• Tuesday, July 23, 2024
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Agriculture will be a unifying force for Nigeria- Africanfarmer Afioluwa Mogaji

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African Farmer Mogaji is a farmer, an agric-consultant, a coach and agro-information broker. In this The Business Interview with Arinze Okamelu, the CEO of X-Ray Consulting and Food Chain Ltd, bears his mind on his love and passion for agriculture amongst other issues. Read excerpts below:

How did you come about the name AfricanFarmer?

Well, if you have a farmer operating in Ghana, the person will be a Ghanaian farmer. If it is Nigeria, it will be Nigerian farmer, in Zimbabwe; it will be Zimbabwe farmer and so on. But if you have the vision to have farm projects or farming business that you either own or coordinating across Africa, you are of course an African farmer. So the African farmer is someone who has Agricultural business concerns across Africa. And precisely, God told me to change my name to African farmer about 11years ago.

Can you explain what you mean by “God told me to change your name”?

Yes, I was going through some “ups and downs”, that is, things will be going so well and suddenly everything would crash. So one day I just got tired and I began to pray. While in prayer, God ask me; I hear God well, “what is your name? And I said my name is (what it was then) Afioluwa Abayomi Mosebolatan Mogaji. At first, I felt it was a foolish question because it wasn’t adding up, but I responded the three times the question was asked.

The third time, suddenly I understood the meaning of my name after thirty something years, and it means “Afioluwa” meaning  “if not for God”, “Abayomi” meaning “the enemies would have mocked me”, Mosebolatan” meaning “I thought wealth and honour had finished” which was a replica of the events happening in my life.

Everything would almost crash and I would be in an embarrassing situation and suddenly a miracle happens, another business will come up. So it was a cycle. So when he said “what is your name? It just dawned on me that the events in my life were going round those names. I read a book during that period “Prayer of Jabez” which said that you cannot detach a person’s future from his name.

When I spoke to my parents, they said it was a challenging time they were going through, that was why they named me those three names; representing the breakthrough they had almost when wealth has finished and they would have been mocked, if not for God. And God told me “that as African-farmer, I am sending you across Africa to set up agribusinesses and help people set up profitable enterprises. So that is where AfricanFarmer came and I think this was in August of  2005.

What stimulated your interest in Agriculture?

I actually got engaged with Agriculture from my primary school. I normally would say that when my friends and my brothers were watching “mickey mouse” and “Tom and Jerry”, I was at the backyard. We had this three plots of land in Bashorun, Ibadan then, it was big.

We had sugar cane, we had sweet potato, we had about four or five types of oranges, we had bananas, we were planting Okro and tomatoes all year round and yam. So while everybody was watching television, somehow I just found myself weeding the farm. If you were looking for me then you are going to find me on the farm doing the job myself. So by the time I got to form one, my dad used to be the managing director of Odua  Investment Company Ltd and my mum worked with Nigeria Reinsurance; she was also a leading woman in that space.

They give me money in my year one in secondary school, so I had cash. Then I said let me start a poultry business. There was this place called ‘Alanko’ at Mokola Ibadan then where I went to buy day-old chicks and I told them I want to be selling them. But they told me why don’t  I start by rearing them to three weeks and sell to other people. So I did the first three weeks and I sold, I made some money and I was excited. I went back, bought and I was doing that every three weeks. Along the line I said why don’t I do it for 3 months and sell; I kept a few, I think about 20. That Christmas my dad got to hear that I was selling mature chicken to the people on our street.

I would have gone to let them know that I was selling chicken, like four months before the Christmas, and they were buying. So when my dad got wind of it he began to pay me upfront. He will pay me in January to rear chicken that he would use in December. That was how I was having bigger cash all through my secondary school. Also, because every Christmas our house was always filled with so many people, over thirty uncles and other relatives, my mum would go and buy half van load of cassava and bags of dry maize to produce ogi ( Papa). So I also began to make odourless “fufu” at home. But by the time I got into “form four”, I had over a hundred rabbits and guinea pigs, and I was still playing around with tomatoes and Okro.

While you were doing all these, what was the reaction of your family members and peers?

My peers gave me a name “Baba Eleko”, that is someone tending rabbits, because while all of them were playing football, I had to be looking for these special weeds for my rabbits. So I could not play football like others, because I had hundred rabbits and guinea pigs; at form three, that was just too much. So I didn’t have the luxury of time they had. But by the time I was in form four, I sold everything for party.

