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Battling Survival And The Pandemic: Ogun Communities Where Female Farmer, Business Owners Faced Hardship

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Two years after Nigeria’s announced its first cases of COVID-19 and the subsequent lockdown, female farmers and business owners in Ijebu-Igbo in Ogun State, southwest Nigeria, are still battling the aftermath of the pandemic. Adesola Ikulajolu spoke with these women about their post-pandemic struggles.  

When Nigeria confirmed the first cases of COVID-19, the government imposed a lockdown on March 30, 2020. The lockdown was imposed on the areas with the most confirmed cases at that time– Lagos State, Ogun State (a neighbouring State to Lagos), and the Federal Capital Territory (FCT), Abuja. But behind the lockdown that was later extended for several months was a devastating experience of hardship inflicted on female business owners in Ogun communities.

Hawau Mikhail lives with her family in Ijebu-Igbo, the largest town in Ijebu-North  Local Government and the second largest in Ogun State in terms of land mass. Ijebu-  Igbo, regarded as the political headquarter and commercial nerve centre of the local government, is known for its farming, hunting and quarrying activities.

Hawau is a middle-aged mother whose clothes-making business was affected by the COVID-19 pandemic and the lockdown that was subsequently imposed in Nigeria. Prior to the pandemic, Hauwa had enough customers patronising her. There is a belief that no weekend passes in Ijebu community without a ceremony. But the lockdown imposed to prevent a further spread of the COVID-19 pandemic killed not only the large gathering of ceremonies but also the means of livelihood of Hawau.

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Since Hawau had no other means of livelihood, survival was hard for her and the family.

It was a bright Thursday afternoon, 12 August 2022; this reporter set out on a journey to Ijebu-Igbo community passing through Abeokuta, the state capital and navigating Ijebu-Ode, Ago-Iwoye then Oru-Ijebu.

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Early Friday morning, when this reporter arrived Ijebu-Igbo, residents were doing business as usual and farmers had left for work. Hawau had set up her shop for the day’s work, despite the drizzling rain, with her sewing machine neatly fitted and clothes displayed in different colours and textures. She narrated how her business almost crumbled during the pandemic.

For a mother of one at that time, nursing her baby without finances was hard. Hawau said the lockdown prevented her from opening shop, which led to loss of customers and dependent on her husband who was also affected by the lockdown. Rather than attend to customers physically, only through calls and social media was she able to reach them– but it was not still effective for her business.

“Business was hard during the COVID-19 pandemic, we could not come out. They gave us time when we should come out,” Hauwa said. “But through social media and phone calls, customers will contact me because they could not organise a party then, except those who are doing it underground.

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“Only those who have sewing machines at home can deliver on their businesses. Some people were selling food during the lockdown, but nobody was buying. We could not go out, and people were suffering.”

Hawau said other female business owners in the community experienced similar covid-imposed hardship.

(Hawau in her Ijebu-Igbo shop while narrating her ordeal to this reporter. Photo credit: Adesola Ikulajolu)

(Hawau in her Ijebu-Igbo shop while narrating her ordeal to this reporter. Photo credit: Adesola Ikulajolu)

The COVID-19 crisis had a devastating economic impact on the world and communities in Ogun State (Nigeria) were not left out of such an experience. The World Bank forecast in January 2021 that the pandemic will result in an additional 10.9 million Nigerians entering poverty by 2022; the figure seems not exaggerated as several communities battled poverty as a result of the virus and its effects on the economy.

No Palliatives, Women Almost Begged To Survive

For Mrs Agunbiade who had lived all her 70 years alive in Ijebu-Igbo community, the COVID-19 pandemic and the lockdown brought on were the most dangerous and difficult parts of her life. Before clocking age 70, Mrs Agunbiade used to manage her shop and little farm where she gets daily food; but the lockdown took away the farm when there was no vehicular movement to convey her and others to the farm.

When this reporter met Mrs Agunbiade, the weather was cold with drizzling rain but that did not deter her. She still manages her small shop built with a wooden structure, located at the community entrance where she sells cooked foods to artisans close to the area. According to Mrs Agunbiade, who narrated her ordeal to this reporter in Yoruba, COVID-19 pandemic brought more hardship to her and other older women because there was no alternative to feed.

Mrs Agunbiade, 70yrs, in her wooden shop at the entrance/exit of Ijebu-Igbo community. Photo credit: Adesola Ikulajolu

Mrs Agunbiade, 70yrs, in her wooden shop at the entrance/exit of Ijebu-Igbo community. Photo credit: Adesola Ikulajolu

“Only God was saving us during the lockdown. All those times we only heard about the precautions because we were told that the disease was dangerous but feeding was difficult for us,” she said. “The little food items available were costly. The business was hard because there was no movement.”

