A 34-year-old Nigerian, Mr. Cornelius Adewale, who went to the United States with just enough money for a semester of classes in organic agriculture, has won the Bullitt Foundation Environmental Prize for his leadership role in developing an app and web tool that can measure a farm’s carbon footprint and help farmers reduce the impact of that footprint.
Adewale, who graduated from Obafemi Awolowo University, is now studying at the Washington State University, Pullman, where he is planning a phone app to help farmers grow more crops.
In 2011, Adewale moved to Pullman with $6,000 in his pocket ― money he’d earned from the vegetable harvest at his farm in southwest Nigeria. It was just enough to pay for the first semester of classes in organic agriculture at WSU, according to The Seattle Times.
Six years later, Adewale is a PhD candidate at WSU and a member of the board of directors of Washington’s Tilth Alliance. On Monday, he will accept the Seattle Bullitt Foundation’s annual environmental prize ― a $100,000 award for graduate students pursuing leadership positions within the environmental field.
Adewale plans to use the money to build a phone app that will help Nigerian farmers grow more crops, using fewer resources, with a lighter touch on the planet.
The app will be a portal to research and information about organic farming specific to Nigeria’s climate. And farmers will be able to measure the quantity of organic matter in their soil just by taking a picture of it, using their phones.
“Cornelius just had a magnetism and energy and charm that made him irresistible,” said Denis Hayes, president and Chief Executive Officer of the Bullitt Foundation. “He came with rave recommendations from his professors, who believe he can be a transformational force in agriculture.”
For the past two years, Adewale has been working with a team of students at WSU to create a web-based tool that helps Washington farmers measure their carbon footprint, and gives them ideas for how they can reduce that footprint by adjusting the way they farm.
“The thing that is really unique and wonderful about Cornelius is his humility ― he really relates to everyone as individuals,” said Lynne Carpenter-Boggs, an associate professor in WSU’s department of crop and soil sciences. “He’s there to help, but in a way that’s about empowering the individuals, not telling people what to do … he truly is a natural leader.”
Adewale found WSU’s organic agriculture major ― the first such major ever offered at a US university ― in an online search. He used the $6,000 from his harvest to launch his master’s degree.
When he got to Pullman and saw WSU’s organic farm, he burst out laughing. It was only 2 1/2 acres ― about half the size of his own farm in Nigeria. (WSU’s organic farm is now 30 acres.)
Still, he believed he’d come to the right place. Before his money ran out, he secured a research position at WSU to help fund his master’s degree and, later, his PhD.
In the US, big farms use science, technology and research to maximise yield, while employing less than two percent of the country’s population. But large-scale farming is also responsible for a significant amount of greenhouse gases, especially nitrous oxide, 300 times more potent than carbon dioxide, said Carpenter-Boggs, the WSU professor.
Adewale thinks Nigerian farmers need more information about ways to use organic methods to build up their soil, making their farms more fertile and productive, without using chemicals.
In Washington, part of his graduate studies included helping develop the free web tool called Ofoot that Adewale wants to use as the base for his mobile phone app in Nigeria.
In Africa, “just about everybody has smartphones and small solar stations to recharge them ― it’s really an amazing degree of sophistication,” said Hayes, of the Bullitt Foundation. Teaching farmers how to farm more efficiently could allow Nigeria to take a huge step forward in agricultural production without the need for expensive chemicals and herbicides, he said.
The Bullitt prize money comes with no strings attached.
“It is a gesture of faith that this is a guy who’s deeply committed to getting something done in the world,” Hayes said, “and we’re trying to give him a financial boost to help him do it.”
Adewale is eager to take on the challenge.
“Every time I make these crazy decisions, I hear my grandmother’s voice in my head,” Adewale said. “She said, ‘Dare to make a difference.’ ”