Olusola Sowemimo, the queen of Organic Agriculture in Nigeria is on our Agribusiness Conversations for the month of December 2021, she speaks on the relevance of organic agriculture for human health and attaining food security.
Here is the interview
Question 1: Can you introduce yourself and what your organization(s)does?
A Lawyer, Human Resource Practitioner, Etiquette Coach, Public Speaker who also has passion for Organic Agriculture, I’m Olusola Sowemimo. At a Cancer Control Conference in 2013 I discovered that 90% of attendees were cancer survivors. How have they achieved this? I interviewed quite a number of the participants asking for their survival tips, one thing rang through all their answers and it was their nutrition. Most of them brought their meals with them to the conference despite the fact that the hotel only prepared food from certified organic produce. That was my light bulb moment. I told myself that if food grown organically is able to keep these number of people alive, that is what I want to do.
I started Ope Farms with the bright idea that I was going to grow food that nourishes and heals the body from nutrient dense soil.
Starting Ope Farms was tough at the beginning because, I did not know anyone doing what I wanted to do. Many tried to discourage me and today I am grateful that I now know enough to grow food commercially.
Ope Farms grows, tomatoes, cucumbers, kale, lettuce, wild rocket, butternut squash, peppers, sweetcorn and others including most of our indigenous vegetable.
We have an Apiary from where we sell honey and we also process palm oil from our oil palm trees. We are starting our cassava farm to be able to process our odourless fufu powder. We also process and sell quite a number of leaves as teas.
We have a Family Basket Scheme with a database of about 400 customers and supply them our produce weekly.
We have our first store at Ikeja GRA and will be opening the second one soon.
Question 2: Organic Farming is unique, what are the peculiarities of organic farming?
Indeed Organic Agriculture is unique and the peculiarities are many. In 1972, some countries came together because they saw that the Green revolution was not working for them because it was all about yield but the quality of the food was poor. This collaboration berthed IFOAM which is the International Federation of Organic Agriculture which now has X countries as members.
I love the bedrock of organic agriculture and these are, the four principles, Health, Ecology, Fairness, and Care. They are the roots from which organic agriculture grows and develops. They express the contribution that organic agriculture can make to the world, and a vision to improve all agriculture in a global context.
Composed as inter-connected ethical principles to inspire the organic movement — in its full diversity, they guide our development of positions, programs, and standards.
The principles serve to inspire the organic movement in its full diversity.
Organic agriculture is based on:
- The Principle of Health
Health in this context is health of soil, plant, animal, human and the planet as one and indivisible. Health here is wholesomeness and integrity of living systems. It is not absence of illness but continuous maintenance of physical, mental, social and ecological well being. The role of organic agriculture whether in farming, processing, distribution or consumption, is to sustain and enhance the health of the ecosystems and organisms in the smallest in the soil to human beings.
- The Principle of Ecology
We work with ecological systems and cycles, emulate them and help sustain them. Production is to be based on ecological processes and recycling. Organic management must be adapted to local conditions, ecology, culture and scale. Anyone who produce, process, trade or consume organic products, should protect the common environment including landscapes, climate, habitats, biodiversity, air and water.
- The Principle of Fairness
Fairness is characterized by equity, justice, respect and stewardship of the shared world both among the people and in their relationship with living beings.
Anyone involved in organic agriculture should ensure fairness at all levels and to all parties, farmers, processors, distributors, traders and consumers. It requires that its practitioners provide everyone involved with a good quality of life and contribution to food sovereignty and reduction of poverty. It aims to produce a sufficient supply of good quality food and other products.
- The Principle of Care
It is required that anyone involved is responsible for the protection of health and well-being of current and future generations and the environment. It is strongly encouraged that the processes should not be at the risk of jeorpadising the health and wellbeing of others. New technologies should be assessed and existing methods should be reviewed. Care for soil, humans be it consumers or our workers and livestock
These four principles are what really endeared me to organic. The principles are ethical. Contrary to what many think, Nigeria has organic standards which echoes IFOAM’s position but adapted to our indigenous practices.