What effect did your early farming have on your school?

In the course of my dad trying to interview to employ people for his farm, I discovered that the applicants were all university graduates and they have good certificates; but they did not have practical orientation. 

Then I was in form five. I remember that my dad was complaining they did not have technical know-how. And I was wondering how come these guys and ladies have all these certificates without technical details. It dawned on me that most universities in Nigeria do not equip you with relevant practical information. Then I said I wouldn’t go to the university that I will go to a polytechnic were they do practical.

So when I finished my secondary school I got admission into Federal University of Agriculture Akure (FUTA) to study wild life and  fishery, and another admission to study zoology at Ondo State University Ado Ekiti (OSUA)then now Ekiti State Universit, and I saw Federal College of Agriculture, Akure; when I went in there, and I saw the students doing practical works- handling pigs, goats, hoeing and doing a whole lot, and I told myself, this is what I want. So I took the pre-degree form and direct entry form. As God would have it, they gave me admission for the two. But I could not tell my dad that I didn’t want to go to the university, and I allowed the admission in FUTA to go, and I was left with my admission in OSUA.

My dad was taking me there for registration and we passed the night in our house in Akure. In the night, I wake my dad up and I told him I don’t want to go to the university that I want to go for practical knowledge. And he told me, “look, go back to bed”.

When I look back always, I would think my dad must have thought I was going through the first stage of insanity. So the next morning he woke me up and said, “Let’s go”, because we actually slept over so we can go the next morning. I told him again that I don’t want to go to the university, that I want practical knowledge. He then said “okay, how do you want to get admission?” I then showed him two admission letters for Pre-ND and ND, so he looked at them and said “no way, you are going to the university”.

His uncle intervened, and asked him if he went to a university; that he went to an accountancy college in UK, and told him that did your wife (that is my mum) go to the university, that she went to an insurance college in UK; and you ended up the second group managing director for Odua Investment Company Ltd. He said, “leave the boy”. And he took me to do admission and my dad told me, since that is what you want, but don’t complain. That was how I got into Federal College of Agriculture, Akure, where I studied general agriculture at ND level. But one thing happened then.

When my dad gave me N2000 for pocket money, I knew my dad won’t come back; because I was sure he wasn’t happy with me. So knowing that I can’t ask the man for money, I began to think “what can I do?” The third day in the school, I saw many cassava and it just struck me, and I asked who owned these cassava tubers, and I was told it was for the junior staff, and the school had a processing plant and I said okay, if I want to process the cassava here, what do I do? They said it is only the provost that can approve it.

They said I should write which I did and I saw the provost one evening and I approached him and said “Sir I have a problem that only God can use you to resolve”, and he was shocked and asked “what problem?” I told him, and he said “go and write an application”, which I said this is the application, he approved, “one more problem sir, that I don’t have money to pay for processing” and he said “I can’t help you, you have to pay”, there I said “I have an idea; if I bring my cassava, you will charge me for the price of “two tins” and I am willing to trade to pay for three” and the man said “if that works that means we are making profit” and he approved it and I become the first student in the school to go into partnership with the school authorities. From there I was now making money and selling gari .

How did you manage it along with your studies?

School was rigorous because it was practical. But I found some junior staff who after 4pm were redundant. I called one of them who works at the processing plant of the school and said “why don’t you uproot this cassava for me, I will pay you every 7days”, knowing fully well that you process the Cassava and fry within 7 days. That was how they began to uproot for me, take it to the processing plant and in less than  7 days, they produce ‘garri’ for me, and I sold to the rich people, located directly opposite my school and I also sold to the students who gathered money together to buy in bulk because I told them I don’t retail. So they buy and share. That was how I was selling to both students and lecturers and the community and was still studying .It did not affect my studies I was only brain. I had witness my dad solve many management Issues and teaching me how the process works.

So after school what happened?

I went for my youth service in Jigawa State; but from camp I began to ask the military men what was Jigawa State peculiar with, and they said Bee-Keeping. However before then I did my  industrial training with the Nigerian Agricultural Insurance Corporation (NAIC) and they exposed me to Insurance before I went back for my HND to study Animal Production at the Federal College of Animal Health and Production, Moore Plantation, Ibadan. 

