UPDATE: Nnaemeka recently won the Future Awards in the Young Person of the Year category. Check out our most recent interview with him here
Nnaemeka Ikegwuonu wants to build on the achievements of his Smallholders Foundation – which is already broadcasting 10 hours daily to 250,000 listeners on Smallholders Farmers Rural Radio – by establishing a communications network reaching 3.5 million farmers in almost 5,000 villages in his own region, Imo State, in south-east Nigeria. Not only will farmers receive advice on a wide range of topics – from sustainable farming practices to HIV/Aids and opening and running a bank account – they will also be able to contribute information, thanks to interactive mobile radios, known as AIR devices. These small, solar-powered machines allow listeners to send voice messages, free of charge, to radio stations, which can, in turn, broadcast them. Imo State’s farmers will have a platform to share experiences, ask questions and receive answers in their own language. Ikegwuonu’s long-term ambition is to extend the service to other regions in Nigeria and Africa.”
Nnaemeka Ikegwuonu recently won the $50,000 Rolex Young Laureate Award. CP-Africa caught up with him during the award ceremony in Geneva to talk more about his work and project initiative. In this interview, 28years old Nnaemeka talks about his passion for agricultural development in Nigeria and plans for expansion to other African countries.
CP-Africa: When you got the news about winning the Rolex Award, what was your first reaction?
When I got the news that I got the award, I was a bit surprised because there were other young people with brilliant ideas. I was surprised not because we are good but because it was another recognition of our relentless effort to promote our agricultural development.
CP-Africa: What is the latest update on the Smallholders Foundation?
Small Holders radio aims to get 3.5million listeners. To get this number of listeners, we need big transmitters, big antennas, and we need to put more people to work with and expand our scope. We have been able to recruit 10 new radio broadcasters who are small farmers themselves. We have been able to put in place best practices within the broadcasting chains, knowing that these journalists are not professional broadcasters; there is the need for them to understand the basic principle of journalism…within the scope of our organization which is to improve agriculture.
CP-Africa: How many programmes do you have running?
We have the agricultural programme, environmental management programme, market information programme, health programme and youth development programme. All of them are in the local language (Igbo).
CP-Africa: How do you think the project (Working with rural farmers) has impacted your life?
The project has impacted my life in the sense that I am always trying to see what more can be done to improve lives and agriculture in Nigeria. In response to farmer’s need, my organization will be starting a micro-finance programme by the end of this year.
There is what we call rainwater harvesting. Rainwater harvesting is an age long indigenous practice. It means during the raining season, we conserve rain. But it has been abandoned over the years –so we started doing a radio programme that educates farmers on the importance of rainwater harvesting. Not because they need to harvest rainwater but because there is an agricultural benefit in rainwater harvesting…such as when you conserve water during raining season, you use it to plant crops during dry season…instead of you relying on one season farming of vegetable, you can do two season farming and make money from it.
CP-Africa: What plans do you have in terms of replicating the Smallholders Foundation in other parts of Nigeria and/or Africa?
I am looking forward to working in West African countries and replicating the idea in East Africa and South Africa. But first, we want to ensure that any where we go to, we are able to adapt our programme to fit the local environment.
Getting money to start up. I was considered a high risk. Because I was only 21 when I was about starting so it was difficult to get support. But I wrote a proposal to UNESCO and they approved it. I guess it was more of when the time comes; I don’t think the mountains can stop the time. Dreams are realizable. You can be whatever you want to be if you believe in yourself. One needs to be focused and make sure frivolities don’t distract you.
CP-Africa: Now that you won the Young Laureate Award, will funding still be a problem?
Funding is still a problem. There are never enough funds to do all you want to do. But one thing I get from the award is the knowledge exchange between older laureates and younger ones like us. This knowledge exchange- tips on how we can expand our revenue generation scheme etc. is greater than any money.
CP-Africa: Why and how did you develop an interest in this field? Why did you start Smallholders Foundation?
I grew up in a family that did a lot of agricultural work …but I never wanted to be a farmer in as much as I am a farmer now. I listened to a lot of radio programme as a kid and wanted to be a journalist. But it was not until I started working in a non-profit organization focused on HIV/AIDS awareness that I realize there was where information that should get to rural community stop. One of the effective tools in reducing poverty is education. You can educate somebody on changes and practice, you can educate somebody to improve on their health. I took time to study why agricultural extension services was not effective in Nigeria, I discovered that agricultural extension services was like traditional services where people are recruited and supported by the government to go to rural communities and teach farmers new methods in agriculture, inform them about news seeds etc. but such practices are not sustainable because there are other areas government have to invest in. I realized radio could be used as an effective tool to avoid the challenges inherent with existing agricultural extension services. (To bridge the gap in the agricultural sector) In 2003, I decided to start up smallholder’s foundation and use radio to educate farmers.
CP-Africa: Any plans to expand to TV?
That is possible. But most rural people will need electricity to power their TV.
CP-Africa: What is your advice to young people aspiring to venture out to do similar thing?
You can do what ever you want to do. It does not come easy. There are people who will discourage you but come on, pursue your dreams, you will achieve it.
I knew TIME magazine didn’t name me. The fact was that Rolex published news about us in the TIME magazine. But some journalist misquoted the story. I think Nigerians are equally good enough to be among the most influential in the world.
CP-Africa: Considering your level of exposure and exploits, do you sometimes feel any pressure to relocate?
I live in Nigeria permanently and I love Nigeria. I love the people, I love the food, I love the weather and I love my work, which I can only do in Nigeria.
CP-Africa: How would you rate the following resources- money, people and idea? Which comes first for you?
Ideas, money to drive the idea, then you get people to drive the idea.
The mission of The Smallholders Foundation is to tackle extreme poverty and hunger among rural small farmers by boosting small scale agricultural production, the only way to kick start and support self sustaining growth and employment in rural areas. For more information about Smallholders Foundation, please visit the website http://www.smallholdersfoundation.org/