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First female, two-time commissioner for Agriculture in Lagos, Abisola Olusanya proves her mettle

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Abisola Olusanya is the Commissioner of Agriculture in Lagos state who kick-started her second tenure in 2023. She is a seasoned technocrat having worked for over a decade in the private sector and privileged to have served in both capacities as Special Adviser to the Governor and Commissioner for Agriculture in Lagos State, Nigeria, under the leadership of the Governor, His Excellency, Babajide Sanwo-Olu.

In 2001, Abisola gained admission into the University of Lagos to study Architecture. Five years after the successful completion of her bachelor’s degree, she decided to further her education with an MBA in General Management at the Lagos Business School.

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In 2011, Abisola joined Olam International, one of the world’s largest food and agriculture supply chain companies under its West African management training programme. Easily recognised for her stellar performance, participative execution and management style, and proficiency in establishing and managing operations, Abisola’s tenacity and grit earned her a senior management role within the span of two years. In her role as regional sales manager, she led sales, marketing, and supply chain operations for one of the largest business segments in Olam (Ghana) and led the team to delivery of the highest sales volumes, profit, and distribution expansion and product visibility. At Olam International, she worked with global stakeholders in the food and agriculture supply chain businesses in Mozambique, Cameroun, Vietnam, Thailand, India, UAE, and Singapore.

First appointed as Special Adviser to the Lagos State Governor on Agriculture in August 2019 due to her knowledge of the agricultural ecosystem and strategies on food security, the Executive Governor of Lagos state entrusted the Lagos Rice Mill project to her, and she helped consolidate the management and operations strategy that is being implemented at the mill today. By November 2020, Abisola was made Commissioner of Agriculture– becoming the first female to take up the role in the Ministry in its 56 years of existence.

Take us back to your early years

Growing up was a mix of highs and lows. I would assume it’s the same for everyone. I was surrounded by relatives and had lots of examples to glean from, whether good or bad. I had the privilege to live with my dad, whom I will say instilled in me the work ethics, integrity meter and empathy that I live with today. Even when life handed him lemons, he never complained, and made lemonades out of them. His contentment even in the face of adversity/scarcity never ceases to amaze me, and I believe it is an integral part of who I have become, to be contented with little or with much. This has helped ease me into my role as a member of Babajide Sanwo-Olu’s cabinet, never running in anyone’s lane, and sticking to my values and principles regardless of the outcome.

You were first SA, now Commissioner, what is your reaction to this? As Commissioner for Agriculture, what are your responsibilities and how do you carry it out?

In the Lagos state cabinet, the Commissioner and the Special Adviser rank carry the same weight, and personally, my belief is that the person makes the office what it is, and not the other way round. The general impression people have is that one is senior in rank to the other; constitutionally, yes, but I have had the privilege to work with Special Advisers that made more impact. What I am saying in essence is that, moving from SA to Commissioner was not a feat in itself that I achieved, it was a privilege given to me.

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When I got the invitation as a cabinet nominee both in 2019 and now 2023, I had two very different reactions. In 2019, I was with a multinational firm, doing well, in my own bubble and happy with living the life of a private citizen. So, when I received the nomination, I was scared beyond my wits as to what was in store for me. I couldn’t fathom the culture shock, moving back to Nigeria after almost a decade in Ghana, and the need to become a social butterfly as a result of the political office. My response for the 2023 nomination was a mix of two factors, gratitude and fear. Gratitude to have been given another opportunity to serve, to nurse our strategic plan for the Ministry of Agriculture to full term, and fear of what lies ahead, and the possible obstacles that could be encountered. But in all, I thank God for the opportunity.

Under your leadership, what are you projecting to happen?

The Ministry launched the 5-year Lagos State Agricultural & Food systems roadmap under my leadership, and there are quite a number of initiatives that we had birthed, with many underway. The plan going forward as we approach 2027 is to complete what we have started, implement policies that will transform millions of lives, give dignity to labour for the people in the agrifood value chain, create jobs and lift people out of the poverty belt.

You are the first ever female Commissioner for Agriculture in Lagos state and returning for the second time, what does this feat mean to you?
As the first female commissioner for Agriculture and the youngest in the history of Lagos’ establishment since 1967, it is indeed a rare privilege. I do not take it for granted that such a ministry with a vast number of stakeholder groups was placed under my stewardship. I have had great team members in the form of ministry officials, my colleagues in the executive council and the leadership of the Governor to thank for their support. Returning as Commissioner is not to be taken for granted, it’s not by reason of what I did or did not do, but simply by God’s grace.

What is it about Lagos state agric ministry that people need to know?

The ministry has a very large stakeholder group, ranging from farmers across various value chains to processing practitioners, market actors to logistics’ providers. The job of the ministry cuts across urban farming to rural development and security (Extension officers in the rural areas act as information conduit on the happenings in rural communities). The Ministry was one of the first to be created at the establishment of Lagos as a state and is therefore one of the oldest. It has a workforce of over 600 members of staff cutting across various expertise, from fisheries to forestry to veterinary medicine.

From architecture to agric, how easy was it for you to make this transition? What did you do on your part to make the transition seamless?

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The transition was not an issue considering that I had worked at Olam International, one of the world’s largest agro supply chain management companies, with a deep understanding of the permutations of the agricultural sector. Also, having a father who studied agriculture, taught agriculture in a tertiary institution and was a two-time commissioner for agriculture in Lagos state gave me enough context to understand what was required to participate as a stakeholder and policy maker in the agric space.

