Nigeria proves perfect fit for “JIVA Africa”

John Deere in partnership with PYXERA expanded volunteerism efforts to Nigeria due to its potential for advances in the agriculture sector and agribusiness.

In October 2019 a group of John Deere volunteers traveled to villages in Nigeria to participate in harvest season as part of Deere’s Rayuwa project. Rayuwa, which means “life” or “livelihood” in the local Hausa language, helps educate smallholder farmers on good agricultural practices. The goal of the program is to produce more food, and, in turn, help reduce poverty and hunger while increasing childhood education.

This story looks at how Nigeria was chosen for the project.

At the heart of the villages that comprise the Rayuwa project is a story that sits 4,300 miles away and has been seven years in the making.

That story is JIVA.

The Joint Initiative for Village Advancement resides in India and is a partnership between John Deere, the John Deere Foundation, and PYXERA Global. As the story of Nigeria and Rayuwa is told it will sound strikingly familiar to that of India and JIVA.

Simply put, if imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then JIVA should be blushing.

The first question, though, is how did we get here? The answer is former Deere Chairman & CEO Sam Allen.

It was the fall of 2011 when Allen acted on a promise to make volunteerism and community outreach a company priority. In 2009, Allen’s priest and mentor counseled the newly named CEO to make his pledge meaningful by first investing time himself. Deere’s mission, the story goes, had to be deeper than financial or product support. It had to have sweat.

Allen had plenty of volunteers on his leadership team that took that first week-long trip to India. They worked shoulder-to-shoulder in the fields with farmers in three villages. When the trip was over Allen’s goal was given life. JIVA officially began in 2013 and from agriculture to education it has been an impressive success ever since.

“JIVA has provided us a model for employee volunteerism,” Allen said in 2017. “Our initial trip to Rajasthan in 2011 was more than an act of corporate responsibility. It was the spark for launching John Deere’s formal employee-volunteerism program.”

Eventually the goal, after JIVA had expanded within India, was to take the concept to another part of the world. But where?

Contributing to the daily chores of the village starts at an early age in Nigeria. With less than one-quarter of children attending school, many are put to work helping out.

Right country, right cause

Africa, with purpose as a motivator, seemed to be a natural fit. In the next 30 years more than one-half of the world’s population growth will happen on the continent. Couple that statistic with this – 257 million people in Africa (nearly equivalent to Russia and Mexico combined) already experience hunger – and it’s easy to see that growing demand will need a growing supply.

Originally, the search for the next project location was labeled “JIVA Africa” – a reminder of what the goal and format should be. JIVA is an acronym now, but in the local Indian dialect “jiva” means life or livelihood. Rayuwa, in the local Hausa dialect of northern Nigeria, also means life or livelihood.

“JIVA’s success and prosperity opened people’s eyes to the potential for more of that,” Nate Clark, director of strategic communications for Deere, said. “We went to PYXERA Global because of their success with JIVA and we asked them to identify ideal locations for us to take the lessons learned from JIVA and apply them appropriately elsewhere. They then created a list of recommendations.”

PYXERA Global is a non-profit organization that works with corporations to “create opportunities for purposeful global engagement, providing pathways for organizations and individuals to positively contribute to the global issues that will shape our collective future,” the organization’s web site states.

Harry Pastuszek, PYXERA’s vice president for client engagement, and Liza Herb, key client manager, again teamed up with Deere’s Corporate Citizenship team to find the next JIVA.

“We looked for locations where opportunity and impact intersect,” Herb said. “We started with a list of about 15 countries and eventually narrowed it down to three recommendations — Ghana, Senegal, and Nigeria.”

One key element not to be lost in the search was the ability to create meaningful volunteer opportunities for Deere employees.

“We wanted to, had to, stay true to Sam’s vision,” Clark said.

With more than 75 percent of the population in the villages under the age of 25 the next generation of farmer is often at home. Rayuwa’s objective of making education a priority hopes to take the youngest in the villages and get them to school so they can contribute, eventually, the business of farming.

Nigeria: Maybe yes, maybe no

Herb said SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats) analysis and rapid rural assessments (a multi-week, on-the-ground exploration) were conducted. Also, Deere’s business in Africa was a variable in the process even though all parties knew the path to mechanization was a winding one in a continent besieged by poverty.

“Empowerment was just as important as anything else,” Arun Pandey, John Deere’s Region 1 citizenship program director, said. Region 1 includes Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) and Asia. “We never want to force solutions on anyone. We understand that no matter what the scope, farmers are in the best position to make decisions for themselves.”

