The recourse to agriculture as economic and social empowerment for the grassroots women in Kogi State is a sort of paradigm shift. How far the new initiative of the Kogi State first Lady, Hajia Halima Ladi Wada to empower rural women through mechanized palm oil production can go in enhancing their standard of living from the endemic poverty that had ravaged this important segment in the state for decades remain to be seen.
The mood in Ikanekpo, Ankpa Local Government Area of Kogi State during the commissioning of mini palm oil processing plants recently by the First Lady tells a story of a community in harmony with itself.
The ovation that accompanied the tape-cutting ceremony by the first lady from the crowd made up of mostly womenfolk was indicative that the project must be a priority one to the members of the community.
Located on Ayigba/Ankpa expressway, Ikanekpo is known for its palm oil production, and for several decades, it has fed the state and beyond with the tasty product.
"Most of the palm oil we get across the country is always half done, but if you desire a well prepared one, this is where to get it. I always come here all the way from Onitsha during market days to buy the product," Mrs Ngozi Chukuwma told LEADERSHIP SUNDAY during the launch of the palm processing machine which was held on the community's market day recently.
The palm oil, it was learnt, is an age-old occupation of women from the area, as in most parts of the Eastern Senatorial district of the state, although it also earns a decent income for the men and youths. In most cases, it is the women that process the oil palm fruits into red palm oil and sell same in the local markets. The occupation, like many of its kinds that are done manually by the rural people, is very strenuous and time-consuming.
A farmer, Ojonimi Ocholi, described part of the tedious process of extracting palm oil from the palm tree. "The process begins with harvesting the ripe fruits, which grows in clusters, weighing between 20-30 kilos. The women work communally in groups.
"The bunches of ripe fruits from the palm tree are cut down by the men, while the women gather them. The harvested fruits are then cut into smaller clusters by the women who have taken over the process from the men. Water is then sprinkled on the bunches before they are covered with leaves to aid fermentation and make it easy for the seeds to be picked easily from their spiky stalks.
"Two or three days later, the seeds are picked, washed and packed into iron drums and boiled. Firewood is usually prepared a night before and rekindled again at intervals. The boiled seeds whose flesh had become soft and tender are scooped with a small basket or sieve bowl into a long mortar and then pounded to separate the fleshy pericarp from its hard kernel seeds".
And this is just a stage in the processing of palm oil and its other by-products, she explained: "It takes days and what we get at the end of the process would not be commensurate with the efforts we always put in. Besides, we also have to pay for labour, water and fire wood."
According to her, that was why the people celebrated the installation of a mini processing plant with much optimism.
"We have never seen that before; the plant means less labour and less waste of many man-hours; and more profits," she enthused. "That was the more reason why the First Lady's initiative was welcomed with much fanfare, especially by the womenfolk who are the direct beneficiaries of the gesture," she said.
Speaking during the occasion, the Lirst Lady and initiator of the gesture, Hajia Wada, said the project was aimed at reducing poverty through economic empowerment of the women and youths.
"It was part of Kogi Women Empowerment Network (KOWEN) aimed at mitigating poverty among the rural women in the state. We identified that palm oil industry has the potential of providing employment for women; what is requires is improved technology. The rudimentary processing technique which these rural women apply is inefficient and affects productivity. Our immediate intervention is in the area of modern technology, which will improve the quality and quantity of production.
"The machines have been installed here and the processing has commenced at no cost to the beneficiaries. For proper management of the machines, a committee made up of women from the local government area has been set up to oversee the activity. They are also responsible for mobilising women towards participation in the programme, while KOWEN coordinators will oversee the committee. The gesture will be replicated in the councils, where palm oil production is the main economic stay of women. Very soon, specially packaged outputs, which will be called Kogi Palm Oil (KOGEE) will flood major markets across the country," she said.
The Kogi First Lady further noted that in order to drive the process, women are being encouraged to form cooperatives to enable them access agriculture-related initiatives of both state and federal government, like soft loans in order to enhance their enterprise. An agriculturist, Samson Omada, commended the initiative which he described as important income generator for rural women.
According to him, "It is the first time a pet project of a first lady will be highly prioritised to have direct bearing on the rural women. What the first lady should also do is to develop a process where women will be small holders of palm plantation, instead of depending on fruits from wild groves. He urged the state government to replicate the example of KOWEN by encouraging the youths to also embrace the palm production initiative, as this will greatly reduce the alarming rate of youth unemployment in the state.
"The economy of the state could be transformed by encouraging youths to also embrace the endeavour, apart from reducing unemployment. They could be encouraged to own small plantations of high yielding palm trees from which the raw materials could be derived, after which they are allowed access to loans to acquire machines for palm processing. We have a ready market across the country for the products, not talk of the growing opportunities for export," he advised.