Question 3: What critical issues have to be addressed to increase participation in organic farming across the African continent?
As at 2015 only Kenya and Tanzania appeared on the world organic map. The global demand for organic rose from $15.2 billion in 1999 to $97billion in 2017. Globally Organic Agriculture is the fastest rising form of agriculture and it is time for Africa to step up and be a part of a laudable initiative. Awareness for participation by more countries is very important.
I keep hearing people say “organic cannot feed the world” yet we have not even tried it out. Rather, we choose unwholesome and unsafe options but it is a personal choice.
Abundance of knowledge would go a long way. A lot of knowledge reside in our institutions of learning, unfortunately many remain on the book shelves as we keep hearing. I once visited the largest tomato farm in the UK and the nearest university to the farm works closely with the farm.
The syllabus of our Agriculture Faculties should include organic agriculture. They can leverage on practitioners like me to lecture. The Lagos Business School once invited me to share knowledge with the participants at its Agribusiness Management Programme a few years ago.
I aspire to start an Organic Institute where we shall train those who want to grow food organically.
My fervent wish is that with the support of donors, we shall make Ope Farms Skill Acquisition Centre a reality. Farmers who have scaled their teething stages and have become much more experienced will be part of the faculty of trainers. They know where the landmines are on their journey to organic agriculture and they are the best to support others. Training will include mentorship for a certain period of time.
A bill supporting organic throughout Africa will give organic a lift. This is one area where Nigeria has failed woefully. We have none yet.
Harmonisation of organic standards within Africa, will greatly assist in entrenching Organic Agriculture. As we have NOAN which is the Association of Organic Agriculture Practitioners of Nigeria, Ghana has PGS. Kenya has KOAN and others across Africa means we may collaborate and even get a standard which unifies Africa.
Having many more formal and informal markets for organic produce will encourage many more people to consider organic agriculture.
When our medical boards decide to collaborate with organic practitioners and tell people to make their food their medicine because “organic is life” then many more will consume organic food just as we experienced during covid 19 pandemic.
If African heads of state can give incentives to farmers who choose to convert from conventional to organic, that will greatly help. This is because if a conventional farmer wishes to convert, the standard requires that he leaves his farmland fallow for three years before he can farm on it.
When premium price tags come into force, then it will elicit more participation in organic agriculture from others also.
Question 4: What is your perception on ending hunger and achieving food security in Africa?
It is very unfortunate that Nigeria is one of the three African countries that is suffering a high scale of refugee and hunger crisis. The displacement of many Nigerians due to terror has elevated us to this pitiful state otherwise, we have no reason for this because 86.2 % of our land is arable. Ending the state of insecurity in Africa will help in reducing hunger.
Enriching our soil and saving it from synthetic fertilizer which can take very many years to eradicate will see Africa grow better and healthier foods that nourish the body.
Another kind of hunger we are experiencing is “hidden hunger”. Many are eating but their bodies are not being nourished. WHO describes Hidden hunger as a lack of vitamins and minerals. Hidden hunger occurs when the quality of food people eat does not meet their nutrient requirements, so the food is deficient in micronutrients such as the vitamins and minerals that they need for their growth and development. As African, we each have a role to play. No matter how little, grow something at home. That used to be a normal practice when I was growing up but modernization has seen so much migration to the cities and many are unable to make the time for their own small food patches or gardens.
What motivates you as an amazon in the Nigerian Agribusiness space?
Many things motivate me as an Amazon in the Nigerian Agribusinesspace.
One of the key things is the fact that I am producing quality food. My production increases wellness for our consumers. My parents were very health conscious and we didn’t just eat anything in fact we used to think we had lost out on so many things in those days because anything that was relatively not so healthy came as a treat for us.
