Ex-special forces soldier changes tack to help African farmers

A Gulf War incident inspired Jake Harriman to help build sustainable farming projects in Kenya

Nuru International founder Jake Harriman during his time as a special forces soldier in Iraq. Courtesy: Nuru International
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A former special forces marine might seem like an unlikely background for someone now working in sustainable farming.

But after several tours in war-ravaged Iraq, American Jake Harriman, 44, knew the time had come to make an impact in a different field.

In the decade or so since leaving the military,  he has built a hugely successful non-profit organisation.

Nuru International aims to assist farmers in developing countries, and to date it has helped more than 130,000 people in Kenya, Ethiopia and Nigeria.

“My guys and I were deployed all around the world post 9/11, in counter-terrorism operations in the Horn of Africa and for relief work following the tsunami in Indonesia,” said Mr Harriman.

“In 2003 we were on the front line in Iraq. I have seen the look of poverty in desperate people, and desperate people do desperate things.

“The only chance we have to see the end of terrorism is to end extreme poverty.”


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During his two tours of Iraq, Mr Harriman, a platoon commander in a Marine Corps reconnaissance unit, witnessed extreme violence.

He saw first-hand how impoverished farmers — innocent victims of the conflict — were being recruited and exploited by Saddam Hussein’s Republican Guard.

Many were given no option but to pick up a weapon and fight. Others joined as their crops were dying and the prospect of an army salary was their only means of feeding their families.

In one incident, Mr Harriman’s unit, that were stationed on a bridge, stepped in to protect a farmer and his wife and child desperately trying to flee Iraqi troops.

“A black SUV pulled up alongside the farmer’s car and machine-gunned the vehicle and everyone in it,” said Marc Rahlves, chief operating officer at Nuru International, who was visiting Abu Dhabi during the city’s sustainability conference last week.

“The farmer was left cradling his dead six-year-old daughter in his arms. It was the one time during the war when Jake put down his weapons and began to fully consider the impact of those living in a war zone.”

Shortly after the incident, Mr Harriman left the military and enrolled in a business course at Stanford Graduate School of Business.

His idea was to create a non-profit organisation to help farmers, and it grabbed the attention of donors who provided more than Dh1.6 million in funding.

Since then, Nuru International has grown to employ more than 200 people. Its work was also shortlisted for the UAE 2019 Zayed Sustainability Prize.

“The last tour for Jake was the turning point for him and he wanted to join some of the existing networks helping out with humanitarian relief,” said Mr Rahlves.

“He had specialist skills developed in the military, but he wasn’t exactly the image of what many of these organisations wanted so he found it difficult to get into the aid sector.

“One of his professors offered to match his fund-raising to start his project in Kenya with a few colleagues, and that was the beginning of Nuru International.”

Kenya, in East Africa, was chosen as a suitable destination to launch the project owing to it being relatively safe and politically stable.

Farmers in the country were in desperate need of support to maximise agricultural opportunities in an often harsh environment vulnerable to drought.

Mr Harriman partnered with Philip Mohochi, a Kenyan businessman who had risen from poverty to become a successful banker and wanted to give something back to his community.

Their aim was to address the issue of poverty in broad terms — looking for long-term solutions rather than just distributing aid as a quick fix.

The two men decided to improve the skills of subsistence farming communities, providing better resources and tools for them to improve their crop yields.

The idea was that these farmers could then pass down their new skills to the next generation.

To date, Nuru's interventions have helped many farmers generate a 117 per cent increase in crop yields, and a 241 per cent increase in income.

A similar programme is now being explored in rural north-east Nigeria, where the project is focusing more on gender equality and the sharing of skills in school programmes.

“It is difficult to do this kind of work inside conflict zones, but Jake’s military experiences have helped him to build Nuru into what it is by understanding the challenges farming communities are facing,” said Mr Rahlves

“Special Forces personnel tend to have outstanding leadership qualities and know how to operate in a crisis and assess a situation.

“That has been an important attribute for Jake helping to grow Nuru into what it is today.”