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SIS Alumna Empowers Smallholder Farmers in Nigeria

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Ugoeze Achilike (right) on the ground in Nigeria

During the COVID-19 pandemic, many people picked up a new hobby, binged new Netflix shows, or finished a lingering household project they started years ago.

Ugoeze Achilike, SIS/BA ’17, just a few years into her professional career, used the time to take on an entirely new career venture: writing and submitting a grant proposal for an international agricultural training program in Nigeria. This proposal would eventually lead Achilike back to her parent’s village in Nigeria. We caught up with Achilike to learn more about her interest in sustainability, her focus on agribusiness, and the role SIS played in her career path.  

Finding a Focus at SIS

When she began the search for the perfect college, Achilike knew that she wanted to be in DC. Born in Nigeria, she had a strong interest in international politics, and SIS drew her attention with its prime location and unique degree options.

While pursuing her BA in international studies, she decided to focus on environmental sustainability in Africa and the Middle East through her concentration area. “I've always been interested in agriculture, specifically food security, and I got to learn about so many different topics in that area like land grabbing, sustainable food production, and how that all related to my broader interest in international development.”

As an SIS student, Achilike was a recipient of the US Department of State’s Critical Language Scholarship (CLS), which allowed her access to numerous funding and project opportunities. Alumni of the CLS program can apply for grant funding to support community development projects, which would come into play later on in Achilike’s career.

Planting Seeds of Interest

After graduating from SIS, Achilike began her career at the World Bank Group as a marketing and operations consultant. While at the World Bank Group, she was exposed to numerous areas in the international development field and grew her interest in environmental sustainability.

“It was a really great experience to jump right into learning about development. I was able to network and meet so many professionals,” said Achilike. “I met people who were focused on areas like water and engineering and infrastructure and agriculture. It really felt like the things that I learned at SIS were coming to life while I was at the World Bank.”

Wanting to gain more experience in environmental sustainability, Achilike began working at an agroforestry nonprofit called Trees for the Future. According to the USDA, agroforestry is a practice that focuses on introducing trees and shrubs into farming for environmental, economic, and social benefits. Trees for the Future trains smallholder farmers—defined by the UN Food and Agricultural Organization as small-scale farmers who manage areas varying from less than one hectare to 10 hectares, using mainly family labor for production and using part of the produce for family consumption—in East and West Africa in sustainable agriculture and agroforestry methods. They provide tools and teach new techniques to help farmers sustain their livelihoods.

Farming for the Future

After a few years with Trees for the Future, Achilike felt like she needed a change, but she wasn’t quite sure how to proceed initially: “Even though I was working for an agroforestry organization, I was still on the sales and marketing end of it, and I really wanted to be in the operations aspect. That’s a challenging transfer to make because I didn't have the experience. I was a little bit frustrated, and I felt like I had hit a wall.”

This desire for change is what led Ugoeze and her project co-lead Emmanuel Awohouedji ,SIS/MA '17, to write a proposal and apply for a grant called the Citizens Diplomacy Action Fund through the US Department of Education and Partners for America during the pandemic. The basis of the proposal was to develop the Agripreneurs Capacity Building Training Program, which would train smallholder farmers in Nigeria in regenerative agriculture practices and agribusiness.

“Regenerative agricultural practices restore soil, improve biodiversity, promote natural carbon storage, improve crop quality and increase yields over the long-term, and offer farmers a sustainable future,” Achilike explained. “The goal was to have the farmers leave the program feeling empowered and ready to create thriving farms to support their agribusiness and families.”

To her delight, her proposal was funded, and she and her project partner set out to put their plan into action on the ground.

On the Ground in Nigeria

The Agripreneurs Capacity Building Training Program was held in Achilike’s parents’ home village of Mbieri, Imo State, Nigeria, where she spent six months on the ground preparing for and implementing the program. To help maximize the impact of the training, Achilike partnered with two organizations, CHC Agritech Africa and Food For All International, for the demonstrations.

The one-month training program took place on a demo farm so that roughly 130 area farmers could gain hands-on experience in an environment similar to their farms. Some of the skills that were covered included beekeeping, soil revitalization, composting, vegetable production, and more.

“The demo farm was great because farmers could have a safe secure place to learn in a farm setting versus in a classroom setting. We were able to go into the fields and get our hands dirty,” says Achilike.

At the end of the training program, the farmers were able to take the skills they had learned back to their farms and implement new methods and practices. By teaching sustainable agribusiness and farming methods, the program is taking the first step to ending cycles of poverty by helping provide sustainable income.

While the training program was initially a one-time thing, Achilike knows that the demand for more training is there. In the future, she hopes to be able to meet those demands and bring the program to more farmers in Nigeria.

“I constantly get requests from the farmers that I've worked with to do another training. I'm thinking of reapplying for the grant again and doing another training program,” said Achilike. “I made it a goal to have a continued relationship with those farmers who participated in the program so I can come back and do something in the future with them.”

Beyond the impact on the farmers and the local community, the project had a great impact on Ugoeze herself and allowed her to come away from the experience with a new outlook. “This project taught me that we often doubt ourselves early on in our careers, but sometimes you have to create your own opportunities.”