The Rotary – Ashoka partnership solves problems, creates leaders, and changes societies

By Carrie Golden, Manager of Service and Project Partnerships at Rotary International

A barrier to food security and economic development in Nigeria is the fact that women have little access to good seeds. Rotary member and Ashoka Fellow Jude Chimdi Ohanele, along with the help of Rotary clubs, started a project that provides women with good seeds and microcredits, which ultimately produces more food and helps them earn a livelihood.

“Hunger is the greatest problem I’ve ever seen, and it’s the problem I fear the most,” says Rotarian and Ashoka Fellow Jude Chimdi Ohanele. Ohanele reflects on his childhood in Nigeria where systems were not properly harnessed to secure the food system. In addition to a system that hampers agricultural production, the country’s growing population, coupled with lower crop yields and increased food scarcity, has contributed to a cycle of poverty and violence.

To solve this problem, Ohanele tapped an existing social structure to engage communities to use their land differently and to change how they obtain agricultural inputs. Many communities in the Eastern region of Nigeria have an age grade system, a centuries-old social system of peer groups formed by people born within one to three years of each other to foster unity and shared responsibility. The age grades in most communities were involved in building community halls, local market stalls, and supporting schools, but they were not engaged in the food system. Ohanele saw the opportunity to become a force for food security in the community. He introduced his ideas and mobilized communities to use land more sustainably and to fundamentally change the distribution chains of agricultural inputs critical to increasing yield.

For example, recognizing that fertilizing their crops would yield more food, and recognizing that the government agency distribution system did not reach all people who wanted fertilizer, Ohanele and his peers, and partners succeeded in their advocacy for the dismantling of the fertilizer distribution system from being a government service to a private industry. Today, all people can buy fertilizer in the local markets. This has increased yield and decreased food scarcity.

Through working with small business owners in markets, Ohanele realized another barrier to food security and economic development: women had little access to good seeds. Again, working with peers in the age grade system, Ohanele also worked to reduce barriers for women to obtain good seeds, ultimately producing more food and helping women earn a livelihood. For this goal, Ohanele turned to Rotary, which he joined as a Rotaractor in 1994. “Rotary was powerful,” Ohanele says, because Rotary clubs’ donations provided initial access and started a cycle of sustainable growth. His local Rotary Club of Aladinma-Owerri donated high-quality seeds to women farmers in the communities as seed grants. Additionally, in partnership with the US-based Rotary Club of Hialeah-Miami Springs, the Rotary Club of Aladinma-Owerri provided interest-free micro-credit to women in the communities, some of whom bought high-quality seeds or other farm inputs, which supported nurturing seeds to a product. From selling their product, the women were able to make enough profit to invest in more seeds and begin to pay off their loans. Over time, the women paid off their loans and built sustainable businesses that support the local agricultural economy.

Ohanele became an Ashoka Fellow in 2012. Ashoka, a Rotary International service partner that supports, connects, and shares resources for everyone to be changemakers, facilitates the Ashoka Fellows network of 4,000+ social entrepreneurs in nearly 100 countries.

As an Ashoka Fellow, Ohanele believes he adds value to Rotary. Clubs have approached him for advice because they had noticed the innovative projects he led when he was his Rotary club’s president. He draws heavily on the Ashoka model of having sustainable, people-driven projects when he advises on Rotary projects. As a result, he has seen clubs leading more sustainable projects. Rotary projects in his district now reflect a desire to bring about systemic change and have the planning know-how for projects that can achieve that change. This is critical, Ohanele believes, because, without system change, the problem might remain after the Rotary project ends.

Ohanele would like to continue to help Rotary incorporate an Ashoka mindset in Rotary service projects: looking at problems from a systems perspective, working on multiple solutions simultaneously, identifying every intervention along a value chain or at all levels, and thinking of service projects as long-term engagements that are designed to engage – and span across years of – Rotary leadership.

And the learning goes both ways: Ohanele believes his years as a Rotaractor and experience as President of his university’s Rotaract club gave him the professional skills he has drawn on to implement innovative social changes in his community such as leadership training and public speaking. As a Rotaractor, he made up his mind that he would join Rotary later in life to give back and mentor younger people, as Rotary members had done for him.

After becoming an Ashoka Fellow, Ohanele followed through on his promise and rejoined the Rotary community, this time he joined Rotary as a Rotarian. In addition to mentoring youth in his Rotary community, Ohanele enjoys being part of a huge force, adding his unique contributions and sharing his entrepreneurship skills through Rotary to help his community. Ohanele continues to work on financial inclusion, especially of women who work along the food value chain, while beginning to think about new interventions like technology for food preservation and investing in food products that have longer shelf lives. 

Whatever comes next for Ohanele, Rotary, and Ashoka will be a part of it. “The Rotary – Ashoka partnership is one of the best partnerships we can have. Rotary is everywhere with good people willing to help, and Ashoka provides systems change tools. Together, the reach and resources make change possible.”

Jude Chimdi Ohanele is an Ashoka Fellow, Program Director at Development Dynamics, and member of the Rotary Club of Aladinma-Owerri in Nigeria. Rotary’s partnership with Ashoka brings together the vision of Ashoka’s social entrepreneurs with the local expertise of Rotary members to inspire innovation that can solve problems, create leaders, and change societies. Learn more about the Rotary-Ashoka partnership.

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