma Bisi addressing a cross section of rice farmers during their weekly cooperative society meeting. PHOTO: RUTH OLUROUNBI

Depending on the context of meaning, Maiwake could mean “beans seller” or “beans owner” and in Hassan’s father’s case, both meanings apply.

In northern Nigeria, a name is given depending on several circumstances. For instance, Dantalata could mean the name bearer was either born on a Tuesday or he is a son to Talata, a female born on a Tuesday.

Maiwake’s given name is Isa, but because his generation farms beans since the time of his great-grandfather, the name stuck even after the family took on some other crops to farm in addition to the beans they are famously known for.

Hassan is not ready to give on his dream of being a lawyer, a dream that was birthed the day he watched one of his father’s wives bleed to death during childbirth, and he would find a way to live. It was a traumatic experience for everyone, the father and son said and they did not want to dwell on it.


The Genesis

“Knock, knock”. It was a persistent sound on the other side of the door, at 4.30 on Sunday morning, July 31, 2016.

“Who is it?”

“It’s me, Balla. It’s time to go!” he called back.

Balla, the tour guide/logistics coordinator had agreed to a tour of some farms in an attempt to meet and engage with some farmers in the villages of Kebbi State.

The plan was for this reporter to meet with Balla at 4.00 am, the best time to take the long walk to Tungar Zazzawagawa, 15 kilometres from Argungu town.

According to Bala, leaving at 5 am “will not be best for you because this is a long journey and we need to get to the farm before the sun is up.”

Hassan was already on the farm by 7.00 am, working by the time Balla and this reporter got to the farm.

Hassan’s family lives in Argungu, about 45 minutes from Birnin Kebbi, by road. To cover the 55 kilometres distance on foot, it takes about eight hours, through shortcuts and possibly 15 hours to a stranger embarking on the journey for the first time, Balla explained. Google Maps says walking that distance will take 11 hours and one minute.

But to “save cost and time”, Hassan’s family built a two-room house close to the farm in Tungar Zazzawaga, where a father and his three sons live. The trio routinely decide on who goes home in Argungu to bring fresh supplies and visit with the family. The few times all the family members come together is during the harvest and after Hassan said.

The women, who lead a somewhat separate life from their men’s, are needed on the farm during the harvest and that is when “life gets more interesting,” Balla said.

“It is as if all of a sudden life bursts in jubilant colours during the harvest seasons. Women are singing, children are running around, and the men chat heartily. Harvest seasons are usually time for celebration, especially if Allah has been kind to us to bless us with bountiful harvest,” Hassan said, agreeing with Balla.

As Nigerian Tribune heads Argungu, Balla explained why many to Northern farmers in northern Nigeria set out as early as 4.00 am, some setting out earlier. The first Morning Prayer meets some on the way or in the farm, he said. The logic behind this is to avoid the sun and get some work in before the sun rises.

“It is not sensible to go to the farm when the sun is up. That is why you see farmers either in the morning or late in the evening,” Bala explains.

The sun was out – with a vengeance – it seemed, by the time the bus stopped at a farm in Argungu but Audu Awali, a farmer who was busy weeding his rice farm with a hoe and his bare hands didn’t seem to notice.

Clad in a long black dress and a scarf, to this repoerter, it felt as if the Ozone layer had been lifted, but Awali insisted it was a cool day (it had rained a day before). “It’s a good day to work on the farm. It may rain later today,” he said smiling. A quick prayer for an instant rain was sent to the heavens, but the rains paid no mind.

To farm in the northern part of Nigeria is no joke, Awali, who works on 140 kilometres of rice farm he and six other farmers share said. He has been on the farm since 5.00 am, setting out at a little past 3.00 p.m and at 12.30 pm, he isn’t showing any signs of tiredness. Awali says he hopes to work till it is time for the afternoon prayer and leave after finishing his prayers.

Awali, 45, says his typical week is spent alternating between his three farms, sometimes going in the morning or sometimes in the evening.

Nigerian Tribune’s Ruth Olurounbi with workers at Labana Rice Mills Limited, Birnin Kebbi, Kebbi State.
Nigerian Tribune’s Ruth Olurounbi with workers at Labana Rice Mills Limited, Birnin Kebbi, Kebbi State.