This approach meant finding willing communities – smallholder farmers who would be receptive to considering good agricultural practices (GAP farming).

Herb and Pastuszek eventually viewed the final three countries through a very narrow scope. Ghana, of the three, offered the easiest path. It had a history of reliable governance, logistically it made for easy (and safe) travel, and it was familiar to Deere. Since 2013 the company has been working with farmers in Ghana on agronomic training.

Senegal was seen as the middle-of-the road option. No real highs. No real lows.

And then there was Nigeria.

“PYXERA had earned our trust with JIVA,” Clark said. “So, when they started to talk more about Nigeria we listened. It wasn’t a slam dunk right away. Not at all.”

Nigeria is widely considered the African nation with the greatest potential for advances in the agriculture sector and agribusiness, generally, and for the expansion of the use of tractors as farmers mechanize. Urbanization was also viewed as a threat of sorts. Globally, by 2050 more than 70 percent of the population will live in urban areas. Nigeria is not immune to that trend and as younger people – 63 percent of the country’s population is under the age of 25 — migrate from the farms the gap in skilled ag labor will widen.

Pastuszek said both Ghana and Senegal presented excellent opportunities. Cereal crop cultivation in both locations is primed for increased mechanization to enhance productivity. Both countries present less security risk than Nigeria regarding the placement of corporate volunteers. For these reasons, both countries are already recipients of a lot of corporate and donor attention and funding for agricultural development.

“Then, here was Nigeria with so much to offer, relatively little attention paid to wide swathes of the agricultural heartland, and so much to gain,” Pastuszek said.

Nigeria’s profile proved intriguing:

  • Slightly more than 30 million hectares of farmland are under cultivation, but an estimated 78 million hectares are required to feed the country’s ballooning population.
  •  Of the world’s 570 million smallholder farmers, 11 million are in Nigeria.
  • Smallholder farmers produce 80 percent of the food grown in SSA with the number climbing to 90 percent in the 11 villages making up the Rayuwa project.
  • 92 percent of households experience hunger.
  • Mechanization is utilized by 7 percent of the country’s farmers.

However, Nigeria’s fragile security status initially slowed any momentum given to the continent’s largest country.

“We knew that volunteer participation was absolutely a core pillar of the program,” Herb said. “And we knew that Deere security was going to have to be convinced.”

A third-party security provider (GardaWorld) ended up being the missing piece to turn Nigeria from a possibility into a reality.

“There was never a moment where I was uncomfortable while there,” Leslie Harrison, brand specialist for Deere said of her October volunteer trip. “I felt completely safe.”

It all falls into place

In what can only be accurately described as a flattened timeline, Rayuwa went from concept in 2017 to a list of three finalists in February 2018 to eventually selecting Nigeria as the location in May 2018. A year later the program was up and running. This included finding 11 villages, hiring a 14-person paid staff, developing volunteer assistance, creating farming programs and educational curriculum, engaging partners both in local government and the business sectors, and, most importantly getting buy-in from the farmers.

Nigeria is known for an abundance of land and it’s not uncommon to see a lone farmer tending to a field. With nearly all work done by hand it can be difficult to distinguish rows and boundaries of fields due to overgrowth.

John Deere’s Sales & Marketing team in South Africa played a major role in getting all the links to connect. Jacques Taylor, managing director for SSA, keeps the promise of a “green revolution” front and center.

“The work that is happening here, what John Deere and PYXERA Global are doing together, is vitally important,” Taylor said. “This is something to be proud of. It’s something I’d like to have put on my gravestone. This is part of the green revolution.”

In October 2019 Deere’s first group of volunteers visited four of the villages with the goal of assisting in Rayuwa’s initial harvest. If the results from the first six months of the program are any indication, it appears Nigeria was the ideal selection.

“Nigeria is like the queen’s diamonds in terms of Africa for a lot of different reasons,” Herb said. “Many consider Nigeria to be the premier ag market. So, if you can do it in Nigeria, you can do it anywhere in the rest of Africa. Unlocking that potential – the human potential – is exciting.”

A visit to the country and the villages of Rayuwa shows engagement and results. For those involved in the program on a daily basis this is no surprise.

“We have to put our blood into the soil. Our soil,” Michael Odeh, agriculture officer for Rayuwa, said. “When people come to our country, our continent, when you come, we have to show you we’re ready. And we are.”

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Nigeria proves perfect fit for “JIVA Africa”

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