When I decided to go into agribusiness I decided to start with primary production and then I will scale up to processing and that is exactly what I’m doing. We process our palm-oil, honey, quite a number of tea leaves, spices and others.
Another thing I like is the flexibility that agriculture gives you within the value chain which is a long one. Once you are in, you start to see the gaps and you can afford to play in anyone that is a low hanging fruit for you so despite the fact that I started out as a farmer, I now process a number of our products. We also own one store from where we sell our produce and will be opening a second one soon.
As you become more experienced, you are able to leverage on your knowledge and skills. I have trained over 800 women and a few men how to grow food at home. Some of them have become farmers and serious growers at home.
I’m a public speaker I leverage on my knowledge and exposure. I have been a speaker at the West African Organic Conference, the African Organic conference I shall be a speaker at the World Organic Conference which is now coming up in France in September but due to the covid19 pandemic, it would be online.
I’m also a coach I coach a number of youths, some do internships with us. We are now also giving opportunity to interns who will farm on our land, we will buy what they are farming and they will be able to sell to us and to others.
Above all, owning a certified organic farm means that we have a niche. The health-conscious patronize us and we have a Family Basket scheme with a database of almost 400 customers with many ordering produce weekly.
We run a closed WhatsApp group for our customers and share information and bring them professionals in the health and wellness industry to speak with them, thereby giving back to support their wellness journey.
As a Safe Food Advocate, we educate our neighbouring communities on the dangers of using chemicals to grow their crops.
Question 6: Can you tell us how you are empowering the next generation to participate in Agriculture with particular emphasis on women inclusion?
Empowering the next generation is something close to my heart. We need our youths in Agriculture but to succeed in attracting them, they want technology, they want quality seeds, tools and equipment that make their work easier, information on the go, access to land without spending so much, access to irrigation systems and strong support systems which also guarantee the market for their products. They want apps that connect them to consumers, not having to carry their produce to physical market to look for buyers. Above all they want to earn decent income that can enable them dress well, feed well, decent housing, our system needs serious upgrade to provide these to attract our youths.
I did mention the proposed institute earlier and the internship which we offer. In 2019 we had our largest number of interns, about 27 of them. We brought in top professionals in their own right to train them, Mr Saka Adesoji trained them on naturally raised poultry, Mr Babatunde Olarewaju of Futux Agro Consultants trained them on Farm Set up and consultancy, My Roy of Posh Farms trained them on Rabbit Farming and Snail farming. We also had Miss Damilola train them on Digital Marketing.
As for women, I encourage many to grow at home and as a safe food advocate I have trained about 800 women on how to grow at home. I started training since 2015 when I knew enough to train others. Some have gone on to grow food at home, own their own farms and many are in the food sector.
Question 7: Agribusiness comes with a lot of challenges, how have you been able to overcome them and accelerate your business?
On a serious note, the challenges are generally many and I am not sure we can say that we have overcome them but we are trying.
Cold chain logistics still eludes us. We harvest and deliver to customers. We would love to own a cold box on the farm to store and keep our produce but we cannot afford it.
Distribution is still sometimes a challenge especially as we operate in Lagos where vehicular traffic is high. We end up engaging delivery companies to ease the accompanying stress. We have two pick up points for those who prefer to pick up.
On the side of production, we had to train on post-harvest loss to enable us minimize wastage and this is working.
Another challenge is getting farm workers. It can be quite tricky, yet a lot rests on this. It can kill the business if one does not have workers.
Extension services is non-existent so we engage our own private extension services at an additional cost.
Infrastructure is beyond us and we look forward to good roads to farms and possibly electricity also
The weather is also beyond us, sometimes the forecasts are not accurate. Last year we had a dry spell of about eight weeks during the “rainy season” and we lost acres of maize which we had planted for our poultry.
Question 8: What is your favourite quote?
That’s is an interesting one. My quotes keep changing but let me share one;
“From my experience, in farming organically, the more you know, the easier it is to breakthrough. I am always willing to learn”