The full and partial lockdown in many states in Nigeria is taking its toll on farmers across the country, SaharaReporters has learnt. 

The farmers, in separate interviews with our correspondent, are urging government to relax the lockdown for them so they can have a fair share of the market during harvest. 

Land preparation should be completed before the first week of May runs out but this is impossible as many of them are stuck at home.  

“There would be a food crisis,” Rufina Nyalang, a rice processor in Kaduna State, told SaharaReporters. “The rainy season is about to set in, if people don’t go out to clear their land and do the necessary things, they would lose time,” she added.

Fate has dealt Nyalang a bad hand. She was prevented from cultivating five hectares of maize and rice last year, owing to the insecurity in Southern Kaduna. She switched to rice processing but the pandemic has made it impossible for her to access paddies to mill in her plant.

The Food and Agriculture Organisation, the World Health Organisation and the World Trade Organisation, warned in a joint statement earlier in April that uncertainty about food availability could spark a wave of export restrictions, creating a shortage on the global market.

In the event of such a possibility, as exhibited by Russia, which placed an export restriction on its wheat, a rice farmer in Kaduna, Asma Merza, believes that Nigeria will not be able to feed its people. 

“I look at us as a nation, what is going to happen after a few months? There is going to be no food. Think about it! Think of it now,” he said.

In a policy document on the Nigerian Government’s plan post-COVID-19, the Central Bank of Nigeria governor, Godwin Emefiele, said 75 countries had ordered 102 export restrictions as of April 10. This, he said, was influenced by a report from the Global Alert Trade team at St. Gallen University in Switzerland. 

A policy like this is propelling Mubarak Gbadamosi to scamper round to see Farm 360 through the COVID-19 crisis.

Farm 360 is an integrated agriculture firm owned by Gbadamosi. Last Saturday, his retail outlet in Surulere, Lagos, was buzzing with buyers, a different picture to what he painted when he spoke to SaharaReporters on phone. 

“I know that after all this is over, there would be a food crisis,” Gbadamosi said.

Pamela Hamilton, Director of the Division on International Trade and Commodities in the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development and her colleague, Janvier Nkurunziza of the Commodity Research and Analysis Section, are concerned about food insecurity in countries affected by COVID-19.

“It is now feared that the COVID-19 pandemic could have a devastating effect on food security if major cereal exporters adopt trade barriers or export bans as experienced during the 2007-2008 food crisis, or if Coronavirus’ effects on the labour force and logistics become important,” they stated in a piece entitled, ‘COVID-19 and food insecurity in vulnerable countries.

Before COVID-19 gained enough attention to prompt restriction on the movement of labour, insecurity had discouraged farmers in Uboma, a community in Imo State, from accessing their farms.

"Farmers are no longer going to farm because of the fear of being killed,” Chief Michael Ire, a traditional leader in the community told SaharaReporters.

“During this time last year, it was cows that were destroying food and crops on people’s farms. Coronavirus is now inhibiting movement; this is going to cause a serious restriction on food supply,” he said.

Ire said food supplies to his community had been largely restricted to big trucks from the North, where Asma is based.

“Now, I am in panic mode, I have land I want to cultivate but there is no way I can access the seeds, or the fertilisers, or the person that should come in and do the ‘tractorisation’.

“Last year, I cultivated 30 hectares. This year, I was making plans for 100 hectares,” she said. 

According to her, the 30 hectares were divided into five hectares of maize and 25 hectares of rice. Asma said she earned a yield of 5.2 tonnes per hectare, which is equivalent to 2,600 bags of 50kg rice.

At the same yield rate, Asma should produce 520 tonnes of rice or 520,000kg of processed rice, which should see her make a maximum of 10,400 bags of edible rice available.

Asma and many other farmers might not be able to do that this year. Nyalang is already losing out on business.

She says, “Somebody called me last week for this relief palliative that they are giving people. They needed many thousand bags of rice. I don’t even have anything. The factory has been shut now for a couple of months because I don’t have access to paddy.” 

