Friday, March 2, 2012

Songhai Centre: A rare African success story

From the Songhai Centre, Porto Novo

Realistic, affordable way of keeping unemployment, hunger, poverty at bay

Successive Nigerian governments have spent billions of dollars over several decades on various agricultural programmes to enhance food production, all to no avail. Instead of increased food production, the nation, year after year, ended up with staggering amounts of money spent on importing more food than before.
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Past Nigerian governments had spent colossal sums of money on programmes to feed the nation, yet more and more Nigerians still go to bed on empty stomachs. Nigerians have been served Green Revolution, Operation feed the nation, Back to land, and what have you. At the end of the day, each one proved nothing but mere sloganeering: no better than pouring huge sums of money down the drain.

Evidently, successive governments had placed so many premiums on agricultural promotion exercises with little or nothing to show for it. However, all hopes of reducing the number of Nigerians groaning under hunger are not lost because there is one programme that boosts food production, fosters environmental conservation and enhances human dignity; all at once, and at considerably much lesser cost.

This programme is called Songhai, a name borrowed from a prosperous Western African empire that flourished throughout the 15th century. During a chat with Songhai philosophy propounder, Reverend Father Nzamujo, in Porto Novo, capital of Benin Republic; he said: “The name, Songhai, inspires pride and hope for a prosperous Africa”.

Founded in October, 1985; Songhai, Nzamujo continued, aims to restore in Africans the values, attitudes, and competences, which facilitated the emergence of a world-famous civilization in West Africa some 600 years ago. Curiously, even though this tested-and-found-to-be-true programme was launched more than a quarter of a century ago, successive Nigerian authorities continued to fritter away huge sums of money on dubious food production programmes.
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Painfully too, whereas the fool-proof Songhai programme is the brainchild of a Nigerian-born Catholic priest, Nigerians are just now struggling to bite into an idea their leaders, perhaps for selfish reasons, apparently shunned decades back.
Finally, akin to the biblical tale of the stone that the builders rejected later morphing into the cornerstone, more and more states in Nigeria are rushing to embrace a Songhai Centre.

Decades ago, with studies showing 3.6% population growth, against 2.1% rise in agricultural production; Nzamujo saw from this imbalance that “Africa was in a crisis situation”. He further observed that, the African continent groaned (still does), under “Food shortages, rural exodus, brain-drain, environmental degradation and hopelessness among the youth”. From deep studies, Nzamujo came to the conclusion that, among others; “Subsistence farming, non-development of the opportunities offered by demographic growth, among others; were at the heart of Africa’s woes”.

Cheerilly, unlike the majority of powerful politicians that would not act, even when they saw crisis looming, Nzamujo swung into action. He was spurred by a vision “To establish an entrepreneurial platform of integrated development, an enabling environment to find social, economic, technical and organisational solutions that will take Africans out of poverty, pulling them towards autonomy and sustainable socio-economic development”, the cleric recalled.

To achieve this goal, Nzamujo continued, there was need “To draw Africans into a development mentality”. This stance revolves around “developing new strengths in spite of prevailing socio-economic, cultural and environmental constraints”, Nzamujo explained. Having devised a way out of the crushing poverty that bogs many an African society, Nzamujo began to put his theories to test; and, viola! The Songhai formula has proven a welcome solution to many a problem.

Apart from teaching people to fish, instead of throwing fish at them; Songhai also concurrently addresses the issue of waste. “At Songhai, nothing is lost”, declared Nzamujo. This is due to skillful and advanced techniques of waste recycling. Put simply, Songhai is an integrated production system based on diversified agriculture and thrives on expertise in animal husbandry and fish breeding as well as conversion of wastes and by-products to useful items.

Songhai encourages mechanised agriculture, which yields more and creates much post-harvest activities. Songhai Centre also provides impetus for the agricultural vocation and professionalism in agricultural entrepreneurship.

Each Songhai system energy requirement is complemented through the capture and use of bio-gas as well as solar power exploitation for the farms. Expatiating, Nzamujo said Songhai is committed to “Revamping agriculture as the driving force of development with regard to politicians and decision-makers, thus attracting economic operators and the youth towards agriculture and spawning a vast network of agricultural producers”.

The Songhai model projects the image of a self-sustaining and all-found community. “The Songhai model”, Nzamujo added, “incorporates numerous services and activities”. According to this priest, these activities include training in agricultural entrepreneurship; animal, plant, aqua-culture production; food processing, manufacturing of agricultural machines, marketing, community telecentres, catering, accommodation, housing, maintenance, computing, communication, renewable energy, partnership, and assistance in the start-up of new businesses, administrative services like financial and human resources management, road maintenance and diverse networks”.

We observed that the Songhai principle also hints at a fusion of traditional and modern methods: The best of each aspect is adopted and together they produce a hybrid that is better than either of the sources. In any case, Songhai points to; as Nzamujo aptly put it: “A highly diversified national, regional, international and multi-partnerships; and, finally, a Culture of Excellence at all levels sustained by values such as commitment, responsibility and quest to achieve results. Songhai was built over time on human resources determined to carry far and wide its initial ideals. They have taken advantage of rich experiences which continue to exist and are reinforced in everyday life”.

