The Benin government once saw him as an inciter. His university expelled him. The government jailed him for half a decade. But today, Salim Dara is helping the same government solve joblessness.
A former student at Benin University, Dara has no university degree. He is however among the most sought after individuals to help universities bridge the gap between classroom and job market. “Nobody wanted me at Benin University. They saw me as an activist who was ready to fight. But with my success, without a degree certificate, I get invites to show university students how to do it right in agriculture,” he told the Financial Standard during his recent visit to Kenya.
This was during an event organised by global social entrepreneurship organisation, Ashoka, in conjunction with Mastercard Foundation. Ashoka is moving its offices to Nairobi. Dara believes this could be the beginning of strengthening social entrepreneurship in nurturing local solutions to local problems.
After missing on university education, Mr Dara, a 2013 Ashoka fellow trained for three years to become a specialist in agriculture. He now offers solutions to the sector. He is transforming Agro-education and promoting small farms as gateway for self-employment.
He says his success story is closely linked to the five years he spent behind bars and the decision by his former university not to re-admit him soon after release in 1984.
It took the intervention of Amnesty International, a human rights lobby to get him out of jail. However, the university refused to re-admit him for fear he would stage another revolution. But he is happy that he is “causing another revolution in agriculture.”
“It is dangerous to spend so many years learning things that can’t later help you in life. Countries are fighting so many things but Africa should fight certificate fever…..just wanting to amass papers. For me, prison rescued me,” he said.
In 1979, he was in his second year at the university but sent behind bars until 1984. A Mathematics, Chemistry and Physics student with a dream of becoming a telecommunications expert, today his firm, Rural Solidarity, is the beacon of hope for graduates and college students.
Choked with hunger and bitterness upon release from prison, Dara told Financial Standard that he wanted to do something that would bring hope to the villages after his bid to carry on with college hit a snag.
He landed at Songhai Project, then a newly established educational farm that has since been hailed by United Nations as a centre of excellence in training, production, and research in sustainable agriculture. Its founder, Godfrey Nzomujo, a priest, received him as one of the first students. “I learnt agricultural systems. It took me just three years and in the end, I knew how to grow crops, breed chicken and fish. It was fantastic doing it without university certificate,” he said, adding that 90 per cent of the time was practical work.
That became his stepping stone. In 1988, he retreated to his village and opened a half-hectare farm school in Porto-Novo, 3.5 kilometres from the city.
Through his organisation, Solidarité Rurale (French for ‘Rural Solidarity’), he runs a hands-on agricultural entrepreneurship programme using demonstration farms. “When I finished training, I didn’t see the need to continue in the centre as a salaried man. I decided to do something for myself and for the society,” he explained why he began his own organisation.
He has now become the hope for the many jobless graduates and school dropouts. Here, he trains them on how to develop their farming operations and then grow into small businesses.
The young people he trains on skills such as resource management, inventory management and product marketing, eventually team up to access capital and launch agricultural projects in rural areas.
He says that unlike before when a certificate could guarantee one a good job in the West African country, today joblessness bites in all streets. Over a third of Benin’s nine million people, he says, are trapped in poverty.
Mr Dara observes that youth unemployment has grown to twice that of adults, in a country where over 40 per cent of the population is below 14 years. “Today, I see people moving from office by office showing their certificates but no job for them. So they come back home and stay with parents,” he says.
To rescue them from this agony, he equips them with farm skills and encourages them to launch simple and cost effective economic activities. His message is: “Whatever the intellectual level, you can use resources around you to create wealth.”
So far, more than 60 students who honed their skills from his farm have opened their own farms and have people working under them. This has seen more than 600 people visit his centre every year as the wave of self-employment in agriculture sweeps across Benin villages. “Universities ask me to go and teach students how to improve farms, make entrepreneurship work and create employment. There are also people that I was to graduate with and they now work with me,” says Dara.