“The rains didn’t start until June this year,” says Laadi Danladi, clutching water leaves in her hands as she peered across her fields. “By June or July, we should have started harvesting and eating. But now things have changed.” Danladi, a member of Nigeria’s Gbagyi indigenous group, has been farming for four years, but like other rural women employed in the country’s agricultural sector, she faces growing threats from warming temperatures and erratic rainfall.
Across Africa, climate change is having a major impact on agricultural production and food security, but in rural Nigeria where women make up over 60% of the sector, its disrupting livelihoods and traditional practices.
The Gbagyi nation is an ethnic group found in north-central Nigeria. According to National Population Census figures, there is an estimated population of 5.8 million spread across four states: Kaduna, Nassarawa, Niger, Kwara as well as Abuja, the federal capital. They are traditionally farmers, hunters and craftsmen.
Women play a significant role in Gbagyi society and are typically responsible for about 70% of household food production, as well as child rearing, but they remain a marginalized group in Nigeria as they attempt to adapt to the changing climate.
Unpredictable rain, unreliable harvest
The Gbgayi women primarily practice subsistence agriculture, which means that they produce enough to feed themselves and their families. Warming temperatures and changes to the yearly rain cycle, however, are disrupting these customary methods. Typically the rainy season starts in spring, but each year seems to bring a later start and inconsistent rainfall for crops.
Like Danladi, 25-year-old bean farmer Godiah Williams is also a member of Nigeria’s Gbagyi minority. She says the unsteady, unpredictable weather patterns have caused the farmers financial ruin.
“We need the government to come and help us with money and fertilizer, so we can farm well, and send our children to school.”
In some cases, it’s not just the lack of rain that’s causing problems for Gbgayi farmers.
“Last year, the rains came late and the volume was too much. Many of our crops including guinea corn and even yams did not turn out well. They came out small and spoilt,” laments Salamatu, a Gbagyi farmer in Lugbe, a satellite town outside the federal capital, Abuja.
Many women in this region blame the climactic shift on the actions of a higher power and say they are praying to God to help them through the crisis. For others, like yam farmer Kande James, they are not even sure it exists and blame bad weather as a sort of punishment for bad habits.
“It’s only you educated people that talk about climate change,” says James. “We inflict this situation on ourselves. When people steal from farms where they have not planted, what do you expect; we are the ones bringing it upon ourselves.”
John Baaki, a programme officer with the Abuja-based Women Environmental Programme, has worked with rural women in north-central Nigeria and says greater access to information and data is key to overcoming climactic challenges.
“In order to save them the stress of predicting wrongly, it’s better to rely on the information given by the meteorological agency,” he says. “We always advocate that NIMET (the Nigerian Meteorological Agency) should partner closely with the media.”
Conditions driving conflict
It’s not just the weather patterns affecting the harvest of Nigeria’s Gbagyi farmers. Herdsmen from the country’s hard-hit northern fringes are slowly pushing south, creating greater competition for land, as reduced rainfall leaves little for their cattle to eat. With increased land scarcity and limited agronomical potential, unprecedented conflicts have erupted between local farmers and nomadic herdsmen.
In the Lugbe area of Abuja, herdsmen can be seen moving across the land in search of pasture. While each refused to speak to us, the farmers said they are responsible for the chronic destruction and theft of crops. Kande James says that virtually all the yams she planted that season had been stolen. They had not even matured.
Priscilla Achakpa, the Director of the Women Environmental Programme, says that migrating herdsmen should return to grazing routes and reserves that were proposed by the Nigerian government, a policy which has not been enforced over the years. But she acknowledges that efforts to implement adaptation strategies have been poor and often lack local context. “Most of the time,” she says, “politicians and policies that are being made ignore the indigenous knowledge of these women.”
Searching for solutions
As the popular saying goes, necessity is the mother of invention. In circumstances of vulnerability, poverty and limited resources, many Gbagyi women have attempted to mitigate the effects of changing weather patterns on their harvests. One farmer, Patience Daniel, cut tree branches to cover her yams and prevent them from dying before the rains came. But these basic innovations are often inadequate and do little to keep crops from withering on the vine.
Kande James took these efforts a bit further by seeking out more dry climate-resistant crops. “[One] species of yam that grows well is the makakusa and that’s the one I have planted,” she says.
Corn farmer Salamatu also revealed that she was experimenting with new types of crops to combat warmer temperatures. “Agric maize (genetically modified maize) dries easily,” she says, “but our native species can withstand the heat.”
In a bid to ensure food security, Nigeria’s Ministry of Environment has initiated programmes that are aimed at simplifying climatic information for rural farmers – particularly women. They hope these efforts will enable them make informed decisions and safeguard their livelihoods.
These initiatives are also attempting to create awareness about climate change among Nigeria’s rural youth. Already, a group of ICT savvy young people has starting building “The Hive,” a SMS app that establishes paths of communication with rural women farmers to disseminate climate information and provide data on trends and predictions.
In a 2015 address, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon declared that “rural women are the backbone of sustainable livelihoods and provide food security for their families and communities.” But these women often face difficulties when it comes to obtaining critical financial resources, capacity-building activities and technologies. This lack of information and access often prevents them from taking a leadership role in climate change adaptation and mitigation in their communities. Women are also often underrepresented in the decision-making process on climate change strategies at local and international levels, painfully limiting their ability to contribute, implement solutions and apply their expertise.
For Gbagyi women, being better informed of climactic data and the causes and effects of climate change is essential to helping them manage finite resources and adapt their livelihood strategies to a changing environment.