In Nigeria, many women suffer ailments resulting from the use of firewood and data from the World Health Organization estimates that over 98,000 of these women die annually as a result.  Some of these women-especially those who are into palm kernel processing-are aware of the implications. But with no support to adopt more energy-efficient methods, they risk their health to earn a living. Arinze Chijioke reports. 

Inside an open space roofed with corrugated zinc sheets in the Garki area of Enugu State, Southeast Nigeria, smoke constantly goes up and disappears into the horizon. Metal drum containers are holding water and Palm kernel Sludge, the residue obtained from oil palm mills after the extraction of oil from palm nuts.

Nwani Catherine stands with her hands firmly holding a long, wooden stick which she uses to stir the metal drum containers, one at a time. At intervals, she uses her drenched shirt to wipe the beads of sweat on her face.

Catherine pours water into one of her drums

The heat from the three-stoned open cooking fire is unbearable and leaves her wheezing badly from firewood smoke, tears welling up in her eyes. But she has to stir for hours to get oil from the Sludge which companies come to buy and further process into detergent, soap, perfume, cream and other products.

This has been her routine since 2017, two years after her husband died and left her with the burden of catering for their four children.

Before she was introduced to the business by a friend, Catherine sold foodstuffs inside Ogbete, one of Enugu’s main markets. But it was not profitable. Sometimes, she made a profit of N200 after each day’s sale.

“I felt I needed another business to be able to take care of my children, “she said.  It is what money I earn from here that I pay their fees and our rent”.

Initially, when she started the business, she was buying the Palm Kernel sludge directly from artisanal and small-scale oil palm mills and processing it further to get other products. But with time, she could not afford to buy directly. Now, she works for a group of women who own the business.

Every day, at 6:30 am, Catherine leaves her house to ensure that she gets to the location before 7 am. Sometimes, she treks. Most of the time, she boards a bus. At the location, she separates the Sludge which often comes in different bags into 12 drums after which she sets fire to them and begins to stir.

“The Sludge is usually hard when poured into the drums, “she said. “I have to go round and stir each drum for hours to get the liquid content and also ensure that it does not burn”.

At intervals, she ambles to the stream close to the location where she gets water used in the processing.  After processing, the oil stays at the top of the drum while palm kernel cake- another by-product stays at the bottom.

The next morning, she begins her day by scraping the drums for the Cake which can be used as feed for swine and also serves as manure routinely used by smallholder farmers. It is also used to replace up to 66 per cent of chemical fertilizers in palm plantations.

She and other women who are in the processing business arrange the cakes into different bags and help load them into vehicles, earning N50 per bag. For each drum processed, the women earn N250. That is N3000 for 12 drums and N1500 for six.

Palm kernel cake used as feed for for swine and fertilizer for crop production

Whenever there is a scarcity of Palm kernels, the women go for two weeks and sometimes more without working and that affects their income. They leave the location between 5-6 pm daily.

Catherine often feels weakness in her bones and pain in her chest whenever she returns home after each day’s work. The smoke from the fire disturbs her eyes. But she rarely takes medication.

“I don’t want to get used to it and always spend my money on drugs, “she said.  “I have allowed my body to get used to the process. For my eyes, I buy Yeast and eat enough vegetables. I also drink soda water whenever it blocks my breathing”.

Africa is hardest hit

The use of open fires and solid fuels for cooking remains one of the world’s most pressing health and environmental problems, directly impacting nearly half of the world’s population- more than 3 billion- and causing nearly four million premature deaths each year, according to the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves.

In Sub-Saharan Africa alone, some 950 million people- about 81 per cent of the population- are said to rely on wood and charcoal for cooking, a number which is estimated to grow to 1.67 billion by 2050.

Research also indicates that the highest death rates from cooking fuel pollution occur in poorer African countries, with smoke inhalation from indoor and outdoor cooking causing between 1.6 million and 3 million deaths of children in the continent yearly.

Among the health issues arising from smoke inhalation In developing countries, including Nigeria include respiratory infections, eye damage, heart and lung disease and lung cancer, cardiovascular diseases and bronchitis which are significant causes of death in both children under five and women.

Of the 4 million global deaths recorded annually, 27% are due to pneumonia, 18% from stroke, 27% from ischaemic heart disease, 20% from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and 8% are from lung cancer, according to data from WHO data.

