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Nigeria: Catholic project combats slavery

Participants in the Edo project gather around a tractor during a training session in April 2018. Photo courtesy of the Santa Marta Group​.

“Where you live should not decide whether you live or whether you die.”— Crumbs from Your Table by U2

Last year, the Roman Catholic Church launched an innovative training programme in Nigeria’s economically impoverished but agriculturally fertile Edo State to generate farming careers for young people as a way to combat the hopelessness that gives rise to the scourge of human trafficking.

Human trafficking is a big problem in Nigeria. This form of modern slavery ensnares poor Nigerians with promises of economic opportunities and better lives in Europe or Turkey. In fact, dreams of prosperity drive many young Nigerians to make the dangerous voyage across the Mediterranean Sea to Italy—only to find themselves enslaved by the very human traffickers who transported them.

Nigeria is Africa’s most populous country. According to a report produced by the Population Division of the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Nigeria has a population of approximately 191 million people. And the report, entitled World Population Prospects: The 2017 Revision, reveals that about 63 per cent are 24 years of age or younger.

“There is significant unemployment and rural poverty” in southern Nigeria's Edo State, asserts a briefing note prepared by the Catholic Church in Edo that was made available to Global Report. And the document states that there is “minimal police enforcement or government/charity-led development work in rural Edo.” And this sets the stage for the outflow of economic migrants to other parts of Africa, Europe, and Turkey.

“Large numbers of Edo youth, 15 to 30 years of age, migrate illegally to Europe/Middle East,” notes the Church document. "Networks of facilitators promise, ‘good jobs’, and victims accept loans to fund the journey--the debt also keeps victim and family compliant.”

However the promises of a better life and prosperity offered by the human traffickers are lies. “At best, the ‘good jobs’ turn out to be prostitution or forced labour,” asserts the briefing note.

According to a report issued by the International Organization for Migration (IOM), which is also known as the UN Migration Agency, most migrants who travelled to Italy by sea in recent years were from Nigeria. The IOM document, which is entitled, Human trafficking through the Central Mediterranean Route, reports an “increase of women and unaccompanied children—respectively 11,009 and 3,040 in 2016, compared to about 5,000 women and 900 unaccompanied children in 2015.”

The IOM also reveals that about 80 per cent of Nigerian women and girls who arrived by sea in 2016 were “likely to be victims of trafficking for sexual exploitation in Italy or in other countries of the European Union.”

In addition, the migration agency discovered “that many young Nigerians, although declaring themselves adults, are actually children or adolescents who comply with traffickers’ instructions by falsely declaring themselves older so to avoid the child protection path, which might become an obstacle for traffickers.” This deception increases the chances of girls being transferred to adult migrant holding facilities, “where it will be easier to contact their traffickers who will pick them up without any difficulties.”

Catholic Church combats trafficking

The Catholic Church is a pillar of society in Edo State. “It is one of the few civic institutions capable of sustaining long-term anti-trafficking projects,” asserts the Catholic Church briefing note. And one such initiative is Grow Edo, an agricultural project that teaches young Nigerians farming and agricultural business skills, giving them an alternative to the precarious life of an economic migrant.

“The project is the initiative of the Catholic Bishops Conference of England and Wales and the Santa Marta Group which is an organisation of law enforcement leaders and Bishops brought together to tackle human trafficking and modern slavery around the world- focusing on communities,” explained Dr. Richard Byrne, one of the project’s organizers and a food security and livelihood specialist at Harper Adams University in the United Kingdom. The Roman Catholic Church in Nigeria is also a vitally important partner in the programme.

Funded by the Nigerian Church and the Catholic Bishops of England and Wales, the Edo Grow programme “uses Church land and resources and is open to everyone,” said Byrne, who travels from the United Kingdom to Nigeria three to four times per year to help oversee Grow Edo.


Participants in the Edo project, referred to as 'agripreneurs', listen to a lecture on bee keeping in May 2018. Photo courtesy of the Santa Marta Group​.

​Although the project is “very much supported by the Catholic Church,” the programme reaches out “to all religions-and none,” Byrne stated in an email. At its core, the project is “about communities, opportunity and safety.”

According to Byrne, participants include young people who are Catholic, Protestant, and Muslim, as well as those who have no religion. And he notes that “discussions have taken place and are taking place with local imams to get greater reach as youth poverty and youth migration and resultant forced labour, exploitation, human slavery and organ harvesting affects everyone.”

At present, said Byrne, there are 50 young people participating in the Grow Edo project.

Byrne explained that troubled Edo State was selected for the original pilot project “because the vast majority of trafficked west Africans originate from this state” due to a poor economy and lack of economic opportunities for ordinary people.

