Neku Atawodi
Neku Atawodi
Image: Themba Mbuyisa

Nigerian polo player Neku Atawodi may have exited the sport professionally a few years ago, but she still loves taking on a match when the opportunity arises.

And come September, Atawodi will likely be the only female player in Nigeria’s national team facing the South African team in Johannesburg. While other Nigerian women have started playing polo, none have her experience.

Atawodi started her career at age 21, and travelled worldwide for eight years as a professional polo player. Five years ago she decided to start family, resettled in Nigeria with Lagos as home, and turned her focus to the information technology sector in Africa.

During an interview from Lagos, she said her country’s team was yet to be finalised, but she looked forward to playing in South Africa.

Atawodi has been the face of Nigerian polo for a while now, as she was the country’s only female player and travelled extensively on the global circuit. She was Nigeria’s first professional female player in a sport that remains male-dominated.

Atawodi was raised in a traditional family in Nigeria’s north, which has a history of polo and horse-riding. She was a teenager when she started riding horses and dreaming of playing polo. She was immediately questioned about playing the sport.

“Society says, ‘No, you’re a woman, and if you go into polo when will you get married and have children?’ Your parents come from that society and they pressure you,” Atawodi says. “They ask you when you will get married. I got it a lot and was told that nobody would marry a woman spending her time jumping on horses. It’s crazy hearing that at 13. You just have to stay committed to what you’re doing.”

Atawodi’s persistence led her to study equestrian sports science in the UK, which her family was not keen on.

“I was learning about the biomechanics of horses and how to care for them. We also focused on horses that play sports. It wasn’t my intention to play polo professionally. That only happened when I worked at a polo club,” she says.

When it launched it went from a hundred drivers to thousands on the platform. Because of this app on a phone, people have been able to feed their families.

“That was my motivation to look at how can we get more people to build solutions like this. I started looking at what mobile money has done for Kenya and how technology helps people get jobs.”

Talent is everywhere, but opportunity is not. We are trying to equalise opportunity

Atawodi is now Nigeria’s country director for Melt Water, an entrepreneurial training programme that offers seed funding to African startups. The organisation has offices in several countries. Her background as a professional athlete — which requires physical and mental stamina — has prepared Atawodi for the business world in that it has grown her resilience. Her work entails motivating aspirational business leaders. “I say to my entrepreneurs that a lot of sports people are very resilient. Athletes experience what we call the dip. It happens to entrepreneurs too,” Atawodi says.

“When someone is trying a build a business, everything is really bad, and after that things get good. Athletes experience that a lot.

“The mental focus and strategy in a game: all of that really helps you grow natural resilience. This is a skill needed in anybody doing anything groundbreaking. If you’re an entrepreneur, you need that resilience, because you are going to have several dips.”

Atawodi adds: “Our role is helping somebody who would never have been able to cut through barriers on their own. Talent is everywhere, but opportunity is not. We are trying to equalise opportunity.”

Just like the Africa’s information technology sector, polo still needs infrastructure to develop on the continent. Atawodi reflects that these are not priority needs though, compared to more basic requirements such as food and healthcare.

Africa Polo Open, Neku Atawodi (middle)
Africa Polo Open, Neku Atawodi (middle)
Image: Themba Mbuyisa

“I used to be an unrealistic little girl living my dreams, but I wasn’t very aware of the challenges of the average Nigerian. When you spend time here you realise many basic amenities haven’t been developed. You become more realistic,” she says.

“It’s a bit presumptuous to expect that we could develop polo when we don’t have the basic needs covered. If you wanted to get into polo, tennis, or playing the piano, it will correlate with the standards of the country itself. Polo is not a top priority.”

Polo does have a future in Africa though, she says.

“I started playing polo when I was 13 and I would sneak out of our home once a week to the polo field. We were really just mucking about at a very old club. It was only later that I met my coach and did proper lessons,” she says.

“Now that I’m home it’s obvious that the only way to grow polo in Africa is to develop the youth. We have gone to play in the world and are home to build standards.

“It’s amazing to see what’s happening in South Africa. In Ghana, they have a programme that gets young people into polo. There’ s a bit of work in Nigeria. The Lagos Polo Club has a few young players.”

More women in Nigeria are also taking up polo.

“There are more women coming into the sport and they will surpass my achievements. It’s amazing to inspire that change,” Atawodi says.

“People will say, ‘Neku did it, so it’s not that crazy to do it.’ There always has to be that one person who opens the door and I’m happy that I opened it.”

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