It is the first week of the fourth month of the transformation year. As with all new years, while certain events and pursuits will be truly transformational in their ramifications, many things this year will be just as they were in years past. This is succinctly captured by the French saying: the more things change, the more they stay the same. In this country, this year finds many Nigerians from the past still working consistently to transform the agricultural landscape.
This week, I have the privilege of celebrating one of Nigeria’s most enterprising young entrepreneurs – Nnaemeka Ikegwuonu. In January 2003, at the age of 21, Ikegwuonu founded the Smallholders Foundation with the aim of complementing the government’s efforts in agricultural development and eradicating poverty among smallholder farmers. Between then and now, Smallholders has reached over 250,000 farmers in Imo State through its radio station on climate change and best practices in agriculture – Farm 98.0 FM. It also has set up several secondary school farms through the Future Farmers Programme across the Southeast and even as far as Oyo State. Through this programme, hundreds of secondary school students have also received career counselling and mentorship to pursue their dreams towards self-employment. Furthermore, through its Seeds Programme, the foundation improves farmers with improved seed varieties in order to enable them improve their productivity and increase their profits.
At this point, one might be wondering: how was Ikegwuonu able to achieve all these? The answer is passion and determination. When Ikegwuonu realised he was unabashedly passionate about agriculture, he quit his job in HIV/AIDS advocacy and began to explore the agricultural terrain full-time. He built the foundation by building relationships with scores of farmers, learning from them and working with them. He then set out planning for his radio show. As support for the radio show grew, Ikegwuonu continued to expand the frontiers of his work, moving it to the next level. He was not afraid to take risks along the way.
As a young graduate, he put his education to good use. He searched for opportunities for young entrepreneurs like himself who were passionate about change and had great ideas but not enough funds or expertise to see them fly. He applied for many opportunities across the globe – fellowships to build his skills and grants to invest in his project. Because he was passionate and determined, he kept seeking out new opportunities and making sure his propositions were in line with his vision and the needs of his target communities. And he allowed the setbacks to serve as a challenge to keep working hard until his dreams were realised.
Last week, I talked about the importance of meeting farmers/small scale entrepreneurs in their niches. This is something that stands out in Ikegwuonu’s work and is the product of years of working at the grassroots and realising the importance of group and intensive capacity-building to enable farmers improve their productivity through new and existing farmers’ associations. This is why the foundation does not provide long-term loans to farmers’ cooperatives until the completion of a training workshop on farming practice, marketing, banking and bookkeeping. Through these processes, the Smallholders Foundation essentially enables “smallholder [farmers] living in rural communities to choose what commodities to produce, what technologies to utilise for such production, for whom to produce, when to produce and at what price to sell such products”. As a farmer himself, Ikegwuonu understands the terrain. He works hard to make his animal farms successful and manage his enterprises wisely. In doing so, he is able to serve as a legitimate model to other farmers and businessmen looking to expand their practice and when he talks about the media or the field or the market, one can rest assured that he knows what he’s talking about.
I had the privilege of meeting this young man last year at the Youth Employment in Agriculture workshop organised by the Ministry of Agriculture. What struck me the most about him was his simplicity – the way he just quietly goes in pursuit of what he loves without seeking recognition or respect, the way he treats those around him, and his deep passion to improve the lives of everyone with whom he comes in contact. It was then that I understood why someone once called his work a silent revolution. He shared some interesting stories with me about presenting his ideas before international panels and not knowing how they would be received. The big takeaways for me were courage, perseverance and the importance of believing deeply in one’s dream and going to any length to live that dream even in the face of scepticism and blatant opposition. Over the years, more people have come to see firsthand how hardworking, innovative, devoted, and genuine he is, and many with the means have been inspired to supply equipment or other inputs necessary to keep his life-changing goals alive. The impact of this has been tremendous – in the past ten years, hundreds of thousands have benefitted from one man’s dream. And this man was not a public official or some big businessman with a fat bank account; he was a simple 21-year-old with a heart for rural agriculture.
Today, Ikegwuonu is the winner of Youth Action Net/Starbucks Shared Planet Youth Award (2009), the Rolex Award for Enterprise-Young Laureates Programme (2010), the Young Person of the Year Future Awards (2011), and the 21st Century Hope Prize of the Niigata International Food Award (2012). But there is no stopping this ambitious entrepreneur now. This year, the Smallholder Foundation has already begun accepting applications to provide mini-grants for young farmer clubs in secondary schools to expand existing school gardens or set up new ones.
As the novelty of 2013 wears off and many of us sink into our old habits and lifestyles, Ikegwuonu’s story is that silent revolutionary voice tugging at our consciences, reminding us of those dreams that belong deeply to us, inviting us to ask ourselves, “what would it take to see this come to pass?” and challenging us to continue our journey – on sunny days, in the dark, and even in the rain – until we reach the point we can truly call home.
Obasi is a syndicated columnist, co-founder of the Youth Consortium for Progress and one of the program managers for the Harambe Incubator for Sustainable and Rural Development (HISARD).
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