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From Cambridge to farm in Jos, Cobi-Jane eyes under tapped valuable crops

COBI-JANE AKINRELE, a 26-year-old graduate of the University of Cambridge, may not be from Plateau State, but she is among a new breed of young Nigerians redefining the agribusiness landscape in that state and beyond. Akinrele, CEO, Aké Collective, a company that focuses on production of what it calls environmentally friendly crops with high nutrition and market value, tells CALEB OJEWALE, about this business making impact for farmers and investors. Excerpts:

Can you share a bit about your background?

I was born and raised in the UK and travelled to Nigeria nearly every other year during Christmas to visit my Grandparents in Lagos. That was pretty much all of my exposure to Nigeria until I decided to do NYSC in 2018. I served in Lagos so while it was challenging adjusting to living in Nigeria, full-time, and without strict parental supervision, it was still familiar in a way.

At the end of my service year, I wanted to do something that would allow me to stay but also enable me to better use some of the skills I had gained over the years volunteering in Tanzania and back ‘home’ in the UK. As I couldn’t find anything sustainable that sparked my interest, I returned to the University of Cambridge to pursue a masters. I attended the same university for my undergraduate degree in Human, Social and Political Sciences.

Going by your background, one is curious, what took you into agriculture?

I wouldn’t say I always had a passion for farming, but I do like food. What led me to agriculture was sheer curiosity. I had stumbled upon an article that hailed fonio as the next big global superfood. One that had the potential to end food security due to its drought resistance and rich vitamin profile. I returned to Nigeria and asked an Uber driver to take me to Mile 12 as I was told if there was any such thing called “fonio” in Nigeria I would find it there. And I did. It was very expensive though. The trader claimed that it is hard to find. Till today I am not sure if he said that to justify hiking the price.

My father runs a cassava farm in Ogbomoso and a really good family friend also grows and processes cassava in Iseyin and I enjoyed hearing their numerous stories about the farming communities they support around their farms. Now, I am not sure if it was the arrogance of my youth, but I thought I would do the same. This time, with a millennial twist. Super-lean, high profit, yet ethical. I made contact with a couple of small-scale farmers in Bauchi who soon schooled me on the importance of learning from what already exists in Nigeria before trying to tear down the system.

What exactly do you do in the agric space; what value chain(s) do you operate?

We curate brands that facilitate the sale of crops sourced from small scale farmers. However, we only deal in crops that we think we can add something to give it a competitive edge in the market, usually further processing and branding. To do this successfully in a way that benefits all stakeholders across the value chain, much of our work involves helping farmers access agricultural inputs, financial services, and technical training where necessary. But most importantly, learning from those who are on the ground, doing the work – small scale farmers themselves.

Read also: Insecurity frustrates billion-naira interventions in farming

We also operate a demonstration farm to help train small-scale farmers who may in the past have grown our core products (fonio, moringa, hibiscus) but were dissuaded due to market fluctuations or climate crises. Planning, planting, and harvesting alongside our community experts, small-scale farmers indigenous to Plateau and Bauchi states, through our demonstration farm are engaged to collaboratively mitigate some of these issues.

At the heart of our business is to strengthen the communities that we operate, acting very much as a part of the ecosystem and not an external actor.

Let us take Fonio, locally called Acha, why the interest in that crop?

It is indigenous to Nigeria; the farmers grow their own seeds and are already experts in how it is cultivated. This means that we are trying to maximise the work that is already being done. Moreover, there is a lot of room for experimentation with fonio in the superfood, gluten-free market.

Apart from supporting farmers to cultivate, how else are you involved? Any value addition(s)?

We have processors in our network. At present, we sell processed grain that is often re-packaged by other food brands. We will be launching our own ready-to-eat retail products later this year.

Can you give some insights into the market for Fonio and other crops you cultivate?

As it is cultivated in the North-Central/North-Eastern part of the country there is always a vibrant market for the grain in these areas, especially during the festive season. Of course, as you might already be aware, there is a growing demand for fonio in major cities such as Lagos, Abuja and even Awka in Anambra.

Alongside acha, that is, fonio, we also plant moringa trees and work with a growing number of farmers who have small moringa plantations around their farms. Not only are these trees good for the environment and overall soil health, they provide year-round income for farmers in our operating areas. We are working to incorporate the crops our farmers already grow, such as zobo (hibiscus), into our branded products to avoid introducing new crops to their existing farms.

Are there untapped potentials you see in these crops, and how can maximum value be derived?

We need time to do more research and development. I think most agro-businesses could benefit from this. Drying and milling produce does not give businesses enough market differentiation these days. Neither can importing foreign seedlings do us any favours long term. There is so much room to explore indigenous varieties that is overlooked.

You started in Bauchi, before moving to Plateau, can you describe the scale and nature of operations ongoing in those locations?

We have approximately 300 farmers across five villages in Bauchi. All of these farmers are fonio farmers that may have a moringa tree or two. We work with a core group of around 100 of these farmers year round and the rest at harvest. Our primary processing takes place in these villages. We also work with 10 moringa farmers in Plateau State and are currently mobilising fonio farmers around our demonstration farm in Bassa, Plateau State.

Ahead of our launch of retail products in December 2021, we have partnered with a local manufacturer in Jos, Plateau State.

What have been the major challenges from your experience over the years?

It has been quite difficult striking the balance between fundraising and doing the work that needs to be done to make sales. Raising capital is very hard, especially when you are a new agri-business situated in what is perceived as a conflict-prone area.

Building trust between my team and the community can be quite challenging, especially when there is a difference of opinion or tensions are high due to other social or political factors.

What is the composition of your business in terms of external investors and management? Importantly, can you highlight at what points any significant partners came on board and why?

I have a team of 10 led by our Operations Manager, Nenpominyi Dabin. While he does not have a background in Agriculture, his cool and calm demeanour has propelled him to the informal role of Chief Negotiator, especially when things become hairy with community leaders.

There are also two investors that would not want to be named in the media at this time. One of them came on board as an investor early this year, after the business had been operating for 18 months. His strong commitment to changing the narrative around Plateau State, as one that is seen as constantly mired in conflict to a place where business can thrive is admirable and has been very helpful in ensuring that I do not get discouraged when things do not go to plan. I think it is also good having someone on board who has a wealth of experience in doing business in Nigeria as sometimes my background allows for blind spots.

The other is a commodities trading company based in the UK that came on board this year too. They work with businesses in Nigeria, Tanzania, and the Gambia to set up large-scale cassava processing facilities, sell their products, and manage their logistics where necessary. They have supported me with developing and soon launching, sustainable retail products outside Nigeria.

I probably have the best management team and board in the world. They are absolutely integral to all the success we have achieved so far.

What does the immediate future hold, especially in terms of expansion plans?

We would like to expand our demonstration farm, fondly referred to as Maigona Farm. Hopefully, early next year we will open the farm to those in the area interested in growing acha in a way that is good for the soil and produces high-quality produce.

Rather than onboarding more farmers, we intend to deepen our relationships with the communities we work, exploring new ways to celebrate their expertise and increase their income.

QUOTE: Raising capital is very hard, especially when you are a new agri-business situated in what is perceived as a conflict-prone area

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