Meanwhile, the Nigerian government and other organisations sought to reduce the burden on the people, by distributing food and other palliatives (including cash transfer) to vulnerable citizens during the pandemic. But the exercise only got to a small fraction of the population, which was part of women’s complaints in these three Ogun State communities.

“ We couldn’t get food except when people travelled to buy food items for us. When it got to a time when we could no longer bear it, they said people must have permits before they can move goods from one state to the other,” Mrs Agunbiade lamented to this reporter.

A female resident of Ijebu-Igbo whose sole business was farming, prior to the COVID-19 lockdown lamented her ordeal in the hands of taskforce (comprising police, vigilantes and other security outfits, set up to monitor the movement of residents during the residents) while trying to rush to her farm before daybreak.

She lamented how people in the community who were trying to survive during that period did not receive any palliative.

We could not work during the COVID-19 period and we all sat at home. Sometimes, they allow us to work from 10 am to 12noon. That time was so bad that the little change we made for that day is what we use to feed. I have a farm, before day break, I will rush to the farm because they used to arrest people. If they arrest anyone, they will take you to the police station collect ₦5,000 while some security officers will collect N200 and let you go.”

“They didn’t bring food to our own side, we did not get anything. They did not share anything to our side. maybe they shared to other places, but we did not receive any palliative,” she lamented to this reporter.

In April 2020, a sum of N25.8 billion was donated by the Private Sector Coalition Against COVID-19 (CACOVID) as a relief fund to cushion the effect of the lockdown.

According to the then director of Corporate Communications of Central Bank of NigeriaIsaac Okoroafor the fund was meant to “render urgently needed palliatives to the poor and vulnerable segments of our society.” Despite the fact that this fund was different from the ones released by the Federal Government, women in communities like Ago-Iwoye, Ijebu-Igbo, Oru-Ijebu did not receive any help.

Mrs Yemisi Akogun, an indigene of Ago-Iwoye, who used to own a farm, had a similar experience. She and other female farmers in the community did not receive any help from the government despite the restriction on movements. One thing Mrs Akogun made clear was that the news of the government giving relief palliative got to them, but they neither received nor did she know when the items were shared.

When this reporter met Mrs Akogun that fateful afternoon at her usual junction where she sells roasted corn by the roadside in Ago-Iwoye, she complained about how she now has to buy corn at high cost despite not making enough profits.

“I don’t have a farm again, so I buy corn from those that sell. I bought 3 corns for N200 and what I met inside is not worth it. Throughout the COVID-19 lockdown, it was only God saving us because people go to market about two days a week. Everybody was just managing.”

“Nobody gave us food, only God was feeding us. The government didn’t bother how we were feeding talkless of asking. For me to survive with the children then, when we get little vegetables, we just use N100 palm oil for cooking and we manage it till we get another one.”

Remembering the lockdown experience and how she survived with other women was emotional for Mrs Yemisi. “During that COVID-19 lockdown, it was tough, we could hardly feed,” she said.

Not only did the COVID-19 pandemic bring hardships on the livelihoods of women struggling to feed their families in the rural communities of Ogun State, food prices increased.

More pathetic is the experience of  a widow (who wants to be anonymous in this report) who had to lock her shop.

“If not God, you won’t meet here because my enemy would have died of hunger that time,” the widow told this reporter in self-pity.

Sadly, a report in 2020 credited to the Minister of State, Federal Ministry of Industry, Trade and Investment, Mariam Katagum, revealed that not all businesses benefited from the  Survival Fund Scheme.

Prior to that period, the federal government claimed it disbursed about N57billion to over 1 million persons in addition to an earlier N15billion COVID-19 fund launched for MSMEs. All of these and other relief funds were what the women in Ijebu-Igbo, Oru-Ijebu and Ago-Iwoye said they did not benefit from.

Reacting to this sad experience, Executive Director of Gender Strategy Advancement International (GSAI), Debbie Yusuf, blamed the government for the information gap and inability to keep the women informed in a such crucial interventions such as the distribution of palliatives.

“You don’t go ahead to distribute palliative when the population is not reflective of both gender or do not have up to 50% of women,” Yusuf said. If we are able to do that, we would close the gap in a very significant way. With that, it will be difficult for women to be alienated.

“It is no longer news that women are at the receiving end when there is crisis, pandemic, or insecurity, and it is becoming a norm. We should not be comfortable, we should be calculative in the intervention we give out there.”

