Nasir Yammama, Creative Technologist, Entrepreneur, and AgriTech Developer, is trailblazing agricultural change in Africa through technological innovation. His social enterprise “Verdant”, an AgriTech value chain company, aims to combat some of the challenges and obstacles faced by local farmers by providing market information, managerial support, and access to financial services via cutting edge technology streamed to smart and cellular mobile handsets.
Hailing from a family of farmers himself, 26-year-old Nasir’s love for technology has taken him to unexpected heights, from rolling pastures in his homeland of northern Nigeria, to drafting the patent for “Verdant” in the laboratories of Middlesex University, to being mentored by world-renowned business tycoon, Sir Richard Branson. Taking time out of his busy schedule, Saraiya Bah from TBMT-UK had the pleasure of interviewing Nasir via Skype whilst he conducted business abroad in Nigeria.
S – Thanks for joining me Nasir. So to start off, let’s talk about your motivations. What motivated and inspired you to create Verdant? What was the pivotal turning point that made you think, “Yes! This is want I’m going to do”?
N – The inspiration for Verdant was initially sentimental. My father was a farmer and I always wanted to be involved in Agriculture, despite having gone into Computing. I just happened to be around at a time when the world needed innovations in Agriculture. I observed the global environmental and food crisis that had arisen over the past few decades, particularly across Africa. $50 billion worth of food is imported annually into the continent, despite the fact that about 80% of the population is actively involved in Agriculture. That’s an indication that there are some serious structural problems out there. I figured that I could employ my skills in building technical solutions and apply them to agricultural development, as opposed to any other industry or phenomena.
Nasir being interviewed at an event
S – What has the journey developing Verdant been like?
N – Verdant started in England as a smartphone application. But deploying the application in Nigeria meant scaling it down for [use on] low-end devices to cater to people who may not be very tech-savvy or even literate to begin with. There were great challenges throughout the localisation process, not only in presenting agricultural information on a low-end device, but also in presenting it in a local language which people could understand and make use of. No matter how useful or beneficial the information is, if it’s not accessible and translatable to the very people that it targets, it is meaningless. I wish I could say that it has all been rosy, but there certainly have been several obstacles and challenges that needed to be overcome.
S – With regards to scaling down to accommodate to low-end devices, how are you making data available to users in rural regions?
N – Rather than creating videos and graphic content, we have now built a system through which farmers can access data and information using voice call and text. We know that even the most basic of phones can receive text messages and voice calls, so we have adapted our technology to disseminate and accept certain kinds of information.
S – You mentioned that you could potentially be creating content for farmers with different dialects within Nigeria. What might those dialects be?
N – Initially I had this big idea to deploy Verdant to the entire continent! So we’d have Swahili (laughs) … We’d have Hausa. But that’s tricky seeing as Africa is such a vast place and there are dozens of countries to accommodate. We chose Nigeria as the beachhead to conquer, and we are now deploying the App in three local languages: Hausa, Pidgin, and English.
S – What obstacles have you faced in your career thus far?
There are a handful of people who think that problems regarding food security are problems which cannot be solved by technology. It’s perceived that what Africa needs is an intensification in farming input, whereby governments buy, and distribute, more seeds to its farmers. I, on the other hand, believe that new and innovative methods need to be employed, so that farmers are able to double or triple their yield using the few resources that they already have. Most people, including those in positions of public policy, do not see how technology can be impactful to the common man – which is a big problem, because these are oftentimes the people who make decisions and laws that even the best technologies have to abide by. It’s really a big problem because without a conducive atmosphere, there’s really no adaption of what we are selling. Funding is also a hindrance. Most of the time, especially with the new trend of venture capital, a lot of companies are investing into things which don’t necessarily benefit the masses of the people.
S – What support did you receive in terms of funding and sentimental guidance? Are there any key mentors that have guided you throughout your journey?
N – Unfortunately, there are some people who still believe that I should get a “real” job. This journey started a long time ago, even though I didn’t really put it into practice until I got the opportunity to enter into a competition for prospective Entrepreneurs. I was in London at the time when I entered. It was quite an experience and I was really lucky because part of the prize was to be mentored by Sir Richard Branson from the Virgin Group. That was a defining moment in the start of my career.
I remember I was still at university and one of my professors was like “this is really happening!” He went on to say, “You probably need to think about this, but you should make Verdant your day job. It’s gaining so much attention and it’s still just an idea.” So with the whole Richard Branson fiasco, the guidance from my professor, and a few other encouraging words from friends and well-wishers, I decided to really push it and make Verdant an established company.
