After building a successful career in Nigeria’s fashion industry, Patience Koku found herself disillusioned, unfulfilled. So she turned instead to farming.
Though Koku has found it far more satisfying to produce food than purses and shoes, she’s also encountered significant challenges, ranging from weeds, insect pests and erratic weather to outmoded agricultural policies that inhibit access to mechanization and good seeds.
Koku responded to these roadblocks with the same entrepreneurial approach that helped her excel in fashion — persistence, a commitment to success and a willingness to try new things. As a result, her Replenish Farms has become a model for good agricultural practices. Now she’s traveled the world for calling for greater access to innovation, especially in developing nations.
In recognition of her leadership and advocacy on behalf of smallholder farmers, the Cornell Alliance for Science has named Koku its 2018 Farmer of the Year, an honor conferred previously on farmers Kaleb Kimure in Uganda and Amy Hepworth in New York state.
Koku’s advocacy has been motivated in part by her struggle to manage weeds, which grow quickly in Nigeria’s tropical climate, and fall armyworm, a destructive insect pest that has devastated maize (corn) and other crops throughout Africa.
“In the past two years, we spent a lot of money on pesticides trying to control the fall armyworm,” she said. “And we would have a much better yield if we could control weeds better.”
Koku sees genetically modified crops as a partial solution to these problems. She’s particularly keen to see Nigeria adopt pest-resistance Bt corn, which has demonstrated resistance to fall armyworm in field trials. Throughout the world, Bt crops have been shown to significantly reduce pesticide use.
“We’ve had enough talk,” she said. “We need to adopt this technology now. A Bt crop would be great for Nigerian farmers, and it would also be good for the farmers’ health because in our country, safety regulations are not observed properly by the farmers. So most times you find that the farmers are spraying in their field without protective clothing and that makes them get sick.”
In addition to rice, soya, maize and vegetables, Koku also grows seed to help Nigerian farmers start with a quality product that ensures their hard work will pay off in good yields.
As a seed producer, Koku is frustrated by the misinformation that anti-GMO activists spread in an attempt to block adoption of the technology, such as claims that outsiders will control the seed industry, farmers will be barred from seed-saving and GM crops will wipe out traditional varieties.
Nigeria currently has about 100 registered seed companies, she said, and “there is nobody who has a monopoly. It’s an open playing field.” Additionally, most farmers are already buying new seeds every year, Koku noted. “If you want to get a good yield you purchase your seeds every year, whether it is an open pollinated variety or hybrid. With a GM crop, it would be the same thing.”
As for maintaining traditional varieties, GM crops are typically developed by inserting a gene that carries a desired trait, such as insect-resistance or drought-tolerance, into a local variety. “So you basically are still maintaining the local varieties and just simply improving them,” she explained. “When we get access to GM crops in Nigeria, farmers will still have the option of growing hybrid or conventional varieties. What would simply happen is people would plant both and see what does better or what gives a better yield or what costs you less and stick with those. I don’t see GM as being a threat to local or conventional.”
Furthermore, she noted, most of the maize seed planted in Nigeria is already imported from other countries. “So we are still not technically growing any local varieties.”
Koku also pointed out that public sector Nigerian scientists have developed the GM crops that are being considered for commercialization. “The local scientists are fully involved in the whole process and that gives us a lot of comfort that they are trying to integrate this locally to give us the best crops.”
Koku thinks Nigeria’s anti-GMO activists “are basically feeding off the anti-GMO movement that exists in different parts of the world. If you look at a lot of the literature that they have, it’s almost a copy and paste of the same arguments that are promoted by the antis everywhere. Personally, I think that the antis are a disservice in Nigeria because we have food shortages in Africa and we are currently purchasing food and grains from countries that are planting Bt or GM crops. And they have a surplus because they have a good harvest and we still buy that grain and bring it into the Nigerian market.”
She’d like to see Nigeria adopt crop biotechnology so it can feed its own growing population and also expand its economy by reducing food imports and exporting surplus harvests to other nations. “If all of science says it’s safe then I think that people should have a choice in Nigeria of being able to grow it if they want to,” Koku said.
Increasing the use of irrigation, mechanization and technology also will make farming more economically viable and attractive to young people, she noted.
Through her global networking, Koku has found that many other farmers share her quest for greater access to agricultural innovation and a choice in what they can grow.
“Networking has been very helpful to me,” she said. “You never know everything. So you find that when you network it opens up a whole set of opportunities for getting access to new technology or new information or even access to markets.”
Though it’s harder to be a farmer than a fashion entrepreneur, and Koku has taken on the additional demands of agricultural advocacy, she has no regrets about her career change.
“I think that what I find most satisfying is being able to grow food that people can eat,” she said. “It’s being able to create something — to put a seed in the ground and see it grow. I think that’s an amazing process.”