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close this bookCERES No. 148 - Working out the links: labor in sustainable agriculture (1994)
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The Kofyar variations

When it comes to sheer adaptability, northern Nigeria's farmers have few peers

By Robert Netting

Robert Netting is with the department of anthropology, University of Arizona in Tucson, Arizona, U.S.A.

Traditionally, the Kofyar people of northern Nigeria grew cereal, legume, tuber and tree crops on terraced plots in an intensive farming system which supported up to 120 persons/km2 About 40 years ago some of them began to move down to the Benue river plains to produce yams and millet, which they sold.

In their new location, when land was plentiful, they at first adopted slash-and-bum techniques. But as more people moved onto the plains, the better soils were taken up and that method of cropping became untenable, so they returned again to their highland methods of farming with shorter fallows, intercropping, raising stall-kept animals, and using purchased chemical fertilizers and seed dressings.

This rapid change from subsistence to cash cropping, from intensive farming to slash-and-bum and back again to intensive farming, occurred without any direct involvement by development workers. There were no appreciable extension efforts, no government marketing or credit facilities, and no planned resettlement.

The fact that these farmers made so many radical, highly adaptive transitions involving changes in cropping and labor allocation entirely on their own, in response to their changing conditions, should give pause to those "experts" who favor top-down approaches to development: the Kofyar experience is worth looking at in detail.

British conquest

At the time of British conquest in 1909, the Kofyar managed their tiny plots (0.6 ha around each compound) with great care. Sloped plots were terraced with stonewalled benches. Erosion was further prevented and rain trapped by hoeing-up rectangular ridges on both terraced and level fields. Soil fertility was maintained by confining goats in a circular stone corral by day and in a hut by night, bringing them green fodder and water, and applying the composted droppings annually to the plots.

Most commonly, early millet was intercropped with sorghum and cowpeas; sweet potatoes, cocoyams and groundnuts were grown in small separate patches. Economically valuable oil-palm, canarium-almond and locust-bean trees grew near the compound, and mango trees were often planted. More marginal land around the village was used on a shifting basis to grow less demanding crops of groundnuts, late millet, sesame and acha (Digitaria exilis). These bush fields were also terraced and sometimes double-cropped: after groundnut, late millet was transplanted from a nursery. Ash from the cooking fires was stored in a special hut, and applied as potash fertilizer to groundnuts. Every household kept goats and chickens for meat and manure. With large mud-built granaries and various drying racks inside mud-domed thatched sleeping huts, the Kofyar could reduce the risk of dry years and crop failures.


A Fulani agropastoralist enjoys the rewards of his backbreaking work - Photo by Ann Waters-Bayer

Labor on homestead farms was supplied by the nuclear family. Nearby bush farms required a different kind of labor: fields were several times larger, cultivation was faster and less thorough and yields were lower. Kin, friends and people from neighboring villages were mobilized to work the bush fields in return for millet beer. Clubs of young men did the same, competing with each other to see who could work fastest.

In the 1950s, some Kofyar began to clear tracts of two to four hectares in forest south of the plateau and planted their familiar crops of millet and sorghum. They also acquired yams (Dioscorea sp.), a crop from southern Nigeria that was in demand by the growing Yoruba and Ibo populations of northern cities. The nearest market was that serving tin-miners south of Jos.

Initially, none of the intensification methods used on homestead fields were used on the plains' bush farms. There was no livestock to produce dung for manuring. When fertility declined, farmers simply shifted to new fields. Agricultural tasks on the migrant bush farms were also less precisely scheduled. In the new environment on the plains, production was constrained not by land, but labor.

Problem addressed

The labor problem was addressed by enlargement of the household labor force and mobilizing neighbors in work-for-beer parties. Money saved from the sale of cash crops was used to pay bride-price for additional wives; the bride-price income was then invested in farm enterprises. Instead of dividing when adult children married, as was customary in the hills, the plains' households retained married sons and their families.


Hired laborers ridging fields with traditional tools in Kufana, Nigeria - Photo by Ann Waters-Bayer

On the cultivated bush farms of about three hectares per household in the mid-1960s, the yields per unit area were much lower than on the small homestead farms, but total production was almost three times higher. The migrant households were able to triple their income (Netting, 1968). The opportunity to sell food in a rapidly expanding market was a strong incentive for the Kofyar to adopt an extensive farming system on the frontier.

Since the 1970s the plains have become well settled and land use pressure is now such that shifting cultivation and long-term fallowing are no longer possible. To maintain crop production, the Kofyar have begun to keep goats again and stall-feed them in the traditional way. In some cases, they pay Fulani herders to kraal cattle on a field to manure it during the dry season. Within the last 10 years, most farmers have begun to use chemical fertilizers, but are uncertain about the most beneficial fertilizer types and optimum times of application. More than half of the farmers buy seed dressings.

The fields around the compound are rotated annually between the millet-sorghum mixture and yams. Though it is hard work, ridges are often prepared in the dry season so that cereals can be planted promptly after the first rains. Hand-weeding and thinning of millet are done at the same time. The weeds are incorporated into the soil, and some millet is transplanted to land once it is softened in the rains. Sesame, cowpeas or maize are often planted in the yam heaps.

Both men and women grow and sell yams. After millet harvest, the women often also plant their own patches of groundnuts in the cereal fields, followed by or interplanted with sesame. Tree-shaded portions of the fields furnish a suitable micro-environment for their cocoyams. Women with access to low-lying land grow some rice. About half the Kofyar women now sell their own crops.

Intensification has also brought diversification. Some farmers are experimenting with cassava and bananas as cash crops. Mango trees are planted near compound entrances for both fruit and shade. Pig breeding, which did not exist among the Kofyar 40 years ago, is now very popular. Squashes are grown so their leaves can be fed to pigs, and wild greens are also gathered for the pigs. There is a brisk market in ground malted grain, a byproduct of beer-brewing, for pig fodder. Live chickens and ducks are bought by merchants who transport them to urban areas.

Draft animals rejected

Although this intensification of farming demands a great deal of labor, the Kofyar have deliberately rejected animal traction. They regard their traditional broad-bladed hoes as more efficient than the plow in coping with tree-roots in partially cleared land. In northern Nigeria, plows were introduced under state programs to increase output of cash crops such as groundnuts, cotton and tobacco, and substantial credit had to be supplied (Tiffen, 1976). But the Kofyar contend their food crops are more profitable than industrial crops, and that growing them has not put them into debt. Besides, yam heaps have to be made by hand, and plow cultivation doesn't suit their complex system of interplanting and crop succession.

The continued dependence on human labor has meant compound households have expanded further. After the pioneering settlers of the plains died or retired, their married sons often chose to remain together. The profits of cash cropping are such that many young men, even those with secondary education, stay on the farm. Kofyar teachers and low-ranking government employees take home less income than do full-time farmers.

Wage labor is not a significant part of the work force. Instead, the beer party employing 40-100 people at a time is now more important than ever. In the early wet season when ridges for cereals and yam heaps must be made as quickly as possible, there is a work party almost every day. They are scheduled well in advance, and the host must organize groups of women to brew beer. Smaller clubs of individuals also exchange labor, working in groups of eight to 12 on each other's land.

The total per capita labor input is relatively high, with annual averages for both men and women of some 1 600 hours. This is due to the larger cash-crop fields and to intensification, which evens out the work load across the bottlenecks and slack times characteristic of savanna agriculture and also extends work into the dry season (Stone, Netting and Stone, 1990).