In 2017, I visited Lawrence Afere and his project, Springboard – near Akure, Nigeria. I imagined going to a small plantain farm for an afternoon excursion, seeing the farm and the plantain chip-making operation, and maybe visiting with a few of the people who worked on the project. Little did I know what was in store for me!
Lawrence already had plans to be out of the country on the dates of my visit, so he put me in the very capable hands of his amazing Program Coordinator Lilian Fawolu. Lilian is a woman of small stature with a very powerful presence and the creativity and energy of a dozen people, with incredible attention to detail and sensitivity to the needs of others. She dazzled me with the detailed itinerary she sent me, which included transporting me from Lagos to Akure and back (a 4-hour drive each way), as well as providing me with hotel lodging in Akure so that I could be comfortable and well-rested after the drive from Lagos and before the full day of visits she had scheduled for me the next day. This was more than I ever expected, and I felt honored by such caring and generosity.
On May 15th, Lillian met me in Lagos and traveled with me to Akure. The next day our adventure began.
It rained steadily most of the day on May 16th, adding to the sense of adventure. Our first stop was the Springboard office and demonstration farm/seed center, which was about a 30-minute drive from Akure, and where I met with some of the Springboard staff and farmers. I was extremely impressed with what I saw. Each of the farmers I met had their own small sprouting area with neat rows of potted seedlings. They explained to me that once the seedlings reached a certain stage, they would be transported out to the larger farm to be planted in the earth and harvested for food or sale once fully mature. There were a variety of plant species being grown – all of which could be used for food or income. Everyone was very friendly and hospitable, taking the time to explain to me the processes involved in their work. Each of them was working hard to better their lives and those of their families through this farming project.
We left the farm and went to a small neighboring village where I met with several members of the Springboard Women Cooperatives from Imafon, Ilado and Igunshi. Despite the rain and abundant mud, they all came out to meet with me, some with banana leaves over their heads to serve as umbrellas. We sat together in an open-air shelter and visited, with Lillian serving as our interpreter. These wonderful, strong, hard-working women, dressed in beautiful, colorful dresses and headgear, which I guessed were probably their finest clothes worn in honor of my visit, told me about the profound ways that Springboard had benefited their lives by providing them with micro-loans to start their own small businesses. Most of their businesses were selling some kind of product –hand-made beads, clothing, dried fish and other food products. Although they still lived in very simple conditions – mud huts with no running water or electricity, and were the sole provider for their families, their faces would light up when they spoke of now being able to feed their families and have hope for a better future. They also shared with me their need for additional support to continue to grow their businesses. Some spoke of the need for a storefront from which to sell their products, others needed generators to power refrigerators or freezers so that they could store more food for sale. While deeply grateful for the start-up support they had received, each had a dream of continuing to grow their business and provide a better life for their families. After posing together for numerous “snaps” (photographs), I parted ways with them deeply moved by the experience and wondering what I could offer to help them.
Our next stop was the Springboard Nursery and Primary School in Ago Panu. When I arrived, all the children, who appeared to be anywhere from 2-6 years old, were lined up on both sides of a walkway in their little blue-grey uniforms (fortunately, the rain had let up for a bit). As I entered the gate, they all sang me a sweet little song of welcome in English. I was deeply touched. Then a timid little girl who looked to be about 4 years old, with each of her many little braids held by brightly colored plastic clips of a rainbow of colors, approached me with a bouquet of yellow silk flowers wrapped in brightly colored paper. My heart overflowed with love for these dear little children. After their song, I walked down the rows, shaking hands with each of them. I’m pretty sure I was the first light-skinned person they had ever seen. Some had a look of wonder on their face, some seemed terrified, while others had a look of adventurous courage and pride on their face, which I imagined they felt because of this unique experience of shaking hands with a light-skinned woman from the US. The teachers who were with them were loving, kind and supportive of both the children and me. What struck me the most about my visit with the school was how much had been accomplished by Springboard, and with so little! Without Springboard, these children would likely have never gotten any kind of formal education, since schools in these rural areas are few and far between.
After our visit to the school, Lillian whisked me off to visit the Springboard Women’s Cooperatives at Agopanu and Olobi and then at Ikota. In each village, my experience was very similar to my first meeting that morning with members of the Springboard Women Cooperatives from Imafon,Ilado and Igunshi. As I spoke with each of the groups, I saw clear commonalities in their visions and their needs and an idea began to emerge in my mind.
While it would be difficult to come up with the funding to buy each of these women what they need to grow their small business to the next level – a storefront, a place to serve food, generators, a refrigerator and freezer, etc, it occurred to me that it would be far easier to create what we call in the US a “co-op”: one large building where many small business are housed and where all participants share the space, the equipment and the costs of maintaining them. In the co-op I envisioned, there would be several storefronts, many selling different, yet complementary items, such as a bead store, a thread & fabric store and a tailor next to each other. There could also be small restaurants and a child-care center where women could earn an income taking care of the children of the businesses and the shoppers. Others could earn income cleaning, maintaining and managing the building and the generators. All could benefit and grow their businesses by sharing the same resources (the building, generators, freezers and refrigerators, etc.) and prospering as a result, and with a much smaller investment. This co-op would also be a service to the community by providing an easy one-stop shopping experience.
I left Akure with a deep sense of respect and gratitude for the experience, the people I met, Lawrence, his family and Lillian, and most especially for Springboard and the miracles it has – and will continue – to manifest.