In 2006, long before her days as a photographer and Nigeria’s ‘Mama Cucumber’, Abisola Ijalana graduated from the University of Ilorin with a Bachelor of Science in Biochemistry. She had hoped to work in a laboratory, but she ended up working in marketing and customer service at a retail bank.
“It’s a long story, but they didn’t keep me, so I was back to the labour market,” Ijalana says. After getting married in 2010, she began to wonder what she could do for a living.
One day at church she heard about Daystar Skill Acquisition, a training programme that works to create a new generation of financially successful entrepreneurs through basic and specialised hands-on skills training. She instantly fell in love with photography and never looked back.
She went on to become an award-winning photographer in Lagos. In 2016, she was a winner in the Eloy Women’s Awards.
A journey into farming
Ijalana says that she resorted to farming as a retirement strategy after 11 amazing and fruitful years of photography. “It was time to take the bull by the horns,” she explains.
Last August, she started farming watermelon, ugwu and ewedu. Initially, she intended to concentrate on cassava but it requires a year to reap.
The employer of nine full-time staff hopes that her biochemistry will one day come into play as she plans on making cucumber powder products with the same health benefits as the original cucumber.
“Knowledge is never a waste, and it’s not about your qualification but giving any position you are in your 100% and breaking any limiting barriers,” says Ijalana.
She is gradually establishing herself as the “Mama Cucumber” of Lagos’ Mile 12 market. This is an extraordinary large market, popular for its availability of virtually all types of food products in Nigeria.
“I wouldn’t say I have started making an income because you have to get a return on your investment first before you start making a profit,” she explains.
Ijalana currently uses an agent, who takes a 10% commission, to sell her produce at the Mile 12 market. She says they can take about 50 000 vegetables, and within two days everything will be sold out. She now wants to supply tomatoes all year round.
“Food is one way you can conquer poverty, develop and contribute to your country’s economy,” she says. “I decided to start now, to give my farming time, because you can’t implement a retirement plan when you retire.”
Her commitment to farming has led to her reducing her shooting days to twice a week, compared to four times before. She has to give her vegetables the attention they deserve and make them grow to the level of her photography business.
Her biggest achievement in farming was to conquer anthracnose disease, a cucumber disease that gets on cucumbers during rainy seasons when there are insects.
Challenges as a female farmer
As a newbie in farming, she has faced a fair number of challenges but she keeps getting better daily. After purchasing her five-acre farm in Ogun State, Kobola, she encountered a water supply issue that required her to fetch water about 400 metres away.
But with determination, she has now bought a 10 000 litre water tank. “I even posted on Instagram with so many people holding it, as a form of celebration,” says Ijalana.
However, there’s another menacing problem. “My fear of kidnappings,” Ijabala explains, which forces her to knock off relatively early on the farm. She also cannot be far away from her male driver and assistant.
This poses a challenge for her as she wants to expand and get more land. Therefore, it’s scary to be in the bush alone as a woman in a country mired by security issues such as kidnappings of women.
Besides this, she complains of lack of funding from the government. By the end of the year, she wants to get a truck to relieve the financial strain that comes with transportation of her produce.
Ijalana tries by all means to break stereotypical views about women in agriculture. “In photography people would say, ‘Wow, you’re a woman and doing photography.’ Now in farming, they also say it’s a male-dominated industry,” she explains.
“I dress so well, I dance and I want farming to look easy, even though we all know it’s not.” But Ijalana says she is on a mission to be seen as a fashionable farmer to young girls so that they choose farming as a first choice career.
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