Seeing the invisible, doing the impossible: A young Nigerian entrepreneur’s journey to success

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Seeing the invisible, doing the impossible: A young Nigerian entrepreneur’s journey to success

Estimated reading time: 4 minutes

“What I took up as a challenge, I have turned into a business.”

Dorothy Chia Vandefan is nothing if not insightful. She describes herself as a serious-minded agricultural entrepreneur who can create opportunities where there seem to be none – and she’s right. After just a few short years of operation, she and her business partners are poised to transform their local food systems and take agriculture to the next level.

The confidence to grow

Dorothy comes from central Nigeria’s Benue State. Although it’s been described as the country’s “food basket,” opportunities – even in the agriculture sector – aren’t always plentiful, and food security for the state’s residents is still far from guaranteed.

Despite graduating from university with a degree in agricultural engineering, Dorothy couldn’t find a good job at first. That changed in 2016, when she heard about an opportunity to join an agricultural training programme offered by the IFAD-supported Value Chain Development Programme. Ultimately, she received training in rice seed production through AfricaRice and the International Institute for Tropical Agriculture – a life-changing step.

“I really had no idea that there was anything special about rice seed production before I started the training programme,” she says. “But even in the beginning when I still had no experience, I could see that it was going to be a very good business.”

After Dorothy finished the programme in February 2017, she decided to use the following dry season to try out what she had learned. She started out farming on just half a hectare of land, not too far from where her father had always farmed rice.

Her first growing season was a success. By the end of the season, she had made enough of a profit to expand to three hectares.

“So I think that should tell you it’s been good,” she says with a smile.

By 2018, she was ready to do what must have seemed impossible to her just two years before: become an employer. The profits from her first crop allowed her to hire two day workers to help her on the farm. Not long after, she partnered with three other young entrepreneurs and founded a business called Gedalya Synergy Resources.

One of Gedalya’s main activities is producing and selling certified seed. Unlike farmers’ saved seeds, certified seeds are higher quality and more fertile. They’re regularly inspected to make sure they’re free of disease, damage, and other impurities. However, they also come with a high up-front cost, leaving many farmers reluctant to make the switch.

Dorothy has always been an optimist, especially when it comes to agriculture. She was confident that the number of local farmers willing to pay for quality certified seed would continue to grow if they could see the increased crop yields for themselves.

Dorothy understood the challenge very well. Her own father was resistant when she first started to talk about the benefits of using certified rice seed instead of paddy seed. Like other local farmers, he had always planted “saved” seeds from the previous season’s paddy. Dorothy did eventually convince him to use the certified seeds – although he never adopted the practice of transplanting seedlings into rows, instead preferring to cast the seeds directly onto the field. Even so, with the certified seed, his yield increased to two tonnes per hectare, more than double his previous yield. Not quite “best practice,” perhaps, but a huge improvement.

So, with this experience in mind, Dorothy’s company distributed free certified rice seed to more than 70 local farmers. With their yields doubling, tripling or even quadrupling, most of the farmers came back to her ready to buy more seed.

Dorothy checks in on one of her rice fields.

Growing a better future

In fact, these days the company can’t meet the growing demand for certified seed. But Dorothy is not daunted by the challenge; she’s already exploring ways to expand.

Soon, Gedalya Synergy Resources will cultivate a total of 30 hectares. They plan to add certified soy seed to the five certified rice seed varieties and two maize seed varieties they currently offer. Dorothy has also created jobs for five permanent staff and twelve day workers. Seven of them are women and eight are youth, underlining her commitment to creating opportunities for those groups in Benue State who have historically struggled to find work.

To expand her seed business even further, Dorothy is creating additional opportunities by adopting an out-grower model. Using this approach, her company provides local small-scale producers (particularly women and youth) with inputs, such as seeds, herbicides and fertilizer, along with the training they need to cultivate certified seeds of their own. In turn, her company buys the crop from the farmers at a pre-agreed price. This allows her to both recover her investment and meet the market demand for certified seed, while the farmer earns a healthy profit.

“We started with three young farmers. I didn't realize how impactful this model was until we paid them for their first harvest,” Dorothy tells us. “I saw the smiles on their faces and understood it's a win-win for both parties.”

Even after several years of success, Dorothy hasn’t lost the seriousness with which she approached her first growing season.

“When I look at my farm, I see and connect with nature – God's creation,” she says. “I consider the soil’s fertility and how it will nourish my crops. I visualise the production demand I will be able to meet, having always in mind that there is a population here that needs to live without hunger.”

And despite the challenges she’s faced, she wants nothing more than to see more young people join her in the agriculture sector. “Young people drive innovation and have great potential to build more inclusive and equitable rural communities,” she says. “I believe I am contributing my part to strengthen food security in Benue and Nigeria. If more youth will go into agriculture, we will diversify our economy, increase our income and strengthen the food systems we need to feed our country.”

Dorothy has big plans for her future in agriculture. She has just started, but already she has shown her determination to see the invisible and do the impossible.

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