Kelo Uchendu, Policy Lead of YOUNGO, the UN Framework Convention on climate change, (UNFCCC) Children and youth constituency, said that apart from being one of the drivers of death, especially in Africa, open fire cooking remains one of the major causes of unsustainable tree harvest and is responsible for about 20% of black carbon emission.

The training process

Before Duru started the business in 2020, she was trained for two months on how to pour the chaff into the drums and what quantity to ensure that it does not waste as you turn. She was also trained on how to add fire to the product and what quantity of water to add and how to stir.

“If you pour too much water, for instance, it becomes hard for you to stir, “she said. “Some people learn everything about the business in one month while some catch up in three months,”.

When she resumed, she worked for one week and stopped because she could not bear the hit from the drums and the stress that comes with the processing. But she came back again, determined this time to work and earn money for herself and her family.

Duru stirs her drums of palm kernel chaff

The mother of five had worked as a caregiver in a private nursery school in Enugu where she was earning a meagre N5000 as salary every month.  But It was hard enough to meet her needs.

“Sometimes, I was not paid my salary in full and sometimes, they often withheld it, “she recalled.  “And it always resulted in quarrels. “I could not save up or invest in anything”.

But in her current job, she gets paid daily and earns more than three times her salary at her former school.  Depending on her strength, Duru earns between N1500 and N3000 daily. She also gets N500 as money for feeding daily.

“With the money I make, I am able to support my husband who is a commercial bus driver in taking care of the family, “she said.

Since she started the job, Duru has not fallen sick because she has become used to the business. She takes Sodar water because of the smoke she inhales Sometimes, I spend almost the entire day here.

Duru comes out here as early as 7 am to be able to meet up with her daily target. On arrival, she begins by scrapping the drums for Palm Kernel cake which she arranges in small bags.

Where the women fetch water used for production

Usually, when she returns home, exhausted, she lays down on a cement floor to be able to regain her strength. She said that several women had also stopped working after some time because they could not cope with the stress that comes with it.

Like Duru, Ngozi Godwin got into the processing business in 2020. Before then, she was into petty foodstuff trading inside Ogbete, Enugu’s Main Market. But the money she makes was hardly enough for her to pay bills back home.

A mother of five, she also worked as a cleaner as a government officer. But her monthly salary of N20,000 was often delayed. She always transported herself to the office, spending the little she had.  Sometimes, before she gets paid, she spends everything on household needs.

“It was hard for me to save, “she said. “All of that frustrated me and I had to find an alternative, especially as someone who had children,”. My sister who had been in the business for more than 20 years now introduced me to it.

Godwin pours water into the drum

She explained that although the processing business is stressful, it is more profitable and she can support her husband who is a commercial bus driver in taking care of the family. It also allows her more time to do other things for herself.

“I am often exhausted whenever I return home, but I must come the next day to work because I have to make money,” Now, I can save from the N3000 I earn daily”.

No efforts to invest in sustainable approaches

At the U.N. Climate Change Conference (COP26), African countries, including Nigeria renewed their commitment to transitioning from polluting cooking fuels. They were also determined in their call for an affordable energy transition.

However, Uchendu said that the Nigerian government often looks at the bigger picture without realistic timelines when talking about energy transition, and climate policies on strategies.

“The government is failing to understand the different small scale grass root innovations and how local women-especially those into Palm Kernel processing- can be supported with more sustainable approaches to business, thereby increasing their income, “he said. “Their activities are hardly recognised”.

He noted that these women often resort to fuelwood at the expense of their health and the environment because they lack the funds to adopt more energy-efficient methods in their processing activities.

“Energy transition has to be a coordinated effort, from the bottom to the top and this means supporting women with cleaner and healthier alternatives which will cut down the time and resources used, that is lesser input and more output, “he said.  Private entities can also come in to invest in these women and boost productivity,”.

Catherine and other women remain hopeful that more energy-efficient methods will be introduced to make their work a lot easier and less harmful to their health.


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This report looks at how displaced women finding refuge inside the Abagena Internally Displaced Persons Camp, (IDP) in Makurdi, Benue State survive by working on farmlands.

In 2018, Doose Aodohemba, 25 watched as her 17-month-old baby Doowese, was killed when suspected criminal herdsmen attacked Umenge, one of the villages in Guma Local Government in Benue State.

