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Seeds of change: From banking to building food resilience

PROFILE: Victoria Sabula is the CEO of the Africa Enterprise Challenge Fund and was raised to lead. She talks to Green Rising about leaving the corporate banking sector in pursuit of a greater purpose

The eldest of nine children, Victoria Sabula was just 18 when her father died at 48 after a long illness. Her youngest sister was five. Her mother, a primary-school teacher, became the head of the family, but Sabula quickly adjusted to being her lieutenant. “She worked so hard to see us through school. But she also made sure we all had our chores,” she says. ‘And we all took care of each other, but especially the older siblings.”

Taking care of them, indeed taking care of her wider family and of her community, that was the way her mother taught her to think. “My mum was a teacher,” Sabula says. “That really helped make me who I am today.”

A trained lawyer with an MBA, the 43-year-old chief executive of the Africa Enterprise Challenge Fund (AECF) could have spent her whole career in the lucrative banking sector. Instead, she made a career change in her early 30s that offered her a greater sense of purpose, first as general counsel for the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) before being appointed in 2019 to the top job at AECF.

Growing up in rural Western Kenya, where regular rainfall wasn’t a certainty every year, Sabula remembers her family growing sorghum, millet, pumpkins, beans and maize, essential drought-tolerant crops that provided for a varied diet and a safety net when some crops thrived, but others did not. She learned at first hand how vital food security was and how much it depends on women’s work and the access they have to finance and information.

AGRA taught her about the importance of seed systems, soil health, crop development and knowing your local weather patterns, all of which help increase farmers’ incomes, and therefore farmers’ resilience. “The moment you have a locally adapted [crop] variety, it means there is better predictability. [AGRA] was the first time I got exposed to climate information services that help farmers in good time so they can plan for seasons, post-harvest management and what causes losses.”

AECF focuses on enabling “smarter” agriculture, helping to ensure that rural communities have easier access to capital and to opportunities further up the value chain. In the 15 years since it was founded, AECF has raised nearly $400m for projects in 26 countries, focusing especially on private businesses that struggle to access commercial capital.

In South Sudan, they are working on funding projects based on drought-resistant sorghum and shea nuts. In the midst of a big project to restore mangrove forests in Tanzania is a small business AECF has helped finance that farms seaweed as a way of making better use of the ocean. “Our aim is to seek out the climate-change, smart agriculture space. That’s where you’ll find us. And our question always is, ‘What would help the community?’ By answering that question you are presenting employment opportunities to young men and young women, and they are able to have alternative sources of income.”

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