After that, there was support from the farmers themselves who thought there was value in what I was doing. After hearing from them, and seeing the effect that my ideas and innovations had on the practice of agriculture, there really was no going back. I also receive constant support from communities like TBMT-UK, as well as other well-wishes from different parts of the globe. When I went to Boston, the Black and Muslim community would often tell me: “you need to push this, it’s a great thing.” So, yes, constant support, alhamdulillah.
Nasir with Sir Richard Branson
S – So this is a tricky question that most people like to avoid, but where do you see your venture in the next five years?
N – I don’t like avoiding that at all, and actually it’s pretty clear. This all started in 2014. at that time, I was thinking that by 2018, I would have about 20 million farmers using Verdant services. Don’t get put off by the fact that we have just 25,000 farmers now and it’s 2017!
S – Why have you set such a high benchmark for yourself?!
N – It was more about getting us to perform better and do more than we would have normally done. It was never like, “if we don’t reach 20 million, then our necks will be on the guillotines”. We decided to build to accommodate to that number because it does exist. It’s no lie that in Nigeria, every 8-out-of-10 people are either directly involved in agriculture, or are somehow related to it. There are about 115 million Nigerians, so getting 20 million farmers out of that pool is a little thing. And imagine if we scale up and deploy the App in other countries in Africa!
In five years, the vision is to radically engineer the practice of agriculture in Africa so that: (1) $50 billion worth of importation stops, (2) women farmers are no longer marginalised from the agricultural industry, (3) there is democratisation of agricultural data across the entire value chain, and (4) small farmers are no longer without a voice and the money that the market wants to hear. If we are able to achieve all of this with Nigeria, the Giant of Africa, then I don’t think it would be such a tough thing to replicate the same success elsewhere. Not only in Africa, but in Asia, and other places that need such innovation. I think the moment we have our product complete and seamless, 20 million+ users will happen quickly. And we’re getting there. And it will happen Insha’Allah.
S – Do you have any advice for people looking to venture into the Tech world?
If you want to be in Tech, you should start building and stop talking (laughs). Other than that, if it’s tech entrepreneurship, build valuable stuff. If you have anything that’s of value, it pretty much sells itself. I’m not saying that when you build, things will automatically come. But if you build anything of value and you’re able to sell it, it’s something that the market wants itself, rather than something that you’re romantic about and therefore not necessarily anything of value to others.
In 2015, I was fortunate enough to be selected amongst 50 Google entrepreneurs by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) based on a focus of excellence, contribution to community, intellectual curiosity and collaborative spirits – amongst other things. I got to meet a community of entrepreneurs from all over the world who are doing mind-blowing things in Tech. MIT’s aim was to train us to bring about change in the world. That was when I realized that anybody in Tech should really be aiming for just that: change in the world. Because look at how new technologies such as The Internet and Social Media have resulted in absolute world change. You might just build the next thing. So there’s really no leash on the imagination of the innovator when it comes to technology. People should just be able to dream about that world-changing thing. Because it might just happen.
S – How has your faith helped shape your career?
N – In every aspect. From the very beginning, I was raised with the attitude to always remember that we’re here to build for the Akhirah and everything that you do will have a bearing on how you are judged in the hereafter. That’s a recurring thought that always comes back. So I believe that my faith incredibly contributed to my final decision to do what I’m doing now, because I genuinely believe that it’s a form of Sadaqah(charity) because we’re giving back to an otherwise marginalised group of people who are disempowered from something that is so valuable to their life. Thus bridging that gap will, I hope, remain a service that I always look at as a spiritual duty.
S – We also hear you’re being honoured by the Queen in June. Congratulations! How did this happen?
N – For the past two years, the Queen honours young people doing good work across The Commonwealth. Last year, I got nominated to be awarded as a Queen’s Young Leader. I answered a few questions about the work I was doing and they asked for referees. Now I’m amongst the Queen’s Young Leaders to be awarded by Her Majesty in 2017. I’ve also been doing a course at the University of Cambridge based on Leading Change, which is really exciting.
S – Are you going to have letters after your name now?
N – Err, no! No letters. I’m not about to get knighted. I’m going to have a little box with a ribbon handed by Her Majesty herself. I just hope that there’s a medal in there.
Many Thanks to Nasir to speaking with TBMT-UK . To find out more about Nasir’s great work, visit his website www.yammama.com and follow him on twitter:@verdantng and his Youtube channel Nasir Yammama
Photo Credits – Nasir Yammama