Nigeria faces the possibility of food shortage as a combination of climate change and insecurity curtails farming activities and output.
Godwin Susan and Isah Arah Zainab are thousands of miles apart − the former is in Nasarawa State, Northcentral Nigeria, while the latter resides in Zamfara, a state in the Northwest − but they are both victims of the impacts of climate change.
The loss in 2020 that left Susan, Zainab and indeed many smallholder women farmers in Nigeria lamenting is seen as alarming and a sign of what to come as climate change continues to hit harder across the country.
Nigerian rural women farmers play vital roles in agricultural production and are key to Africa’s most populous country’s food security. They account for 70 per cent of agricultural workers and 80 per cent of food producers but are at the receiving ends of the negative impacts of climate change.
There are pieces of evidence of climate change all over the country, says, Nigerian Meteorological Agency (NIMET), the government agency that documents weather and climate data.
“These pieces of evidence are in the form of rising temperatures, more frequent and persistent heat and cold waves, severe coastal and inland floods and the ravaging wind storms,” the agency said in one of its climate review bulletins.
According to Michael Mann, one of the world’s most influential climate scientists, the world has “finally reached the point where it is not credible to deny climate change because people can see it playing out in real-time in front of their eyes”.
Sudden stop of rainfall weeks after planting
For 13 years, Godwin Susan, 60, has ventured into farming and raised her five children with proceeds from her farm. But of her 13 years experience, Godwin says 2020 stood out as one year with losses for her and many smallholder farmers−it was the year they were confronted by the impacts of climate change.
Farmers in her village were happy when the rain started earlier and never suspected it would stop suddenly, so they mobilised to farms as is the practice each year when rainfall starts. But something happened. For five weeks, the rain ceased and it was after Susan and many others had cultivated their farm – planted crops – it was also when the COVID-19 pandemic broke out and movement was restricted.
An abrupt stop of rainfall and deadly floods across parts of Nigeria are stark reminders of the climate risks facing Africa’s most populous country. Many states in Nigeria rely on rain-fed agriculture which makes a larger number of small scale holder farmers vulnerable to the negative effects of climate change.
“…rain started earlier last year and we planted our crops early. But after planting, the rain ceased for almost five weeks,” Susan recounts, but with sadness.
“In Nasarawa State, our land is sandy and for rain not to fall for almost five weeks after we have planted, it means there’s a lot of problems.”
The mother of five has been cultivating groundnuts, maize, melon and cassava on her different plots of land. And when the crops started germinating, they ended up dying after the rain stopped.
“Melon that we planted early was about to flower when rain stopped suddenly. It started drying up and eventually died. In fact, there were a lot of losses,” she laments, unable to quantify her losses.
Susan was not unaware of climate change. She knew about planting early and using improved seedlings. What she did not know are its real impacts on farmers like her.
“We have heard about climate change. We were always told to plant earlier and use improved seedlings. We used the improved seedlings and planted earlier but the rain that did not come, made it affect our farms,” she shares her knowledge on climate change and experience afterwards.
Rising global temperatures, regular flooding and rising water level are parts of the impacts of climate change. With the COVID-19 pandemic, the farmers’ woes were compounded. They were helpless and survival was critical at the time. Because of movement restrictions due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it was impossible for the troubled women to seek knowledge or advice from those that know about climate change.
“Things were very hard at that time, even to see the food to eat to survive was difficult let alone to find money to buy another seedling to farm again. Maybe they could have taught us one way or the other to scale through this problem. And since there was a lockdown, we were helpless,” says Susan.
When the rain started falling again, it was already late for the farmers to replant their crops because “the little we had was what we had already planted on the farm.” The cost of clearing land and cultivating also jumped up by 100 per cent or more as a result of the pandemic.
“What we usually spend N10, 000 to cultivate, last year, we paid between N20, 000 to N25, 000,” the woman laments. “People from neighbouring states used to come to cultivate our farms for us but last year, they couldn’t come because of the lockdown.”
Tomato, yam farms damaged by heatwaves
Before the 2020 unpleasant farming experience, Patience Emmanuel, a farmer and mother of two in Lafia whose speciality is tomato cultivation, had plans and was hoping to save to expand her farm but things failed to work out.
Just a week after she transplanted her tomato from the nursery to the main farm, the rain ceased. “There was no drop of water for a week. It affected tomatoes and the yields were very low,” Patience says.
From the same piece of land where she used to harvest between 70 to 90 baskets of tomatoes, only 17 baskets were harvested last year at a time the price also crashed to a record low of between N1,800 to N1,500 due to the COVID-19 pandemic as against between N2, 500 to N3,000.
“This loss really brought down our income and the money at hands couldn’t meet the family needs,” she said.
Women in this category need more education on climate change much as they need the government’s intervention to continue with their farming job. “We need enlightened leaders that can help us in a poor situation like this before the coming of the next planting season,” Patience pleads.
Monica Aleku whose farm is also in Lafia is mourning her loss from the 2020 farming experience, having lost more than half of the yam she planted when the rain did not fall as expected. “After I planted my yam, the rain didn’t fall for about a couple of weeks and there was too much sun which destroyed yams in the heaps,” she recounts. “I planted up to 2000 heaps of yams but I couldn’t harvest up to 600 tubers of yam.”
According to her, sales from her annual harvest from the farm could be as much as N180,000. But now she struggles to feed her family.
A looming hunger
In 2019, 34 million people globally were acutely food insecure due to climate extremes. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) says the humanitarian impacts of climate change will be far worse in the decades to come if there are no drastic efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Nigeria faces a serious food crisis except the government takes necessary action, given the experiences of these women who form the fulcrum of the workforce in the agricultural sector.
The impact of these changes without adaptation could cost between six per cent and 30 per cent of Nigeria’s GDP by 2050, amounting to between USD 100 billion and USD 460 billion, says the Nigerian Federal Ministry of Environment, quoting a report by the Department for International Development (DFID).
Several experiences from across the world on climate change have shown that women are more vulnerable to its impacts. The household head finds it difficult to feed their families because most of their investment goes into farming and it is a seasonal trend.
“If the government did not take necessary actions, there will be serious hunger,” Susan raises the alarm because, like her, many other women such as Zainab Isah Arah, the coordinator of Smallholder Women Farmers of Nigeria (SWOFON) in Zamfara State, have lost huge investments in farming in 2020.
After the strange experience last year, as an integrated farmer, Zainab believes that climate change is already resulting in low production and food scarcity coupled with insecurity.
“Now we don’t have much to feed or meet our demand,” she says with little or no hope that things may get better as the governments are not really facing the reality.