Early in 2015, an optimistic Joel Cherop sat in a small cyber cafe in the Kapchorwa upper district of Uganda waiting for the page to load so he could submit his application to be part of the Tony Elumelu Foundation Entrepreneurship Programme. But even as he finally clicked the last button on the form, the swooshing sound notifying him of his complete entry taunted him.
With no home of his own and partially deaf in one ear, all he had was a little farm and a dream- to become one of Uganda’s biggest farmers that ever lived and owned a farm.
All these changes on March 22, 2015 when he was announced as one of the 1,000 lucky Tony Elumelu Entrepreneurs to participate in the inaugural round of the TEF Forum. The prize was 12 weeks of mentoring, unbelievably good business training, a Forum experience in Nigeria and $10,000 in funding.
“It was exciting learning that I had been selected among the 1000, but again, I felt rewarded for my hard work and realized how I made a right decision especially after University to take on the hoe and transform people, especially the youth.”
His irrigation farm grows onions, watermelons, tomatoes, cabbage, apples and more. For a community on the slopes of MT Elgon, the area is undulating in nature limiting the area available for cultivation and the average land holding for many of the farmers is just 2 acres. Given that the dominant crop planted is maize that takes a whole year to mature sometimes yielding just eight bags, this was increasing household poverty, Joel points out.
“Thus, there was the need to venture into horticulture which suits this area quire well owing to its cool conditions yet can be done twice in a year leading to improved incomes. Moreover, most agriculture is rain-fed and with the onset of erratic weather patterns exacerbated by climate change and global warming, the agro sector is threatened.”
So, he decided to take a bold step and help change the mindsets of farmers by first venturing into irrigation to inspire his fellow farmers and policy makers to give attention to farm other crops given the abundance of water resources.
“The Tony Elumelu Foundation Entrepreneurship Programme has built my farm from a struggling business into one of the most sought after enterprises in Uganda, Through the ‘Tony Elumelu Dollars’, I have been able to set up a grand demonstration farm.”
The Ugandan President, Yoweri Museveni recently visited him with an entourage of top government officials. It was an experience, which he describes as the greatest milestone of his career. “Since the president’s visit, the number of media personalities and youth approaching me to give them tips on how they can successfully join agriculture has overwhelmed me. I have suddenly attained celebrity status.”
His overall goal is to transform peasant-led agriculture into commercial agriculture, with a focus on creating jobs and consequently, improved welfare.
“when I received the seed capital, I was under pressure from peers and family”, reveals Joel. ” Everyone said that since I had not built a house of my own, now was the opportunity given that I now had the money thrown from Heaven like manna.
But Joel did what he had to do and invested the money in his farm. To fellow entrepreneurs participating in similar accelerator programmes, he urges them to use the funds judiciously and not divert the money from its intended purpose. He also wants all of Africa to apply for the Tony Elumelu Foundation Entrepreneurship Programme. “The onus is on you to decide your destiny”, he says. Just like he did with that click.