Dina Kikuli and Atinuke Lebile are working to change Africa, one crop at a time. The two 29-year-old African agriculture entrepreneurs visited Carroll County and parts of the region over the past six weeks through the Mandela Washington Fellowship. Locally, they spent time at Mylet Farms near Camden, learning how a modern high-tech farm operates.
The fellowship, sponsored by the U.S. Department of State and an initiative of former President Barack Obama, supports 1,000 young leaders each year from sub-Saharan Africa who have a passion to change the continent and their countries through entrepreneurship, civic leadership and public management. Purdue University hosted 25 leaders focused on engineering or agriculture. Kikuli and Lebile were among the 1,000 chosen out of 64,000 applicants from Africa.
Kikuli runs an agribusiness of rice processing and distribution. She’s working to address the issue of lack of access to the market, connecting farmers to consumers in her country of Tanzania. Lebile, who’s from Nigeria, cultivates vitamin A cassava crops as well as rice and vegetables. Many people in Nigeria and across Africa are malnourished due to a vitamin A deficiency. Lebile is working with a company that creates varieties of cassava root crops rich in vitamin A.
In coming to the United States, Lebile and Kikuli said they’ve learned much about combining technology with farming. The majority of African farmers tend to their crops by hand, which Kikuli said takes time and is inefficient. Lebile said only large African companies use machines — something that’s quite the opposite for farming in the U.S.
“We really needed to be here,” Lebile said, adding that seeing technology and farming in work inspired them to take that knowledge back to their countries.
Neil Mylet, owner of Mylet Farms, showed Lebile, Kikuli and two other African farmers on how to incorporate technology and agriculture. Mylet uses technology daily on his family’s farm, which includes the use of a smartphone app to load grain from trucks to storage containers.
Kikuli said the fellowship has helped her think outside the box in developing her company. She wants to create an app that connects farmers to the market and provide information such as what crops consumers want and how much to price products. The program, however, has made Kikuli realize and have to admit that her company isn’t performing as well as it could, a feeling her mentor said is normal for small businesses.
Lebile is also part of an initiative called She Agric, which encourages African women ages 18-35 to work in agriculture. Over the course of a year, the women plant and tend to crops and are mentored on how to sell products in the market and create a sustainable farm. Sponsors pay $150 for each woman to join the program, and the participants keep all of the profits they made through the year, Lebile said.
Mylet said he’s excited to see how the Lebile and Kikuli are inspiring their countries, stories he hopes could also resonate with young people in the area. He’s had about 250 international visitors from 30 countries visit his farm over the past decade.