Stopping to take a sip of water from a bottle and wipe perspiration off his brow, Awali says to him, farming process is a lot like going to a war – against the nature (rain, sun and floods), animals (mostly cow stampedes “orchestrated by the herdsmen”), buyers and other challenges such as lack of machines for mechanised farming, finances and labour intensity. These and more all contribute to deter many young people from farming, he says.

Awali has been farming since he was a boy. At almost 46, farming is the only life he knows. And despite the challenges, it is a life he is proud to lead, saying “to farm the land, to know that thousands of people, possibly millions are eating from my farm gives me so much joy.”

At the end of the planting season, two months from now, Awali would harvest 240 bags of 75kg paddies of rice, which he would sell at N9,000 per bag to an existing market. All things being equal, Awali hopes to make a little above N2 million from the three hectares of rice farm he is cultivating, aside the beans and groundnut farms he owns.

“Farming is lucrative,” Balla said as Awali walked off to inspect something his 13-year-old son called his attention to. “Everyone here farms,” Balla had said on the way to the farm earlier. “It is what makes us healthy and rich,” he added.

It takes only three months to cultivate and harvest rice, he explained and “if you could plant rice three times in a year, imagine how wealthy you will be. You should leave your journalism work and come to farm here. We have many people like you on our farms,” said laughing. “I am serious you know,” he added, furrowing his brow.

In some cases though, being a farmer doesn’t necessarily mean one is rich, he said “because with the way Nigeria is going, it is becoming more expensive to farm now,” he added with sadness in his voice.

Balla, in his late 30s, could not farm as he would have wanted to, due to a back injury that occurred while felling a tree some eight years back. After a spell at a traditional healer’s and series of physiotherapy sessions from the village’s local doctor, it was pronounced that his farming life was over.

“So now I stick to planting vegetables, which is not so bad,” he said, walking a few metres ahead and possibly wishing that the darned tree had not cut his manually intensive farming life short. Still, Balla makes a profit of N150,000 every four weeks from his four acre vegetable farm.

Argungu boasts of key crops like tobacco, peanuts, rice, millet, and sorghum and hosts an annual international fishing competition, Mallam Yusuff Gabi, Argungu LGA coordinator of the Rice Farmers’ Association of Nigeria (RIFAN), says.

According to him, the LGA has “at least” 60,000 hectares of rice and thousands of farmers who produce 80 bags of rice paddy per hectare. Apart from rice, sorghum, millet, etc, the city produces yam, sugarcane, maize and other things, for subsistence, as well as for commercial purposes, are produced in the city Gabi said.

Gabi said he believes that Tungar Zazzagawa, Gulma and Sarwa, villages that farm and produce thousands of tonnes of rice could actually produce more if the Federal Government would provide mechanised solutions to their local farming processes.

The state government seemed to agree. Acting Parment Secretary, Ministry of Agriculture and Natural Resources, Muhammad Lawal Sheu, said farmers need mechanised equipment to farm the land if the government’s campaign for self-sufficiency as well as food security were to be fruitful.

Although the state governor is working on making the machines available to the farmers, one cannot be sure of quickly that will be done.

The lifestyle of a farmer is not so different from the trader’s, Halidu Muhammad, a beans trader in Birnin Kebbi’s market told the Nigerian Tribune the following evening. Balla had insisted that this reporter take a tour of the market to “see for yourself where the foods we produce go to.” According to him, although a large volume of the foods produced in the north go to other parts of the country, say Lagos, Ibadan, Abuja, Port Harcourt and Aba for instance, contrary to reports in the international community, majority of the northern people are not “starving and they are not terrorists,” Balla wanted this reporter to know.

Muhammadu, who lives in Gulma village, Argungu local government area  says typically, a household is made up of a father’s quarters, his wives and children’s. Depending on the family structure and personal preferences, the father’s quarters could be built close to this family’s or not at all. “But what is important to us is that our husbands provide for the family,” Hauwa Umar, third wife to a farmer in the village said.

One of the critical challenges of food production is lack of mechanised equipment to farm the land with, many farmers in the state complained and from what the chairman, Rice Farmers Association of Nigeria (RIFAN), Kebbi State chapter, Yusuf Isa said while on a tour of hectares of rice farm separated River Rima, which runs thousands of kilometres from Sokoto into River Niger, the fact that many of them have to expend a lot of energy in manual labour and finances on so little gain was enough to discourage thousands for farmers from picking up hoes and cutlasses to farm.

While on the bank of River Rima, which irrigates about 10,572 hectares (26,120 acres) of farmland in the Rima floodplain between Argungu and Birnin Kebbi, according to the locals, one couldn’t help but wonder how easier and fast food production could be if machines were involved.

