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How deep-seated sexism is making food insecurity worse in Nigeria

‘There’s going to be millions of people facing hunger in the Niger Delta by next year.’

Women peel cassava in southern Nigeria, one smiles at the camera International Institute of Tropical Agriculture
Women peeling cassava – a main crop in southern Nigeria. Women farmers are responsible for 70-80% of all agricultural labour, but are discriminated against when it comes to land ownership.

Last year, Nigerian farmer Odam Obat lost about two thirds of her cassava crop to devastating floods at her home in the Niger Delta – a densely populated but erosion-prone region on the coast of the Gulf of Guinea.

To avoid such a loss again, she decided this year to dig drainage channels on the land, a cheap and effective solution she had seen farmers in neighbouring Cameroon employ.

Because Obat rented the land she farmed, she needed permission from the owner to make those changes. He refused, fearing the channels would look like lines of demarcation – and possibly lead to someone in his large extended family laying a claim to a slice of his acreage, a regular occurrence in the land-hungry delta, where ownership tussles are common.

Rather than facing another failed cassava harvest because of flooding, Obat left that land behind. “If I continued planting without creating channels to carry the water away, I would have lost all my crops when the rains returned,” she told The New Humanitarian. “I did not want all my efforts to go down the drain.”

Disempowered women

Obat, like many Nigerian women – especially widows, single mothers, and unmarried women – are unable to take decisive action to control flooding on the lands they farm because they don’t own them. The need to do so has become all the more urgent as Nigeria faces its worst floods in a decade – the predicted outcome of a changing climate.

In August, floods drowned farms and destroyed crops worth millions of naira in Obubra, in southeastern Cross River State, where Obat used to farm. Countrywide, since the start of the year, more than 600 people have been killed and over 1.4 million displaced by flooding that has soaked 33 of Nigeria’s 36 states.

Map of Nigeria showing Niger Delta region and Cross River state

The lesson Obat has learned is that she needs to save enough money to afford her own farm. 

Adaptation – how to manage the impact of climate change by adapting to cope with the risks – will be a key issue at the UN’s COP27 gathering, which gets underway in Egypt next week. In Nigeria, as elsewhere in Africa, the role of women farmers is fundamental to that debate.

Across Nigeria, women are responsible for 70-80% of all agricultural labour, and should have the right to hold and inherit land, according to federal and state law. But a 2016 government report found that, on average, only 7% of landowners in the country are women. In the oil-rich, crowded Niger Delta, even fewer women own land, making up less than 6% of proprietors.

“Traditional authority structures give men decision-making control over women in all spheres of life.”

“Women’s access to land, especially in the Niger Delta region, is limited by patrilineal inheritance, whereby land ownership is transferred only from father to son, while daughters get nothing,” explained Dollin Holt, director of the nonprofit Caprecon Development And Peace Initiative, which helps farmers in the delta access training and funding.

And sometimes, even when women do hold the title to their farms, they still don’t have decision-making power. “Traditional authority structures give men decision-making control over women in all spheres of life,” Holt told The New Humanitarian. Culturally, it’s hard for a woman to defy a man and “decide on her own what, when, and how to cultivate on farmland – even when she’s the legitimate owner.”

Rising hunger

Sub-Saharan Africa is one of the most vulnerable regions to climate change, which is reducing crop yields, sapping the nutritional quality of major cereals, lowering livestock productivity, and threatening the 70% of Africans who rely on arable land to survive. 

In the Niger Delta region, current hunger rates are expected to double by the start of 2023, according to humanitarian workers and agricultural officials. “Floods have devastated many farmlands, and persistent rainfall is making it very difficult for farmers to plant," said Holt. “There’s going to be millions of people facing hunger in the Niger Delta by next year.”

“If you decide to harvest too early, the crops could rot within days because they weren’t matured enough to be harvested.”

Cassava and yam farmers have seen their harvests reduced by almost 50% from 2021 because of flooding. “When there’s too much water in the soil, the cassavas and yams get rotten and they can’t be harvested,” explained Esther Egbara, who farms the crops in Obubra.

Farming in these conditions presents no easy answers. “If you decide to harvest too early, the crops could rot within days because they weren’t matured enough to be harvested,” Egbara added.

Traditionally, farming families have eaten some of what they grow and sold the surplus to cover other household needs. But the floods have forced families to take desperate measures. “Nowadays, what we mostly eat is bread and corn because we can’t afford to buy other kinds of food on a regular basis,” said Gift Eroma, a farmer and single mother of two adolescent boys in Iyamitet village, in Cross River State. 

Despite such starchy meals being cheaper than healthier alternatives, they are still out of reach for many. Since February, the price of bread has risen by more than 50% across Nigeria, according to the National Bureau of Statistics.

Nigeria is also facing a massive wheat shortage, partly due to a war being fought more than 5,000 miles away: the world’s fourth-largest wheat importer, it receives a quarter of its imports from sanctions-hit Russia. 

Are men listening?

Women farmers and development NGOs argue that food production can only improve if women, who do most of the farming, are able to own their own land and introduce the adaptation measure needed to boost harvests.

Female farmers, with the help of campaigners, have begun to pressurise local community leaders to allocate farmland to women at discounted rates. Vast lands suitable for agriculture in rural areas are often owned by communities – usually under the custody of traditional ruling councils – which then allocate them mostly to men, based on patriarchal traditions.

“We are talking first about equality and non-discrimination, which are the rights women ought to enjoy,” said Jane Awuken, project coordinator of We-Women Network, an organisation based in Calabar – the Cross River State capital – that advocates for women’s empowerment in the Niger Delta region.

“It is also important for local leaders to understand that because women perform most of the labour on farmlands, they often appear to have a deeper relationship with the land than men,” she added. “They should be the first to be considered when allocating lands to people for farming.”

“If they give women land to farm on, things would change.”

Awuken has been working with a dozen female farmers to appeal to local community leaders in Cross River State to make land available. But addressing the discrepancy isn’t going to be easy in a region so rooted in a custom that places so much control in the hands of men. 

“We’ve listened to the campaigners, but allocating lands to women is not something that is common, and cannot just happen overnight,” said Okpa Okpa, a local chief in Obubra. “The chiefs have to deliberate on the matter and consult a number of people and institutions to reach a decision, and that could take a long time."

Climate change isn’t going away – it is getting worse, scientists say. That only makes the message women farmers in the Niger Delta are trying to deliver all the more urgent.

“If they give women land to farm on, things would change,” said Obat, who is eager to return to farming. “We just want to ensure that people always have what [they need] to eat.”

Edited by Lauren Wolfe.

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