Even when the Nigerian smallholders still manage to produce despite all the challenges, access to market, and profitably too, becomes another challenge for them. The situation appeared hopeless until the emergence of initiatives that sought to empower farmers with material and knowledge requirements to enable them to produce and be profitable while at it.
When Alluvial ventured into Agriculture, Dimeari Von Kemedi, the firm’s CEO, said in an interview that it was responding to the state of food security in the country.

“We wanted to contribute our own quota to food production, and obviously, to be profitable in doing that, which is why we went into agriculture,” he said. Alluvial, which started as a commercial farm was given 2000 hectares of land in Cross River State Nigeria by the government and the purpose was to cultivate rice as a commercial farm.

In 2020, Alluvial in partnership with the Mastercard Foundation, started a program to support more than 3 million people in sub-Saharan Africa over the next two years.
However, by the time the company got to the village, it was found that much of that land was already occupied. Some houses were already built and in many of the places, community members were already farming on the land.

Don't take the land, provide services
“With time, we discovered that the best way for us to be effective at what we were doing was not to dispossess the owners of the land—the community people—and take over the land in the name of commercial agriculture. Rather, to provide all the services that they needed and still be profitable in that process,” said Kemedi. This marked the transition from being a commercial farm to a service provider for smallholder farmers.

Alluvial, whose meaning derives from the body of material deposited by overflowing rivers, which makes the soil nutritious for plants, has since then, been working with farmers to address all of their identified needs, ranging from training, land preparation, access to finance and access to market.

Over the years, Alluvial dedicated itself to addressing the problem of farmers in terms of access to finance, productivity tools, high-quality seeds, agrochemicals, and fertility materials like fertilizers. These items provided to farmers alongside training have helped thousands of farmers become more productive and profitable.

In 2020, Alluvial in partnership with the Mastercard Foundation, started a program to support more than 3 million people in sub-Saharan Africa over the next two years. The program focused on building food security and increasing digital and financial inclusion within the most vulnerable farming communities. It was part of efforts to achieve sustainable recovery and build resilience from the COVID-19 pandemic. Specifically, it was to enable 65,000 farmers to directly benefit from quality land, seeds, fertilizers, mechanization, and storage. Also, to tackle the root causes of hunger and poverty, all through a US $20.4 million commitment provided by the Mastercard Foundation.

While the program was to directly support 65,000 farmers with mechanization, inputs, agronomic advice, and market access, it targeted an additional one million farmers with climate-smart agro-advisory and market intelligence, benefitting at least 3 million direct dependents. The support program enabled participants to improve yields, increasing from 2.5 tons of rice per hectare to 4.5, for example, or from 1.5 tons of maize to 4 tons.

This is a sector where there is tremendous potential, not just to create food security, but to enable work
“Farmers must be at the forefront of helping us recover from this crisis,” said Chidinma Lawanson, country head, Nigeria, at the Mastercard Foundation. “This is a sector where there is tremendous potential, not just to create food security, but to enable work. But this isn’t just about recovering from the impacts of the pandemic, it’s also about building long-term resilience in the agricultural sector so that it can withstand the effects of emerging and future issues—like climate change.”

Kemedi had said during an interview, that there was hardly any need to convince Mastercard to get on board as the foundation was already existing for the purpose of helping to create jobs and increase financial viability in the areas they work with, particularly in Africa. They had an emphasis on youth and women, which tied into Alluvial’s plans.

“They saw the work we've been doing and they liked it. For us also, this was a great opportunity to partner with them to help them achieve their objectives which, of course, in the process, helps us to achieve our own objectives,” Kemedi said.

Since the partnership, Kemedi attests Alluvial has been able to reach more farmers than it would have done on its own. For the farmers, many of them, particularly during the peak periods of Covid, with all the supply chain challenges and the escalating costs of inputs, have been able to access support, which has enhanced the standard of living of their families and helped them to address the shocks of the situation being experienced globally.

15.000 rice farmers
In another partnership with IDH, the Sustainable Trade Initiative, the goal was to help 15,000 Nigerian rice farmers optimise their productivity over three years.
The partnership was to support the Alluvial Community Block Farming Rice Project, in providing support services such as training in good agronomic and sustainable production practices, inputs, mechanization, land and market access for 15,000 smallholder farmers in Adamawa and Taraba states in Nigeria’s north.

The project aims to see farmers cultivating these hectares through two harvests per year to produce 250,000 tonnes of rice paddy, worth over $121 million, within three years.
One such farmer expected to benefit is Rahab Leonard, who struggled for more than a decade to farm her one-and-a-half-hectare rice paddy in the Sabon-Pegi Bare community of Adamawa State, Nigeria. Without access to finance for seeds, fertilizer or a tractor, a paltry harvest has provided an annual income of around 740,000 Naira or $1,783 for the 38-year-old, her husband and five children.

