The desire to empower women is the focus of female activists world wide. In Nigeria, one of such women making a difference in their communities is Comrade Esther Audu. In this interview with Yetunde Oladeinde, she talks about her passion for female farmers, providing them micro credit facilities and networking with other women to change their world.
HOW did you come about the title comrade?
I am an activist and my passion for women earned me the title. Presently, I am the Kogi State coordinator for women agriculture. At a point in my career, I discovered that in the Federal Ministry of Agriculture, there were some activities that women need to benefit from but they were really lacking behind in the state. I felt really bad and decided to contest for the position of state coordinator for Women in Agriculture under the Agric and Allied Workers Union.
What made it easy to beat your opponents at the polls?
I discovered that I did not have the money to assist the women personally. Later, I came out of the ministry and established Women in Agriculture cooperatives in the state. The vision behind this is to empower women through agricultural sustainability. I discovered that there are some programmes that the government would do but once the government is out the programme dies. I started then with Kogi State Women in Agric and in 2013, I registered it as APEX which consists of a coalition of six associations.
These association, therefore, came together to form Women in Agric Cooperative Federation and each of the association has different activities but complement one another. For instance, the Kogi State Women Agric is into processing of agricultural produce like cassava to gari, chips and bread. While the association of women farmers of Nigeria, Kogi State chapter, are into real farming. These are women who take agriculture as their occupation. They go to the field to till, plant and harvest. On the other hand, those in the initiative for women in agriculture are involved with capacity building. They train the women in areas and activities that concern agriculture.
Here, you have women that specialise in tailoring, hairdressing and other skills. As a female farmer, you go to the farm and by the time you come back, you want to look good. They make women farmers look good and we do not want them to say that farmers are the poorest. They belong to an association called Women Specialised Network. In addition, we also have the women microfinance institutions. We discovered that for women to have access to loans is not always easy. So we needed an association to take care of women’s needs financially. Under this association, any cooperative society that is into thrift, savings and loans come in. Right now, we also have the Kogi State microfinance institutions where you have male and female beneficiaries.
Are you also a farmer?
The cap that I am wearing at the moment is leader of Women in Agric Cooperatives, which is the umbrella body of the organisation. Each association under this also has a president, secretary and treasurer and they have their structures in the local government area and the ward. It is not easy at all. It is just the passion that I have that sustains it. I derive joy doing this, but beyond the happiness it is great impacting on the lives of others. When I started, some people said that no woman association can stand in the state; others had tried and failed but I knew where we were going and God also was with us.
The highpoint of the support that we got came from the state governor, Captain Idris Wada Ichalla. In the area off rice production, the women were given 200 hectares of land for women. We have been making use of the land, planting rice and now we are proud to say that some organisations are coming in to sign MOU with us to organise rice farmers because the governor helped us. From the rice farms, I was picked out and the government sponsored me to Jerusalem because of the commitment of the women. I didn’t go alone; many of the women also went to Jerusalem and the lesser Hajj. Right now, we have the accelerated rice production union under this organisation. We have over 2000 rice farmers that we have already mobilised. We are also expecting loan from the central bank and our beneficiaries include men, women and youths in the state.
Let’s s talk about some of your memorable moments
I remember that the central bank recently guaranteed us power tillers and paid 80 per cent of the total cost. The women on their part paid 20 per cent and they got the equipment. It is a very useful tool and it helps plough and ridge. It is good for the cultivation of cassava, groundnut and maize. My state was able to purchase some of the equipment too and a few weeks ago, an organisation that opened the way for us came down to Kogi State to train the women on how to couple the power tillers as well as teach them how to make use of it.
That day was quite memorable; you need to see how the women were singing and praising God on my behalf. I was so surprised and was wondering what I had done to see these women in that state of mind. I felt so happy. Not only that, the micro finance institutions that the women are floating right now are making significant impact on the society. Whenever I see women coming around asking for loans for their businesses, I am very happy. I see the organisation boosting their businesses.
How do you ensure that those who take loans pay back?
We have marketers who work on this. They actually look around for our customers and work out the modalities for payment. We do not give loans to those we do not know their shops or farmlands. We have a manager in the bank, accountant and marketers. Just before the loan is given to them they would find out what they want to use as their collateral, you either take us to your shop or show us what you intend to use as your collateral. Once we discover that you cannot run away overnight, we give you the loan to boost your businesses. The loan is from two hundred thousand upwards. Apart from the farmers, we also have some traders who are into petty business and we bring them together as a cooperative to give them soft loans. If one of the members runs away, the others would pay back. So the area of recovery of loans is usually not a problem for us.
Would you say that women are better farmers?
I would say that without the support of men, we cannot achieve all the things that we are doing. For instance, there are some equipment in our rice farm that they help us to handle. We have women that operate tractors but it is not common. You still need the support of men, which is why we work with men, women and the youths. Where we cannot go, we allow the men to go for us.
Let’s talk about government’s policies on agriculture. Are you okay with the policies ?
Well, I can only talk about the growth enhancement programme organised by the former minister, Adesina. I would say that the women farmers were encouraged during his tenure and they really enjoyed what they are doing. He took agric to a different level and opened a lot of opportunities for us. My advice to the new government is to do more and take agriculture to enviable heights. Even though Adesina has left, there are people there who are not politicians and they are talented. Government should make use of such people to consolidate on the gains made by the former minister.