For seven years, Mimi Hwande cultivated rice on one hectare of land in Guma Local Government Area of Benue state, a period during which she says, “I could not boast of anything.” When pests destroyed her rice farm, like many farmers she knew, this was believed to be “a traditional problem”. When a particular pest attacked the crops, she said the leaves turned reddish as though hot water was poured on it.

Like her, the flabbergasted farmers would have thought some spirits visited their farms at night to empty jars of molten lava. Today, she has become enlightened to know this is in fact, a scientific problem that she now addresses with pesticides and not spiritual warfare.

“With the aid of Olam and IFAD, we are supplied with chemicals to ensure the pest does not finish all our rice,” said Hwande in a phone interview. In 2017, she joined the Value Chain Development Programme (VCDP) by the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) and Olam Nigeria where her group of 25 farmers cultivate 100 hectares at 4 hectares per farmer.

When this reporter asked what her farm yield was before joining the VCDP, she laughed hysterically, and it seemed an unintended joke may have been said.

“Highest, four!” she repeated twice, explaining all she got from one hectare of rice cultivation was four bags of paddy rice before joining the programme. As at last year, she got 35 bags per hectare at harvest, a growth of almost nine-fold. From not being able to boast of anything as she puts it, Hwande has built a modest 3-bedroom house where her family lives.

She is one of 18,646 farmers who have benefitted from the Olam partnership with IFAD/VCDP in Benue and Taraba states since 2015. Countrywide, Olam says it now engages 33,514 smallholder farmers in its rice farming initiatives, growing exponentially from 475 farmers five years ago. The VCDP programme itself kicked off in Nigeria in 2014 with a focus on holistic and demand-driven approach to addressing constraints along the cassava and rice value chains. It does so through an inclusive strategy, strengthening the capacity of actors along the chain – including producers and processors – as well as public and private institutions, service providers, policy-makers and regulators, according to information on the IFAD website.

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“The VCDP is what we consider an extremely successful programme in terms of partnerships between IFAD and the Federal Government of Nigeria and also leading private sector organisations like Olam,” said Nadine Gbossa, country representative, IFAD in a zoom interview. The programme, according to her was initiated because of food security issues and the need to find opportunities to generate wealth for smallholder farmers in Nigeria.

Nigeria, she said, has a huge food market with a population of about 200 million people with smallholder farmers contributing about 90 percent of domestic food. However, there is a huge gap filled by imports, necessitating the programme as a way of supporting farmers to “take advantage of this food market and produce for Nigeria so that they can come out of poverty”.

The IFAD-VCDP partnership with Olam has focused on rice, a widely consumed staple in Nigeria, which five years ago was described as the country’s highest food import.

Reji George, vice president for Farming Initiatives at Olam International Limited, noted that the programme started, which started in Benue with 475 farmers in 2015, has grown to over 33,000 farmers “When we saw that the programme was becoming successful”. The programme has now been replicated in seven states, with varying levels of partnership with different organisations.

This programme, which serves as an out-grower scheme for the Olam rice division, has seen paddy supplies from Benue and Taraba alone, supplying 50 percent of the raw material input at the company’s milling facility, attached to the commercial farm in Nasarawa State.

“This programme has helped us to meet up with the requirement of paddy for our mill in Rukubi,” said George. “It is a high quality paddy, not just volume”.

He noted that the company has another mill in Kano State and there are plans to supply it with paddy input from other states as the programme continues to expand and attract more farmers.

Ruth Kyase was farming on half hectare before joining the VCDP in 2016, and she was getting two or three bags at harvest. She now cultivates three hectares where she gets up to 40 bags, a growth of more than 12 folds.

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“Before, I was just farming because I liked farming,” said Kyase, when asked what led to the change in output. She has now been enlightened while participating on the programme, on the need to take farming as a business, and taught farming methods that guaranteed better outcomes. For instance, she used to randomly dig the soil and spread the seeds, but now, she prepares nursery beds where the seeds are first germinated before transplanting.

As little as it may sound, “this has helped a lot,” said Kyase who holds an NCE from the College of Education in Oju, Benue state. She was also not using fertiliser before, but now has access not only to fertiliser but also knowledge of how to use it on account of her participation in the programme.

Her living conditions and that of her family have improved, and in a phone interview, said she is now able to assist her husband in paying bills, especially school fees for their children.

“When you buy fertiliser from the market on your own, you are not sure if they are adulterated,” said Felicia Gbuuka who participated in the programme and recognised last year as one of the top-female paddy suppliers. Participating in the programme as attested to by other farmers, meant she not only got fertilisers, but also assured of the quality, a concern she shares with millions of farmers across the country.

“As you are farming you need to spend, but with the support received (from the VCDP), you discover that your level of expenditure is less and the inputs help crops to produce well,” she said.

The VCDP provides inputs such as seeds, fertilisers, and (selective) herbicides. More importantly, at harvest, there is a ready offtaker represented by Olam, which procures rice from the farmers for milling at the company’s facilities.

As highlighted by Gbossa, data at IFAD’s disposal shows that smallholder farmers have increased their income by 79 percent, and they market about 90 percent of their production. This, she says is “very interesting because before, they were mainly producing for subsistence”. The fact that they are now marketing about 90 percent of their production courtesy of enterprises like Olam, means there has been an impact on their incomes. “When you market 90 percent of your produce, it means that you are generating a significant income and a profit,” she said.

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When the average farmer wakes up to start a new planting season, he/she is confronted with a myriad of challenges, starting from the inputs to actual farming, and the uncertainty of an offtaker at harvest. “How do I get the seeds, fertilizer, or cash to farm,” many would ask? In all of this, a string of more burning questions silently repeat in their minds, “who will buy from you”, “will you be able to sell off everything”, “what if there’s a glut”. Neglecting the waves of uncertainty, the farmer goes through months of tilling the soil to ensure food is produced; a modest contribution towards ensuring food security in the country.

“When you’re producing, you are anxious on who will buy your product,” said Martha Zemehe, a law graduate of Kogi State University and a former bank staff, who emerged as Olam’s best female supplier of paddy rice in 2019 during a farmer’s day event in Benue. With her experience participating in the Value Chain Development Programme (VCDP), “the buyer is already there,” she said.

With the COVID-19 pandemic, which has slowed economic activity across the world, George expressed the view that it is a time that requires all stakeholders to give more importance to food security. “There is no better time to have these (kinds of) food security initiatives across the globe. This is one of the programmes that is contributing significantly to that,” he said.

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