Brave Women: The melon business women of Agyragu

by Festus Iyorah

It’s a Friday—the busiest market day at the Agyragu melon market, Nasarawa. The market is dominated by women of Agyragu attending to potential customers from Lagos, Onitsha, Aba including neighboring countries of Cameroon and Benin republic.   

Just like every other Friday, the market hums like a well oiled machine, alive with activities—cars, motorcycles honks blaring from different directions, sellers negotiating with buyers in Hausa, pidgin languages, haggling to arrive at comfortable prices. 

Negotiating done, the melons are packaged in a big sack, wheeled out to where the trucks going to Lagos or Ontisha or Cameroon are parked.

A source of empowerment and financial freedom

Melon business in this part of Nasarawa is lucrative, well coveted and cherished. It’s dominated by mostly illiterate women. Ishaya Danladi, who happens to be my fixer, told me that the vast majority of women selling melon in this market have made treasury from this business, thus making some of them the breadwinners of their family. 

“If you give some of them government work with 100,000 as monthly salary, they will reject it,” Isahaya said, as though speaking their mind.

But it turns out to be true and he makes a fast and simple arithmetic to corroborate his statement,

He said a big bag of melon is sold at the price of N36, 000 or more and the money they spend in purchasing and processing the raw melon   is about 30, 000. So, sometimes they end up raking up to #6,000 or #7,000 per bag and more depending on their final bargain with customers.

As we take a stroll around the market, watching some women attend to customers in warm sense of camaraderie, Ishaya told me some women has built houses, sponsored their children’s education, invest in other businesses— just from the sales of melon, popularly known as Egusi. 

One of them is Margaret Yohana, a woman in her early 40s. She can’t really remember the exact year she started the business but she tells my translator she started when she was a child many years back in Agyragu

Sitting comfortably on a big sack of melon, Yohana gesticulates as she explains what she has achieved through the business.

“Today I can boast of the plots of land I own, the house I built through this business—without asking my husband for help” she said in her native eggon language. 

Aside from the fixed assets (plots of land and house) she acquired from the business Yohana also invested in sales of maize, rice, soya beans, guinea corn and millet. She sells in bulk to retailers in Agyragu.    

Before we arrived at the market, just few miles away from the market is Pauli Peter, 30, residence, she’s one of the biggest melon business women in Agyragu. We stopped by at her house that looks more like a melon factory.

Pauli Peter grins when asked if she’s fulfilled doing this business.  

“Melon business can help person progress.  Since I got married the business has helped me to buy many things like clothes, food items without asking my husband for money, “she told YNaija in her residence as she prepares to leave for market.

She added that she has also invested the profits she’s made in selling staple food in the market.

Another achiever in this business is Laraban Danlandi, a restless woman in her late thirties. She’s been in this business since 1995 when she was a teenager. With help of the profit she accrued from this business, she built her own house last year, sponsored some of her children in school.

Through this business she joined cooperative organization—where she receives.

This development is in sync with the 2014 World Bank Global Findex. The report says in Nigeria, the number of financially-included adult women increased by 4.7 million between 2012 and 2014 and more expected in 2017. 

Moreover, the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor (GEM) shows that Africa leads the world of women starting businesses, with almost equal levels of male and female entrepreneurs. The report stresses that countries like Ghana, Nigeria and Zambia the women outnumber the men.

Overall, the continent has much higher proportion of female entrepreneurs compared to other regions, with Nigeria and Zambia (Both 40.7%) coming on top countries like the United States (10.4%), the U.K (5.5%), Norway (3.6%) and France (3.1%)

According to Herrington, the main reason for this is because women in Africa “need to earn an extra income” to be able to afford “to send their children to school.”

A lucrative source of employment

Every Saturday, women in these communities set out for what they call “bush market” in Lafia, Agudu and other bush market  to buy the unpeeled melon in bags, depending on one’s financial capacity. Afterward, the unpeeled melon is soaked in water, peeled with the aid of a machine. 

Then here’s the most stressful part of the process: To separate the chaff from the main seed–which is done with the help of locals who are paid based on the number of bags they can work on. Once they’re done with this process, The melon seed is dried out in the sun, then, packaged for sale in a sack. It’s sold for N32,000 for the big bag, although the price varies from N32, 000 to N30,000 per bag. So profits fluctuate from N6,000 to N7,000 per bag.  

Peters buys 20 or 30 bags every week. She told YNaija she employs women who assist her in the processing. She pays her worker #500 per bag with few cups of melon. 

Yohana, pays her laborer N700 per bag.  “So if it’s 7 bag you can do, that’s about #5000 every week,” she said through a translator in egun language.  

This business is lucrative especially in a time Nigeria’s minimum wage is fixed at #18,000 per month and the Federal government is yet to implement policy that will see to the increment of the minimum wage.  

“These women are making money from this business weekly, in fact, civil servants have also joined in the business; they invest in the business, get someone to manage it and get their own share every month,” Ishaya told YNaija.

Brave Women is YNaija.com’s citizenship series for the month of March. Find more stories in the series here.

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