Much of the Nigerian Government’s focus has been on distributing food items but Nyalang feels there may be no food to distribute if the fate of farmers is ignored during this pandemic.

Mubarak is still able to keep a third of his business running though.

“I am stocking birds today. I have been able to get 17,000 chickens from my supplier today. I have been able to get all the logistics of feeds and day-old cheeks sorted out a hundred per cent.

“I know that in a week from now, I will have serious issues with sawdust availability,” Mubarak said.

Mubarak has no problems with getting supplies for his poultry into the farm. By-products like charcoal and sawdust, which come from the informal market, are no longer available because the government considers the sources of these essential materials for breeding domestic beds inessential.

The sawdust serves as bedding for the poultry while the charcoal is used to regulate the temperature of their coop.

Mubarak, who is only able to send one out of three trucks weekly into the Lagos market, is unwilling to calculate his present and projected losses.

“I’ve not sat down to do it, because I don’t want to think about it. I deliberately overlooked it,” he said.

Asma holds a similar view. “It’s very dangerous to talk about money,” she says.

She has between 10 to 15 full staff that should be working to cultivate her hundred hectares.

Last year, she worked with three busload of labourers from Kano State. She hoped to work with more than that this season.

Nyalang is not keeping up appearances; she has frozen the payment of her staff.

“I have nine people in the factory as processors and one security person. I’ve told them I’m not paying anybody anything, where would I get the money to pay you?” she said.

In 2019, the United Nations said 820m people across the world had little or no access to food. About 2.6m of them were in the North-Eastern part of Nigeria.

In a food assistance fact sheet done by the United States Agency for International Development, 7.7m persons in the same region would need some form of feeding hand out in 2020.

According to Cadre Hamonisé, a consensual analysis of food insecurity situations published in November 2019, 3.6m people in Adamawa, Borno and Yobe will require food aid between June and August 2020.

The data on the outlook for the whole country is not in the public domain and may not be available, as the Federal Government has a weak posture towards generating or publishing data.

This is reflected in the absence of unemployment figures in the country since Q3 2018.

“They are not multitasking, they are not thinking,” Nyalang said while reacting to what the Kaduna State Government was doing to help rice farmers within her sphere

“As the Nigerian Government are strategising for hand sanitisers, they should go to the drawing table and know what they want to do with farmers.

“I think what we farmers can do is to organise ourselves into groups. We minimise contact from anybody outside the group and go and work on our farms,” Asma suggests.

Mubarak has some dire predictions.

“I cannot afford to sever relationships now,” he said, while predicting the fate of his employees.

“If things are not looking up in the next two weeks, I will have to sever the relationship after paying April’s salary,” he added.

This month, entrepreneurs will bear it, not 80 per cent of them will be able to continue after April if nothing is done.

Recall that in 2014, 12 per cent of the Liberian population suffered food insecurity by the time Ebola had come and gone.

During the reign of the pandemic, food prices skyrocketed.

Food costs are on the increase daily in Nigeria and many citizens are constantly on a day’s wage away from having no food before President Muhammadu Buhari announced restrictions on movement on March 30.

“I am also directing the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development, the National Security Adviser, the Vice-Chairman, National Food Security Council and Chairman, Presidential Fertiliser Initiative to work with the Presidential Task Force on COVID-19 to ensure the impact of this pandemic on our 2020 farming season is minimized, “President Muhammadu Buhari said when he extended the lockdown in Lagos, Ogun and the FCT two weeks ago.

Last Friday, Chairman of the Presidential Tax Force on COVID-19, Boss Mustapha, said farmers needed to return to their farms as the planting season had already started. 

He said this would be done urgently to avert a food crisis but how the team hopes to avert a food crisis has not been well communicated.

However, experts urge the government to consider the farmer’s plight to avert a devastating humanitarian disaster nationwide.

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