In an area with weather conditions and land ideal for rice farming, Rahab and her family are doing better than most. Lack of access to finance, services, machinery, mentorship and learning see at least 72 per cent of Nigeria’s smallholder farmers living below the poverty line of $1.90 a day. A wider pattern of inadequate harvests, farmer poverty and food insecurity renders Nigeria reliant on overseas agricultural imports.

“The main problem I and many of my fellow farmers encounter is the irregular pattern of rainfall, coupled with problems ranging from disease outbreaks, pest infestations, flooding in some parts of the state, and occasional farmer-herder clashes,” said Rahab in her native Hausa language. “Countless programs and organizations have come and made empty promises to intervene and help us but ended up being false hope givers, or they had very stringent conditions that were too lofty for us to meet. There was therefore fear of entering into agreements that would at the end of the day leave us even more impoverished than before.”

It is these challenges that Alluvial in partnership with IDH, hoped to solve. Particular focus is placed on empowering female smallholder farmers, given the challenges caused by a lack of opportunities, a dominant patriarchal society, religious constraints and financial exclusion.

“IDH is pleased to partner with Alluvial in integrating 15,000 smallholder rice farmers into their supply chain and support them with best farming practices, inputs and services through the block farming model. It is our hope that the project will transform the business practices of the company and provide better income and livelihoods to the farmers,” said, Cyril Ugwu, IDH country director.

Keturah Joseph, a 46-year-old farmer in Adamawa state, relies on her hectare of farmland to provide for her four children. She says her farm is underutilized due to financial constraints and a lack of knowledge.

“Getting inputs is one thing; knowing which are the right inputs needed for your crops is another,” said Keturah. “When we have the funds to buy the inputs, we are not sure which ones will bring in the best yields, and this makes farming emotionally and financially draining for me as a woman. It makes it hard for me to take care of my family properly.”
A comprehensive training program has been developed for the project which will cover land selection, preparation and nursery establishment, fertiliser and herbicide application, harvesting and storage.

Alluvial’s innovative business model provides comprehensive support to smallholder farmers, including training, technology, land preparation, irrigation, input supplies, and market access.
“Rice is a staple crop in Nigeria but imports are robbing our farming population of their livelihoods,” said Dimieari Von Kemedi, Managing Director and Co-founder of Alluvial Agriculture. “Empowering the majority of farmers who are imperative to food production is a vital first step in increasing production.”
With the right inputs and information through the Alluvial Community Block Farming Project, farmers like Rahab will be able to increase her annual farm yield to at least 6 tonnes, from 3-4 tonnes currently, lifting her annual income to $2,914.29. With the income generated, Rahab will be able to move her family into a new house next year.
“I have already seen the monetary value this has provided me and my family,” says Rahab. “My family and I are eager to harvest the rice we have planted this wet season. I would not have been able to achieve this without the intervention of Alluvial and IDH.”

Alluvial reiterates it is tackling systemic problems that leave most sub-Saharan smallholder farmers unable to meet the minimum nutritional needs of their families and communities. Measures to contain the spread of coronavirus have made matters worse for farming communities by disrupting the supply of inputs such as seeds, fertilizers, and access to markets.

Alluvial’s innovative business model provides comprehensive support to smallholder farmers, including training, technology, land preparation, irrigation, input supplies, and market access. The company achieves this by organizing adjacent farms in community blocks. This means that tractors, for example, can efficiently plow each of the smallholdings, saving weeks of toiling by hand.

“With this tremendous support from the Mastercard Foundation, and expertise from numerous valued partners, Alluvial is transforming the approach to tackling hunger and poverty by channelling resources into sustainable food production as opposed to transitory food aid,” said Kemedi. “We invite all farmers, agriculturalists, and others to join us in one of the world’s most pressing endeavours.”

Using technology accessible from low-tech mobiles, Alluvial is also providing training and peer-to-peer advice on farm and market information, including rating providers of inputs and services. Alluvial’s Market Information and Digital Payment System also enable fast and secure electronic payment through the Farmer Network Digital Payment System. Farmers can purchase from vetted providers of seeds and other inputs and services and securely receive payments by direct transfer.

Empowering women
Due to the low rate of employment in Nigeria, Patience Dang, 27 from Plateau State turned to farming to raise money to fend for herself planting crops such as corn, potatoes and maize in her 1.5-hectare field. Like most female smallholder farmers in Nigeria, Patience has been sidelined for opportunities that can help her scale up her farming business. She says:
“Women like me do not get the funding and other opportunities needed and are often looked down upon. This makes our business stagnant,” said Dang. When she tries to get workers to do farm work for her, they are often men and do not want to do the job because she is a woman. Finding women who can work long hours is difficult because they are either married, have children or live with their parents. So it is challenging, she said.