When I finished I wanted to do something different from what everybody does, like poultry, catfish and stuffs. So I met a man who was into Bee-keeping; that is for honey production. He did his training in UK and went to Tanzania for practical; and Bee-Keeping was strange then. I enrolled for the training and he trained me before I went for service. When they told me that Bee-Keeping was thriving in Jigawa State, I did so much research and by the time I was leaving the camp, I knew where I was going. I set up a bee farm for one of the local government chairman in the state.

That was during the governorship of Alhaji Turaki, and I began to set it up for people. Also at that time, I began to produce wheat, under the Hadejia Jamaa’rie  River Basin project. I was paying people, but I was on the farm every day. Along the line, I just observed that they didn’t have plantain in the North and you know how NYSC post people from the South to the North. So I came to a local market at the outskirt of Ibadan, bought full bus load, put it in drum, so they could ripen a bit, I will then put them in one of the buses going to the North, and overnight, it gets to Kano. I will then sell in Kano and I will take remnant to sell in Jigawa to the corpers. I was making like 300% profit margin.

I also discovered fish market too. So trailers would come carry the fish from Jigawa to Oyingbo in Lagos, and then take plantain from Ibadan to the north, and I was still rearing bees. I later got an employment and I was there just for 3 weeks. They employed me for telephone marketing because I had a deep voice. But each day I was there, I had a voice within me saying  “what are you doing here?” One particular day, Mrs Alaja Brown, who used to be a permanent secretary for the ministry of women’s affairs, Lagos state, and buys my honey, told me of an exhibition, and said I should come and display my honey. I took a day off for the exhibition and I told my boss, and he said “they won’t pay me for that day”, I said “fine”.

At the exhibition, I was given a strategic location and the then first lady and now Senator Oluremi Tinubu, came and met me when she was going, obviously impressed with my packaging and said “make sure you don’t give up” as if she knew I was going through some stuffs. She later left with her entourage and few steps away, she came back and said, “young man, just pray that God would send you investors who would care about you and your business and not the ones that would want to take your business away from you. 

She said another profound statement “if anybody can confirm the statement, I believe at my position I should be able to tell you that”. The third time, she stopped again and said, “young man don’t give up” and she left. That night I couldn’t sleep; that the wife of a governor is telling me not to give up, that she is seeing what I am not seeing and that was how I resigned and concentrated on my farming at Epe, and began to produce crops at commercial scale.

You live in Lagos, you have your family in Lagos, why did you go that far farming?

Yes I started in Lagos, that was the Epe irrigation project. However there was a higher demand on the land. I discovered that they have bigger project in Iseyin and Saki in Oyo State and I just decided to pack-up everything and go to Iseyin.

And it paid you more?

Yes, because you could expand because they have bigger space.

The awareness about the River Basin projects seems low now, how do we revive it?

The government has not created that awareness. But in the past 3,4,5 years I have done a lot in creating awareness for the project.

On what capacity have you been doing that?

On my personal capacity; perhaps because of my love and my passion for it. I have granted interviews, like the one we are having now. I have taken-up speaking engagements where I tell people what to do; and I do all these with my X-Ray Farms Consulting, of course, our CSR is the information we provide. At X-Ray Farms Consulting we do turn around management, where we take over the management of your farm ,and do turn around advisory where we advise you on what to do. Also, we present untapped opportunities like we began talking about tomatoes way back before people started talking about it. Same to cucumbers amongst others.

For how long has X-ray farm consulting been in existence?

Since 2007. Also people, who have existing Agro business, we can advise them on how to do better, we tell them what they can add or do to their existing line of business to maximize potentials.

Tell us about your Food Chain Limited?

Two years back, I planted 80acres of water melon, under irrigation project on my Iseyin farm in Oyo State. By the time it was due for harvesting, a bus-load of water melon that used to sell for N90,000 at that time, suddenly dropped to N25,000. Meanwhile I had taken loan. And what caused that was that one of the retired generals who didn’t understand the market invested almost all his money on water melon production and that led to over production and it affected the price. So they were now dumping water melon in the market and it crashed the price. So after the expenses we were making just N2,000 per bus, this was something that were making N70,000 profit before. But the N17 million debt came in 2009 when I planted, as usual 250 acres of corn, under irrigation project. Then Zenon Oil was the only company bringing in diesel to Nigeria. Unfortunately I did n’t know what happened and Zenon did not have diesel, and so we didn’t have diesel to power our machines to water our plants and what happened, the corns dried up. It was very harrowing, because the corns were about bringing out the cubs, of which without the cubs, you can sell anything. So we didn’t see anything to sell. That was how I got into debt N17 million.

