Growing up, farming was introduced to me at a young age. I would spend hours in the garden with my dad attempting to grow sweetcorn, whilst listening to his stories about growing up on his family farm in Southwest Nigeria.
Since planting my first batch of seeds several years ago, I have been intrigued by agriculture. I wanted to understand how plants grew, how you nurture produce, especially during times of extreme climate change. Keen to understand what farming looks like in 2020, I found Femi Aseru, an award-winning Nigerian moringa farmer. I originally approached Femi to discuss his award-winning moringa business, Life of a Tree. Yet, 45 minutes into our conversation we had explored an array of topics which changed the way I perceived agriculture.
From the diaspora, to the power of representation in agriculture, Femi shares his fascinating entrepreneurial journey into farming, disrupting what you think farming looks like today.
Life Bites is a series that aims to inspire through the art of story-telling. Each story is a reflection of the experiences, lessons and successes of the people I meet along the way.
His entrepreneurial journey
A few years ago, during an event, a stranger asked Femi if he had heard of moringa. He responded noting that he had heard of it briefly but did not think anything of it. That conversation was the push he needed to fly to Nigeria to see it for himself. Fast forward to 2020, Femi is the owner of Life of Tree, an award-winning moringa business with products ranging from tea bags, to powders and tablets.
Moringa – a plant that has several names – has been praised for its nutritious benefits which includes vitamins and high levels of iron. It is also known for its sustainability, as it is a fast-growing, drought-resistant tree and every part of the plant can be used.
Supporting women farmers in Nigeria
When Femi arrived in Delta state, he was in for a slight shock. Born in Nigeria, Femi thought he was returning to a familiar territory. Though Nigeria was home, home had changed. Femi soon realized that this would be a whole new experience he would need to adapt to.
On arrival, the first thing he noticed was the number of women dominating the marketplace. They were the ones trading, hustling and negotiating. Though he was impressed by their work ethic, he started to think how he could help the women transition from traders to farmers. Femi wanted them to own as much of their supply chain as possible. By spending time with the women, he was able to understand their needs and challenges. This led to the beginning of a beautiful partnership. Today, Femi works directly with the women farmers who are paid to directly grow and nurture the moringa.
The role of African diaspora
Though Femi had created a good relationship with the women, he noted the initial tension he faced with the local men. “They felt I was coming to tell them what to do. They thought, who is this British guy coming to our land telling us what to do.” This moment highlights the complexity of identity for diaspora. Whilst Femi was in fact a Nigerian, he was a Nigerian who had spent his life in the UK, making him an outsider to this community. Femi said it was important he built their trust by showing respect and making the effort to understand the people he wanted to do business with. “I had to truly show them I was there to learn from them, collaborate and empower them whilst also growing a profitable business.”
Based on his experience Femi shared three pieces of advice for diaspora looking to do business in Africa:
- Do not use your rose-tinted western glasses to look at Africa – things do not directly correlate. Avoid making comparisons with the UK, just see Africa for what it is, and go from there.
- Use your business as an opportunity to learn about people’s lives, experiences and the culture. Do not just make it about money.
- Diaspora can make an impact. We have a duty to raise the standard, where possible. You can do this by using your platform to call for better standards relating to governance, economics and public services.
Representation in agriculture
Obtaining a BSc in Agricultural Business and Management from Writtle College, Femi is one of the 1.4% minority ethnic farmers in the UK. So, you can only imagine my excitement when I found him.
Whilst Femi spoke about his journey into agriculture, it was clear that the lack of diversity was due to a lack of representation and access, as well as Britain’s ugly colonial past – which still exists. “I remember I was driving a tractor whilst I was at agriculture school. Then a school bus full of kids went past, and I saw two black kids in there. And they were staring, they looked excited.” Femi noted that at that moment he came to realise the importance of representation. Looking at those figures, it was very likely that it was probably the first time they had seen a black farmer in the countryside.
Speaking with Femi was somewhat bitter sweet. It made me realise that most young people, especially those from ethnic minority backgrounds, are unaware of the value and career opportunities agriculture holds. Therefore, showcasing positive and diverse representation such as Femi can help highlight diverse education and career opportunities to young people at an earlier stage. By teaching young people about the importance of agriculture we might be able to reduce the effects of climate change, create a healthier future for generations to come, and empower smallholder farmers all at once.