Neku Atawodi-Edun, is a Nigerian Polo Player, equine sports scientist, entrepreneur, philanthropist, and investor. She is notable for being one of the few black female polo players in the world, and the first to play professionally. She has played in games in over 22 cities in 14 countries, and won cups in Argentina, India, Ibiza and the USA where she won the Aiken 10 goal in her first year playing. She was a finalist in the WCTA High goal tournament, playing for Catalina diamonds. The WCTA is a tournament organised by late female polo player, Sunny Hale.
Uneku studied for Bachelor of Science (Hons) Degree in Equine Sports Science at the University of Brighton. She also has a master’s degree in International Business from Regent’s University London.
In 2008, Uneku organised the first ever female tournament to be held in West Africa, played at the 5th chukker polo club in Kaduna- it saw women from 8 different nations compete. She also organised the first ever beach polo cup, the Africa Beach Polo Cup, which was televised in partnership with SuperSport, thus creating awareness about the sport in Africa.
In May 2019, Access Bank, Africa’s largest bank, unveiled Uneku as ambassador and the face of its W brand. W is an initiative that aims to empower, connect and inspire women.
Our team, John Adegbenjo and Olutayo Irantiola had a chat with her and herein below is an excerpt-
PDC: When did you start playing Polo?
Neku: I must have been about 12, when I was a teenager in Kaduna, and I started properly playing at the age of 15. The polo club there was military owned, and my father was in the military so we used to go to the Polo club a lot, so I just fell in love with the game. It is amazing to see people working with the horses and working with their teammates, and what pushed me to play was everybody telling me I couldn’t play because I was a girl, which only made me want to play more, and when I got to the UK, I studied horses in the University, so when I graduated I started working for polo clubs around the world, so that’s how I got playing.
PDC: Do you remember the first polo game that you played?
Neku: I don’t. But I do remember when I turned 16, I was involved in a Father’s day tournament and this lady asked me to play on their team, and I won the Most Valuable Player (MVP), and I gave my dad the trophy. I remember that because obviously it was Father’s day so it sticks out, although I don’t remember the game, but I remember the tournament because it was a nice memory.
PDC: What are the challenges you faced as a lady in the Polo world.
Neku: The challenges with polo is not really gender based, it’s like organisation, just getting to a new place and finding good enough horses, for instance, last week, Antor come in from the UK to come play here and we struggled with some of the horses.
In Lagos, the traffic is a massive hindrance, the week before I played for a different team and we had to play two against four people, because two of our players were stuck in traffic, due to the traffic on the Falomo Bridge. So here, I find that the biggest challenge is the roadblocks, also to organise it is really tough, and I think for Nigerian Polo, we have to get to a place where we focus on developing our local horses, I’ve been watching so many amazing local horses. Polo would grow a bit quicker, because people can get into Polo easier without having to ship a horse or clear a horse, or flying to Argentina to buy a horse.
PDC: What are you doing to encourage other female polo players?
Neku: As a lady, and for a Nigerian, I wish there were more women because now, women’s polo is the fastest growing segment of Polo in the world, so there is women’s only polo tournament, which I’ve played a lot of but here, there’s no opportunity for women, and I’m hoping to work with the polo association to start to change that. It’s going to take a while, but I would love to see so many more women play, bringing in more female players from other parts of the world to come and play here, and we’ll need more female patrons to do that.
Also for new girls coming into the sport as well, it can be a bit discouraging because there will be so many guys around, so we need more female players. Obviously it’s the horse power, but they’re stronger, so you feel more involved when you play with the girls than when you play with the guys.
PDC: Knowing that there are very few female Polo players in Nigeria, do you have any plan to remedy that, and raise new generation of female players around here?
Neku: I only just got back from playing in Argentina, and now I want to focus on being back home, I’ve been working one-on-one with lady players, teaching them to ride, but what I really want to do is to work with the association to get the lessons for women subsidized by reducing the entry fees for women, then also encourage other guys to want a lady on their team, maybe like you’re putting together a team, you get a 50% discount if a woman is playing with you, then you actually would go and look for a woman to put on your team, then women can start playing and get to higher level very quickly. That is one way to do that. I’m speaking with the President of Lagos Polo Club, Mr Ayo Olashoju, about giving subsidized lessons.
PDC: So do you intend to take this campaign as well to the schools?
Neku: Yes actually, I have been invited somewhere to speak to the kids, I mean I have a charity that teaches orphans how to play polo, so yes, absolutely, I intend to take it to the schools, because there are a lot of parents out there that don’t care about the gender of their children, and are looking for activities to put their male or female children into and I think there need to be a structured way to learn Polo here, like the way we have with the riding school, so it would be amazing to do that with the children, both male and female, and through this also we can get more women involved in Polo.
PDC: How many tournaments can you say you’ve played so far?
Neku: I don’t know, but it is a lot. This year alone, I have played in the Argentine Open, I played in Spain, South Africa, in the UK. I think the biggest one this year was Argentina, because I became the first black person, man or woman to play in the ‘Open’ and that was an amazing experience for me.
PDC: How does it feel to be the first Female Professional Polo player from West Africa?
Neku: It makes me feel proud, but also a bit sad, because I would love to see more diversity in the sport that I love, so I hope that encourages more people to get into it.
I want to keep improving, because I find that we are sometimes fine with being average in this part of the world, I don’t want to be fine with being average, I would like to keep improving, I want to be the highest in Africa for starters.
PDC: As a family woman, how have you been able to juggle the two, playing Polo and taking care of the family?
Neku: It pays to be blessed with a Polo playing family, my brother-in-law plays polo, my father-in-law plays polo, my husband used to play Polo, so we just merge it into our lifestyle. The horses are part of our family, I’m blessed to be married to a family that understand, if not it would’ve been probably difficult, and because we understand I think it just makes us a stronger team.