Share your experience at Olam with us and lessons learnt

My experiences at Olam across a span of almost a decade are life-altering. For one, I never thought that I would be an advocate for food systems and sustainability but being a part of the management team at Olam and the insights gained having worked with team members across 4 continents helped expand my horizon. My understanding that food will always be a basic need, a necessity that cannot be wished away regardless of economic turns, and the scarcity of key resources as a result of climate change issues helped forge my interest in being part of the change required to transition Lagos/Nigeria from being a food import dependent state to a food-sufficient one.

Also, having worked and lived in Ghana was enlightening as regards government intervention and support of farmers in the country, and the learnings that could be used in Nigerian agriculture. With initiatives like Farmers’ Day, which is a national day in Ghana celebrating the farmer is of importance and helps give the farmers a place of pride in the economy. The structures/framework also built around key commodities like cocoa and the premium generated on the world market as a result of this framework helped shed light on how policies can help make or break a sector, and the effect on the economy.

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Share with us on Lagos State 5-year agricultural and food systems roadmap

Over the years, the state government has made efforts to develop the agricultural sector by way of interventions in areas where it has competitive and comparative advantages towards enhancing the state’s self-sufficiency in food production. A more holistic development of the agricultural sector based on the population, need and economy will be more beneficial to the state, hence the essence of the five-year agricultural and food systems roadmap. The aim of the roadmap is to highlight the attractiveness of the sector, with private sector players as the key drivers.

Tell us more about the red meat value chain transformation agenda

The current demand for the eradication of open cattle grazing by stakeholders in Nigeria and adoption of restricted grazing system in many states of the federation demanded that urgent action be taken to facilitate the birth of a ranching system, which has been ascertained to be economical and more sustainable, as well as capable of bringing to an end the many ills of the open grazing which has brought untold hardship on farmers and avoidable conflicts between farmers and herders. With almost 1.9million heads of cattle required by Lagosians for consumption annually, it was imperative for the administration of Governor, Babajide Sanwo-Olu to put in motion the creation of a modern feedlot system, to cater to this need. The feedlot is one of the many reforms in the sector, with others such as animal identification and traceability, processing facilities (abattoirs), cold chain logistics solutions being brought to the fore as part of the transformation plan.

What is the Lagos agripreneurship programme about and how can women and the youths participate?

The Lagos agripreneurship programme is a social intervention programme aimed at exposing the youths to agriculture via training, utilising modern agricultural techniques and practices towards job and wealth creation. The programme’s target is to train 15,000 youths and women in a 4-year span across the value chains of poultry, aquaculture, horticulture and piggery. It is a programme modelled after the Israeli AICAT programme, with the fundamental principle of learning by doing. The winning combination of practical training on an advanced and modern farm, theoretical studies, and community life provides the participants a unique and rich experience. It is a 4-month training programme (1month on-site training, 3months internship) with the aim of linkages with financial institutions of successful graduates of the programme. Participation is open to youths within the age brackets of 18-35, and women, and information on cycles of training is open to all qualified candidates, after which applications are taken and screening done to pick out qualified candidates.

How is the Eko-Agro mechanisation Scheme going?

The mechanisation scheme of the state is going on well, albeit at a slower pace than expected due to the nature of deployment of the mechanised equipments. In the past, the Ministry would hire out the equipment without geo-location tools, subjecting the assets to theft, poor maintenance, low revenue and so on. With the deployment of an uber-like platform for the use of the assets, accountability into utilisation, data collection and revenue assurance are safeguarded for a more sustainable food system.

What are the key agricultural policies and initiatives being implemented in Lagos state to promote sustainable farming practices and increase food production?

Lagos state government aims to increase the contribution of its food systems to the economy and create 40,000 jobs in the next 4 years, through localising innovation, providing agro-food systems players with the necessary support and resources, making Lagos a global regulatory powerhouse ensuring that produce are of a higher standard and with international recognition. It is key that policies addressing the role of Lagos in the food systems be emphasized, agrifood wholesaling and retail by reason of its geographic location, size and population. Policy around land ownership and tenure reform to incentive agricultural investments is also a key lever in the promotion of agriculture as a viable investment opportunity. Others are the reforms around multiple tolling and taxation of food logistics enterprises which leads to higher costs associated with food in Lagos.

What steps is the Lagos state government taking to promote agribusiness and attract private investments in the agricultural sector?

The Lagos state 5-year agricultural and food systems roadmap, which highlights investment opportunities is an agribusiness promotion tool for the state government. Several stakeholder summits to bring the public up to speed on progress made so far has taken place, and the collaborations with sister ministries and agencies towards promoting the different facets of Lagos is key to promoting Lagos as a unified investment destination in Nigeria and Africa.

What efforts are being made to promote agricultural research, innovation, and technology adoption among farmers in the state?

There is ongoing collaboration with other government agencies across the federation with expertise in different value chains. IITA also serves as a repository of knowledge where the ministry gleans from. In addition, there are cross studies with partners in countries such as the Netherlands and France where learnings and innovations are taken from for adoption in agriculture in Lagos State.

Though yours was an appointment, what is your take on women in politics?

Women in politics is a necessity, to balance out the identification with the needs of the female, and to bring in a level of empathy and solidarity required in dealing with more than half of the Nigerian population. Women also are multi-taskers by nature, and with a keen eye for detail which is required in the administration of duties, and where better to showcase these skills than in governance, where it is a necessity for survival.

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Concluding words

Best yourself every day. You have only one shot at life, give it your all, maximise your potential. Every moment in time given less than the energy and push required to see destiny in motion can never be bought back. An accumulation of these times is what makes up our lives, and births or aborts legacy. Best yourself every day.