Njideka Harry is expanding the horizons of rural youth and their mothers who are farmers. Njideka does this by providing access to information and resources across the value chain, helping them to create more sustainable livelihoods in agriculture.
The New Idea
In Africa, women play the dual roles of producing the continent’s food and at the same time, raising their children. Njideka is an advocate for reverse migration and she believes that it is our responsibility as changemakers to encourage young people to stay in their communities. The exodus of youth from rural areas has deprived the rural farming population of the labor force needed in agriculture.
Agricultural Platform Offering Women Empowerment Resources or Agric-P.O.W.E.R., will deliver services and information directly to the demographic that is at the bottom of the economic pyramid, while providing a sustainable platform for youth to deepen their interest in and develop a passion for agriculture. The ability to provide women with this service is essential for increased food production, self-sufficiency, and a reduction in poverty.
Key to Njideka’s initiative is tapping a previously neglected resource—youth—to serve as agricultural information workers who deliver information using appropriate technology devices; leapfrogging the bureaucracy and bottlenecks that plague agricultural extension services in developing countries. These youth, many of whom were previously unemployed and idle, or who are studying agriculture at local universities, often see no real future in the agricultural sector. Njideka empowers youth to be catalysts in their communities, and her investment in them generates a lifetime of income for their mothers and a potential path out of poverty for their families.
In much of Africa, including Nigeria, there is an older generation of women engaged in subsistence farming and living in or on the margins of poverty. These women are unable to draw on technology or best practices that are widely known and which would result in bigger and better crops for their families’ consumption. They are also unaware of all the things they could do to get better prices for their crops.
Many factors contribute to this reality. The isolation of farmers combined with a decaying agricultural extension worker system that is ill-equipped with agricultural techniques and not able to effectively reach widespread farmers. Historically, agricultural extension services favor and focus on men, although between 60 and 80 percent of the total rural labor work force are women. And while there are interventions launched by various citizen organizations to try to fill this information gap, farmers are often skeptical and do not trust new information from actors they perceive as outsiders.
In the central eastern region of Nigeria where Youth for Technology Foundation works, about 90 percent of the young people Njideka and her team work with are from families of widowed mothers. Widowhood in contemporary Igbo society tends to be marked by extreme poverty, psychological subjugation, trauma, physical isolation, deprivation, and humiliation. A widow is stripped of her family assets (by the husband’s family) and yet is left to somehow care for her children. These women, often still young enough to work (50 percent of Igbo widows are between the ages of 16 and 45) often find themselves working other people’s land, but receive very little income from this work. Whether they stay in farming, or move to other trades like fishing, herding, or commerce such as pottery, cloth-making, and craft work, restrictive cultural gender roles prevent widows from engaging in long distant trade, thus forcing them to sell their produce either in the local markets to other rural customers or to urban dwellers who act as middlemen, reselling their produce for much higher prices than they provide to the widows.
Njideka is using the Owerri Digital Village, a community technology and learning center she founded in 2000 as the hub for Agric-P.O.W.E.R. Agric-P.O.W.E.R is a social enterprise platform which supports a deliberately woman-to-woman farmer distribution network while employing youth as agricultural information workers.
As part of this initiative, Njideka is partnering with the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) and local agro-universities to lead training on the latest agricultural techniques to beneficiaries at the Owerri Digital Village. Youth beneficiaries apply as agricultural information workers and if hired, will also be trained on agricultural techniques and appropriate technology that will be used to deliver and disseminate this information. Agric-P.O.W.E.R. will leverage the partnership with IITA and other farming associations to learn about new markets, particularly processing or production plants, form new distribution channels and secure subsidized high-yielding seeds, fertilizers, equipment and tools for distribution to the women farmer beneficiaries.
Agric-P.O.W.E.R. will use SMS messaging on mobile phones to allow farmers and businesses to post-buy and sell offers which will be compiled and sent through SMS to service subscribers. This will help them directly develop commercial activities without total reliance on intermediaries. Agric-P.O.W.E.R. will leverage the Nokia Life Tools platform that enables farmers to access market pricing for a subscription fee. “Farmer clusters” will also be established to link women farmers with each other, and with outside markets.
Though still in concept phase, Agric-P.O.W.E.R. has gained significant ground in becoming a reality. Components of the ambitious initiative have been successfully piloted by Njideka over the last decade through her founding of Youth for Technology Foundation (YTF) in 2000, which facilitates the day-to-day oversight of the Owerri Digital Village.
