Once again, revelations by smallholder vegetable farmers at the Ojo area of Lagos have affirmed the empowerment and poverty-breaking potential of agriculture. Rather than constituting a burden on the society, this set of urban farmers believe in the dignity of labour, the virtue of hard work and the social responsibility of taking care of their families through honest means of livelihood.
Over 15 years ago, bushy and desolate areas on the Lagos State University (LASU) first gate road, and sides of the fencing walls of the Nigerian Army barracks, on the way to Iba junction, were usually a den of the men of the underworld, who killed and maimed people weekly using the cover of the night, Mohammed Aliyu, one of the vegetable farmers at the LASU gate, told The Guardian.
Agric activities and volume
Mohammed, like many other farmers around the place, has several beds of different types of vegetable, including spinach, scent leaves (Ocimu gratissimum, efinrin), jute leaves (Corchorus olitorius, ewedu), Lagos spinach (soko, celosia argentea) salad and spring onions.
The farmers create nurseries, where seeds are allowed to germinate for about 15 days or less. They transplant these seedlings into the growing beds furnished with poultry or swine manures, very early in the morning or evening, planting each 20-25 centimetres apart on the same row, and in-between two rows. The transplanted vegetables are harvested for sale after two weeks.
Scent leaves take a longer period of one month in the nursery, and takes another one month before harvest. One advantage of this vegetable, however, is that the stems and leaves are cut with knives at the base close to the ground (not up-rooted), making farmers to harvest the scent leaves monthly for about 10 or more months without re-planting.
This, the farmers said, takes away the cost of seeds, the stress and labour of transplanting the seedlings each month, as done for other types of vegetable.
During the rainy season, the rate of growth of spinach and jute leaf is retarded, taking more than one month (with nursery days) before harvesting. But in the dry seasons, 14 days after transplanting from the nursery, farmers can begin to harvest and sell the vegetable, especially spinach, jute leaf and Lagos spinach.
Wetting the farm is done about three to four times in a day in the dry season, but once or none when it rains.
Soluble fertiliser and insecticides are also mixed with water at intervals for growth enhancement and crop protection respectively.
The farmers of the LASU gate dig shallow wells, from where they usually fetch water to irrigate their farms with wetting cans.
Mohammed claimed the business is good, especially in the dry season, when production is limited; demand is usually high and fewer resources expended on insecticides and other pest-control chemicals.
“Whatever I sell here is used to feed myself, my children and to maintain the farm,” he disclosed.
He divides the farm into about four portions, with different batches of vegetable maturing for sale each week.
“I sell between 10 and 20 beds of vegetable daily, except on Sundays. Each bed of vegetable could fetch me between N300 and 500,” he added.
Ibrahim Yahaya, another vegetable farmer adjacent to the LASU gate, who has been cultivating vegetables for over six years, divided his portion of the farmland into five batches. He sells about 10 beds of vegetables daily at N500 each and uses poultry manure, inorganic fertilizer for soil rejuvenation, and insecticides for crop production.
He also affirmed that vegetables grow better in the dry season. Yahaya feeds his wife and children from the proceeds of the vegetable farm.
Danliki Yisa, who cultivates similar types of vegetable, was harvesting 35 beds of Ocimum gratissimum (efinrin) when The Guardian got to his farm, each sold at N300 to an off-taker who sells at the neighbouring commodity market in the Lagos cosmopolis.
Calls for empowerment
A junior secondary school leaver, Musa Sale, who assists his father, Aliyu, on the farm, cultivating 40 beds of spinach, 24 beds of Lagos spinach (soko) and several beds of jute leaf (ewedu), said he, his father and the entire nuclear family live on the proceeds of the vegetable farming.
His father, however, said a great portion of their income from the vegetable farming also goes into expensive inputs, such as insecticides, labour and fertiliser.
They called for interventions in terms of seeds, fertiliser, insecticides and possibly micro loans for expansion of their farming activities.
Vice chairman of the farmers’ group, Isa Musa, who cultivates over 400 beds of salad leaves, spring onions and others, and sells once in a week, disclosed that though he sells over N10,000 worth of vegetable weekly, his cost of production is equally high, ranging from N3,000 to N 5,000. Such cost, he added, covers land preparation, seeds, fertiliser and insecticides.
He, too, urges the government to assist by providing soft loans or inputs, especially improved varieties of seeds that could grow faster and yield more leaves.
Baba Alilu Kasaure, a 60-year old farmer from Jigawa State, bewailed that some government officials did pay a visit to the farms sometime, but no help had ever come their way.
He urged the government, non-governmental and private organisations to assist them with good seeds and other inputs as means of empowering them to feed more Nigerians with affordable vegetables.
On his farms, he divides the beds into about 250, cultivating salad leaves, spinach and jute leaves.
How can the farmers be helped?
Put succinctly, these farmers need empowerments to do more in their efforts to be productive, feed themselves, their families and other Nigerians.
A close observation of their seeds revealed old, spent and poor yielding varieties that have lost their prolific genetic traits. Though they are aware of improved varieties, most of they cannot truly afford these without upsetting their capital and running cost significantly.
Humphrey Otalor, Brands and Marketing Manager of Dizengoff Nigeria, said there are improved, exotic and high-yielding varieties of leafy vegetables that such farmers could adopt.
He said they are improved in three ways. The varieties are high-yielding, producing more leaves for the farmers. The improvement also includes resistance to pests, and lastly faster period of maturation. Kale, lettuce, spinach and cabbage are improved varieties, Otalor said.
The land preparation is done with hoes. This method is not only back-breaking, but also labour intensive, time-wasting and restrictive.
There are hand-held mechanical cultivators these farmers can use if empowered.
A crop physiologist at the National Horticultural Research Institute (NIHORT), Ibadan, Dr Emmanuel Ajayi, equally said improved and fast-growing varieties had been developed and multiplied by the institute.
Jute leaves, Lagos spinach (soko); amaranth; fluted pumpkin and scent leaves, Ajayi said, are among the improved vegetables developed and multiplied for economic benefits of farmers.
Nevertheless, availability of these varieties have not impacted positively on the agro-economic activities of most rural farmers, including the vegetable farmers of the LASU gate in Lagos.
Ajayi pointed out two factors retarding the access of these smallholder farmers to improved seeds of the vegetables. One, he said information on the available varieties is not readily made available to the farmers as an aftermath of the collapsed state of agricultural extension services in Nigeria.
The second factor, Ajayi argued, is affordability of the seeds. Most of the farmers, he added, keep a portion of the seeds harvested from their farms from year to year, spending virtually nothing on seeds for next planting activities. Hence, attempts to introduce them new improved but costly seeds and seedlings to the farmers might be rebuffed.
Shallow wells are dug in the dry seasons, serving as sources of water for wetting the farms. Centralised boreholes, water tanks and irrigation drips laid on the farm could be provided for these farmers to make their lives better.
In fact, solar power boreholes are very much practical here considering the micro scales of their farm sizes.
A renewable energy specialist, Mr Rotimi Pariola, explained that simple solar pumping machines with one or two 250 watts solar panels and a 50ah battery would power the kind of boreholes needed by such farmers.
Giving this type of farmers a number of these facilities would simplify their work, help them to expand cultivation and boost their profitability.