Cynthia Mosunmola Umoru

Ashoka Fellow
Nigeria
Fellow since 2011
Abira Agribusiness support project
This description of Cynthia Mosunmola Umoru's work was prepared when Cynthia Mosunmola Umoru was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2011 .

Introduction

Cynthia Mosunmola Umoru is creating a step by step process to incent young people to take up farming, and for schools, governments, and businesses to provide the kinds of next generation services and products to move them through the process.

The New Idea

Cynthia is focusing on ways to get a new generation of young people interested in and successful at modern agriculture. Understanding that many young people are driven to succeed, especially in recent times as the country’s newer wealth is so often on full display—on the streets of Lagos and on TV screens—Cynthia is concentrating on opening the eyes of many of the brightest and most entrepreneurial minds from the urban and peri-urban areas to the options that exist beyond the few fields that they currently understand to be the only roads to financial success. She does this by exposing them to the modern agribusiness she started in college and from which she has found great success. Cynthia also gets them started on the path to their own successful agribusinesses. And for those whose interests have already been peaked, Cynthia provides the quality training missing in the general sector, to really help modernize their venture. She is also engaging schools, governments, and businesses to recognize the absence of infrastructure to participate in modern agriculture, especially for youth. With the goal of creating an enabling environment for interested youth to succeed, she is assisting these institutions to recognize the importance of shifting their curriculum to incorporate a more business-oriented understanding of agriculture, as well as provide the programs and services that can assist youth through each step of the process of launching and scaling a 21st century agribusiness.

The Problem

Like many countries in the region, Nigeria imports large and often costly quantities of food while large plots of fertile land lay fallow. A significant issue contributing to this reality is the decreasing number of able bodies interested in farming. While an older generation toils away with outdated techniques and tools, the younger generation observes and draws the conclusion that there is no way they too will be stuck doing such arduous and seemingly unfruitful work. Moreover, they will not join the ranks of a lifestyle often considered synonymous with “backwards,” “dirty,” and “uneducated.” And yet, while this bias prevails, more and more urban young people, often educated and ambitious, struggle to find employment in the few sectors that are highly esteemed—e.g. banking, engineering, medicine, or law—or in any sector at all.

Those young people who do manage to gain an interest in agriculture, if even only a fleeting one, have a hard time figuring out how to enter the field or access the resources to make them successful. There are not enough visible role models demonstrating what it could mean to be a 21st century farmer, or even conversations being had around this topic. The messages coming from government, agricultural colleges, and agro-economic departments in universities all converge toward thinking of farming as a technical vocation, rather than a comprehensive entrepreneurial pursuit with many possible manifestations. This not only leads to reinforcing the aforementioned perception of agriculture as backwards, but an actual educational training that is devoid of the true creativity and innovation needed to stimulate the modernization of a sector that must drastically improve to meet the needs of a growing population.

The Strategy

Cynthia makes the rounds of schools in and around Lagos, speaking before hundreds of high school and university students each week. She wears the clothes, shoes, handbags, and hairstyles commonly associated with members of the new Nigerian elite—those who have been able to do quite well for themselves financially through participating in one of only a handful of career paths commonly understood to be lucrative. And while even her accent also confirms this perception, her first words do not. I am a farmer, she declares boldly. And each time, a series of confused facial expressions and gasps diffuse through the room.

Cynthia then shares the story of how she started her own company shortly after graduating from university which supplies food to quick service restaurants and includes being active in all parts of the value chain, going as far back as owning a farm. Intrigued by her success—success almost no one has ever heard of or has linked to what agriculture could mean today, dozens of the most entrepreneurial students sign up to revive their school’s Young Farmers’ Club. What happens next is what is most important. Cynthia understands that to really capitalize on this initial enthusiasm for agriculture she has to start with projects that are simple, straightforward, and produce short-term cash rewards. To this end, she sets up the farmers’ clubs to participate in mini-livestock farming and vegetable gardening. This is mainly because raising snails, rabbits, and a number of other animals take up little space but can yield significant revenue quickly.

Cynthia then takes students to her farm and combines them with a broader group of aspiring young agribusiness entrepreneurs, who have approached her for advice on different aspects of their budding agribusiness. Together, both groups witness a real-life example of a modern agribusiness. In fact, in a year-long apprenticeship with her Honeysuckles PTL Ventures, those that choose may rotate through all aspects of the value chain, from production to processing to dealing with the final corporate client. Those with their own agribusinesses learn modern skills and ideas to incorporate into their endeavor, while the high school and university students begin to realize that farming does not have to look like their antiquated ideas. In fact, they can become a person of dignity and importance through modern agribusiness, which is about much more than just production. With this revelation, they begin to brainstorm about their own potential agribusinesses. Cynthia then works with them to secure the land, much of which was otherwise laying fallow, and other resources to turn their ideas into reality.

