WOMEN IN AGRICULTURE: HOW FEAR OF HUNGER PUSHED ME INTO AGRICULTURE — FARMER
Dunmola Sodeke, the Chief Executive Officer of Omodun farms holds a Masters in Business Administration from University of Aberdeen, Scotland, United Kingdom. A widow and mother of two, she owns farmlands in Lagos, Kwara, Abeokuta and Ibadan. She cultivates vegetables, soy beans and maize and runs a snail and fish farm.
In this interview with PREMIUM TIMES, she explained how she manages her farmland through which she employed 25 staff.
PT: Can you put us through your journey in agriculture?
Ms Sodeke: My journey started in 2016. Before then, I worked as a contract staff in Exxon Mobil so, I had a small issue, my contract term expired and I didn’t have a job. I lost my husband in 2015. So after I lost the job, knowing my husband was dead, I asked myself: “how will I feed my children?” I had always had a passion for farming because my father had hectares of land. I remembered when we went for Christmas; we played with some of the trees. So I just said the best way to get around this is to either open a supermarket or start agriculture.
I went to some supermarkets for an internship, but I discovered it wasn’t my thing, like I had no future in it. Then one of my uncles advised me to start a poultry farm. So, I went to a poultry farm and I learned. Then I went to Songhai, spent about three months, went round the departments and that was where I found my strength. I took interest in poultry, vegetable farming and aquaculture.
So I started with vegetables and gradually, I moved into snails and then aquaculture. The fear of hunger pushed me into agriculture.
PT: You found your strength in Songhai during your internship. Was it based on advice or an inner conviction?
Ms Sodeke: Yes, I spoke to my uncle about my drive. My parents never believed in farming because they were not exposed as at that time. My uncle told me to check them (the farmlands) out and know the basic requirements. I was prompted to go because my uncle was sure that nobody was going to teach me properly. When I got there, I was taught how to do some things, but some were not indepth. They didn’t teach me the technicalities of some crops. For example ‘Ugwu’, I had to call a market woman who then showed me how to do it like cutting it after every two weeks for six months and using organic fertilizer for it. I kept making mistakes at the beginning. Ugwu now is my bestseller.
PT: Women whose husbands are alive don’t easily have access to land. Considering your status as a widow, how did you get the land?
Ms Sodeke: The thing is, even looking for a house is an issue. My uncle and dad stood as frontiers for me, then I have a business partner who stood as a frontier for me in Ibadan and Abeokuta. It’s very difficult for them to sell or lease lands to women. Even if they want to give a woman land, they will give her the problematic land because there was one I got by myself in Epe, I had to abandon it. I planted plantain, I didn’t know it was a flare land. At the end of the day, I lost about three million naira.
I did lease it for a period of five years then. So, when it happened, I called my uncle to tell him he got me a better land. I don’t know how we can combat this issue in this part of the world. You just have to get a man in front of you. When people come to me and ask for farm lands, I tell them, I don’t know how to give. There was one my uncle got for me, when they discovered it was a woman that owned it, the ‘Omo Oniles’ raised the alarm, even after all my pleading and rolling on the floor, they did not listen to me. They rubbished me. It was really not easy, getting land for women is not easy.
PT: Do you export some of your products?
Ms Sodeke: I’m still trying to put things in place so I don’t get bottlenecks. Indirectly, a lot of people order for our product. We don’t export directly.
PT: Fertilizers, herbicides and seeds are important farm inputs, how are you able to handle the challenges that come with them?
Ms Sodeke: I buy seeds from Calabar and Ekiti. I don’t use fertilizer and herbicides. I do the organic method for both but it is very expensive. I’m not claiming 100 percent organic, I’m still doing my research. During the pandemic, we suffered, nothing was coming. Another thing is there is always a flood and scarcity time. So, when the seeds are flooding the market, you buy and keep.
Seeds that we were buying for N 3500, now we are buying for N30,000, imagine the margin. That’s one thing I don’t like about agriculture. Seed is a problem.
PT: You went for an internship in a farm, after which you proceeded to establish your own, how were you able to raise capital?
Ms Sodeke: I had some personal funds and I’m a very strategic person. I don’t put all my eggs in one basket. What gave me the breakthrough was getting land in Epe. I cultivated cucumbers on about 20 plots and I got over N2 million and that was how I used the whole money to buy another land.
My dad supported me too, I didn’t start big. I started gradually and it has been an amazing journey. I have not been able to get grants or loans. We leverage on farmers who don’t have the market that we have so we buy from them, give them their money and still get profits.
