By: Mariam Hamzat
Bosede,10, has quite a number of several scars on her hands from injuries suffered from knife cuts while peeling cassava. The young girl who recently started junior secondary school returns from school every day to join her mother in the garri-making business.
Like many other women of the community, she is skilled in the art of cassava peeling and, therefore, peels with expertise and speed that leaves no question of her years of experience. Sitting beside her mother, while her younger siblings play around, Bosede can hold a conversation non-stop while peeling baskets after baskets of cassava with agility.
She explained to this reporter that the key to handling the knife with expertise is an active mind and good control of the wrist.
“On days when I forget myself, my body tells the tale as I acquire yet another mark, so even when I’m talking, I try not to get too carried away,” she stated in Yoruba.
Although Bosede knows the key to peeling with dexterity, it appears she loses herself in the tide of work often as scars from different times map her hands, just like her mother’s. Of course, the path of the young girl in the first year of her junior secondary school education could be different even if she chooses to go into the garri-making business as an adult, but all of the conditions that could cause these differences are non-existent.
The question of whether she would go further beyond junior school or be exposed to advanced processing machines has no certain answer for now. Like her mother, she could drop out after JSS 3, because the key to a senior secondary education and the final examinations is funds. Money, which they do not have.
Garri Production in Oyo
Garri is a staple food made from cassava and consumed in different parts of Nigeria. It has a high demand estimated at one million (1,000,000) tons annually and a national supply estimate of about two hundred and fifty thousand (250,000) tons.
Nigeria is known as one of the largest producers of Cassava, with over 47 million tonnes in 2013. With this, a 2017 paper stated that a well-articulated and dynamic cassava production policy cum program of the federal government will help to move the nation out of its economic wood.
With such huge production, Nigerians do not lack ideas on what to use cassava for as it has many products. Some of these products include garri, fufu, cassava bread, cassava flour, cassava chips, and cassava starch. Of these products, garri could be said to be the most common end product. A recent hike of 66% in its price and the price of other staple foods have put a lot of homes under pressure.
Garri comes in different forms based on the granule’s sizes and the dryness, and usually, they are named after the part of Nigeria where they were made. One of the parts which are believed to have one of the best garri is Oyo, a town in Oyo State. Garri Oyo, as the garri from Oyo is called, is popular for its fineness, dryness, granule-like nature, and its sour taste. Therefore, it is in high demand in different parts of Nigeria. To meet this demand, production goes on earnestly in various communities across the town, churning out bags of garri daily.
Marketers and distributors from different parts of the country visit the local processors to buy their garri, establishing relationships that make it easy to request bags from wherever they are.
Lagos seems to be one of the best places to sell to, as many of the women excitedly talked about Lagosoians who come to purchase their products in bags.
At other times, rather than sell to distributors; sales are made at the popular Sabo Market where shops after shops are filled with garri ready for sale, or distributed to other mini markets. Because there is an existing market for the sale of garri which had been built by years of supply and demand, many of the women in the communities were born into the processing business.
One of the women who spoke to this reporter, Iya Alake mentioned that her mother used to make garri for sale, therefore it was only right that she took over the business after her mother’s demise.
“Before my mother died, I had been doing business with her. I started from cassava peeling before I moved to other stages. This is what I know how to do best and I have been doing it for years”, she explained.
Although she’s good at what she does, the mother of three confessed that she has never tried any other work or business other than garri processing, thus she has no basis for comparison.
Iya Alake is not the only one who had family members in the business who availed them of the opportunity to learn. Many others have also been in the business and from this reporter’s conversation with them, the average number of years of adult experience in the business was six. Many of them share the same origin story as Bosede — transitioning from junior secondary school to the Garri-making business.
The average day at the processing site starts with trucks visiting to deliver cassava from farms around and beyond Oyo at various intervals. For some, however, it starts with a continuation of leftover work from the previous day. After the delivery of cassava has been made, women get to work to divide the cassava among female laborers after an agreement has been reached, then work starts.
Peeling the cassava into nearby bowls and baskets requires a level of expertise that when not maintained could result in cuts and bruises. Although the knives used are long and sharp, they are the right tool for women who have to rely on manual means of processing. Pending the average of 4 days it takes to finish peeling one load of the truck, it is left to each person to do all they can to limit the chances of a slip or a mistake that will lead to a fatal cut.
Next is the grinding, at the Eleere Processing Unit which this reporter visited, only about 5 grinding machines are serving the community, hence the women have to be on their toes packing their cassava as it is being grounded. Although the grinding process is mostly overseen by the men who are always looking to move on to their next customers, the bending, speed, and deftness required to pack grounded cassava leave the women dizzy and tired, with aching backs.
After this, the ‘jacking’, a process of squeezing water out of the grounded cassava by hard-pressing takes place This process is also overseen mostly by men, leaving the women a chance to rest for a while or go back to peeling more cassava.
The hard press process is then followed by other stages like drying and sieving. Then comes the most important process, frying the garri – a task many of the women admitted is not the easiest. Sitting beside the clay stove/oven, there is a need to consistently add the garri, stir it and move it until the required level of dryness is reached.
Mrs. Dorcas, one of the garri processors explained that sitting beside the hot open fire required that one has a level of resistance and strength.
