About a year ago when he was conducting research for a speech, Toby Nzewi was struck by the seemingly overwhelming challenges facing Nigeria.
Today, the 17-year-old Cypress resident is playing a role in addressing those challenges - in Nigeria and other African nations.
The Cypress Woods High School senior is founder and CEO of a nonprofit organization that provides consulting services and assistance to entrepreneurs in Africa. His Releaf Group is working with businesses in Nigeria, South Africa and Uganda.
We try to enable small businesses in Africa to grow and connect with other businesses that can help them, Nzewi said.
Those recruited by Nzewi for the group are mostly relatives: two brothers and three cousins. They are college students at such universities as MIT, Yale and Princeton.
Its a little tough being the youngest member of the group and CEO, Nzewi said. Thats why I spent this summer building up our Facebook and Twitter accounts and working. They (the other members) gained respect for me and my idea of whats in the best interests of the organization.
Although he is young, Nzewi is a talented leader, cousin and group member Isaiah Udotong said.
Toby has a rare ability to not only attract, but also to motivate talent, said Udotong, who is pursuing a bachelors degree in mechanical engineering from MIT.
Toby maintains high expectations of everyone in the organization. Much of the model we employ is Tobys creation.
In November, group members will travel to Nigeria to attend the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture, meet with their youth agripreneurs and learn about ways to transform African agriculture from subsistence toward an industry.
Nzewi and his team also were invited to speak in Nigeria at an event intended to further the mission of TED, a global nonprofit organization devoted to idea sharing.
Participants will include representatives of Nigeria startups and investors.
The path that led Nzewi to the role of CEO began in the summer of 2014, when the teen attended a six-week summer program at Indiana University. The instructors encouraged participants to engage in public speaking opportunities, and Nzewi got a start on the research he would need to speak about Nigeria.
As he read about widespread poverty, corruption and the exploding population in Nigeria, Nzewi was moved to help. That was the inspiration for his nonprofit, which he initially named the Releaf Foundation.
His initial goal was to provide African farmers with rice, maize and soybean seeds and to encourage them to use new, high-performing seeds for improved yields. But Nzewi and his team needed money.
I was not able to get the funding we needed, Nzewi said.
As his junior year progressed, Nzewi shifted focus to his rigorous academic schedule at Cypress Woods and put the foundation on hold.
That was until May, when he resolved to pick up his efforts to make a tangible difference in Africa.
It was always in the back of my head, he said. It was just a matter of finding time.
Nzewi brainstormed with the other members of the group, and they decided to channel their interests in technology and business into a consulting service.
Tractors and a bus app
Thats when the foundation was repurposed, and The Releaf Group got its start.
Nzewi established a website and social media accounts for the group. As of early September, the group had more than 37,000 likes on Facebook and more than 6,000 followers on Twitter.
It has received dozens of applications for its free services, which can include managerial strategy, social media strategy, website development, drafting financial documents, connection to financial sources and mentors and software programming.
Clients include Hello Tractor (https://www.facebook.com/hellotractor), which has been described as Uber for tractors. The company provides affordable two-wheel tractors to small, impoverished communities in Nigeria to help increase crop yields, feed more people and provide people more income opportunities.
Earlier this summer, company founder Jehiel Oliver gave a presentation to a panel at the Global Entrepreneurial Summit in Kenya, which was attended by President Obama and Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta.
The Releaf Group also works with Bus Stop, which was selected to attend the 2015 MITx Global Entrepreneurship Bootcamp. Out of thousands of applications, 50 candidates were selected from 24 countries.
The idea behind Bus Stop is to respond to erratic bus service in African cities with a mobile app that lets people know when the bus they need to reach their stop and their destination will arrive. A team from The Releaf Group is working with Bus Stop on the application.
The Releaf Group also is helping with app development for startup, PigeonEx, which plans to dispatch a delivery staff on bicycles to make food deliveries to customers in Lagos, Nigeria. The business is a response to the packed city streets in Lagos, where the population is approximately 25 million.
Udotong is among the team members working on technical solutions for clients.
As a software developer, it gives me the opportunity to hone my skills while contributing to the mission of helping millions of farmers through an app for an entrepreneur, Udotong said.
Whats surprised me the most about all this is how passionate Toby has become about this project. It was just a small idea a year ago, but its quickly blowing up due to how contagious Tobys passion is. Everyone that encounters him is inspired by his desire to help Africa.
Even I didnt expect myself, a sophomore with a rigorous schedule at MIT, to become so committed to this project. But its Tobys enthusiasm that has energized me to do everything I can to contribute.
Nzewi says his role with the group has impacted his career goals.
He aspired at one time to become an orthopedic surgeon, but now he wants to pursue a career in computer science.
The consulting has taught me the importance of computer science in helping impoverished areas.
For now, he says, its encouraging to see The Releaf Group helping Africa in tangible ways. The entrepreneurs the organization is serving all have the potential to contribute to economic and social improvements in their countries.
Im extremely happy about it, Nzewi said. Its a remarkable experience. I didnt think wed be this far along by now.
I expect us to keep going and not get complacent.
To learn more about The Releaf Group, visit releafgroup.org, https://www.facebook.com/releaf.group or https://twitter.com/releaf_group.