Export earnings from cashew nuts had steadily increased in the past few years, rising from $152m in 2015 to $259m in 2016 and $402m in 2017, stakeholders said.
But the bulk of returns ended up in the hands of merchants with farmers getting as low as only a quarter.
“Axe out the key clog in the wheel of progress, the merchants, and perfect a deal with the off-takers for higher income and more stakes in the cashew business,” its publicist, Okanyi Enemali said.
It was what industry players would refer to as “ambitious plans” but the indices have no doubt been quite promising for many years for cashew farmers in Kogi and other producing areas in Nigeria.
Cashew, it was learnt, has a short season of about 60 days – from February to April – depending on the area of growth and that was the time the world shut down following the spike in COVID-19 transmission.
Stakeholders said the outbreak of the disease had a debilitating impact on cashew business, causing immense losses to farmers across the country.
But farmers in Kogi said as the largest producers in the country, they felt the impact more.
The state chairman, Cashew Farmers Association of Nigeria, Alhaji Ibrahim Isiaka (Dushe), said the harvest period came in the middle of the COVID-19 emergencies which shut down the country.
“Vietnam has been our major cashew buyer but it is battling the pandemic which led to the total ban on both import and export activities. That affected the sale of cashew at the local and international markets.
“In Nigeria, we don’t have a large market and price value to encourage large-scale purchase and preservation of cashew,” he explained.
Farmers were unanimous that their fate now hang in the balance, considering the effect of the pandemic which has caused a halt in the export of the produce thereby hurting players across the value chain.
Enemali lamented that business had never been so bad, warning that the aftermath could cripple the sub-sector altogether in the absence of an urgent intervention from the federal government and its international partners.
But before the COVID-19, the harmattan had persisted, hovering around long enough to deplete expected yield.
“On the issue of weather occasioned by climate change, we had too much harmattan this year so cashew didn’t produce well because at the time the crop needed some level of heat for the flowering to consolidate, harmattan persisted and that was not good for us.
“One serious effect of harmattan was that the flowers dried up and that affected expected yields,” he said.
Also, in their effort to sanitise the sub-sector, the farmers plan to edge out merchants, an effort that stakeholders believe may be risky but worth it. The farmers are on course to achieve that alongside an indigenous agricultural solution company, TAK Agro, and key off-takers in the business indicating interest to collaborate.
To the stakeholders, it was a significant breakthrough because TAK possesses the clout to beat the merchants to their game.
“They are already building six cashew processing factories in Nigeria. They are also building five processing factories in Kogi State. This is to add value to the cashew sub-sector,” Enemali, who is also a cashew farmer, said.
It was about to commence processing from its plant in Suleja, Niger State, when the novel coronavirus struck. The pandemic did arrive at the “wrong time” when the season’s business was about to commence, altering a projection and stultifying a dream.
The merchants’ many sins
It was learnt that the activities of merchants is negatively affecting the farmers and other stakeholders. To everyone within the value chain, they were a necessary evil.
Describing the role of the merchant as the middleman, Enemali said: “As a merchant, I am the middle man between the farmers and the off-takers. I know the farmers and the buyers. The buyer knows me but doesn’t know the farmers, likewise the farmers don’t know the buyers.
“I have the money and get myself buying from agents who now determine the price and because the farmers are not well coordinated they have no option but to sell to them at give-away prices.”
The merchants, it was learnt, wield enormous power through their access to exporters and financial institutions. Across Kogi East senatorial district which is the hub of cashew production, they expand tentacles and rip the farmers blind.
To further consolidate their hold on the market, they built storages through local agents who also go into the villages to buy the raw nuts cheaply from farmers knowing too well that the farmers can’t keep the harvested nuts for too long.
Like the merchants, the processors are also smiling to the banks by further strangulating the farmers.
“In case you have not noticed, the price of processed cashew kernel has been increasing while that of raw nuts is decreasing, it was deliberate to strangle the farmers,” Enemali said.
It was also learnt that while the farmers sweat it through by doing everything on their own, the processors/ businessmen get support from the factory to the supermarket.
Stakeholders noted that processed cashew sells higher and because the country has not made concerted effort to explore the opportunity, it has been losing a lot of revenue as a result of selling or exporting raw nuts.
They claimed Nigeria lost an estimated N177 billion yearly since 2012 to the anomaly.
“If Nigeria was processing before the COVID-19-induced lockdown, the losses would have been averted,” Enemali pointed out.
Labour hands’ ordeal
They were also other players in the cashew value chain who are key drivers in the sub sector’s operations. Labour hands are seen but not heard. They provide the labour but earn quite a little for their effort. They are not counted among the key stakeholders, neither are they represented in the group’s association nor seat at the table where issues concerning the subsector are discussed. Their fate, it was learnt, is tied to the destiny of the farmer who employed them. They are mainly women and children.
Daily Trust on Sunday learnt that like most labour hands, they depend on daily income. For clearing grasses and shrubs in preparation for harvest, they get N2,000 as standard fee for such effort, while for harvesting which is mostly the pre-occupation of women and children, N300 is the standard for each basket.
It was learnt that a basket is 10 kilogrammes and 10 of wet cashew harvested make up a 100 kilogrammes jute bag. Because the women are sure of one job or the other, they were always busy on the farm till the end of harvest.
Arame Osumanu told Daily Trust on Sunday that what she earns daily is so little that can only put food on the table for that day.
“We don’t own the farm, we live on the magnanimity of the farmers,” she explained.
Enamali, however, expressed optimism that the fate of the labour hands would change for the better.
“At the association level, we are encouraging the women to own their own plantation and as we speak, any moment from now, you will see women engaging in cashew farming,” he said.
How can the farmers get the value for their effort?
“We expected government to buy over farm produce when the pandemic struck since they have the capacity to do so but they were not forthcoming,” Arome Amodu, a cashew farmer, lamented.
He said the losses were overwhelming, noting that since there’s no insurance in place which can take care of such losses, the farmers are in for a rough time.
Stakeholders were unanimous that though cashew produce, especially the nuts, have shown great promise of becoming a veritable revenue earner for the country, there are impediments which tend to stall the targeted progress.
They called on the federal government to save the industry from collapse through initiatives such as the provision of incentives to farmers to expand their trade and protection of farms against encroachment from foreigners.
“I want to use this medium to appeal to federal government to develop a policy for farmers generally and cashew processing in particular. Government should create the enabling environment for cashew farmers to access designated loans for farming in the Central Bank or Bank of Agriculture.
“As a matter of urgency, the government should set up storage/preservatives facilities for farmers in the event of similar developments, in addition to assisting cashew farmers with hybrid seedlings to enhance international market competition,” Alhaji Isiaka said.
He decried the federal government’s failure to include Kogi and Benue in its pest control initiative.
“Recently government approved N13bn for post-COVID-19 pest control to 12 northern states without Kogi and Benue. In Nigeria today, Benue State is the highest production of yams, and Kogi is the highest producer of cashew, yet government did not find us worthy for pest control assistance. To us this is a serious oversight,” he pointed out.
Stakeholders also noted that despite the inherent challenges, they were able to put Nigeria on the world map by emerging the fourth largest producer, adding that with the right support, the country can top the chart.