A remarkable story is unfolding in southern Nigeria. The Niger Delta is known not just for its vast oil and gas reserves, but also for its criminal gangs and kidnappings. It’s a difficult, remote terrain of marsh and water channels, with few roads and little development.
And yet in this insecure, sometimes hostile territory, lives are being transformed. A project, pioneered more than thirty years ago, is taking subsistence farmers and helping them to make a good living from their crops. Giving them enough money to educate their children, buy their homes, expand their farms and employ workers from their communities.
People like Celestina Aaron, Lawson Elba, Adiela Ugomma and Christmas Felix now stand as role models, as examples of what is possible. They show how a brilliantly simple idea can help people lift themselves and future generations from poverty to prosperity. And maybe also how a country facing an exploding population and an economy reliant on gas and oil could feed its people and thrive.
The real evidence the project is working… is when I talk with the farmers and the people that have changed their life. Honestly, we have done plenty of projects – infrastructure projects, roads, schools, health centres and so on, but the happiest people are the ones who are into the Green River Project.Marco Rotondi, General Manager District, NAOC/Eni
The first Green River Project (GRP) farm started operating on a 30 hectare plot in Obie. There they started propagating high-yielding varieties of the crops grown locally.
CelestinaReminisces about the past
She farms pumpkin leaves and other vegetables. Her mother grew some of the first cassava stems produced by the GRP.
LawsonReflects on the present
Lawson has expanded his farm from one plot of cassava to 25 hectares.
AdielaIs excited about the future
She grows cassava in Obrikom as part of the Victorious Farmers Co-operative.
The Niger Delta. A vast area of land and marsh, creeks and water channels, known across the world for its huge oil and gas reserves. Not known for its agriculture.
Thirty years ago people here only farmed if they had to, to grow some food for themselves and their families. They used rudimentary cultivation techniques, traditional plant varieties and basic tools. And many of these subsistence farmers saw the newly-established oil industry as a threat to their crops and livelihoods. And yet, out of this unpromising beginning has grown an agricultural project that’s touched the lives of thousands of people and lifted many out of poverty. It’s given them a living, a future, a way of supporting their families. No other comparable project has had such a profound impact on the Delta region.
What I saw before was just the normal, rudimentary farming, of people going to the corners of their houses to just put plants here and there.Dennis Masi, Stakeholder Management & Community Development Division Manager, NAOC/Eni
Dr Stanley was there from the beginning
Dr Stanley Akele wrote the plan for what was to become the GRP. First, he and NAOC/Eni worked with universities and research institutes to identify high-yielding varieties of the crops traditionally grown in the Delta region. Then they bought thirty hectares in Obie and established a farm where they could check that these varieties would grow well in the local soils and climate. Next they began to propagate the successful varieties so they could hand them out, free of charge, to local farmers.
Introducing Celestina Aaron
One of their first successes was Philomena Akajunwa. The improved seedlings and planting and growing techniques she got from the GRP improved her cassava yields so much her neighbours came to ask her to supply them with the stems, so they could grow the same plants. The money she made from her cassava and other improved crops helped her support her family, even after the death of her husband, and today her daughter, Celestina Aaron, has picked up where she left off. The GRP has trained her in the latest techniques, given her improved varieties to grow and helped her enlarge her farm with microfinance loans. It’s changed not just her life and prospects, but also those of her children: she’s earned enough to send them all through school and to university.
They were coming to look at her ‘Oh Mama, what happened, what did you use? Did you use fertiliser? ‘ She said ‘no, it’s the help of Green River Project.’The Hon. Celestina Aaron, Vegetable farmer, member of the Nrizuruoke Co-operative
And Celestina is far from alone. As the GRP has spread throughout the region it’s reached more than a hundred communities, opening new propagation farms and developing fish hatcheries.
From early on, the GRP started breeding hundreds of thousands of Catfish, Tilapia and other species, giving the very young fish, called fingerlings, free of charge to the farmers to be grown until big enough to sell. The farm at Obie also started to breed livestock, and many other farmers have moved into poultry.
We have been differentiating ourselves since inception. Because we really believe that this approach of not only producing or exploiting resources, but also developing the local communities is, on the short run, maybe more expensive, time-consuming, but on the long run, on the long term, is more sustainable.Marco Rotondi, NAOC/Eni
Over the years the GRP has transformed the lives of thousands of people across the Niger Delta. And still it grows. Helping farmers modernise, diversify, form co-operatives, reach new markets. The Project is now far developed from Dr Akele's original proposal and those first thirty hectares in Obie, though still true to the core goals set out more than thirty-one years ago. And agriculture in the region is no longer seen as just something for the poor, as little more than a few crops grown at the corner of a house to help feed a family. To many it is now a source of a good livelihood, a means of supporting and educating themselves and their families, a thriving business. It has become, in the words of one local ruler, an honourable profession.