“The project has already moved from the pilot phase and is expanding,” Byrne revealed. “It started near Benin City in Edo State and is now in Uromi and soon will be moving up to Auchi – it could be seen as a pilot for other areas in Nigeria and beyond. In fact there is a Caritas conference in Abjua in November to discuss good practice and hopefully encourage this in other countries – the conference is for whole of West Africa.” (Caritas Internationalis is the Roman Catholic Church’s international development agency.)

Human trafficking

“Youth in particular are enticed to migrate with the promise of jobs in the European Union or Turkey, only to find themselves working in mines in Niger or Mali or in agriculture in Ghana etc.,” Byrne said of the economic factors pushing people to leave Edo State.

Life for migrants in those poor African states is often hellish. “Both women and men end up as workers and prostitutes,” Byrne said. “Others make it to Libya, some cross, some drown, increasing numbers end up as slaves in the Middle East or have their organs taken, whilst alive, for lucrative transplants.”

“The main driver - why people take the risk even though in their hearts they know the fantastic European Union job is a myth is that they are so poor they will grasp at that one in a million chance to make something of themselves and send money home.”

When migrants from Edo find themselves in wealthier foreign countries, their dreams of finding better lives are often shattered. Human traffickers exact a heavy toll on those seeking to escape poverty. Byrne said that those migrants who manage to make the dangerous Mediterranean voyage find themselves “locked in debt bondage and end up as exploited labour in agriculture, industry, domestic servitude or as prostitutes.”

The garden of Edo

“About three years ago the Church in Nigeria decided that youth needed something so they began a project in Edo of employing youth on farms,” Byrne said of the Catholic Church’s development initiative. “This led to a more holistic approach of youth being trained to be farmers and understand agri-business and therefore contribute to the wider economy.”

According to the briefing note prepared by the Catholic Church, Edo State possesses fertile agricultural land. And yet the state imports food staples.

“Farming is traditional and unproductive, with little capital or modern know-how,” the Church document notes. “It is deeply unattractive to young people.”

The Grow Edo project has 700 acres to farm, said Byrne, “and it is done in rotation to protect the soil and environment.” The trainees receive instruction from “a graduate agriculturalist on a training area growing maize, cashew, palm oil--not in huge plantations, these are local trees and we grow a few to process.”


Project participants engage in tree planting in Aug. 2018. Photo courtesy of the Santa Marta Group.

​In addition, the Edo project has a fish farm and is currently developing a snail farm enterprise. “Next year we will have goats and grow fodder for them rather than having them roam, they will be penned,” Byrne added.

The trainees are also instructed in how to safely use chemicals and operate tractors and process crops.

“We are keen on the value added process,” Bryne said of the farming enterprise. “Best of all for them they get to have their own land to grow crops on - and to experiment, all the time being mentored.”

Byrne said that the programme is expanding across Edo State and will possibly move into other parts of Nigeria.

The Edo project is not just about teaching young Nigerians the mechanics of farming. “The key thing is that they are not just labourers; they are learning business skills--how to budget, market, read the consumer's needs,” Byrne explained.

“They come for two years and after that they can rent land on a peppercorn rent and access our buying power for seed and fertiliser etc. They can also sell crop with us or go on their own.”

Byrne describes the Edo project as “a learning community.” While he acknowledges the challenges they face, including drought and floods, he remains optimistic. “No one has given up and the word is spreading,” he said of the programme. For example, the organizers offered an information workshop to promote the programme earlier this year. They expected, at most, 20 youth to attend. But they were pleasantly surprised when 120 showed up.

Power of the Church

“The Edo Catholic Church is strong, respected and a permanent local institution,” states the Church briefing note. “Its commitment, through its structures and charitable outreach, is to serve the whole community, of all faiths or no faith, particularly the poor and disadvantaged.”

Given the Church’s presence throughout Edo, it is in a unique position to combat the scourge of modern slavery. For example, the Catholic dioceses of Benin and Uromi both “already focus on raising awareness of trafficking, jobs/economic development, including running diocesan farms.”

Similarly, Catholic congregations in Edo have their own initiatives to combat human trafficking. For instance, the Sisters of the Sacred Heart (SSH) are running an awareness campaign across the state. In addition, the SSH operate businesses in “problem areas” and offer “alternative local livelihoods” while caring for the victims of human trafficking.

Similarly, the Church reports that the Benedictine monastery in the Ewu region runs an agricultural business. “It directly employs nearly 200 people and buys and processes produce from local farms,” according to the briefing note. And the Church claims that human trafficking in the area has “largely ended.”

Was it difficult to get government permission to start the Edo agricultural programme? “As it’s a Nigerian Church programme – there is no problem,” replied Byrne. The project was launched in 2017 and has been operating for approximately 18 months. And he said that the first “first intake of youth formally came in April 2018.”


One of the Edo project's fish tanks. This tank contains catfish. Photo courtesy of the Santa Marta Group.