Yusuf warned that “women make up Nigeria’s agriculture architecture” and the government “cannot neglect the women because it will have ripple effects on the economy” because it is in the interest of Nigeria’s economic growth and development.

‘Economic Sustainability Plan Failed To Address Hardship’

On the 30th of March 2022, President Muhammadu Buhari established the Economic Sustainability Committee (ESC) which later birthed the Nigeria Economic Sustainability Plan (NESP) as approved by the Federal Executive Council (FEC) on June 24, 2020.

There are five tracks under NESP which are: Payroll Support Scheme, Artisan and Transport Scheme, Formalization Support Scheme, General MSME Grants and Guaranteed Off-take Scheme. Each of the tracks was to address the

ESC is chaired by Vice President Yemi Osinbajo, comprising several Cabinet Ministers as well as the Group Managing Director of the NNPC and the Governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) with the mandate to “development plans that respond robustly and appropriately to the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic”.

 

NESP have the duties to respond to the kind of hardship faced by businesswomen in Ijebu-Igbo, Ago-Iwoye an Oru-Ijebu. Unfortunately, these women did not feel the impact of the committee as they battled more challenges posed by COVID-19 lockdown.

Severally, economic experts have faulted the inability of the NESP to live to its duties and address the challenges posed by COVID-19 to women in rural communities. Dr Bongo of the Lagos Business School blamed the failure of the economic committee on the “corruption we are fighting in Nigeria.”

“None of the COVID-19 relief programme achieve the intended aim, because they are being hijacked. It is one thing to make policy; it is another thing to ensure that the policy is well implemented. You see how people exposed where COVID-19 palliatives were hidden in warehouses with no plans to disburse them to the public even when the people were hungry. It speaks to the corruption within the system.”

Despite various funds said to have been released under the economic sustainability plan, neither Mrs Hawau, Mrs Agunbiade in Ijebu-Igbo nor Mrs Akogun in Ago-Iwoye receive any relief fund or palliative to cushion the effect of the COVID-19 pandemic and the imposed lockdown.

COVID-19 Vaccines Not Yet Sufficient

Women of these communities did not only lament the hardship posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, the insufficient vaccine distribution was also a major concern to them

According to the Vaccine Tracker by Africa Data Hub (ADH), a tool that shows from numerous sources how many vaccines each African country has administered and what types are available; Nigeria had a total of 51.6million vaccinations as of June 2022.

ADH stated that Nigeria received a total of 87.7million vaccines: 81.9million vaccines from Covax, Bought 2.10million vaccines and got 3.73 million vaccines donation.

Despite the number of vaccines available and the awareness for Nigerians to get vaccinated, Hawau said that though they brought the vaccine to their neighbourhood in Ijebu-Igbo where “people are collecting but it is not going round.”

For Mrs Agunbiade, she had received her first jab of the COVID-19 vaccine after a long time in Ijebu-Igbo but they were promised a second jab but yet to receive it. But some other women also complained that “…the vaccine didn’t go round. They collected our card and registered us, they said they were coming but they did not come back.”

“Government is trying, but they should put more effort to help the people and also to help the people fight the disease,” Mrs Agunbiade said.

According to the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) data, Ogun State is the 8th state with the highest number of COVID-19 cases. As at September 17th, 2022, Ogun state had 5,810 confirmed cases, 11 cases on admission, 5,717 discharged and 82 deaths recorded.

Meanwhile, statistics from OurWorldInData show that 67.9% of the world population has received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine; 4.21million are now being administered each day and 12.7billion doses have been administered globally.

Sadly, the data says that “only 22.3% of people in low-income countries have received at least one dose” and Nigeria is not left behind in this category.

 

Ogun State Ministries Yet To React To Findings

Dr. Tomi Coker, the Commissioner for Health in Ogun State had just been appointed by  Governor Dapo Abiodun, when the state had to battle the COVID-19 pandemic and recording its index case. Dr Coker was at the frontline of responding to the outbreak in her state– an effort that helped curtail the disease even as the pandemic continues.

This reporter reached out to Dr Coker to inquire what her ministry and the Ogun State government is doing to ensure more vaccines gets to the Ijebu-North communities in this report, following the complaints by the women. As at the time of filing this report, the commissioner is yet to respond to the enquiries.

In the same vein, this reporter contacted the Ogun State Ministry of Women Affairs to find out if there is a reason why COVID-19 palliative did not geth through to the female business in communities like Ijebu-Igbo, Oru-Ijebu and Ago-Iwoye. The official who responded declined to comment on the issue.

This story was supported by the Africa Data Hub Community Journalism Fellowship.

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