Lawrence Afere is an organic farmer and founder of Springboard Nigeria, a social enterprise that uses organic farming to create meaningful and responsible work for rural and semi urban youth in Ondo State.
He speaks to Punch’s Kemi Lanre-Aremu about his preference for farming.
What schools did you attend?
I had my secondary school education at Parker International High School, Akure. I studied Business Management at Covenant University, Ota. I also studied Business and Social Entrepreneurship at North Western University, USA; Kanthari International Institute, India, and Do School, Germany. I also studied a course on leadership at the International Institute for Global Leadership, USA.
Why did you decide not to utilise your business management degree?
In 2003, I studied Business Management with the intention to graduate and get a high-paying job. My life changed on November 17, 2006, and this change was triggered by a report in the newspaper about the plight of over 30 million unemployed Nigerian youths. It raised the question, what may happen to the country in 2020 if nothing was done to solve the situation. After reading the report, I became sad and concerned. Immediately, I felt I might someday become a victim of what this report says. And then my perspective shifted from living for myself to finding a way to help the situation and also become self employed. I found myself constantly thinking about this. After graduating from the university in 2007, I returned to my town, Akure, to pursue my dream of helping to create meaningful jobs for unemployed youths.
What spurred your interest in farming and organic food distribution?
In late 2008, I had an idea to start a farm where we would cultivate and sell farm products. I shared my idea with the unemployed young people in my church and five of them showed interest and also invited nine of their friends. A parent, who was interested in our idea, lent us seven plots of farmland at no cost. We named the farm ‘Youth Farm Project’ and 15 of us began to cultivate the land by planting maize. In the process, I realised that there is a relationship between a farming process and entrepreneurship. The farming process provides a practical experience for learning how to become an entrepreneur. The project has given opportunities to unemployed youths to generate some income.
How did you prepare yourself for a career in farming?
I went to several farmers to learn. I brought my uncle, who is a farmer, on board my project. I would ask many questions about farming and spent many days working on the farm with the youth I had recruited. Also, I watched several videos on sustainable farming on YouTube and researched on sustainable agricultural practices online and through site visits within and outside the country.
What are some of the challenges you face and still face?
A major challenge I faced was the perspective of people towards youths in agriculture. If you are a graduate in Nigeria, people expect you to take up a paid job. People, even old farmers, actually believe that farming is for illiterates and people who are marginalised in the society. In 2003, when I just started my studies at Covenant University, if anyone had said to me that I would become a farmer, it would take Bishop David Oyedepo (the Visitor to CU) to actually broker peace between us.
Another challenge I faced was infrastructure like finance, location of farmland, access to and relevant farm tools. Government at all levels have youth farm projects but these are just programmes on paper and not on the ground.
We also faced the challenge of middle men; I mean farmers do the job! We spend hours growing, watering, tendering and harvesting and someone, who has done nothing, comes to buy your harvest with a token and goes to sell and makes 100 per cent profit off it! There is no fair trade in the agric space in Nigeria. Farmers are actually being taken advantage of. Farmers are not well organised in a way that helps them get the best out of their labour.
You are also involved in entrepreneurial training. Tell us about it?
We have the community entrepreneurship programme, where we train youth and women (who are not interested in farming) to start small business and at the end of the training, we give every participant micro credit to start their business. This is between N20,000 and N100,000. Also, we help them scale it up when they finish paying the first loan. Right now, we have set up over 15 community cooperatives in over 10 communities in Akure, who we have supported with this project. We have over 90 per cent repayment rate and women especially do not default.
How many people have you trained so far and what is your current staff strength?
We have trained over 500 people under the Springboard youth farm training. And we currently have over 500 farmers under our network. We have a total of 25 staff working with us full and part-time.
What kind of personal and professional skills have you deployed to be successful?
The core of my work has to do with communicating with our farmers, community entrepreneurs, community people and leaders, customers, staff and partners. I have used the communication and leadership skills I have learnt in the last 10 years to have a smooth relationship at all levels. Working with people is the most difficult thing in the world. However, I try my best to communicate my intentions in the best way I can, so we can get positive results that benefit all parties.
How do you stay abreast of the latest trends and technological advancements in agriculture?
I attend relevant conferences and workshops. I also read relevant articles and books. Partnership is also important. We have strategic partners.
What advice can you give to youths out there who want to take to farming?
Do not go into farming if you are looking for quick money! Farmers are patient people who believe that hard work, directed in the right and positive direction, will always pay off. Farmers know that you do not sow and reap in the same season. If you want to build a lifetime career in agric, then start it and you will be surprised the level of success that you attain.
What are those things you gave up in order to become successful?
I gave up my BSc certificate for the sake of my dream. I could use the certificate to get a good job. I actually graduated with a 3.45 CGP. This could land me in some comfortable job in the city. Daily, I also give up personal interest and instant gratification for the overall success of my organisation. I have travelled to several countries of the world and could decide to also get a job outside the country with the level of connections and contacts I have built from my travels. However, Nigeria needs dynamic young people (who have vision and are sincere) to make things work in the country and help take the country to great heights. I believe I am one of those who will transform Nigeria.