Cynthia has been able to get the ear of several key figures due to a book she wrote on mini-livestock farming that received national acclaim. This publicity helps her make things happen for the young people that participate in her program, but she realizes that what is necessary is a much broader system to first attract and then support young agribusiness entrepreneurs. To this end, Cynthia has leveraged her initial publicity to engage schools and government to shift their thinking. Specifically, she works to reform formal learning to focus on farming and agriculture as a business, not limited to the farms themselves, but also inclusive of the goods and services needed to support a modern farming sector. Some of her concrete demands include encouraging universities and the government to provide training programs that will assist young people newly seeking to establish farming businesses, and banks to make credit more available to scale these ventures.

To date, Cynthia has worked with the Ministry of Agriculture in Lagos State as they established a training program to teach business to young farmers, using one of her farms for research and training. She is presently collaborating with the Federal Ministry of Youth Development to incorporate her project ABIRA into the Ministry agenda as a transformation platform for job creation. She has also set up a program for women aged 16 to 35 to be trained through various enterprise education institutions, one of which includes the Enterprise Development Center, a Faculty of the Pan African University (popularly known as the Lagos Business School). To continue her outreach to youth, Cynthia also works through existing youth organizations.

While Cynthia moves forward in getting other parties to play their part in building a new crop of agricultural business entrepreneurs, she has decided to formalize the training she has provided to date, into the formal venture, Abira Agribusiness support project. Services will include Agricultural Entrepreneurship Development, Accounting and Financial Management, Financial Brokering, Technical Training, Strategy Development, and Product Development. This newly refined and more robust vehicle will provide the kind of rich ongoing support (e.g. from incubation to implementation to evaluation) that is currently missing in the one or two-day trainings that sometimes pop up to cater to the needs of this sector. More broadly, it will serve as a concrete model and reference point of the kind of program needed to propel agriculture in Nigeria and many other parts of Africa into the 21st century.

As part of Abira, Cynthia will also launch a medium to large size agribusiness to be managed by young farmers that will provide a reliable source of produce to a national chain of fruit and vegetable shops. She has secured interest from two banks that will provide loans to the successful graduates of her training program who will go on to manage this business.

To date, Cynthia’s outreach and training activities have been supported by her private venture, Honeysuckles PTL Ventures. However, as she expands, she is pursuing grants from foundations and government.

The Person

The first signs of entrepreneurial quality were seen early in Cynthia, when she made hair clips and ribbons she sold at a local secondary school. While a recreational interest in agriculture led Cynthia to become the president of the Young Farmers’ Club in her fourth year of secondary school, her passion was to study medicine. She took the test to enter medical school and recorded the third highest score in the nation. But political violence would soon force her to attend a different university, where she studied zoology.

It was in university that Cynthia gave her interest in agriculture more attention. She took courses in fisheries, and multi-level marketing, and ran a successful cake and cookie business. Cynthia also realized how useful mini-livestock farming could be for peaking young peoples’ interest in the profession of agriculture. She went on to write a short book breaking down this revelation.

Not able to completely divorce herself from the big industries that often appeal to bright youth in Nigeria, however, Cynthia also participated in an internship at ExxonMobil while at university. She had such a capacity for extra work that she was allowed to participate in an outside vendor evaluation, which taught her a great deal about quality, methods, and assessment. Cynthia took these tools with her when in her final year of study, when she launched Honeysuckles PTL Ventures with the primary aim of selling processed food produce.

Soon after launching, Cynthia got the opportunity to supply dressed chicken and catfish to one of the fastest growing food retail chains in the country, when the quick service restaurant industry was emerging in Nigeria. However, scarcity and inconsistent quality led Cynthia to begin researching production with the intention of a backward integration in preparation for adequate positioning on the food supply chain. She launched a farm to meet this need.

At ten years in 2014, Honeysuckles currently focuses on high-quality food products using modern packaging and fast delivery, and has its own farms and ponds. This success earned Cynthia the Business Owner of the Year award, a category of the Future Awards; highly esteemed in Nigeria for recognizing talent in the younger generation. However, Cynthia notes that the journey has been quite difficult. “It took me five years to gain relevance,” she recalls. “As a young entrepreneur, in my very early days, I lost a lot of the seed capital I got from financial mentors to poor and bad business decisions I made because there was no one to talk to.” There was a void of mentors or credible educational agencies in Lagos to offer valid information to upstart agribusiness entrepreneurs at the time. The few that did, she says, never had actual business operations to offer as references, which to her, gave them less credibility.

This lack of mentorship, combined with the poor perception of agriculture, is what Cynthia is turning around. “Farming, before now in Nigeria, was termed the business of low-lives and with the barrier to entry being so high for young people to actively participate,” Cynthia shares. She is determined to “impress on my generation that farming can be glamorous and cool enough for us to trade places with the business executive in the large conglomerate and also the bank’s middle management cadre, which is the initial attraction for most young graduates in Nigeria.”