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Practical training for rural entrepreneurs

All courses are conducted in a farm environment (© Songhai Centre)
All courses are conducted in a farm environment
© Songhai Centre

"Urban areas are not paradise," says 29 year-old Noureni Yacoubou. Facing unemployment in his home area of northern Benin, he chose to invest in agricultural training, turning his back on the growing trend to head to the city for work. Now graduated from the Songhai Centre in Porto Novo, a training centre which equips students to establish small-scale businesses in rural areas, he manages his own cattle enterprise which employs 50 people from his community.

From rabbit farming to mushroom and ornamental flower production, the Songhai Centre has encouraged graduates to establish more than 1,000 successful enterprises in Benin alone, challenging the low levels of productivity, efficiency and employment found in rural areas. With assistance from the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), USAID and the United Nation's Industrial Development Organization, Songhai's Benin headquarters is now extending its blueprint for entrepreneurial development more widely in the region, with success in Burkina Faso, Liberia, Nigeria and Sierra Leone.

The Songhai model

Founded in 1985 by Father Godfrey Nzamujo in order to stimulate rural development, the number of students enrolled at the Songhai Centre's Benin headquarters has grown steadily. Now more than 300 attend agribusiness training courses annually, which include internships for those with little knowledge of agriculture, practical programmes for students who already have theoretical knowledge of agriculture, and short courses for public-sector workers aspiring to be farm managers.

Father Godfrey Nzamujo founded the Songhai Centre to stimulate rural development (© Songhai Centre)
Father Godfrey Nzamujo founded the Songhai Centre to stimulate rural development
© Songhai Centre

What gives the Centre's training model the competitive edge is that all courses are conducted in a farm environment, with more than 250 farms in Benin alone used as training venues. Eighty-five per cent of courses consist of practical field work, with lectures to consolidate learning making up the remainder. Under the guidance of local staff, students manage crop or livestock farms, fisheries or secondary production units, such as meat or fruit processing.

Songhai's network in Benin consists of over 40 public and private partners, associations, universities and international groups, which offer a wealth of experience and advice on successful farming techniques. For Camille Tohozin, a graduate who used his savings to grow orange and palm trees, this expertise in everything from agricultural techniques to value addition and market identification, was essential to the success of his business.

"I started with orange plantations and palm trees because there was a market for these products in my area," he says. "I sold more than 50,000 orange trees and then invested the income progressively in my enterprise. I also produced some maize, cassava, cowpea and palm oil," he adds. With the profits, Tohozin has invested in the second stage of his business - poultry and egg production - which he specialised in at Songhai. He also plans to buy equipment to make orange juice.

"The Songhai capacity building model is a unique one," says Father Nzamujo. "Songhai trains young agricultural entrepreneurs who, once established, become examples of success - capable of commanding respect and attracting the surrounding population to the new kind of agriculture practised by Songhai," he asserts.

Expanding the network

The expansion programme of the Songhai blueprint, known as the Rural Youth and Agricultural Business Development in West and Central Africa, was designed by the Songhai Centre to support the scaling-up of viable rural agri-businesses throughout the region. With the planned foundation of 'mother farms' between November 2011 and April 2013, these regional satellites will spread the Centre's deep-rooted commitment to invest in people as much as infrastructure and agricultural commodities, through a wider programme of agricultural youth training.

Under the guidance of staff, students manage farms and production units, such as meat processing or milling (© Songhai Centre)
Under the guidance of staff, students manage farms and production units, such as meat processing or milling
© Songhai Centre

However, it has been recognised that training alone is not enough to help graduates in the business sphere without financial, technical and management support. Strengthening existing youth-led agro-enterprises such as those established by Yacoubou and Tohozin is an integral part of the programme, linking them to financial registration facilities and sources of agro-industry information, such as market prices, supply chains and weather forecasts.

"The game is not over once students establish their enterprises," says Father Nzamujo. "Services like marketing, input procurement, networking, financial loans and advisory services are provided to enable the young entrepreneurs to stand on their own."

The approach seems to be working. Seventy per cent of enterprises launched by Songhai graduates have been shown to last for more than five years, and there is no shortage of enthusiasm about the benefits. "My business is a source of employment in my community," says Yacoubou. "The people in my village are no longer idle. They earn money and are able to live happily. I would like to encourage others in this initiative, to fight together against the food crisis in our countries."

Written by: Georgina Smith

Date published: May 2011


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