Exclusive Interview: Udoh Gift Rina, CEO Norina Farms

Gift Udoh, CEO Norina Farms

Gift Udoh through her organic farm, Norina Farms, has helped over 50 local female farmers to start their own organic farms, thereby reducing their risk of health conditions from harmful agrochemicals. In this interview with us, Gift talks about her journey so far and her plans, which includes building a rural farmers hub to reduce agricultural hazards and increase yield and profit for the rural farmers.

As an agropreneur whose business has grown from providing chemical-free vegetables, to advocating and training other farmers to do the same, what are your thoughts about the agricultural landscape in Africa?

I will say that Africa is blessed with enormous potential to feed itself, eliminate hunger and food insecurity but the huge gap in the value chain has posed a challenge to achieve this. From my experience working with farmers, one of the major challenges faced in food production is accessibility, farmers are unable to access the right inputs to produce food and consumers find it difficult to reach the farmers after production. The inability for farmers, especially in rural communities, to access quality inputs has led to adulteration of inputs, labor intensive farming and post harvest losses. Farmers with their limited finances are ready to produce food year-round but there is very little or no resource to do this. I will give an example with small farm machineries which cost less than 300 dollars and triple productivity for farmers, but these machineries are inaccessible to farmers even to lease. I believe a lot must be put in place to bridge the gap in agriculture in other to eliminate hunger and achieve food security.

What are your thoughts about agriculture being the next economic boom for the African continent?

I won’t say Agriculture is the next economic boom, I will say it is already the economic boom because Agriculture has gone a long way in providing for individuals especially in rural communities. Agriculture is one sector that has provided employment for youth, improved the standard of living and reduced the rate of crime especially in local communities. As a farmer working in rural communities, employing youth from my community of operation reduced the rate of stealing in the community because it made the youth busy and earned a decent living. This has happened even with little investments in Agriculture how much more when all systems are put in place. Agriculture is a big thing and I love that so many people have come to understand this and are putting their investments into agriculture.

You had an experience yourself with vegetable chemical poisoning, just how bad would you say this issue is, share some data and insight if you may? Also, at what point did you realise you had to do something about this issue?

Agrochemical poisoning is an emergency and the problem is that it is overlooked without knowing the danger it poses to consumers and rural farmers. I suffered severe poisoning from consuming vegetables that was the reason I started producing chemical free vegetables. Apart from that, research has shown that vegetables retain more of the pesticides used to produce them so using excessive chemicals to increase yields may lead to severe health challenges for consumers. A food test carried out by Pesticide action network showed that there is pesticide cocktail mostly in fruits and vegetables and you may find up to 10 different pesticides in one vegetable. It is quite scary because these tiny bits of cocktails accumulate over time and pose a huge risk for consumers.

I felt a need to start training other farmers on safe production after Mary a rural farmer I met after I started my farm died due to high level exposure to pesticides. Currently 1 out of 5 farmers suffer pesticide poisoning, either diagnosed or undiagnosed. Farmers use agrochemicals that are adulterated, without proper covering, the chemicals accumulate and lead to different health issues.

More organizations need to get involved in fighting pesticide poisoning for farmers because if these farmers produce food safely, consumers will eat foods that are free of unhealthy elements. A lot of farmers are suffering from severe health conditions due to poisoning; these rural farm workers do not have to die while trying to earn a decent living.

So far you have helped over 50 local women in Nigeria to begin producing organic produce, how do you think women empowerment programmes can be leveraged to help more women find employment and grow in this field?

What ever work I am doing I think about rural communities first because these are the real areas that need empowerment. I believe that a lot can be achieved if rural women are empowered through training and access to funds to start. From experience, giving funding to a woman to start or boast her agribusiness has gone a long way to increase their standard of living. For the rural woman in agriculture, empowering them with quality inputs, personal protective equipment kits, training and providing storage facilities will go a long way to improve their standard of living and make great educational contributions to their children.

What are some of the peculiar challenges that you encounter in your work, and how are you able to overcome them?

The challenge I have faced in this field is the fact that I am young with fewer years of experience than the farmers I work with. Convincing these farmers who have over 40 years of experience to adopt new methods of farming proved difficult for the farmers and made them unwelcome the idea more. To solve this challenge, we started to partner with Agricultural development officers that they trust to talk to them about the solutions that we provide, the advantages, then we listen to their own advantages too, we explain the effects to them and their loved ones and connect with them emotionally. With this strategy we have trained farmers who have bought into our vision and currently tell other rural farmers about how much we have helped them.

