By Moses Nosike &Yemisi Suleiman
Tola Sumonu, is a United States’ based Nigerian and Economics undergraduate of Stamford University who has developed a project that can help reduce hunger and develop the rural areas in the country with her colleagues in selected universities.She is the president of Harambe Nigeria, which for three years now has focused on youths development and agents of change within the agricultural sector.
In this interview, Tola narrates how she came about the idea and how she hopes to carry it out to a successful end. Excerpts:
How did you conceive this project?
Well, it started when I joined the Harambe Endeavor. At the time, the endeavor was about African students in Africa and diaspora working together to solve some of the continent’s problems.
The initial idea was to tour ten African countries during summer of 2008. I liked the idea of travelling around Africa, so I went through the rigorous application and was accepted. Once we were in the organization, we were split into country teams and tasked with developing an initiative for your country that could be implemented during the tour.
Unfortunately, the tour got cancelled a few months before summer kicked off and I can tell you that all the students in the organization were very distraught as they had given up other summer opportunities.
I was one of those panicking because my team had put so much work into developing the design on the Harambe Incubator for Sustainable Agric and Rural Development (HISARD). So, after about a week, we took a decision that with or without the tour, we would go back to Nigeria to implement the HISARD and that’s exactly what we did. At the time, we had no idea what to expect.
It was my first time to live in Lagos because I grew up in Port Harcourt and it was just a new experience for me. One success led to another and here we are today. That summer we didn’t even know if we would last a month and here we are, almost three years later. It’s pretty amazing!
What is the update on the HISARD?
Our students have completed their needs assessment of Wakajaiye and Orile Owu. They have also been through the brainstorming process of developing initiatives and have finally decided on which initiative they will proceed with. They have decided on an organic manure scheme which will meet the communities’ need for fertilizer in a sustainable manner that involves community members.
Do you intend to take this to other schools?
Right now we are recruiting our second set of OAU students and we hope to expand to other universities by the end of next year or come 2013.
Would you like to plan something like farmers club in the secondary schools?
We have thought about including a secondary school component but our mission is to focus on university students and we try staying tight to our mission as possible. Although, our new set of fellows will be doing volunteer community work with secondary school students but it will be in partnership with another NGO that has perfected the art of gearing secondary school students up for the agricultural sector.
Have you received any assistance from government so far?
Yes, a little. The ministry of agriculture has endorsed our programme and we got some funding from the National Poverty Eradication Programme.
Don’t you ever feel you are fighting a lost cause?
No, not a lost cause. We definitely feel like we are fighting a fight that has been fought before and which many have failed at but that gives us a head start because we can learn from their mistakes. The one lesson we follow religiously is making sure we strictly stick to our mission. Taking too many projects at the same time makes it difficult to achieve results. When you start slowly, people will grow impatient and criticize; people will ask questions like why did you admit only 10 students in the HISARD? Why did you start with just one university? But if we had started with 100 students in three universities, we wouldn’t have the luxury of meticulously analyzing the process and figuring out the kinks. So it’s not a lost cause but we are defiantly fighting the battle a little differently than others.
How do you get funds to do all of these?
That’s my main responsibility. We do a lot of fund-raising during summer. It essentially means I look up to companies and organizations which I think would be interested in our mission and I bombard their managers and CEO’s with letters and e-mails until I get a 15-20 minutes meeting slot. I usually give a presentation and when I am lucky, I walk out of the meeting with a confirmation of financial support.
How do you juggle education and Harambe?
It’s become a balancing act I have perfected. I tend to wake up at say 6 a.m. in school to be on Nigerian time and once I’m done with Harambe, calls and e-mails, I start school work at about 8 a.m., go to classes do homework and then at about 11 p.m.
I’m back on Nigerian time for about 30 minutes before I go to bed. It sounds rigorous but it’s fine because a lot of students at Stanford are running their own projects so I don’t feel different from anyone else.
It also helps to have a phone that can receive and send e-mail, so I can answer e-mail as I walk from one class to another.