Each female-led business is expected to own between 20 to 50 tractors by 2028
Alluvial Agriculture in partnership with Mastercard Foundation and Tata International designed a program to provide access for fifty women to gain knowledge, mechanization and funding to scale up their agricultural businesses. Alluvial trained the 50 women in tractor operations across 15 states in Nigeria to become tractor-owner operators. The first batch of 23 women were successfully trained in July 2021. The second batch of trainees saw 27 women of which Patience Dang is a beneficiary.
“Gender inequality affects women in all aspects including agriculture. Women continue to be at the shorter end of the stick with regard to financing, information and mechanizations,” said Kemedi, Alluvial’s CEO. “This program is the right step we need to challenge this.”
Kemedi had explained in an interview that the focus on women in executing its programs is very deliberate. “If you look at where we are today, there are more women in the farms than men, but when it comes to support from the financial sector, the men are far more (beneficiaries). We need to, at the very least, support people in equal proportion,” he said.

At the end of the two-week training course on tractor operation, the women, according to Alluvial formed partnerships or cooperatives, each of which will be provided with John Deere tractors. 5,000 hectares will be worked on by female-led farmers as part of Alluvial’s community block farming projects. The loan will be repaid through a percentage of the fees earned by the women within three years. Each female-led business is expected to own between 20 to 50 tractors by 2028.
“Through this training, I hope to increase my own farmland and go into it full time and work for myself,” said Rukayat Gbadegesin, 31, an agriculturist who works at a commercial farm in Kogi state. “I wish to one day own a larger farm to produce more crops. I have a big passion for agriculture and I want to grow as much as possible.”
For over 13 years, Linda Sheknami Auta grew rice, maize, yam and soybeans by hand. It is a long and arduous process that has prevented her from expanding her business as quickly as she would like.

Ploughing her 20 hectares of farm in Niger State in Nigeria’s Middle Belt takes the equivalent of five months of hard toiling. With the right specialist equipment and training, this could be cut to just 10 days. But finding the financing, tools and farm workers is tough – especially as a woman.

Unfortunately, some men just do not want to work for a female boss
“Women in my industry are often looked down upon, considered too weak to be doing what is traditionally considered a ‘man’s job,’ so it has been hard to hire labour,” said Auta. “Unfortunately, some men just do not want to work for a female boss.”

“For too long, women have been excluded from agricultural finance and mechanisation, despite the fact that they are the backbone of our industry,” said Kemedi. “Our program is an important step in addressing this imbalance.”

Auta, who was one of the first women to be approved for the new scheme, said once she has received her training, she plans to pass on her knowledge to other women.

“I never imagined that I would learn to drive a tractor, but I am not one to turn down a challenge – I have a passion for trying things that society believes aren’t for women,” she said. “Women in agriculture must be empowered. Only then can we achieve gender equity in farming, afford a better life for our families, and help grow the economy.”

Keeping farmers profitable
Alluvial currently operates in Benue, Plateau, Nasarawa, Bauchi, Kaduna, Kano, Adamawa, Taraba and Cross River states in Nigeria, with ongoing expansion plans across east and west African countries.

In the rainy season, some of the farmers were getting less than three tons per hectare but following Alluvial’s intervention, they were getting about seven tons per hectare. This was also at a time when the prices of these commodities were rising
The models outside Nigeria, according to Kemedi, remain the same and by working with people within these various geographies, plans to reach two million farmers within the next five years across the continent.

“There is a lot of interest in what we are doing from global funds, but more importantly, from local financial institutions in the different countries we are working in, including Nigeria,” he said, highlighting the availability of funding to reach these farmers.

The value chains currently covered include rice, maize and soyabean. In 2020, support was provided to farmers in the dry season, which included providing tube wells to these farmers, contributing to good yields because of the availability of water at the right time. They didn't have to contend with the fear of drought.

“On top of that, they had full insurance cover. We were able to also ensure that they had access to market and monetize their work,” said Kemedi.

In the rainy season, some of the farmers were getting less than three tons per hectare but following Alluvial’s intervention, they were getting about seven tons per hectare. This was also at a time when the prices of these commodities were rising, so it was a good time for the farmers.

When farmers have produced on their farms, Alluvial buys at market price. “We buy from them at harvest time, at market price, and do not ask farmers to sell at lower than the expected market price just because we are supporting them. The support is completely separate from the cost of the commodities we buy from them,” he said.

This article is part of the content partnership between BusinessDay and AFN/Foodlog.