It was a day after New Year’s Day in January. While Doose and her family slept, they heard deafening gunshots and people shouting and scampering for safety.  Quickly, she grabbed one of her children and her husband picked up a few of their clothes and they ran out of their house, leaving Doowese.

“I thought my husband already carried  Doowese,” Aodohemba said.  “When we ran a distance and did not see him, we quickly came back but saw the attackers burning our house”.

A woman inside the IDP heads to the farm with Cassava Stalks (photo credit-Arinze Chijioke)

From a distance, she watched them kill her child.

In the aftermath of the January coordinated attack on Guman and Logo LG, at least 80 people were killed while several others were injured. Residents fled their ancestral homes.  The state held a mass burial for victims of the attack.

All through that night, Doose, her husband and their remaining child trekked till they got to Makurdi, the Benue State capital, where they slept and the next morning, they came to Abagena, one of the official camps for internally displaced persons in the State.

Since then, Doose- like others who fled their homes- has not gone back for fear of being attacked. She has lost everything, her child. Her farm. Her home. Whenever she remembers his death and feels devastated, her husband-Aodohemba Tyokaa- tries to console her.

She also lost her husband’s brother, Abaa Tyokaa who was staying together with them. According to her, he had hidden himself when the herdsmen attacked the community, hoping that the dust will settle the new morning so he can carry some of their property.

“Sadly, they found him and killed him, “she said.

Benue, epicentre of conflict  

The age-long conflict between farmers and Fulani herders in Nigeria is reported to be most disastrous in Benue, where the Fulani militia are said to have attacked at least 303 times since 2005, killing over 2539 people which according to the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED) is nearly one-third of all the reported killings by the herdsmen in the country.

Due to frequent clashes between farmers and pastoralists, the Benue state government passed a  law banning open grazing of cattle in late 2017. The Open Grazing Prohibition and Ranches Establishment Law required livestock owners to buy land and establish ranches, prohibiting the open movement of animals within the state. It spells out punishments, including a five-year jail term or an N1 million fine for anyone whose cattle graze outside a ranch.

But rather than curb the violent attacks, the passing of the anti-open grazing law increased the wave of violent clashes in the state, including the attack on Guma and Logo which have recorded the highest number of attacks in the state.

In 2018 alone, criminal herdsmen reportedly carried out 82 attacks across the state, the highest of such violence in a single year, displacing hundreds of thousands of farmers such as Doose.

Struggle for survival

Before the attack, Doose and her husband were big-time farmers in Umenge. They had a vast expanse of land where they planted Rice, Maize and Yam.

Since 1976, Agriculture has remained the predominant occupation for the people of Benue State, with over 80 per cent of the state’s population engaged in food crop production as small-scale farmers on rich arable land spanning over 300 kilometres.

Benue is one of the major contributors to food production and security in Nigeria, with women like Doose producing 80 per cent of food in the state. But sustained crises in the state have continued to impact its agricultural sector, with the food production ratio in the state decreasing by 45 per cent.

“We always harvested over 70 bags of rice, 10 bags of Maize and over 200 tubers of yam,” she said. “We did not lack anything and always had enough to eat,”. We were a happy family”.

After the attack, everything changed. Now, she works on farmlands belonging to families living around the camp. Sometimes, she prepares heaps and ridges for planting. Sometimes, she helps in the planting and also weeds.

On a daily basis, she earns between N500 and N1000 which is hardly enough for her and her three children. Three years after the attack, she gave birth to a set of twins, In September 2021.

Women inside the camp prepare meals for their children (photo credit-Arinze Chijioke)

After their birth, work slowed down, forcing her to depend on neighbours and friends for food. But she hopes to resume and continue to work to fend for her family. She said her husband always travels in search of a job.

“I don’t have any other option than to work, “she said.

When this reporter met Doose inside the Abagena camp, she was carrying Torngu and Torkuma, her twin sons. As one of them suckles her breast, she feeds the other with a meal she had received from one of her neighbours.

She is one of several women who have been displaced from their homes and are having to work on farms to earn a living. While some of them go in search of farms to work on, others search for lands where they can cultivate their own crops and sell after which they share the proceeds with the landowners. The food provided by the camp authority is hardly enough.

