As liters of clean palm oil comes off the boiling drum, allowed to cool and then sealed up in 25-liter jerry cans, the immediate crude past is hard to imagine.
That past was women threading out oil, barefoot, in palm nuts-filled Eku (pit). But for the members of Agbeloba Multipurpose Women Farmers Cooperative, it was a reality they lived. 10 women smallholder palm oil producers came together in 2017 to form the cooperative.
By 2018 they had pulled resources together, bought an N2.5 million oil-processing machinery, and, now 15 member-strong, the women left Eku behind. They haven’t finished paying for the machine. But the days of risky, unhygienic, and less-productive palm oil making were over.
Every week, 15 women meet at Oyere, Ife North Local Government Area, Osun State. One key aspect of the meeting is the financial contribution from each member. “It can be as little as N500 or as high as N2,000,” Mrs. Janet Olaleye said. She is the President of the cooperative.
Another form of contribution is material — oil. Olaleye said: “If you produce four 25-liter jerry cans of oil, you pay with one. If they are six, you pay with two. We then convert it to money and every penny, including the cash contributions, is taken to the bank, no matter how small. At the end of the year, we pay back something for the machinery and share the profit among members according to each person’s contribution.”
Furthermore, when each smallholder farmer wants to buy a farm implement, she is empowered and then all 15 women head to the market. She buys the tool(s) and they all follow her home. It’s a double-edged maneuver: to ensure her money and the cooperative’s contribution are judiciously spent and, most profound, a show of support and display of the level of bonding among the women.
However, the transition to machine-enabled palm oil production, which removed them from the “$15.6 billion financing gap [that] exists for African women in agricultural value chains” (AfDB, 2019), did not happen overnight.
In 2017, a nonprofit organization, Women Advocate Research and Documentation Centre, WARDC, brought smallholder women, farmers, from across the country together in Lagos. Their challenges and potentials were the focus of the meeting. Some of the women needed planters, other machines for irrigation. But for the Oyere women, using legs to squeeze oil out of palm nuts was crude and not producing enough to meet demand.
With support from ActionAid Nigeria, WARDC brought the women to the notice of SMEDAN, and Agbeloba Multipurpose Women Farmers Cooperative was born. “WARDC, ActionAid and government officials started attending our meetings,” Olaleye said, “and that was how we accessed interest-free funds. By the time we bought the machine in 2018, membership had increased to 15.”
Now, they have six men in their employ to operate the various stages of production and non-members pay to use the machine. “And,” with some justified level of pride in her voice, “we (smallholder women farmers) produce about 75% of food eaten in the state. Imagine what would happen if all of us across the country are empowered to be like Agbeloba Multipurpose Women Farmers Cooperative members.”
Poignantly, Olaleye has a point. While Agbeloba women are mechanizing oil production, Ugu (pumpkin) leaves farmers in Enugu State surmounted “mountains” to get a large piece of large to farm, but cannot afford an N50,000 pumping machine for irrigation that would make such large-scale cooperative farming possible.
Mrs. Cecilia Ndu said she was part of a group of 50 Ugu women farmers who, although scattered all over the state and scared of taking a loan, knew the benefits of cooperatives. When they asked for a large piece of land, they were told it is not reasonable for women to leave their communities for another to farm. Then everyone went their separate ways.
“But at Emene,” she said, “near the airport, someone gave me a big plot of land, which myself and nine other women are willing to till. But we need an N50,000 pumping machine so we can easily irrigate the land for all-year-round Ugu farming; we can also grow cassava and maize. But we cannot raise that money.” Some women in Kwara State were a little luckier— they mechanized for awhile.
In 2018, about 20 women got together and were loaned 50 hectares of land belonging to former Military Governor of Kwara State, late Major-General Abdulkareem Adisa, at Oko-Olowo area. Mrs. Fasakin Oluwayemisi, one of the women, said: “We pulled our resources together because micro-finance banks, MFBs, and other sources of funds would waste one’s time and ask for collaterals we can’t afford.
“So we did it ourselves by contributing N50,000 each and rented a tractor that helped with many things. However, we don’t do it anymore. Now I do my little farming of potatoes and poultry alone.”
Agbeloba women’s palm oil machines
For the Agbeloba women, a boiling tank has replaced pots. A digester now does the work of hands and feet in an Eku, while the boiling drum does the final cooking.
Once the palm nuts are separated from the husk, they go into the boiling tank. Afterward, they are moved into the digester, which extracts the “crude” oil. The last step occurs in the boiling drum. Then good old red palm oil flows. A-lister generator powers the process.
Financing women smallholder farmers
A 2017 Oxfam analysis showed that between Ethiopia, Ghana, Nigeria, Pakistan, the Philippines, and Tanzania, Nigeria had the lowest share of spending on agriculture and rural development (4.9 percent between 2007 and 2015). So the frustration of the Enugu ugu women and non-sustainability of the Kwara tractor rental experiment mean little has changed.
But these do not change the importance of what women farmers can do. Not only are the Agbeloba women making oil production easier, but they also have employees and are expanding. An Oxfam report puts it in perspective.
Oxfam notes: “Women farmers play a central role in reversing poverty and food insecurity and building resilience to climate change. About 80 percent of the world’s food is produced by family farms, and small-scale farming is the dominant livelihood in most developing countries.
“Women farmers makeup, on average, 43 percent of this agricultural labor in developing countries, but are the majority in some countries. However, they produce 20 to 30 percent less than men farmers because they often face barriers to accessing farm inputs, markets, technical assistance, extension services, and finances.”
Ironically, AfDB says: “The capital injection required by the majority of female-led SME agribusinesses on the continent is typically less than $50,000. And women have consistently proven to be more credit-worthy than men, usually paying back loans within agreed timeframes” (“Getting women in the driver’s seat of Africa’s agribusiness revolution” 2019).
And “women typically reinvest up to 90% of their income in the education, health, and nutrition of their family and community — compared to up to 40% for men. This means that investing in women’s businesses can transform societies.”
The implication of Oxfam and AfDB’s statistics is that although it is beneficial to empower the smallholder woman farmers, the challenges of accessing the needed empowerment are near insurmountable for her. This is why although the achievement of the Agbeloba women might be little, its multiplier effect makes their mechanizing palm oil production a giant step.
Also “Women…are more likely to agree with the motivation of making a difference to the world” while men “are more likely to agree with the motives of building great wealth or high income, or of continuing a family tradition” (“Global Entrepreneurship Monitor,” 2020).
And the Agbeloba women are not stopping. They are setting up a building to house all units of the process for a more compact and hygienic mechanized palm oil production. But the realities Oxfam and AfDB analyzed give Olaleye’s words— “imagine if all smallholder women farmers are empowered to fully mechanize”— profound meanings.