Ivorian Gabriel Kombassere (18) is young, passionate and determined. He is also a social entrepreneur who wants Africa’s youth to start viewing agriculture as a viable business option. After all, with the continent holding 60% of the world’s uncultivated arable land, he sees no reason why there should be food insecurity.
It was this conviction that led him to start Ribla Neda at the age of 14, a farming association with the purpose of eradicating starvation in his poverty-stricken community in Côte d’Ivoire. It is run by fellow students and produces maize and cassava to feed both its members and their families.
It started small, with a parcel of land that Kombassere managed to acquire from an uncle. But today Ribla Neda has grown to around 30 members, with a number of student employees.
His initiative received global attention last year when he won third place, as well as US$12,500 at Africa’s premier award for its youngest entrepreneurs, the Anzisha Prize. And Kombassere, who has been farming since the age of eight, has big plans for the association.
Below is an edited interview (translated from French) with Kombassere.
How has Ribla Neda grown over the years?
It began simply as a social non-profit, with the initial idea of providing subsistence farming for my community. But the association has grown now that it has received recognition.
The organisation now has about 30 members. However several more young people aspire to join us and we are putting various things in place to accommodate their projects.
We grow maize and cassava, but we also serve small farmers and operators to assist them in packing and adding value to their agricultural products.
Did you always wanted to be a social entrepreneur?
No, not always. I have done very well at my studies, but realised over the years that I have a commitment to this project.
What are some of the challenges you face?
Frankly, I usually like to avoid this question, because there are challenges I have overcome without really realising it.
One of my challenges has been to build a strong team; kind of my ‘dream team’. This is why I push those who I work with and I like to ask their opinions a lot.
I am also often asked if I am a graduate of a large agricultural school. It is a mistake to believe that only those with degrees from these schools can build an agriculture business like this. I like to tell others that you should not start a venture simply with the notion of being innovative.
You must do something you believe in, whether it’s a new concept or not, and the day it grows into something that has an impact, will be the innovation in itself. By redefining agriculture as a business, we can understand how to solve many things. And you need to understand how to build a sustainable, lasting business.
Sometimes young entrepreneurs are ignored because of their age, but this hasn’t really been a problem for me. The most important thing is getting more people to know us in Côte d’Ivoire, so that there is not so much scepticism.
And we are also looking to participate in various meetings to improve electricity supply to rural, agricultural communities.
Looking back, what has been your happiest moment as an entrepreneur?
I have had many happy moments, as well as failures due to lack of preparation. But the day I held my organisation’s development strategy in my hand was a day of pride.
Tell us about some of your plans for the future.
My plans are to hire more people/youths, create more economic opportunities for my community and change lives while adding value to agricultural products produced locally. We are already working with local farmers to help them add value to products and develop their own food brands. The certification process is underway to provide this service.
I will continue to inform my peers and any young people interested in learning more about agriculture.
What is your message to young people in Africa who believe they cannot make money in agriculture?
My message to them is to change their perception of agriculture – and start seeing it as a business.