Until recently, when Rifkatu Dodo sold her food she did not have to be so careful.
Every so often someone would eat the beans and yam at her street-side eatery and run away without paying. But it was a rare occurrence.
Since the removal of the fuel subsidy, however, the number of people eating and fleeing has jumped up noticeably, she told HumAngle.
Rifkatu is one of millions of women in Nigeria who makes a living selling food in informal street restaurants, most just a bench, a wood fire, and a collection of plates. Price rises are pushing these small outdoor restaurants out of business.
Rifkatu used to be able to shop for her business with ₦9,000 ($12) and even end up with change, but now most days she needs about ₦14,000 to ₦15,000 (about $20) to get all she needs.
“I used to buy a kilo of oil for frying my yam, beans cake and sweet potato at about ₦1,000 but now I pay about ₦1,260 and on days I don’t have enough cash, they give me on credit but things are much more expensive. I don’t even want to focus on the prices and lack of profit, I consider myself lucky when I get some of the money I invested into the business back these days.”
Years before she started her business, Rifkatu was a girl born and raised in Muru, under Zangon Kataf Local Government, Kaduna state, North West Nigeria. After completing her primary school education in 1976, she married her husband at the age of 15 in May 1979 and the couple moved to Kaduna to start a new life.
Before her husband passed away in 2014, Rifkatu had already started a food business to help raise their seven kids. Unfortunately her education took a backseat and because she couldn’t get a job with her qualifications, she started running a small scale food business.
She started out selling food at the staff compound at the Water Board Authority in her area. But it was not as sustainable as she had hoped and in 2010 she moved to selling bean cake, fried yam, sweet potatoes and pap by the road in the kind of outdoor kitchen Nigerians all over the country know as a “Mama Put…”.
Even though the family was forced to move across town, from Kaduna North to Kaduna South, after her husband passed away, she still goes back to her pitch in her old neighbourhood where she runs her business. She has an existing customer base and her business thrives better in that area, she says.
But the fuel subsidy removal announced by the Nigerian President, Bola Ahmad Tinubu is threatening to take that away.
According to Dr Auta Elisha, a development Economics lecturer at Kaduna State University (KASU), “When we talk of poverty, there tend to be more women who fall under the poor category than men whether in rural or urban areas. This is because women have less access to factors that can pull them out of poverty such as education and employment opportunities.”
“Sometimes poverty is about available opportunities that increase the chance of welfare. This is also as a result of religious and cultural influences.”
With the recent fuel subsidy removal in Nigeria, women are considered as one of the most vulnerable demographic and are expected to be pushed into graver states of poverty if things continue as they are. Women like Rifkatu, who have tried to stay above the water with small scale businesses are at the risk of losing those sources of income they tried so hard to build.
Rifkatu used to get a bowl of beans for ₦650 and millet at ₦600 but now she gets them at ₦1,000 for the same amount.
But she doesn’t want to increase her prices, because she is afraid people will stop coming to her to eat.
“I am afraid that if I increase the price, people will stop buying from me because everyone is struggling even though I know I am selling at a loss,” she says.
One of the biggest things that impacts her business is the transportation cost to and from where she sells her food.
“I used to spend about ₦350 for transport to and from work and now I spend a total of ₦1,000 for the same distance,” she says.
Rifkatu usually leaves her house around 6am. Before the price increases she was able to sell out quickly, she would be back home around 1pm.
But now she can reach up to 2pm before she is able to sell enough to make the day worth it. After that there aren’t many customers, as trade dries up for the day.
“Sometimes, I just give what’s left on credit so I don’t return back home with it,” she says.
The rate of people eating on credit has increased since the fuel prices went up.
She estimates as many as five people out of ten now ask her for something to eat and promise to pay later, compared to about two people out of every ten before.
But Rifkatu’s obstacles did not end there.
“Sometimes people will eat on credit and I never hear of them again.”
Can’t pay back
Before the increase, she said, “we had cases of people actually running away after eating when I am focused on the job or distracted.” This has definitely increased in frequency since things became more expensive, she says.
Her customer base is mostly bike men and people who work in the area. Motorbike taxi drivers, known as Okada or Achaba are particularly vulnerable to the fuel price increase. Only a small rise in their outgoings may mean they can’t afford the daily rent of their machine, putting them out of business entirely.
Due to the impact of the fuel subsidy removal, some of her old customers are unable to eat like they used to because everything is so expensive.
“Even when I try to ask for my money back, some people try to tell me they already have a lot of debt and can’t pay me back now,” she said.
A 2019 report by the National Bureau of Statistics shows that about 82.9 million Nigerians lived below a dollar per day. But currently, due to the economic woes, the figure is growing by a large amount, as much as doubling by the end of the year according to Muhammad Babagoro, a development economist.
This will drastically affect the lives of citizens, especially those who are already poor.
“The transportation sector has been impacted, prices are going up and this will limit the means of transportation. There will also be an increase in unemployment rate which is like adding oxygen to an already existing fire,” Babagoro told HumAngle.
People like Rifkatu who fall both under the category of poor and woman tend to suffer twice in unfavourable economic conditions.
“I don’t want to think about it because of how badly it affects me mentally,” she says, “I just convince myself that it is better than living without any source of income.”
Now, at 58, there are few options for her if this business crashes.
“If there was something else for me to do, I would not even have continued with the business. Exposure to the firewood has caused great harm to my body over the years but I can’t sit still because I have a family and none of my kids have a very stable job.”
According to a World Health Organization report, about 3.8 million people die from illnesses connected to exposure to household smoke, but unfortunately many women cannot afford to stop using firewood in their businesses and domestic life.
The government plans to offer palliatives to help cushion the effects of the fuel subsidy removal but there is no guarantee that people like Rifkatu will benefit from it, or that it will save their business in the long run.
The business has been a great source of help for the family over the years, but Rifkatu worries about what the future holds for them.
She is scared about how losing this business will impact her and her family especially after seeing some women around her give up on their small scale businesses due to losses and lack of profit.
“Sometimes, after removing my transport fare, I go back home with almost nothing but I don’t know what else to do.”
But the impact of women losing their small businesses goes beyond themselves and their families. It will impact the economy in general. According to a 2023 World Bank report, “a one percent increase in women’s contribution in businesses globally will raise the level of GDP by 58.4 per cent.”
Conversely, remove the profitability of the “Mama Put…” and perhaps millions of women could lose their employment forever.
The more people are out of jobs, the more there will be an increase in unemployment which will also cause an increase in poverty, health issues, debt rates, crime rates and promote social unrest.
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