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Cornelius Adewale checks out the chard growing at the University of Washington’s Center for Urban Horticulture. (GeekWire Photo / Lisa Stiffler)

At many points in his life, Cornelius Adewale could have chosen an easier, less risky path.

Thankfully he didn’t.

Adewale is on the cusp of creating a smartphone app that will help farmers in his home country of Nigeria boost their crop yield while reducing their climate impacts. He’d like the app to eventually expand into an information-sharing hub that improves the lives of thousands — and perhaps one day millions — of African farmers and their families.

Adewale is this year’s recipient of the $100,000 Bullitt Environmental Fellowship, an award that will support the project as he completes his PhD at the School of the Environment at Washington State University in Pullman.

He has come a long way from the poor village where he grew up outside of Lagos. When Adewale was 5 or 6 years old, he began helping his grandfather farm cocoa beans and cassava, carrying heavy loads and dodging bees. His grandfather died when he was 10, and his grandmother essentially raised him.

Cornelius Adewale.

“Things were tough. Sometimes I have to sell bananas, sell oranges and ground nuts to support and pay for books and going to lessons,” Adewale said. “My grandma would do anything to make sure I have everything I need as far as school is concerned. I might not have shoes and I might not have clothes, but when it comes to education, she would sell our property.”

To help cover his college tuition, Adewale built a fish farm where he raised catfish and tilapia. He earned a Bachelor’s degree in Agricultural Economics from Obafemi Awolowo University, and was chosen to serve as national president of agricultural students. In that role, he traveled across his West African nation meeting farmers.

“I saw huge opportunities in how farming and agriculture as a whole could be a source of employment for so many youth in the country,” he said. “I decided I wanted to do more. Can we do farming in way that is more sustainable both in terms of the environment and … economics to make it profitable.”

Adewale saw farmers struggling with poor soils and drought. He saw the use of industrial pesticides and fertilizers adding to the damage. Done correctly, farmers could manage the soil to provide high yields of crops while also serving as a “sink” for carbon and greenhouse gases that would otherwise contribute to climate change. Done wrong, the soil releases gases and nutrients that can also cause water pollution, while growing fewer crops.

“That experience became a turning point to me,” Adewale said. “I thought, ‘I need to spend my life addressing these issues.’”

But then a slam-dunk career opportunity presented itself. Accenture, the global consulting company, came recruiting at his university. Adewale and one other student were offered positions.

He said no.

“It was not just a hard decision, it was a crazy decision!” Adewale said. “My dad could not comprehend it.” His father wondered, “What is wrong with you? What is going on?”

Turning $2 into $10,000

Instead, Adewale, who was essentially broke, took the equivalent of $2 and began farming on a piece of abandoned land. If the owner showed up, he decided he’d deal with that later.

“I wanted to practice what I saw farmers doing. I didn’t want to just talk with them based on theory,” he said. “I wanted to be in control and feel their pain more, and start something from the ground zero. It was organic farming that I wanted to do. I wanted to prove that agriculture could be profitable and sustainable.”

Cornelius Adewale, left, with his anaerobic biodigester powered by chicken waste. (Cornelius Adewale Photo)

He was successful, expanding his farm more than 15-fold to roughly 5 acres. Online he researched innovative farming approaches, including creating an anaerobic digester that he fueled with poultry waste, generating organic fertilizer and electricity. In three years, he built a farm worth $10,000 or more, the equivalent of at least two years’ salary.

“But my goal is not just about the farm, but how can we have sustainable farms all across the country,” Adewale said.

It was time for another tough call. Adewale returned to the internet and began researching advance degrees. Google kicked out WSU’s environmental program as matching his interests. He applied and was accepted for graduate school.

Adewale had never traveled farther than neighboring African countries, and had enough money for less than a year of school.

“It was a leap of faith,” Adewale said. His goal: “Let’s see if I can make it a semester.”

Incredible potential

After six years at WSU — funded by an assistantship position offered by his advisor, professor Lynne Carpenter-Boggs — Adewale will soon defend his graduate thesis.

“I’m incredibly proud of Cornelius,” said Capenter-Boggs, an associate professor of soil science. “I really look forward to seeing the impact that he’s going to have. He’s very real and humble and carries incredible potential.”

Adewale’s grandmother, Abike Abigail “Triple A” Aluko. My grandmother was “always challenging me to make the place better than I found it, to contribute, to make a positive change,” Adewale said. “Those things helped me a lot in decision making in how I want to spend my life and contribute.” (Cornelius Adewale Photo)

Adewale has been working on a group project called OFoot, short for Organic Farming Footprints. The effort has produced an online tool to help organic Northwest farmers calculate their carbon footprint. Adewale would like to take this sort of technology and adapt it for use in Nigeria, specifically to help farmers determine the health of their soil based its color.

Soil is made up primarily of minerals and organic matter. Minerals give soils shades of gray, yellow and red, while organic materials are dark brown or black. Within related geological areas, the minerals are generally consistent, while the organic matter — the carbon and associated nitrogen, phosphorus and sulfur — is more variable.

What Adewale wants to do is create a smartphone app allowing a Nigerian farmer to snap a photo of his or her soil and have it calculate the level of organic material. The information will let the farmer know whether and how much to fertilize.

“In the U.S., farmers have access to analytical labs,” Carpenter-Boggs said. “In much of the world, that is not accessible. There are not many of these labs and most people can’t afford the analysis.

While it sounds like a simple matter, the role of soil health in environmental issues is profound, experts say.

“It’s all about soil,” Carpenter-Boggs said. “Most of the world’s big environmental issues are tied to our management of soil. Our imbalance in nitrogen and phosphorus cycles, climate change, biodiversity loss, water pollution, land-use change — it’s really about how we manage the soil.”

Just like Facebook did it

The prize from the Seattle-based Bullitt Foundation will help Adewale travel to Nigeria to work on the app.

The Bullitt award is given to graduate students engaged in environmental studies and who come from impoverished backgrounds. While Nobel Prizes and MacArthur Genius Grants target people with a track-record of success, the Bullitt Environmental Fellowship supports promising scholars trying to launch their careers, said Denis Hayes, president and CEO of the Bullitt Foundation. They’re also looking for someone who is talented beyond their technical research.

His experience farming in Nigeria makes him feel a connection with farmers everywhere, Adewale said. (GeekWire Photo / Lisa Stiffler)

“It’s not just a matter of trying to develop the next good soil scientist or good physical chemist,” Hayes said, “but people who have demonstrated an ability for leadership and to inspire followers.”

Adewale fits all of the criteria, Hayes said. “He is really one of those magnetic people who others will listen to.”

Carpenter-Boggs agreed that Adewale could help Nigerians and other Africans in ways that outside organizations have not.

“There is all of the missed opportunity of international development with people coming in thinking that we’re ‘white saviors’ and having no idea about the context of the issues or potential solutions,” she said. “Having somebody who literally speaks the language and is part of your community and is there to listen and then teach is critical to making change that is going to last.”

Adewale hopes that his soil app will evolve to become a clearinghouse of all sorts of information for sustainable farming. He hopes to spread it from southwest Nigeria, to nationwide and then other African countries.

“It’s just like Facebook started with one college,” he said. “It’s the same thing.”

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