The idea behind Rita Robert Otu’s Beau Haven Farms in Southern Nigeria is simple: Train women to grow vitamin A-rich cassava — a root vegetable also known as yuca — which they can feed their families and also sell for income. But in doing so, she aims to tackle the far more complex problems of gender inequality and malnutrition that are rampant in the region.
“Our goal is to encourage and support a new generation of entrepreneurial farmers,” she says.
Otu, the daughter of community leaders in the region, is an agricultural economist who studied a few hours away at University of Calabar before earning a master’s degree in rural development at the University of Manchester in the U.K.
In 2015, she opened Beau Haven Farms on three hectares of land she received from her father. “It is really beautiful,” she says of the red-soil farm, which has rows of leafy green vegetables with palm trees dotting the border. “We started farming a new kind of cassava, with vitamin A.” In recent years, the anti-hunger organization HarvestPlus has distributed the specially developed vegetable to farm managers like Otu, to combat a vitamin A deficiency that is widespread in sub-Saharan Africa. The deficiency can impair vision and lower immunity.
Otu sells the cassava she grows to fund her outreach programs, which train women in rural communities to plant and harvest the crop. Most of the women are already farmers, “but they practice the old way,” Otu says. “We train them on modern sustainable farming practices.”
That includes teaching the women about how to use organic rather than chemical fertilizer, and how to properly store their crops. “We encourage them to process and package when it’s time for harvest — most of them don’t know to — so they can sell it and make money,” Otu says.
Otu estimates that her efforts have helped about 3,000 women, and she has been recognized for the work. She was recently a regional winner for the British Council’s 2018 Entrepreneurial Awards, and UN Woman in 2016 named her a global community champion for Women’s Economic Empowerment.
Learning to Farm
Beau Haven Farms, a for-profit enterprise, is part of Otu’s umbrella non-profit People Environment and Sustainability (PEAS) Foundation, which runs educational agriculture programs for youth and women. She has received government grants and donations for the latter, though she notes that financing is still her biggest challenge.
While it helps to have a farm that generates revenue, that has its own set of challenges. Last year, for instance, some of Beau Haven Farms’ crops were attacked by a worm. This year, Otu is practicing crop rotation to repair the soil. “It’s been tough, but with persistence and hardworking, I have scaled through and the business is flourishing,” she says.
While the farm provides seed capital and training to women farmers, Otu also travels to regional communities to teach women who don’t have the means to visit her farm. Aside from cassava, she also teaches women how to grow plantains and sweet potato, and how to raise poultry. “Ultimately, these women, who reside in low-income neighborhoods, are being provided the education and means to grow food for themselves and their families,” she says. “These women in turn earn income to pay their children’s [school] fees, support the family and build shelter for themselves.”
Otu keeps in touch with the women through mobile technology, as nearly all have cell phones. “We send a text message to them about what to expect with farming,” she says.
[Related: Read about seven Ugandan women farmers improving the lives of other women]
Becoming a Leader
Otu herself picked up farming skills from her family — her grandfather owned one of the largest cocoa plantations in the community — and she learned leadership by watching them, attending school and taking part in a program called Girls’ Power Initiative in 1999. Funded by the MacArthur Foundations, among others, GPI is a feminist, youth development organization that aims to empower girls. “When it comes to me, I try to solve the problems of the community,” she says. “I have the passion.
In the years ahead, Otu hopes to expand to other states in Nigeria and introduce mechanized farming to grow her production. Thanks to her family, she owns another massive tract of land — about 10 hectares, or 25 acres — where “we want to get machines [and] employ more people and make more money.” Aside from seeking donors and grants, she also regularly hosts events, signs on sponsors and works part-time as a teacher to raise money for the farm’s expansion.
Otu believes that confidence is the most important trait a woman needs to succeed, especially in the male-dominated business world. “When a woman is confident, she can face the world and lead well,” she says.
She herself seems to have no problem with that particular trait. On the farm’s Facebook page, she posted a quote from Winston Churchill — “A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity, an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty.” Then she amended it with her own addition: “And an entrepreneur takes that opportunity and turns it into reality.”
Read about the six other status-quo busting women on The Story Exchange’s 2018 Resist List