Monday, 24 August 2009

Back to basics

TOLA Sunmonu is a student of Stanford High who is concerned about the economic growth of her country, Nigeria. Not waiting till she finishes school to return home before she can start to contribute her quota, she kicked off the Nigerian arm for Harambe. A youth development initiative set to highlight opportunities in the agricultural sector and to encourage young entrepreneurs.

What does Harambe Nigeria focus on?
Harambe Nigeria is an NGO in which Nigerian students in the Diaspora engage with their counterpart in the country to develop innovative solutions to the problems hindering the nation’s development. Our current project involves youths and agriculture. Our main aim is to provide training, resources and capital to university students studying Agriculture, to enable them to proffer and implement solutions to the problems facing agricultural in their local communities. To meet this goal we have designed a programme called the Harambe Incubator for Sustainable Agricultural and Rural Development (HISARD); we are partnering with OAU alongside others such as LEAP and the Songhai center to train 10 to12 students to be Agro-entrepreneurs that will make positive impact in Ife community.

Why are you encouraging the youths to go into agriculture?

It is more than just encouraging the youths to go into agriculture. It’s a way of drawing attention to a problem that is often neglected; because the agricultural sector is always the backbone of any developing economy. People often do not realise that agriculture goes beyond the provision of food; they do not know that the sector can play multi-facet roles in economic development and poverty reduction, not to mention improving the standard of living of the people.
Secondly, it is about giving students an opportunity. We are not taking students with interest in entertainment or oil or engineering and forcing them to be agro-entrepreneurs, but those already interested in agriculture. Students tell us that it disheartens them to see their colleagues having graduated with Agricultural degrees are forced into other professions because of scarcity of good jobs in the sector; they said It makes sense to use the degree one has invested about 25 years pursuing. Nigerians have to accept the fact that to develop, we need to diversify our economy and equip the youths with the right skills.

What have you discovered about Nigeria and its Agriculture?
The most shocking or rather disappointing thing I have discovered is that Nigeria was very good at Agriculture before crude oil was found in our soil. We even taught countries such as Malaysia, how to maximise output from palm tree. Now Malaysia has used that as a driving force in improving their Agriculture and economy while Nigeria lags behind. In fact, we now import products from Malaysia, which shows that we have a lot of untapped potentials in the sector.

What motivated you to go into projects like this?

First of all, to make people know that agriculture is a business, in the same way as the Internet, entertainment and banking. And to let them know, it goes beyond subsistence farming; and that it involves science, engineering, marketing, manufacturing and other disciplines.
However, I am motivated by the drive to see Nigeria advance economically. I have lived in many countries in the world and quite frankly I get extremely frustrated when I see other countries progressing and Nigeria retrogressing. We have the potentials to make this country great, and I can’t stand to see them waste away.

How do you manage schooling in Stanford and the project?

I have always balanced schoolwork with extra-curricular activities. I think they both complement one another, to be honest. I apply the things I learn in school to Harambe. For instance, this quarter I am taking a class on world food economy, and another on social entrepreneurship; which are directly relevant to Harambe. I do not compromise one for the other except my sleep that suffers it.

How often do you keep in touch with home?
My parents still live in Nigeria; so, I am bound to come home. I visit home at least once a year, and while I am abroad I still connect with my Nigerian people.

Why not have fun and live your life like any normal student instead of engaging in Harambe?

Harambe is fun to me, and being able to apply my education to real life situation makes me a better student. Don’t get me wrong, I act like a generic student, I go to parties, movies and all that, but at the end of the day Harambe is what makes me happy and I often give it more. Besides, it’s hard to find students who are not engaged in other activities outside schoolwork these days.
What’s life like for you as a young Nigerian in Stanford?

Well Nigerians are more than other African countries in Stanford, so, I feel right at home most of the time; but to be honest in general life, it doesn’t really make much meaning to me. Stanford is a pretty diverse place, which is probably why being a Nigerian doesn’t mean much to me.

Do you ever experience the Nigerian 419 stigma?

Not at all. Stanford is a bubbling place, it does not in anyway reflect the general American attitude. Africans and Nigerians here are doing well and we hold a lot of responsible positions in various academic and non-academic fields in campus and outside it. Such stigma has not come up here, and I am yet to hear of any.
How would you compare life and opportunities abroad with Nigeria?

That’s a hard question. There are clear differences of course, but I would still pick Nigeria any day. The way I see things here, opportunities are not very easy to come by. Nigeria represents a whole new scope of exciting opportunities given the fact that it is a growing economy with its own set of unique challenges.
Life in Stanford is easy boring, to be honest, without challenges. I like solving problems and I think Nigeria is the perfect ground for me to do so. I don’t mean to sound idealistic, of course there are times I sit in Lagos traffic frustrated and vexed, but then the vibrancy that you see in Lagos cannot be captured anywhere else.
However, the educational system abroad gives more room for student growth beyond the four walls of the classroom. As someone who schooled both in Nigeria and abroad, I can speak of the range of opportunities for service learning offered abroad that are lacking in the Nigerian system. However, while our peers at home may not have had the opportunities; it must be stated that they are living in the real life situations that we study in school, which gives them an upper hand in truly understanding issues and having a more intuitive sense of how to solve varied problems. This is where Harambe comes in; we try to exploit this comparative advantage that both groups have to create innovative and effective solutions.

Will you move back?

Is that really a question? Of course I am moving back.

Why do you think Nigerian youths abroad are beginning to be interested in coming back home these days?
There are so many reasons Nigerians may want to move back. I think a lot of people move the feeling that that life is better abroad, which is nothing but a myth. Yes, there might be better infrastructure and a more ‘comfortable’ way of living, but Nigerians in the Diaspora face their own set of challenges. As an international student, for instance, the chances of getting into good schools and having good jobs is significantly lower, there is also the problem of prejudice, adjusting to a new society and culture among others. For those of us, who are ready to spread our wings we know that home provides the most opportunity. Nigeria is a destination point especially for those of us who are business minded. In Nigeria there are sectors that are virtually untouched, or have such little competition would encourage new entrant, which you will never find in countries such as the US and the UK, where intense competition leaves little room for any new person. The current economic crisis has also woken a lot of people up and destroyed the myth of paradise often placed upon the ideal of living abroad. People have seen that it is becoming increasingly harder to get jobs, and that room for growth is less unlike Nigeria.
For me, moving back just makes the perfect sense, I think it would be using my education negatively if I were to stay in the US and actively engage in aiding their development while my own country trail behind. I believe the opportunities I have, are privileges for me to make positive contributions to my country.

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