Women comprise the majority of farmers in many rural African communities, but their farming operations are carried out menially with few or no innovations, so they incur a lot of losses and earn very little. Due to religious and socio-cultural dictates, many of the rural societies where these women live frown on close interaction between men and women who are not family members. As a result, male scientists have had difficulties getting rural women to adopt new technologies.
“In communication, people who share similar characteristics also have common meanings and therefore understand each other better,” says Dr. Kolawole Adebayo of the Department of Agricultural Extension at the Federal University of Agriculture, Abeokuta in Nigeria. “Women scientists stand a better chance of communicating with women farmers.” Professor Yinka Belewu of the University of Ilorin’s Department of Animal Production agrees.
“Women scientists are better off in communicating with women farmers and processors, especially in some parts of the country where many of the women are secluded from men.” The role that women scientists can play in accelerating agricultural productivity in Africa cannot be over emphasized. Although relatively low in number, some women scientists are already making a remarkable impact in helping smallholder women farmers and processors boost their agricultural productivity and earnings in Nigeria. Dr. Ebinimi J. Ansa works with the African Regional Aquaculture Centre in Port Harcourt, an outstation of the Nigeria Institute for Oceanography and Marine Research. She is also a winner of a career-development fellowship from African Women in Agricultural Research and Development (AWARD).
Prior to her intervention in training local women, they fished in nearby fast-running rivers. Ansa introduced them to homestead fish farming. The women now engage in fish farming in their home environment, with the use of cheap recycled 1,000-Iitre plastic tanks. She taught them to use the waste water from the fish ponds to irrigate their gardens.
These women farmers no longer have to risk fishing in rough waters, and they do not have to leave their homes all day. They can now raise and sell fish all year round, without seasonal variations. Ansa says each tank can be used to raise 50 to 100 fish to table size. A table-size fish of one kilogram sells for about USD$3, so women can realize as much as $150 to $300 per tank. Some of the women have as many as 10 mobile fish ponds, so they can earn up to USD$3,000 in a four-month fishing cycle—three to five times more income than they raised through river fishing.
“Because the tanks are exposed to sunlight, the organic wastes are broken down, and ammonia evaporates easily and does not stink,” says Ansa. “The water gets changed regularly and is used to water crops.” Ansa also taught women who catch and sell prawns to keep them alive longer by using big cane cages immersed in water, as live prawns command higher prices. Even when the prawns die, as long as they are fresh, they can still command good prices.
To extend the shelf life of the prawns so that women would not have to sell them at give-away prices, Ansa says, “We taught them to keep the prawns in coolers. They spread a layer of ice blocks in the cooler and then a layer of prawns, and so on till the cooler is filled.” Ansa is also involved in research work to assist women to rear prawns and oysters at home in tanks all year round.
“The women are always open to receiving innovations to improve their incomes, as long as they are not complicated or difficult to learn, and are particularly glad to have women teach them.” Ansa has shared with the women many ways to reduce fish feed costs. “We taught them to use poultry droppings and brewery wastes to grow maggots, which can be a cheaper protein source in fish feeds,” she says. In recognition of her efforts, Ansa was appointed senior special adviser on aquaculture to the Bayelsa state governor this year.
Bukola Osuntade, another AWARD fellow, is a lecturer at the Federal College of Agriculture, Oyo state. Her research work on cassava waste-utilization is helping women farmers generate additional income. Osuntade taught the women farmers/processors in different communities through awareness campaigns and one-to-one interaction to stop throwing away or burning cassava peels. “Until recently, there were places where cassava peels were dumped, constituting an environmental menace,” says Osuntade.
“My research team and I taught the women to construct cement platforms, where they spread the cassava peels on black nylon sheets to speed up the rate of drying. The dried peels are now sold to farmers rearing ruminants and pigs, and can also be used to feed poultry, if ground into powder.” Osuntade’s research work has helped to remove the poisonous cyanide contained in wet cassava peels, making them commercially viable as a cheaper energy source in livestock feed.
Kuburat Toriola, a smallholder cassava farmer/processor, has benefitted from Osuntade’s research work. “We now bag the dried cassava peels and sell them for 500 to 700 naira (USD$3 to USD$4.50) per bag to livestock farmers. I sell as many as seven bags in a week, and that is additional income apart from what I realize from the processing of cassava into gari (cassava flakes).” AWARD fellow Olutayo Adedokun, a lecturer at the University of Port Harcourt’s Faculty of Agriculture, is researching mushroom cultivation.
“Mushrooms have nutritional and medicinal benefits, but many rural women in Nigeria still pick wild mushrooms, some of which are poisonous. I have enlightened the women on this. Currently, I am doing research work that will help them to grow mushrooms effectively. The women eagerly look forward to this.” Another AWARD fellow, Dr. Olutola Oyedele of the National Horticultural Research Institute in Oyo state, has conducted various training campaigns on value-addition to fruit, such as the production of juice.
This has helped women to reduce losses from the spoilage of fresh fruits. Olutola is taking her research work further by researching simple machines that women can operate, without men’s assistance, at every step of the fruit-juice processing. The impact of women scientists is being felt in Nigeria, but with several million smallholder women farmers, there is a need to increase their numbers. This story is the winning entry in the continent-wide media competition on the role of female scientists in agricultural development in Africa organised by African Women in Agricultural Research and Development (AWARD) and Forum for Agricultural Research in Africa (FARA)
This article was first published in Businessday Newspaper with the theme-