George Obichukwu

Ashoka Fellow
Illustration of a person's face depicting a fellow
This description of George Obichukwu's work was prepared when George Obichukwu was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2002 .

Introduction

George Obichukwu is revitalizing Nigeria's depressed agricultural sector by helping make it more productive and making investment in the sector more convenient and profitable.

The New Idea

George believes that lasting development in Nigeria can never take place so long as self-sufficiency in food production has not been achieved. To spur agricultural development, George is promoting an agriculture that can bring outputs to the level that they can support industries, overcome postharvest losses, achieve food security, and create jobs. George highlights the economic benefits of different agricultural products and provides information on how to invest in the agricultural sector; provides a service for interested investors; helps rural farmers form registered cooperatives to sell their goods directly in the open market; and provides extension services like tractor rental, training, vet doctors, and fertilizers to farmers. Through these services, George aims to help Nigerian farmers–and eventually farmers from across Africa–move away from subsistence farming and become successful in the commercial realm.

The Problem

Before the 1970s, Nigeria's biggest source of revenue was agriculture. Nigeria was the world's largest producer of palm products, producing 64 percent of the world's palm kernel and 30 percent of the palm oil. Nigeria was also the second largest producer of peanuts, producing 40 percent of the world's peanuts and 27 percent of the world's peanut oil. In addition, Nigeria was among the top cocoa and cotton producers. This situation began to change drastically in the 1970s with the discovery of crude oil in Nigeria. Oil extraction led to the government's neglect of Nigeria's agricultural sector. Without government support of the sector, agricultural production suffered a serious decline, and Nigeria's self-sufficiency level in food production dropped to 20 percent and unemployment to around 30 percent.
Today agricultural production is mostly at the family and subsistence levels and does not meet the food demand of Nigeria's ever-growing population. Furthermore, farmers who have tried to organize and form cooperatives to boost production and purchasing power have not had the requisite skills and training to run them. As a result, most have failed. Farmers also often lack the proper education that would enable them to maximize profits. As a result, most goods are not processed but sold in their raw state, thus yielding low returns and high levels of postharvest losses. The impact of this situation includes low quality and quantity of food; limited production, resulting in high food prices and malnutrition; wasteful agricultural methods; negative attitudes toward agriculture; and urban migration.
Since the 1970s, every effort the government has made to improve agricultural production has failed. Today, ways to improve agricultural yields are hardly ever discussed; it seems that the government has given up on the idea altogether and resigned itself to importation subsidies as the only remedy. Through George's practical, hands-on initiatives, this trend is gradually being reversed.

The Strategy

George is renewing the agricultural sector in Nigeria by encouraging private sector investment and providing agricultural services directly to farming communities. He uses a television program and follow-up services to reach millions of potential investors, and he works with farmers to build the capacity necessary to move from subsistence to commercial agriculture and value-added production.
George's television program Food Map provides members of the private sector with information for starting or investing in an agro-based business venture, including information on which geographical areas of Nigeria are favorable to various crops. To supplement the television program, George also provides an off-screen service through which interested investors may find additional information and advice.
To get the television program aired, George approached several television stations and finally landed a contract with African Independent Television, which was so impressed with the idea that they agreed to produce it for a year free of charge. However, to ensure that this is an ongoing partnership, George is aggressively seeking sponsors and advertisers for the program, especially among agro-based industries.
The second component of George's strategy is his Direct Community Program (DCP) that works with farmers to establish cooperatives and thereby achieve self-sufficiency. So far, George has been able to get two communities (one in Delta State in the Niger Delta region and the other in Anambra State) to donate 100 acres of land each for the project. The training George offers will allow the cooperatives to farm the land in a professional and commercial manner.
To help the co-ops market their products nationally and internationally, George negotiated an agreement with the Lagos State Vegetable Producers Association to find avenues to market their products directly, thus cutting out the middlemen and increasing profits. This partnership will help the farmers sell both a higher quantity and quality of goods to help make their ventures self-sufficient.
George's next step is to strengthen DCP by incorporating a system he calls Cooperative Management by Extension. Through this program, several co-ops in rural communities can be managed collectively for greater negotiating power. Furthermore, services ranging from equipment leasing, expert advice, training, and direct marketing can also be provided. The ultimate idea of these initiatives is to help farmers move gradually away from subsistence to commercial farming. George has already approached several international organizations for funding and support.

The Person

George has a history of problem-solving and leadership. As a young person, he once organized his peers to undertake a tree-planting project to halt or slow the erosion devastating their village. This activity spurred his interest in agriculture and led to his choice to study agricultural economics during his university years. While at the university, he was an active student in all agricultural exercises and was a great motivation for other students. After graduating, he went to Lagos in search of work and for the first time saw the desperation of people scavenging dustbins in search of food and other items. This experience deeply affected him, and he became resolute in seeking change.
To gain the practical business and managerial experience he needed to run his program, George took a job in Nigeria with the United Trust Bank where he worked from 1991 to 1997. Once he felt he had learned all he needed to know, he left the bank to undertake a yearlong study of the problems of agricultural production in Africa and the possible solutions to them. From his study, he produced a report that detailed problems and solutions to Nigeria's food shortage crisis. This report became the foundation of his initiative, the Center for Agricultural and Industrial Development in Africa.