The former US Marine who left the front line to fight world poverty

Jake Harriman set out to make a difference after witnessing the brutality of conflict

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Former special forces Marine Jake Harriman dared to dream of a better world after being haunted by the horrors of war.

The military veteran's life was changed for ever when he witnessed a man and his family being killed during one of his two tours of Iraq.

He vowed at that terrible moment that he never wanted to see such human suffering again, and instead embarked on a mission to deliver hope where it was needed most.

“For a long time, every time I closed my eyes, I saw that man's eyes,” Mr Harriman told The National.

“And I still remember his face. That was when I made a commitment to God that I never wanted to look at another human being's face and see that look again.

“I wanted to be able to do something about it so that those individuals don't have that desperate look.”

Helping farmers reap the rewards

Mr Harriman, who served more than seven years as a platoon commander, decided to swap the battlefield for the business world to lead a crucial fight against extreme poverty.

He enrolled at Stanford Graduate School of Business in 2006 and a year later founded Nuru International, a non-profit organisation that seeks to empower farmers in developing countries and give them the skills and knowledge to help their communities grow.

To date Nuru has supported more than 250,000 people in Kenya, Nigeria, Ethiopia, and Burkina Faso in this endeavour.

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

The organisation's efforts have been recognised with a nomination in the food category of the 2023 Zayed Sustainability Prize. Nuru was previously nominated in 2019.

Mr Harriman's goal is to put himself out of business, by tackling inequality and poverty to such a degree that organisations like his are no longer needed.

Empowering communities

Are we ending extreme poverty around the world, he asked.

“No we're not, we're a very small part, but I think we're adding value in unique places.

“So I think we're able to operate in highly unstable, fragile places where most other NGOs or humanitarian organisations are not able to reach or operate.

“We are able to empower these local communities with lasting, meaningful choices in some of the most difficult places in the world. So yes, I do think we are adding a real unique niche value to the larger problem of solving extreme poverty globally.”

The ex-serviceman says the world is broken, but is determined to play his part in trying to fix it.

“There are horrible things that happen. You have colleagues dying, and we've had farmers die of hunger because we just couldn't get there fast enough.”

Fixing a broken world

“We had women who we had been working with die of horrible domestic violence, because we weren't able to reach the villages quickly enough. There are lots of things that happen along the way that are awful.

“This world is a broken world, but we can't give up. Every time something like that happens where you want to despair, you have to use it to drive you to push harder and push further because maybe if you can just take one more step, you can reach more people.”

Nuru's work is built on the belief that helping people to help themselves, by equipping them with the tools to improve their circumstances, is the key to a better future.

“It has really been a quite extraordinary experience ― a humbling experience ― I've learnt a lot along the way, as a leader, and I can tell you that all of our success and Nuru is really in spite of all my weaknesses, and my flaws and the mistakes that I made,” Mr Harriman said.

“I have an amazing team and my team is far smarter and stronger and better than I am. Today, they're all over the world.

“They are Kenyans ― they are Nigerians, they are Ethiopians and they are Americans. More importantly, they're a fantastic group of people who have impacted more than 250,000 people at this point.

“The biggest achievement that I personally am most proud of is that Nuru International is all about unlocking the potential of local leaders.

“It is all about locally led solutions. We have been really proud about our ability to go in and act as a kind of scaffolding in a project to be able to create a locally led organisation to address a lot of the extreme poverty conditions in highly fragile regions.”

Mr Harriman said Nuru is helping to sow seeds of success that can “thrive long after we're gone”.

“I always used to say that if Nuru is still operational in 2030, we failed our mission,” he said.

More than 4,500 applications from 152 countries were received across the Zayed Sustainability Prize's five categories of health, food, energy, water and global high schools.

The winners, who will receive $600,000 to support their sustainability efforts, will be named at a ceremony on January 16 as part of Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week.

Zayed Sustainability Prize 2022 winner — in pictures

Updated: January 15, 2023, 9:15 AM