How a $90 motorbike (and things like it) could transform Nigeria’s rural poor

Editor’s note: Minnesota Public Radio’s Nate Minor is spending two weeks on a reporting fellowship in Nigeria as part of a program to study and become involved in journalism as it is practiced in other countries.

The Sule family harvests ground nuts on their farm outside of Kuje, Nigeria on Monday. (MPR Photo/Nate Minor)

This past Monday, the work went just a little bit faster for Riyatu Sule and her husband Alhassan. They were harvesting peanuts on their farm outside of Kuje in central Nigeria with the help of a handful of their children who were home from school for a holiday.

They all worked very well together, probably because they’ve done it for so long. Along with their parents, Joy, 20, Alheri, 17, and their brother Sunday, 31, took turns beating nuts from roots by hand. It was very strenuous work; sweat poured off of Alheri’s forehead in the early afternoon heat.

Alheri Sule sweats as she harvests ground nuts on her family’s farm outside of Kuje, Nigeria on Monday. (MPR Photo/Nate Minor)

But the parents were adamant that this was a special occasion; under no circumstances are their children going to be farmers, they said. It was too hard on the body, Riyatu said, with one of her daughters interpreting. “My hand is broken,” she said, stretching out a worn palm. Most of the methods the family uses are as labor-intensive as they’ve always been.

Sunday has taken his parents words to heart. He will soon enroll at a university to study engineering. But Sunday admitted that he’s not excited to go; he wants to continue to farm.

“It’s not that I like engineering more than farming, because [with farming] … you achieve many things,” he said.

Alheri Sule manually harvests peanuts on her family’s farm outside of Kuje on Monday. In the rear is her mother Riyatu. (MPR Photo/Nate Minor)

A push in the international development world could help young farmers like Sunday. Agriculture programs are in vogue again, after being neglected in years past. An often-cited 2010 empirical study from economists at the United Nations University found that “…agriculture is up to 3.2 times better at reducing poverty than non-agriculture” among those that earn $1 a day. The advantage diminishes as countries become richer, the study notes.

But agriculture programs are best suited for resource-rich, low-income countries — like Nigeria — the study concludes. About 70 percent of the country’s population are in agriculture and the vast majority are small-scale farmers just trying to keep their families fed.

Dorothy Sule spreads out peanuts after they’ve been picked and beaten off the root on the Sule family farm outside of Kuje, Nigeria on Monday. (MPR Photo/Nate Minor)

The U.S. Agency for International Development is funding programs to modernize agriculture practices and technologies. One beneficiary is the National Association of Nigerian Traders; the local trade group is leading the charge to keep young people on the farm. One of their main methods, said the group’s president, Ken Ukaoha, is to study how back-breaking work can be aided by machines. Then, they help get them in farmers’ hands.

An order is in for motorbikes that have an irrigation attachment. The cost? A cool 15,000 Naira — about $90. Another simple system spreads fertilizer more efficiently across fields.

“I don’t believe these small-scale farmers need big elephant, gigantic, technologies for agriculture,” Ukaoha said.

This type of approach is different from the recent U.S. Trade and Development Agency-sponsored tour of the Midwest — including Minnesota — that aims to link African farmers with U.S. ag companies. Those programs target large-scale agribusiness companies that make up a small part of the African agriculture sector.

WINNING OVER A GENERATION

Ukaoha’s group thinks hard about which technologies to push to its network of farmers — as they need to be accessible and affordable. Sunday Sule said technology that makes working in the fields easier may be enough for him to buck his parents’ wishes.

“With a machine, I [won’t] even focus on engineering. I can just focus on farming, because there is machine. When you want to farm, it will be very easy for you to farm. But when you use a manual, it will be very difficult. But with machines, I would love farming more than anything,” he said.

Alhassan Sule picks peanuts with his 56-year-old hands on his farm outside of Kuje, Nigeria on Monday. (MPR Photo/Nate Minor)

The Nigerian government is also pushing to develop the agriculture sector, which languished after the country hit oil in the 1960s and 1970s. It is fighting against a society that now sees farming as a labor-intensive, last-resort job.

FROM FEEDING A FAMILY TO RUNNING A BUSINESS

Most farmers are not good businessmen, Ukaoha said: “They don’t know how much they have been able they’ve made at the end of the season.” His group trains “lead” farmers to track costs and income. The lead farmers then spread the word and knowledge to others, eventually reaching a network of thousands.

Dorothy Sule carries a tub of peanuts on the Sule family farm outside of Kuje, Nigeria on Monday.

That network comes in handy. Ukaoha’s team also performs surveys on crop prices, then communicates it to farmers so they can sell their goods at market rates.

Eventually, Ukaoha wants the agriculture sector to be to a point where his services are no longer needed. But that’s a long way off — his organization doesn’t even touch 1 percent. It’s “laughable,” Ukaoha said. Still, evidence suggests it’s a good way to boost the economy and help the Sule family — and millions like them.

Find more photographs and dispatches from Nigeria on Nate Minor’s website.