“A weak pregnant woman cannot do this work, because it is really tasking. Even a normal person sometimes feels tired and faint because of the heat. Not only is the heat a problem but even the smoke”.
Wood is used as a heat source for the stove and it emits smoke which not only puts the women in immediate danger, but also long-term exposure has its long-term effect. Long and constant exposure to heat could lead to acute dehydration and poor health conditions.
According to a 2015 paper on the hazards associated with small-scale garri processing, 89.1% of the respondents, claim to feel fatigued at work due to their exposure to heat while 98.2% complained of aches and pain due to the stress involved in gari processing. The paper also recognized physical hazards associated with the job including skin irritation, eye irritation, itching of the body, and accidental cuts. The biohazards listed are insect infestation, insect bites, scorpion and snake attacks, ants and spider bites, and skin rashes caused by insect bites.
Despite all of these, these producers who have been in the business for years have come to accept the work and all parts of it as a part of their everyday life. They manage their work with their kids and their household. Some are even breadwinners.
One of the women who identified herself as Mama Joy explained that many of the workers do not live in the Eleere vicinity, and often have to travel a few distances down to the processing unit.
“Many live in places like Kooso, Oke Mogi, Express, and everyday they prepare their kids of school age for school, prepare meals for their husbands before moving down to their workplace. On weekends, the kids come down to Elere where they spend the day with their mothers, helping and learning the business”, she stated.
Low Financial Support
Despite the acceptance of their everyday life and the situation that comes with it, a problem that these women continue to battle is the lack of access to funds for their businesses.
As a community, the women in the Elere neighborhood organize weekly and monthly thrift, a joint savings that allow them to receive money in turns. Apart from these, access to large business grants, loans, and governmental help is non-existence. These garri producers rely on private loan agencies like Lift Above Poverty Organisation (LAPO) Microfinance Bank, Self Reliance Economic Advancement Programme ( SEAP), and other microfinance organizations notorious for their conditions and method of operation.
“Breast on Lantern” (translates to Gb’omu le’lantern in Yoruba) as they are popularly called, these micro-finance institutes (MFI) are second to making a deal with the devil. They give out loans after customers save a particular percentage of money, and fix a day for weekly repayment which often spans 23-30 weeks. Failure to make this weekly payment comes with no mercy. Crude recovery methods such as harassment, insult, arrest, and business closure are often employed.
According to one of the leaders of the Eleere Unit who identified as Iya Ibeji, it is not uncommon to see representatives of these organizations pick and lock up defaulters for failure to pay on the specified day of the week.
“When representatives of loan providers arrive, you will see people leaving their work to hide if they don’t have the money yet. So far, the Elere community has never been lucky when it comes to funding and loans from the government. I don’t think I know any unit with such access to loans or grants in Oyo. We often have private and public institutions visit us with promises. Some will come to say they train us and take our pictures doing one or two things. Some time ago, some people came, asked us to fill out papers, took pictures of us and asked us so many questions. Till date, we are yet to hear back from them, unless they’ll come tomorrow,” she lamented.
For many of these women, the lack of access to funds means they continue to run their businesses on a small scale, producing only a few bags per week. They are also unable to afford modern types of machinery that will make their work easier, faster, and safer. Lack of funds means they are unable to support their family adequately or give their children the advantage of higher education, relying mostly on Nigeria’s 9-year free basic education which stops at JSS3.
According to the paper on the hazards associated with small-scale garri processing, some of the most recurring health issues experienced by the workers include musculoskeletal disorders such as pain and stiffness in hands, fingers, and wrists (87.3%); pain in legs and feet (90.7%); numbness in legs and feet (81.8%); cramped waist (90.9%); knee pain (58.2%); back and neck pain (85.5%).
These women are exposed to workplace danger daily, yet continue to clock in everyday, and still, they manage to turn up at their workplace.
This reporter opened a discussion with a group of about 12 on their health management where they all confessed to self-medicating. One of the members of the group, Serifat, 55, acknowledged that she often felt tired and sometimes fell sick after prolonged rigorous work, but self-medicates.
“Whoever is tired or sick knows what to use and how to take care of themselves. The public health center isn’t close enough to go to for common complaints. If you stay here till evening, you will see the chemist hawking the medicine and everyone buys, or people go to the chemist’s shop themselves.”
This reporter’s visit to the Atiba Primary Health Centre further corroborated this as one of the health caregivers who preferred to speak off record said the Garri women producers do not visit the health center regularly.
“They only come when their situation becomes severe and beyond their local chemist’s capacity. Also, we do not have enough data to say how much their work is affecting them. But not only is the smoke and heat dangerous to their health, but the prolonged smell of fermented cassava without protection is also bad as well”, she explained.
Efforts made through several calls to reach Honorable Kafilat Labake Olayiwola, the Commissioner for Women’s Affairs and Social Inclusion proved abortive. Meanwhile, no record of a grant or help targeted towards women in any garri-making community was found.
In 2021, The Minister of Humanitarian Affairs, Social Development, and Disaster Management, Hajiya Sadiya Farouq announced that no fewer than 5,280 rural women in Oyo State received N20,000 cash each to uplift their socio-economic status as part of the Federal Government’s National Social Safety Net Project (NASSP). While the cash grant was given to these women to “increase their income, enhance their good security, and contribute towards improving their living standard”, if received by women in the Oyo Garri-producing community, it would only play a small part in their business needs.