Njideka founded YTF with a vision to transform rural communities into enriched learning environments where the appropriate use of technology affords opportunities for marginalized people. Four programs form the core of the organization: TechKids, TechTeens, TechCommunities, and TechEnhancements. The latter helps civil servants understand how new tools can enhance their job, while the first three focus on the powerful role youth can play in their communities with the right resources and tools. These programs focus on teaching youth how to identify a social issue in their community, and then how to document, report, and potentially resolve these issues using technology as an enabler. Youth are trained on all kinds of technology tools, from basic Internet research, to how to use social media to learn from and share information about situations in their communities.
With such a dynamic model, YTF has also been contacted by various partner and donor organizations to bring a similar model of youth empowerment through technology to various other marginalized communities. Since its founding, YTF has worked in six countries including the United States, Nigeria, Kenya, South Africa, Cameroon, and Uganda, with more than 75,000 people having participated in YTF’s programs and more than 290,000 community members have been positively impacted. Issues that have been addressed include: civic responsibilities, peace building, health, entrepreneurship, leadership and governance, and sustainability.
One such partnership with the Japanese Trust Fund and UNIFEM allowed YTF to launch the Women’s Economic Empowerment Program in the Niger Delta. This initiative was designed to provide entrepreneurship training for rural women in areas of micro-business management and in developing new distribution and marketing partnerships. YTF conducted focus groups and mobilized rural women living in the Niger Delta, and then designed, developed, and disseminated multimedia CDs that contained information on how to establish and expand an agricultural-based business given the peculiar nature of the Niger Delta. Among other things, content included planting methods, cropping systems, disease control, harvesting, food preservation, storage technologies, and aquaculture.
Njideka was born in Ibadan, Nigeria to a Nigerian father from Imo state, and an American mother from Michigan. She recalls she always wanted to be an entrepreneur. She was first able to dabble in this passion at the age of 11, when she single-handedly staffed a weekend neighborhood bakery stand, skills that were learned from her mother who owned a French restaurant in Ibadan. Njideka’s father, the only child in his family to continue his education post primary school, and who later went on to become a professor, made it a family tradition to take his children from Ibadan to “the village” during all holidays. Njideka fondly recalls going to the farm in the mornings with her aunt and learning through her challenges of farming. It was during these memorable times spent with relatives that Njideka first experienced rural farming. She made a commitment then to make a difference for rural women, like her aunt.
In the fall of 1993, Njideka moved to the U.S. to pursue a college education and attended the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. Looking at the curriculum early on, Njideka felt immediately at ease as it was seemingly less aggressive than her Nigerian secondary school. However, that ease would suddenly disappear when on the first day of English 101, the professor asked the class to “tell me about a time when… ” While her peers started clicking away on their computers, Njideka grabbed her pen. “I’m so behind and I haven’t even started yet,” Njideka recalls thinking. She immediately started teaching herself how to use a computer, and then at the library, realizing the pivotal role technology plays in education.
Upon graduation, Njideka accepted a position at Microsoft Corporation in Redmond, Washington. There, she challenged senior leadership to expand their operations in sub-Saharan Africa, with hopes that this would help bridge the digital divide between the two continents. Njideka served in an advisory capacity to establish Microsoft’s first West Africa office in Lagos. In 2000, Njideka founded YTF as an international nonprofit, and registered in both Nigeria and the U.S. She soon realized, however, that she wanted to play a much more direct role in her organization. A few years later, Njideka resigned from her comfortable position at Microsoft to pursue her calling to partner with developing nations to meet their challenges in facing a continuously widening digital divide.
Shortly after leaving Microsoft, Njideka was accepted as a post graduate fellow in the Reuters Digital Vision Fellowship at Stanford University. This prestigious program provides social entrepreneurs with a creative environment and a platform to design and implement innovative and scalable technology-based solutions for untapped markets around the world.
Having spent most of her life with limited access to information and communication technology resources in Nigeria, Njideka considers herself a model for how having access to information, even in its simplest form, can make a difference. She is determined and poised to provide the same opportunity for others, including all rural women and their children, for whom the right resources and technology will help increase their incomes, and improve their livelihoods and self-esteem in their communities.