Female farmers: Their passion and challenges
Nigerian women have tried to contribute their quota to national growth, through engaging in various productive endeavours. From chairing executive boards of corporate outfits to being the chief executive officers of their own companies, they have been making indelible marks in the business world. And now, they are moving into the area of large-scale farming, which previously was dominated by the menfolk.
Ordinarily, a female farmer might not seem a big deal, but having women get involved in the large-scale processing and production of raw materials from farm produce is definitely novel. But as these female farmers acknowledge, it has not been easy, as they have had to give their all and overcome sundry challenges to succeed.
Yemisi Iranloye is the Managing Director of Psaltry International Limited, an indigenous agro company focused on cassava production for processing into food grade starch sold to breweries and other companies that use starch in their production.
Her journey into this line of business started after winning the global cassava award in 2008. Prior to that, she had been working with Ekha Agro Processing, the first cassava glucose factory in the country. Shortly after the award, Iranloye knew she was ready to start her own cassava business.
Going down memory lane, she said she was inspired by her discovery that there is a lot of potential in farming. “I saw that there were so many poor farmers, and though these farmers had prospects, but they could not actualise them because many things were lacking,” she explained. “The environment was not suitable for rural farming lending, as there was no access to credit, which brought frustration. So, I decided to take up the challenge and do something to alleviate the situation. That was when I began looking in that direction because I wanted to help.” She felt the best way to do this is by bringing help close to the farmers.
Expectedly, it was tough initially. Her processing plant was located in a rural area, where she had to contend with lack of electricity supply. There was also no good road to transport her farm produce. “Despite all these obstacles, I never for one moment thought of quitting because my determination was to see these rural farmers happy,” she said.
With a 400-hectares cassava plantation located at Alayide-Wasimi village, Ado-Awaye in Oyo State and staff strength of 22, Iranloye has come a long way from that initial uncertainty. And the fact that they are solely into starch production has also made things easier.
She said: “We buy cassava from the farmers, produce it and then take it to the breweries. However, we provide a lot of back up for the farmers. This includes tractors and chemicals for planting. We do this in partnership with another foundation. We also provide training for our farmers. We have what is called backward integration with thousands of farmers in our network that supply cassava to us.”
Iranloye, who was the past president of African Women Entrepreneur Programme (AWEP), had a word of advice for government on its agricultural policies.“I would want government to put in place a market-driven structure that will have a downward effect on rural farmers. By this, I mean funding factories to fund farmers, which if properly monitored, is guaranteed to effectively recover money invested. The farmers will be happy and lot of development will take place in the rural areas,” she said.
What is her description of today’s Nigerian female entrepreneur?
“She is a woman of vision, focused and with strong character. I would like to encourage Nigerian female entrepreneurs that they can do it as well as the men, if not better. Do you know that some men from the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) recently came to my factory and they were surprised at what they saw? I have taken loan not once, not twice, which I paid back. So, they decided to come and see for themselves what I am doing in my factory. Unfortunately, I wasn’t around when they arrived, as I was attending a conference in Ibadan.
“My factory is in the middle of nowhere and they used a Google map to locate it. I didn’t have to paint or tidy anything. This is a dream I had 10 years ago, I kept at it and now it’s a reality. The truth is that it does not matter what you have now, but what counts is your vision and how you move with it. So, if you have a dream, start small. If this vision is to fry garri, then start frying and do it well. Whatever you do will generate both positive and negative reactions. But you learn from your mistakes and become stronger. With this, you also improve and gradually go in the direction of owning a big garri plant.
“My philosophy has always been to start small but think big. You must keep all your documents, which is very important in business. You cannot fault me in documentation; my company won a grant from the World Bank and my documentation played out. Also, do not tell lies with documents because they will find out.”
ON her part, Eleojo Rosemary Peters is into the production of packaged local rice, bitter leaf, palm oil and sachet honey. The chief executive officer of Eleojo Foods has two factories located in Kogi State. In her case, it was fate that pushed her into the farming business.
“I got involved in the whole agricultural value chain from the outset. I started with the production of natural rice, bee honey, bitter leaf and palm oil, as a result of the circumstance I found myself. I was surrounded by people with one ailment or the other, as well as unemployed young men and women. I felt helpless in their midst, as there was nothing much I could do. So, I started thinking about these problems and how to find solution to them and bring succour to all these people.
“A lot of these people developed one ailment or the other as a result of eating processed food. Unfortunately, Nigerians have developed taste for processed foods over the years and that is why ailments such as diabetes are now rampant, even among children. So, I decided to go to my village in Idah, Kogi State, to start rice production. Everybody cooks rice across board and I began to produce natural rice. We retain the fibre, minerals and vitamins with great taste to make a difference. I started with a few family friends, who believed in what I was doing. Without paying them, they were ready to work with me,” she recalled.
Eleojo, who previously worked in the banking sector for 15 years before going into agriculture, said her banking experience wasn’t a palatable one. “It was full of stress and targets. We had to work hard to stay above the target, which is one thing I have brought into my private business and it has paid off. At a point, it wasn’t worth it, but now it is translating to credit for the business that I do and that gives me satisfaction. It is not as if I am making as much money as the salaries and allowance I received while in the bank, but meeting a need gives me fulfilment,” she said.
With staff strength of 28, she recalled that it’s been full of challenges. “There are challenges in terms of logistics, finance and even human capital. You have to train people in such a way that they buy and key into the vision you are running with. We have also done some things in the last four years that we are proud of. We are taking our time over the years to improve on our products, attend courses and it has helped us. We are glad that our products are being recognised. And when we get feedback from customers about our products, we are further motivated,” she said.
On accessing credit, Eleojo said, “it has been difficult, but I did not allow funding to stop me. We keep putting the little we have into the business. Sometimes, we are grounded and we cannot move forward or backward, but somehow a customer pays and we are back again. A number of them tell us that they are surprised that we are still in business because a lot of people have come and gone out. It is not easy to get investors who believe in what you do. People say you are doing a good job, but you need to move to the next stage. Investors need to come and help small business owners.”
She urged government to set aside a fund for women or small-scale entrepreneurs. “They should let the accessing of such funds be easy,” she said. “There is no point telling these entrepreneurs to bring properties in Ikoyi, Victoria Island or Maitama as collateral. Where do they expect these entrepreneurs to get such? It is important that they put in place certain conditions, but these must be realistic.”
Get the latest news delivered straight to your inbox every day of the week. Stay informed with the Guardian’s leading coverage of Nigerian and world news, business, technology and sports.