The Mandela Washington Fellowship Program at University of Iowa is implemented by the Institute for International Business, a partnership between the John Pappajohn Entrepreneurial Center and the Tippie College of Business.

Atem Ernest Lefu is an award winning agri-tech serial entrepreneur born into a family of smallholder farmers in southwestern Cameroon. When he was old enough to understand the struggles that his family and other farmers were experiencing, he had an ‘aha’ moment knowing he wanted to make an impact. He quit his job and started his company, Agro-Hub, which provides access to markets for smallholder farmers. His training in the 2019 Mandela Washington Fellowship program is helping him make that impact.

Making a Change

Atem grew up in a small-rural town in Cameroon, Africa. His family, like many in his community, were smallholder farmers. As a child, he never understood why his family struggled with money when they worked so hard every day. Once he got older, he realized that they were facing the same problems millions of other farmers were facing and he wanted to change that.

“Smallholder farmers don’t have access to markets to sell their produce, finance to increase their production, and technology to process their produce. Once I was old enough to make a difference, I started looking for a solution so no child has to experience what I went through.”

Atem founded Agro-Hub Group to make life better for farmers like his parents. His business focuses on improving smallholder farmers’ income by helping them get access to markets and additional funding in an effort to increase production and buy needed technology.

The Mandela Washington Fellowship program has been a big step in preparing him to make a bigger impact. Atem particularly highlights his time in Iowa JPEC’s Venture School and meeting with his mentors. “The concepts we learned to make small businesses successful and how to do customer discovery was a dream come true for entrepreneurs like me. The lessons we learned from the program and our mentors will help me improve as both a leader and as a business.”

From Africa to Iowa

Atem learned a lot from his first time in the United States. “People here are very committed to volunteering and giving back to their communities. The lesson that stood out to me the most while being here is that service above self is very important.” Community service was his favorite part of the program.

Being placed in the University of Iowa cohort was the perfect placement for Atem. “I felt at home in Iowa. Hawkeyes are very nice people and are willing to volunteer their time to help others. I believe the statement ‘Iowa Nice’ could not be more truthful.”

Atem is also hoping to start a program like Venture School in his country. “Bringing a program like this to my country to encourage STEM education and entrepreneurialism especially for young women would be transformative for my community.”

Atem has big plans for the future. When he returns home, he is going to restructure his business and team based on the things he learned while in Iowa. “I plan to be more clear with how I communicate my goals, recruit employees based on the strength finders assessment, and complete a 5-year strategic plan with the help of mentors.” He is also hoping to expand his company to three other African countries within the next five years. We look forward to seeing how Atem applies the training he received in Iowa to his business when he returns to Cameroon.

The Mandela Washington Fellowship for Young African Leaders is sponsored by the U.S. Department of State with funding provided by the U.S. Government and administered by IREX.  For more information about the Mandela Washington Fellowship, visit yali.state.gov/mwf and join the conversation at #YALI2019.