Security is also one of the challenges that we face during monitoring and supervision of the farms. Communal crises may break out during this period and put us at risk. We have liaised with community leaders in our communities of operations who give us information on safety to ensure that we don’t go for supervisions when crises are ongoing in any region.

You are a Tony Elumelu Foundation Entrepreneur and a Mandela Washington Fellow, how have these impacted your journey so far as an entrepreneur?

My journey into entrepreneurship started when I got selected as a Tony Elumelu Foundation entrepreneur. The program was a stepping stone for me because my idea was just to grow organic vegetables after experiencing pesticide poisoning, But the training and mentoring I got from the program gave me better strategies to run my business and when I received the seed funding I was able to put it in the right places, followed my business plan and kept evolving as an agribusiness entrepreneur. The Mandela Washington fellowship was timely for me, I got selected at the point in my entrepreneurship journey where I needed validation to be sure that I was doing the right thing. Traveling to the US I met with professionals in my field of work who told me about the experiences that led them to start working to ensure agricultural health and safety especially in rural communities. I have been learning from them since I returned and plans are currently ongoing between me and Dr Diane an American professional I met during my stay, for her to come down to Nigeria and help me create safety interventions that will work better for my farmers. I also met Professor Azeez Butali who got interested in my work and sent his Agbari multimedia team to tell my story through a documentary. These two programs have given my work exposure and integrity, telling someone that I am a Mandela Washington Fellow or Tony Elumelu Foundation Entrepreneur gives me more credibility and encourages them to work with me. Through these programs I found my strengths, sharpened my leadership, networking and teamwork skills. So, these programs have opened doors for me in ways that I didn’t imagine.

Speaking of opportunities and programmes like the Tony Elumelu Foundation Entrepreneurs programme and others alike, what other opportunities and support do you think can and should be provided for African entrepreneurs, to achieve economic growth and diversity for the continent?

Before these programs, I knew nothing about Africa or even some parts of Nigeria, but through these programs I have come to know Africa more and even built partnerships with entrepreneurs from other parts of the world. I would say more exchange programs should be provided so that young Africans can travel even within Africa and learn from other cultures. Also, capacity building should not only be about in-class lessons, young entrepreneurs need to learn about their fields of work too because most of us entrepreneurs started our businesses because of passion, so sector specific lectures and mentoring should be looked into so that as we learn about business we can also learn from real life experiences. I believe this will go a long way to help young African entrepreneurs grow, scale and succeed and we will achieve economic growth and diversity for the continent.

Across the continent of Africa and beyond, there are passionate young people who are frustrated by the existing systems in their different nations. What would you say is the best way to galvanize youth effort across the continent to drive positive outcomes across Africa?

Structures should be put in place, policies that favor young entrepreneurs should also be considered. I have had my fair share of this frustration and still have it on some days where I produce vegetables, take them for delivery and spend 2 to 3 hours on the road for a 15 minutes trip because of the poor road networks in my area of residence. If the roads are okay, power supply is stable and loan interest rates are favorable, the youth will be able to thrive in their different sectors. Another thing I will say is that grant competitions and capacity building programs should be taken to rural communities too, the youth there are also running businesses and need coaching and funding to excel at it. As a judge during a business pitch competition in a rural community, I listened to ideas from young people who could barely speak English and I was amazed at how much they have achieved and the impact they want to create in their communities. So, these youth should be encouraged in several ways to ensure their ideas do not get dumped because of frustration.

A lot continues to be said about the rise of Africa, the ‘Africa Rising’ narrative it is called. Do you agree that Africa is indeed rising? If so, what are the changing realities, scenarios and events that inform your conviction that Africa is indeed a continent on the rise?

With the rate of youth going into social entrepreneurship, I can beat my chest and say that Africa is rising. Youth are interested in business not just to make money but to impact their communities. I’ve had the opportunity to meet a lot of young entrepreneurs and listen to the amazing vision that they have for Africa. They don’t just talk about this vision, but they are working hard in their small ways to achieve this vision. I believe that with young African leaders doing such great work with the little resources available to them, there is so much more to come if resources are made available.  So, I can proudly say that Africa is indeed rising.

What should Africa look forward to from you soon? What is the next big thing you are working on right now?

One of the things I am currently working on is the rural farmers hub. I am working on a hub that carters to all the needs of rural farmers, from consultancy services, modern storage facility, seeds and seedlings supply, organic pesticides and compost, small farm machinery lease and a sales outlet. This hub will go a long way to bridge the gap between accessing inputs for rural farmers, labor intensive farming and reducing post harvest losses. It will also go a long way to reduce agricultural hazards among farm workers.

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