Meet Patience Atim: Cameroonian agri-tech entrepreneur and youth leader
By Tukeni Obasi
In the Anglophone North-Western region of Cameroon, when the eldest girl-child in the family gets married, one of her younger sisters is sent to live with her and help her begin her home. This was the story of Patience Mbah Atim, the seventh of eight children in the Atim family.
At the age of seven, she was sent to live with her sister and her husband who raised her like their own. During the holidays, however, young Atim always went back home to help her mum with farm work. Like every child, she dreamt of becoming a lawyer, then a policewoman, then a musician, and even a doctor. But when the time came to apply to universities, she applied to study microbiology and was offered a spot in the zoology department instead. She graduated with a B.Sc. in Zoology and a minor in Medical Laboratory Technology.
Upon graduation, she found herself at a crossroads. She was faced with two options: follow the conventional route and go back home to look for a job or perhaps write some exams to get into the public sector; or take the road less travelled and test the waters of social entrepreneurship. She opted for the latter and not long after, met Valery Colong, a passionate young entrepreneur, and realised that agriculture – not medicine or law or zoology – was where she would spend the rest of her life. Together, they built Agro-Hub, a start-up venture aimed at using technology to drive the demand and distribution of agricultural products.
Shedding light on the relevance of Agro-Hub – which aims to be the leader in sales and distribution of fresh foods in Cameroon – and the current challenges of the traditional marketplace, Atim explained to me last week that Cameroonian farmers have no incentive to increase production because they fear that a surplus in the market will further drive food prices down. They also face challenges related to storage and preservation of their produce before they reach the marketplace. Furthermore, farmers have to contend with low incomes, sometimes subsisting on as little as 1000 FCFA ($2) per day, while middlemen grow disproportionately wealthy off their labour. Having worked with her mother for many years on the farm, Atim understands what this is like. Lastly, she explained, farmers do not have the capacity to sell their products (which are considered substandard) in foreign markets as neither grading nor price and quality control is being enforced within the current market system. Atim’s comments about the state of affairs in agriculture revealed that Cameroon is not just our next-door neighbour but our agricultural counterpart.
In light of these challenges, Agro-Hub’s market development proposal is thus simple. Agro-Hub partners with rural farmers to source products and information for local and international markets. Products are sourced through collection centres or storehouses set up by Agro-Hub in rural communities, and information is gathered and made available to farmers through the provision of SMS-based tools to access and share information about their farming activities and market actualities. The information sourced from the farmers is also used for web advertising of their agriculture products.
It is often common to learn of non-profit agricultural organisations working to improve the livelihoods of stakeholders, especially the farmers. In Nigeria, however, there is now a paradigm shift from agriculture as a development project to agriculture as a lucrative business venture, with many emerging ventures dancing profitably to this tune. Furthermore, there is a renewed emphasis on exploiting the full potential of the entire value chain (not just farmlands and farmers but processors, technology experts, advertisers and marketers, financing companies, public workers). Agro-Hub, which just received a start-up grant from the UK-based Indigo Trust, demonstrates what an agri-tech business venture looks like in practice.
Speaking to their clientele and important stakeholders, Atim said: “Our business will be primarily wholesale to local restaurants and boarding schools, exportation and retail to the public through registered franchises. Sourcing foods directly from the rural farmers allows us to pick from the finest selection of food crops available in Cameroon. Our core values rest in our commitment to quality, freshness, hygiene, and great prices to our customers – as by partnering with farmers, we will be able to pass the savings on to our customers. Agro-Hub decided to register its farmers for free and organising workshops from sweat equity contributed by its members so as to build trust among the farmers. Also to cut down cost, Agro-Hub is making use of the SMS tweet service offered by the partnership between MTN Cameroon and Twitter. Via this medium, updates are sent to farmers subscribed to Agro-Hub on their mobile at the cost of one SMS. This service reduces the cost of reaching farmers to a bare minimum and on the farmers’ part, the cost of accessing information.”
Agro-Hub, which is now well on its way to changing the face of Cameroonian agriculture, aims to increase the incomes of its partner farmers by over 40 percent over the next three years. Atim revealed that her favourite part of her work is working with the farmers. “Each time I am with the farmers,” she said excitedly, “I have this sense of belonging; like I was born to [do this]…and I love the feeling.” But life hasn’t always been a bed of roses, she confessed, detailing some of the challenges she faced along the way, from raising funds for the venture to working with sometimes sceptical farmers to surmounting infrastructural challenges.
However, the entrepreneurial dream and her vision of the future sustained her: “There are moments you doubt yourself [and] what you are doing and if you are walking down the right path…but what keeps you going is your belief in yourself – it is the only anchor holding and preventing you from dropping. And, make no mistakes: No one will believe in your dreams if you don’t believe in them yourself.”
Today, Patience Atim works as the director of operations at Agro-Hub, which now boasts six employees and 88 registered farmers onto its platform. In addition to being an agricultural entrepreneur, Atim describes herself as an activist and a feminist. She believes that for communities to grow and develop, women, who are the backbone of the economy, need to be involved at every stage of local, national and international development. This year, she was identified by the prestigious Moremi Initiative for Women’s Leadership in Africa as one of the most promising emerging under-25 women leaders on the continent because of her demonstrated passion for social change and entrepreneurship and her remarkable leadership skills.
As Agro-Hub continues to grow from strength to strength, Atim’s personal story remains an inspiration for young and upcoming entrepreneurs and sound proof that it is possible to take the agricultural path to economic prosperity by staying determined and courageous, being innovative, and going the entire distance.