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Tunji Owoeye: Evolving from major importer to support sufficiency in local food production

Finding business opportunities in Nigeria is often not the hardest thing for those in business, staying relevant in business, surviving policy inconsistencies and generally fragile economic conditions is usually more challenging.

In his chosen field of agriculture and agro-allied services, for every area of deficit Nigeria had, Tunji Owoeye, managing director, Elephant Group Plc found an opportunity to do business. When some of those avenues seemingly got blocked either because of government policy or economic conditions, he would innovate rather than complain endlessly.

For over a decade, Owoeye’s Elephant group plc was one of the major importers of rice into Nigeria, and he was even once national president of the Rice Importers, Millers, Distributors Association of Nigeria (RIMIDAN).

“There was a time that together as importers, we were all keeping inventory of about 2 million tons of rice in this same country,” said Owoeye in an interview with Businessday.

From major rice importer, he had to transform “overnight”, into a rice processor. Importation was relatively easier, and the cash flow was equally good but when the Nigerian government decided to tighten the noose on foreign rice, it became a matter of “innovate or die”.

“It has not been easy. It’s not bread and butter, but I tell you it is all out of passion, dedication and the love to see Nigeria transit from an import dependent Nation to a producing Nation,” he says. He also explained that from the company’s perspective as one of the major importers, it was a matter of adjusting to produce locally, or closing shop. The company was not prepared to lose its market share of what it had then as importers.

The company had brands that were already known in the markets, and had to decide whether to invest in local production of rice (and other products) or lose those brands completely. The decision was taken to invest in the value chain and according to Owoeye, “it has been a remarkable outcome”.

It became part of Elephant Group’s medium term plan to start producing locally, everything the company previously imported; from rice, to palm oil, and fertilizers.

“We are excited to be able to transit from an agro trading company to an agro producing company,” he says.


Owoeye attended the University of Ife, now Obafemi Awolowo University (OAU) where he graduated with a B.SC (hons) degree in Demography. He subsequently trained as an accountant, qualified as a chartered accountant, and is became a fellow of the Institute of Chartered Accountants of Nigeria (FCA).

He founded Olatunji Owoeye & Co (Chartered Accountants) in 1993 and was first managing partner of the firm from 1993 to February 1994. A month later in March, he started Elephant Investments Limited which has now become Elephant Group Plc

As CEO of Elephant Group, he oversees the affairs of the group across countries where the company operates in West and Central Africa.

Owoeye has at different times been National President, National Cashew Association of Nigeria (NCAN) and National Vice President, Federation of Agricultural Commodities Association of Nigeria (FACAN). He was Nigerian representative of African Cashew Alliance (ACA) the umbrella body for cashew trade in Africa.

He has been chairman, Board of Trustee National Cashew Association of Nigeria (NCAN), chairman, Rice importers Millers, Distributors Association of Nigeria (RIMIDAN), later becoming national chairman, Association of Rice Investors Group and then chairman, Farm inputs Suppliers association of Nigeria.

He is a member of the Agriculture and food Security Policy Commission of the Nigeria Economic Summit Group (NESG), and a Transformational leader in the New Vision of Agriculture division of the World Economic Forum.

With a prohibition on rice importation through land border and a discouraging 70 percent tariff to import through the ports, Elephant Group was faced with a grim future if it did not think of local production.

In 2017, the company won a bid to revamp a rice mill in Portharcourt that belonged to the Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC). It was a long lease for 20 years and the mill is projected to give an output of 36,000 metric tons depending on the number of hours put into milling.

In the last two years, the mill has been upgraded from white rice mill to parboiled mill and its capacity has also been increased from 4 to 12 tons per hour. When there is pressure on demand, there is an increase in duration of milling hours from 12 to 18 hours. In the end, (annual) output is dependent on the number of hours put to work on a daily basis. According to Owoeye, the mill now even has a parboiling facility, which did not exist before its acquisition.

Apart from rice, Elephant group has ventured into the cassava value chain. The company started in Oyo and Edo states, off taking cassava tubers from farmers and this is being done with support from the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) and Nigeria Incentive-based Risk-sharing System for Agricultural Lending (NIRSAL).

The company guarantees off takes for farm harvests of thousands of farmers, processing their cassava into high quality cassava flour. The next phase according to Owoeye is to venture into other lines of cassava processing that could serve the adhesive industry, also, turning cassava into flakes for industrial users that des§ire it as such.

The main threat to survival of businesses in Nigeria is really about policy changes, according to Owoeye, and surviving those swings is a function of how skilful business owners are in adapting. “If you look at the change in policy from import to import substitution, and now to backward integration, all of these happened within 18 months thereabout,” he said.

As he explained, it takes “having the boldness to face the challenges of such policy choices to remain in business”. The lesson for younger entrepreneurs, is according to him, staying on regardless of how difficult the terrain could be. At some point in time, there is going to be a turnaround, and when business owners learn to be resilient, support will eventually come.

Before any entrepreneur can become relevant, Owoeye’s philosophy is that there first has to be a passion for the industry where they operate. When there are issues in any industry, or when there are policy issues, there is always an opportunity to be explored. For Elephant Group, he says what the company does is to strategically examine what the opportunities are in every seemingly bad scenario.

As a company, situations are examined in the medium and long term, no short term strategies, and this he says, has given the company resilience to be able to come back following any economic or policy challenge.

“In all of these, I think not being discouraged with the short term limitations and challenges is an advantage for businesses,” said Owoeye. “Also, being able to take advantage of the opportunities in whatever policies of government to support the businesses. In all of this, let me put it in one line, flexibility”.

From his experience, entrepreneurs must be able to run the business on a flexible platform such that when situations change, they can quickly adapt, creating scenarios that will not put the company in a box.

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