PT: Governments have rolled out policies to improve the sector. Have you benefited from any of them? Do you think they are gender-friendly?
Ms Sodeke: I was close to benefitting from FADAMA but I missed the opportunity. Since then I have not been able to access any one. I don’t belong to any cooperative, so I don’t know how it works. I don’t know much about the Anchor Borrowers Programme , but the FADAMA had interest in women farmers.
PT: How would you assess the often criticized Bank of Agriculture, as a farmer and a woman?
Ms Sodeke: They are nor easily accessible. We were five women but (we weren’t) a cooperative (society), so we were not given attention. I don’t know anyone in BOA or BOI. It has to be who is who. I have not benefited from it. I heard a lot of people have benefited from NISARL.
PT: Storage and preservation are important segments in the value chain. Aside price destabilization, are there other unseen values this has caused in the sector?
Ms Sodeke: This is the reason why I went to drying of goods. I remembered delivering an order to Lagos but the car was stuck and the goods went bad. My expectations were not met. We need cold rooms, transportation and light is the main issue. I wish we had storage for farmers. We can do it. If Ghana and Tanzania can do it, why can’t we? Because of bad road network, I lost my produce.
PT: Insecurity is the big elephant in the room, how has it affected you ?
Ms Sodeke: That’s the major talk right now. I have been pursued out of my plantain farm. Herders would say: “If you do not allow our cow chop, na your head we go chop.” So I had to run from the farm. I went to the police to complain and they said that they (the herders) are no longer a case. If the government could not look into it, how do they look into it? My security has this ancient gun (Shakabula) but how many can he use on these people when they attack? In fact insecurity is a big issue.
Previously, we would travel at night but now, we can’t. We will be robbed in that ikorodu region. One night like that, the whole gang entered our vehicle and there was nothing we could do. For me I just resort to prayer. I’ve been robbed so many times that I’ve lost count. They steal birds, fishes and at a time they stole over 300 birds and fishes. When I go to the police, they’ll say: “there’s no food in the land and these village boys will have to eat.” How do you combat these as a single person since the government is not doing anything. Many farmers have left farming because of insecurity. If you are to ask me what needs to be done, I push it to the public. I can try to protect myself but I don’t know about those who can’t.
PT: Climate change is a global issue and it has really affected farmers and at some point people say it’s part of the causes of the farmers-herders clash in the country. Do you think there’s anything the Nigerian government can do as regards climate change?
Ms Sodeke: I don’t really know at the moment. Rain will fall today and tomorrow heavy sun will follow. Late rainfall delays planting which in turn delays harvest.
PT: What does it mean for a woman to make a significant difference in agriculture considering it’s a man thing as people say?
Ms Sodeke: Women have experience and women are more dedicated, women are natural nurturers, a woman is patient. We have a natural advantage over men. The only thing men have is power. Women don’t have the power but have the patience for agriculture. Women are more calculated, they take risks but calculated risks. I’ve had quite a number of men who took risks, carelessly. But a woman will look at the pros and cons. I’m not condemning men but in this business, I’ve seen that women are more calculative than men. Very careful, calculated risk takers. Before a woman invests 20 million, she has seen the 100 million ahead but a man will go like “they said there’s 100 million there, let us just enter.” For me, women are going to rule agriculture; we are owning it; we are taking it. Even in the rural areas, women are really into farming too. Ask someone in the rural areas what his parents do, you’ll hear “my mum is a farmer and my dad is a carpenter”. But hey, going to the farm to plant and harvest, when it comes to sales, women have the marketing skills.
PT: Do you think that women need to make extra efforts to get to this point to gain the heart of men that they can actually do it?
Ms Sodeke: Yes, we need to come together, we need to work harder. We need to make extra efforts in agriculture. Reduce shyness and eventually stop it. You come to a gathering and it’s until you hear someone speak of farming before you’ll be like, I’m a farmer too. I love this hashtag I’m-a-lady-farmer. I think we are doing it already.
There’s a lot of collaboration going on on social media. If you’re planting cucumbers and someone else is planting carrots and you have a middle woman who is a grocery shopper and they come together. Men have to learn from us as women are pulling it. We need to work in unity. You can’t work in isolation. A lot of people who come to make enquiries are men. They have trouble in their farm and come to seek opinions on how to solve them. A woman would hardly call you because she has done her homework. To help the women, I’ll suggest we have more open seminars on agriculture.