Millions of dollars in investment and technological advancements, yet challenges persist

Despite millions of dollars in investments in the northern part of Nigeria, farmers face harshest contraints in terms of technology.

For instance, the Ministry of Agriculture and Natural Resources in Kebbi State says the Central Bank of Nigeria has invested about N14 billion in food production in addition to several billions of naira investement by the Federal Government, yet the farmers wonder why,  in 2016,  they are still farming manually.

Musa Adamu, who relies heavily on manual labour to farm more than 150 hectares of beans, rice and groundnut, says “it daunting to have to continue to farm. Our children are getting tired of farming and our old ones are retiring. If we do not get help soon, farming will stop being attractive to our people,” he said.

Although Kebbi State is relatively safe and peaceful, some farmers complain of herdsmen who wreak havoc on their farms.

“One morning I woke up and found out   that my farm had been destroyed by the herdsmen. More than half a million anaira investment destroyed in one fell swoop. If that is not demoralising, I don’t know what is,” Adamu said, furious.

According to him, “the Federal Government needs to find a lasting solution to our problems.”

A heap of Paddy Rice at Suru market.
A heap of Paddy Rice at Suru market.

But a visit to Suru village and its markets revealed what makes farming worthwhile to the farmers despite daily challenges they face. Every day, on the average, 150 trucks ply the Suru rice market a few kilometres away from Birnin Kebbi, the state capital, loading about 75,000 bags of paddy rice. Another 50 trucks load 3,000 bags of millet, and 5,000 bags of groudnuts, maize, and other crops are hauled off the market almost on a daily basis. And it is just in Suru market alone. Traders say during the harvest season, the number of trucks “almost certainly” double in size.

At the Labana Rice Mills Farms facilities, Birnin Kebbi, where Nigerian Tribune was conducted round, more than 30 trucks loaded with 500 to 1000 bags of paddy rice make delivery every day, one of the workers on the facility said. In the state, there are more than 1,000 trucks and 20 trucking companies and yet, the farmers are in search for more.

In fact, Aminu Abubakar, who currently works as a labourer, offloading the bags of rice, says he hopes that one day he would also have a haulage company. According to Abubakar, a haulage company is one of the limitless business opportunities in the agriculture sector in the state.

If farming was considered lucrative, a new programme introduced into the state is making it “a lot more creative,” Alhaji Danjuma Bisi, coordinator of farmers’ cooperative society in Suru Village told Nigerian Tribune.

Thursday, a market day in Suru also serves as the day the farmers come together to boast of their harvests and meet to discuss the way forward, as far as their cooperative society is concerned.

Bisi, who farms beans, groundnuts, sugarcane, rice and other commodities on an expanse of 250 hectares of land, says he makes more than N10 million in profits per farming season and he’s looking to make a lot more with the introduction of the Anchors Borrowers Programme in the state about eight months ago.

At the cooperative society meeting, which this reporter was allowed to be a part of, the farmers, mostly giving accounts on their farming activities, said a N210,000 single digits loan collected from the Central Bank of Nigeria via Sterling Bank of Nigeria, training on farming techniques and farm inputs such as water pump, fertilisers; they are now literally smiling to the bank, depositing a large sum of money as returns on investment.

According to Bisi, smallholder farmers in the state are becoming millionaires as well. To corroborate this claim, the Nigerian Tribune spoke with Dauda Abdul-Wahab, Branch Head, Sterling Bank, Brinin Kebbi.

According to him, if a farmer on the ABP gets N210,000 for farm an hectare, which yields a hundred or 90 75kg bags of paddy rice (which usually happens according to the farmers) sold at N10,000 per bag, that gives the farmer a return of N1 million. Now say and a smallholder farmer farms about three hectare at minimum, he is left with, give or take, N2,370,000 after repaying his loan.

On the evening of the following day, which happened to be the Nigerian Tribune’s last day in the city, during a casual stroll, Balla answering several questions on the dynamics of Kebbi’s politics as well its socioeconomic dichotomy, agreed with several farmers in the state who said from their perspective, Nigerian farmers can adequately feed the country. He said  though, “everybody must be ready to want this to work. Our government must have the will-power to make it work and our people – the traders and consumers – must be willing to want to sell and consume locally-produced foods! If the government is ready but we the consumers are not ready, there is no way this can work.”