Money earned is hardly enough

As each day breaks inside the Abagena IDP camp, Uverashe Dena, 30 only thinks of how to feed her children. She routinely travels from the camp in Makurdi to other locations in search of farms to work on. Like Aodohemba,  she earns between N500 and N1000.

Her husband farms too. But the money they both earn is hardly enough to feed the children- seven of them.

Four years ago, the family had enough to eat and sell.

Dena says money earned is hardly enough to feed her children (photo credit-Arinze Chijioke)

They had 1500 heaps of yam and over 100 ridges where they planted corn and other crops. But the narrative changed after Dena and her family fled their home in Torkula one of the villages in Guma local government after it was attacked by criminal herdsmen in late January 2018.

“We started hearing gunshots as we were about to retire to bed, “she said. The criminal herdsmen had made their way into our village and started shooting sporadically and destroying property”.

While no casualty was recorded, Dena said several houses were completely razed by the criminals who also carted away foodstuffs. She and her family escaped without anything, except the clothes they had on them. All they had was burnt- their house. Their farm. Their crops.

“All through the night, we trekked through bushes and pathways and when we got to Makurdi the state capital, we found the camp and slept,” We have been here since then”.

Whenever she does not get a job to do, she borrows food from other women inside the camp at Abagena and gives them back when she gets money and buys foodstuffs.  Sometimes, she goes hungry to let her children eat.

From farm to IDP camp

Christiana Sharbee came to the Abagena IDP camp in January 2018 after her community, Asangaba in Guma was attacked by herdsmen. She and her husband and children were on their farm when they suddenly started hearing gunshots.

Quickly, they ended work and on their way back home, they saw people running and they ran with their children.

“I lost one of my brothers-in-law, Utaghe Sharbee,” she said. “He stayed back after we left, thinking that the herdsmen will not come and that he will pack some of our clothes the next day and bring them to us. “As he was packing some clothes, they attacked and killed him at night”.

Sharbee escaped to the IDP from her farm (photo credit-Arinze Chijioke)

She said Utaghe was helpful to the family before he was killed.

“Whenever we did not have food to eat, he always provided, I feel pained each time I remember that he is not here”.

Before the attack, Christiana’s husband, Stephen used to cut down trees for a living in addition to their farm work. He earned as much as 30,000 after each job. They lived well.

To survive and cater for her family, she searches for farms within the Abagena IDP camp where she escaped after the attack.

Work not always available

Although women inside the Abagena IDP camp survive by working on farms, Msulshima Kwaghtser, 35 said that it is not always easy to find places to work.

“Sometimes, I go a whole week without finding people to work for,” she said. “There are many of us inside the camp who want to work and earn money. Sometimes, we have to travel outside the state in search of jobs”.

Like other women, farming was all that Msulshima Kwaghtser, 35 and her family had to do. In 2018, when herdsmen struck her community in Guma LGA, she was on her farm.

Kwaghtser prepares a meal for her children (photo credit-Arinze Chijioke)

As soon as they heard gunshots, she and her family ran, leaving everything behind. Their home, their farm and their property. They burnt her house and everything inside it.

“We trekked for two days before we got to the Abagena camp,” Since then, life has been difficult for us,”.  My husband travelled to Nasarawa state to get land he can farm on and earn money,”.

With what money she earns, Kwaghtser goes to the market and buys Corn and makes soup for her seven children. This has become almost like a staple food for her and the children. Sometimes, she says they starve.

Way out?

Emmanuel Chiwetalu, a PhD student at Edinburgh University Divinity School said that finding a lasting solution for the decades of conflicts in Benue State would require efforts by community leaders and individuals across affected communities.

“The ordinary farmers have only little to do about these killings, “he said. “The councillors and local government chairmen, the communal leaders and the state government officials must do more to help”.

He also said that although the federal government and national security agencies can help to manage the situation, the local leaders must recognise the immense power they have to prevent the lingering conflict.

According to him, qualitative research on communal conflict in Nigeria has shown that local leaders have collaborated in different parts of the country to consider potential sources of conflict between groups and successfully prevented violence in their community

“This kind of local peace work is part of the means through which peace and progress can be restored in Benue communities, he said. “Having a peaceful farmer-herder arrangement will also require the rejection of some of the suspicions and stereotypes that harm their relationship”.



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