​“We are very lucky to have Innocence--an agricultural trainer--and Father Steven and priests and lay people all over to call upon,” Byrne said of the Nigerian staff of Grow Edo. “Father Steven is the real star – (the project) was his idea and it’s just grown with the funding to build barns and buy implements.”

Questions and answers

Who are the Nigerians that the project assists? “They come from both urban and rural, but mostly from villages outside Benin city where youth high,” Byrne answered. “They are generally under 30 and the most vulnerable to trafficking.”

Byrne added that “most of the Nigerians trafficked to the European Union and beyond and exploited come from Edo State.”

What is the programme’s mission statement? The Edo project is half of the programme, Byrne said. “One half is education and awareness raising in regard to human trafficking.” And the other half of the programme “is about developing young people’s livelihoods.”

Byrne explained that “Grow Edo takes young people and mentors them through agricultural skills, promotion of value added and gives them confidence to develop their own ideas.” In order to accomplish this, an agricultural trainer works with the young participants. The trainer is supervised by Father Steven – “the farmer priest”.

The project is providing the participants with an extensive practical education on farming. “The trainees attend tutorials and practicals on everything from planting to crop protection and harvest,” Byrne said. “They all work on the training fields, which is maize, to give them core skills. They also have their own two acre plots, which are their own responsibility and helps with confidence.”

If the participants need assistance or equipment, Byrne said that they can get it from the project’s central hub.

“We buy all the inputs in bulk to keep costs down and they can sell their crop either in bulk with everyone or on their own – this is part of learning about agri-business,” Byrne said.

In addition, the participants learn about farm planning and budgeting. “They are with us for two years,” Byrne said. After they have completed the two year programme, the young farmers are given the option to “rent, for a fraction of market price, land from the project and work it themselves.” And they will also be given “access to bulk purchased inputs.”

How are participants selected? “They are normally referred by a community leader – priest, iman, elder because they are vulnerable,” Byrne replied.

Do the Christian and Muslim participants in the Edo project get along? “There are no issues whatsoever,” Byrne replied. “Our experience and dialogue has been 100% positive.”


Project participants gather in a cultivated field for crop inspection. Photo courtesy of the Santa Marta Group.

Are you teaching the would-be farmers to do subsistence farming? Or is the project about giving people the skills to farm on a larger, more commercial level? “They are taught skills that they can employ,” replied the Grow Edo organizer. “Ideally they can tackle their own food security and generate surpluses. It is hoped that some will go on to develop value added products – dried cassava etc. and create jobs for others.”

Nigeria is the most populous nation in Africa. Can farming generate enough jobs to reduce the outflow of economic migrants seeking jobs in the European Union? “Yes – I believe so,” Byrne answered. “But agriculture is only part of the mix. Value added is where there can be huge job gains – processing etc. But Nigeria has a diverse manufacturing economy – all the equipment we use is made in Nigeria.”

How would you evaluate the success of the programme thus far? “We are pleased but always adjusting,” Byrne replied, adding that the Grow Edo has recently opened a fish farm and is currently building a snail farm. “Last week we were planting Cashews.”

Northern Nigeria is plagued by terrorist violence perpetrated by the Islamist insurgent group known as Boko Haram. Are there security concerns for the project? “The south is generally fine – always concerns but work needs doing,” Byrne said, adding that he has “been very impressed with the Nigerian Police units who provide security. They have been impeccable and very professional.”

What is being grown by the Edo project and where is it sold? “Maize, cassava, fish (catfish), pineapple at the moment – some vegetables,” Byrne replied. It is all sold locally, and the profits are reinvested in the project. And if the cash crops are from the plots of individual participants, the profits go to those young farmers.

Why is it important to teach the participants in the Edo project about bookkeeping and the business of farming? Knowledge about business helps the young farmers make decisions, answered Byrne. For example, the participants need to “know the costs of production so they can turn a profit,” he said. “Too many farmers don’t know how much a product costs.”


What motivated Byrne to get involved in the project? “I got asked by a Nigerian priest – Father Mark Odion who works for the Bishops Conference in London,” replied Byrne. “He knew me from a previous post of his and knew how I feel about agriculture.”

From a personal standpoint, what does Byrne wish to accomplish in Nigeria? “I want to see more products stamped – Produce of Nigeria,” he said.

Does Byrne think the programme will make a difference in the lives of impoverished Nigerians? “Yes,” he replied. And he maintains that he is already seeing a difference in the trainees. “They see a future,” he said of the young farmers.

Geoffrey P. Johnston is a Canadian journalist who specializes in international relations, human rights, religious freedom, and humanitarian affairs. He has a Master’s Degree in political studies from Queen’s University. Follow him on Twitter @GeoffyPJohnston

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