Nzamujo again: “The integrated system of Songhai production is based on the principles of synergy (interaction among three poles, agriculture, animal husbandry and fish farming); the integrated system of production recycles and reasserts the value of by-products/waste of the production units and of the farm in general”. Evidently, the Songhai strategy “offers numerous technical, ecological, economic and social advantages”, Nzamujo enthused.

Sauntering across a section of the sprawling Songhai Centre in Porto Novo, the estate came across as ostensibly large. Interestingly, Fr. Nzamujo later revealed Songhai Centre in Porto Novo is actually the smallest of three such properties in Benin Republic. The Beninese settlements of Savalou and Parakou, each boasts a larger Songhai Centre, we gathered.

But, when it came to where the funding came from; Nzamujo was keen to stress that, “money, though important; ranks lowest among the five capitals” necessary for production”. For him, the leading priority among the quintet is the human capital. This is why Songhai plays down the role of money against “the development of a healthy mind re-engineered toward a new philosophy”.

With regard to enrollment, Father Nzamujo’s answers evoked the biblical phrase of “many are called, few are chosen”. He was quick to emphasise that admission to Songhai Centre’s training programme is not an all-comers’ affair.

He stressed the importance of discipline. Discipline, he reiterated, is compulsory to inculcate a new way of thinking in any trainee. Without discipline, there can be no progress or that all-important need to break away from an unwholsesome past. In a nutshell, each applicant goes through several rigorous tests, including physical, academic and moral. At the end of the day, only a handful is admitted.

As regards admission fee, Father Nzamujo revealed that, where a promising student had financial difficulty, such a one could be made to work or provide some service in one of the numerous areas of the system in lieu of money as school fees. And, at the end of the training; graduates are often helped to set up something of their own, instead of being sent out to go roam about looking for employment, we gathered.
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It is also worth noting that Nzamujo’s development strategy is not lost on the United Nations. In fact, UN Secretary General, Ban Ki Moon, two years ago delivered a letter of commendation to Nzamujo and Songhai Centre.

Worryingly, very few Nigerians understand the Songhai philosophy. Not surprisingly, therefore, very few Nigerians know of any Songhai Centre than ought to be the case. By way of contrast, nationals of Benin Republic are more familiar with the Songhai philosophy or Songhai Centre than Nigerians.

Songhai’s fame in Benin is understandable, for it was in this country’s de jure capital, Porto Novo, that Reverend Father Godfrey Nzamujo established the debut Centre.

However, the popularity of Songhai could be spiralling in Nigeria very soon. Nzamujo revealed that, apart from being contacted to replicate Songhai in each of the 15 countries of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), some states in Nigeria; including Rivers, Imo, Cross River and Benue have a Songhai Centre.

Moreover, the importance of Songhai Centre was recently re-echoed by Alhaji A. A. Lawaal, a senior diplomat serving at Nigerian Embassy Cotonou, during a visit by a delegation from Abia State to Nigeria House in the Beninese economic capital.

After the Charge d’Affaires, Mr. Ayo Roberts, had addressed the visiting Abia government officials, he had asked Alhaji Lawaal, who is Minister 11, if the latter had additional comments to contribute.

In response, Lawaal had remarked: “I would advise that you recommend a visit to the Songhai Centre during your governor’s visit. The Songhai Centre is a wonderful success story and after a visit there, the government of Abia State may find it beneficial to send some youth there for training.

“Anyone that passes through Songhai ends up self-employed: And, training about 100 Abia youth at Songhai will go a long way to ameliorate the high unemployment level in the country. I believe that Abia youths sent to Songhai would help to foster food production and lessen hunger and poverty. Personally, I’m still craving to eat Abakiliki rice; so, some of our youth should be sent to Songhai”, he remarked jokingly.

Speaking further, Lawaal enthused: “The founder of Songhai Centre is a Nigerian and he is one of those helping to promote Nigeria’s good name in this country and West Africa as a whole through his positive contribution”.

Aside being a Catholic priest, who belongs to the Dominican Order, it is also worth noting that Nzamujo holds a Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) in Electronics, Development Science and Microbiology. Echoeing Songhai’s Mission, Nzamujo said, “Songhai aspires to develop alternatives allowing Africans to stand on their feet through agricultural entrepreneurship, in an integrated development framework enhancing agriculture, industry and services”.

Each Songhai community is designed to run as a social and economic institution that facilitates the emergence of entrepreneurial zones by being an incubation centre, a technology park, a production centre, a resource and service centre, a resource centre, a training environment, an extension space and a mother enterprise, Father Nzamujo added.

Nzamujo went on to shed some light on Songhai’s emblem, which features an eagle with the slogan; “Awakening, Prosperity, Afro-optimism, Excellence”; on a green background. He explained that, “The eagle signifies, vision, self-confidence, endurance, loyalty, heights, adaptability and dynamism”. Speaking further, this unique personage added, “The green stands for agriculture, while awakening, prosperity, excellence and Afro-optimism represent our aims”.

To be candid, the premiere Songhai Centre in the Ouando neighbourhood of Porto Novo has blosomed beyond everyone’s wildest imagination. Based on this, and the successes posted by latter-day schemes; Father Nzamujo is convinced every community needs a Songhai Centre to facilitate development and growth. As to the Songhai philosophy? The growth continues. 

1. Administrative Block, Songhai Centre in Porto Novo.

2. A view of Songhai Centre, Porto Novo; from the gate.

3. Fr. Godfrey Nzamujo, Director of Songhai Centre.

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