You borrowed from the bank?

No, from individuals. I have not borrowed from the bank before because of the bureaucracies and the rates.

But you had knowledge of the Nigeria Agricultural Insurance Commission. Why did you insure your farm?

You know, sometimes one becomes over confident and it kills. I thought I had mastered the irrigation business that there was no need to insure even when I had relationship with the commission; I didn’t do it and ever since my ordeal I have been in the forefront of advocating that people need to go into Insurance because even if insurance did not cover everything, I would have gotten some compensation from them because it was beyond my control and I was young also. In fact the Senate Committee on Agriculture visited my farm that period.

They were on a mission to inspect the River Basin projects. The chairman asked me a very ridiculous question that made me almost lose hope in the leadership of the country. I was told that they were around to see me, I was busy with other things on the farm. It was quite a large entourage when I came out. They waited for like 15mins and the first thing the man said with expression of disgust was “is this the boy we have been waiting for?” and he said “what are you doing in this bush? What are you doing here?” This was the man I was expecting to encourage me, now telling me what are my doing here? A man who is supposed to be promoting agriculture is telling me what I am doing here, apparently though, because he could not correlate the way I spoke, my education, to staying in the bush. So when I told them my problem, and I expected some relief, nothing happened. And I had some corns that I planted at a swampy area of the farm that survived; I boiled some corn for them, they ate my corn and left. That was the last time I heard from them. I was thinking that with 250acres of corn dried out, there would be some measure of compassion like writing Minister of Agriculture to help this boy, but none.

How did you pulled through?

In the process of that I still had fertilizers and feeds and there were some rural farmers who year in, year out, have no government assistance. If there was no rain. They suffered it. If the rain was too much, they suffered it. Nobody helps them. Now because I could not come home and my creditors were on my neck, I began to borrow them fertilizers and feeds because I could still help them but I could not help myself. So when the sold, the give me back without interest. So along the line somebody recommended me to Ashoka Foundation and Ashoka took me up and I become an Ashoka Fellow.

Ashoka is an international charity that supports social entrepreneurs whose businesses have impact like a corporate social responsibility (CSR) with profit. So they support knowing that the world can be better if we have more people caring for more people. They began to support me. But another major succour came when USAID organized a training titled “Africa Lead”; somehow I just got a call from Ghana and I was told to send my profile and less than 10mins, I was asked to come to Ghana for a one-week training and it was an all-expense paid training. It was meant to develop leaders in agriculture and I was the only Nigerian in that batch, and we were asked design project for our country and analyse what the country had and present; because I was the only Nigerian, I wrote and I presented on Nigeria. Of all the presentations, they gave me the best and I didn’t know I had that kind of information about Nigeria.

The coordinators were amazed that how can one man know so much about the agricultural challenges of a country and the solution. On coming back, it dawned on me that I have so much information and I said I will go all out to help as many people as possible that I can help so they won’t go through the challenges that I have gone through.

How have you been doing this?

I do a lot of public speaking. I organize a lot of free seminars just like the one I organized on the 12th of December last year at the Indoor Sports Hall of the National Stadium, Lagos, with the commercial attaché to Hungary Embassy in Nigeria, Dr. Peter Kondriez speaking. It was Farming By Revelation Conference. We gave them practical industry information and not internet information; or what I call “Google farming” information, which is they google for example how to make money from tomatoes, and they think it is just like that and they will copy and try to paste in Nigeria, forgetting that it is a  different terrain, climate is different or they read “you can get 1000 baskets from 10 acres, forgetting that most our  fertilizer is of low quality ; the chemicals are of low quality which will reduce your yield. So we were able to educate people and inform the unemployed.

Why “Farming by Revelation”?  It sounds religious?

I did a seminar on the 14th of November, 2015 at Protea Hotels in Vitoria Island.  We brought in investors because we were trying to get the private sector to invest directly in the rural farmers; because what we observed is that the private sector professionals want to set up farms but they don’t have the time and as a result, they loose their money. So we create a structure that makes the private sector investors to invest directly in the rural farmers who have the advantage of monitoring the farms better. In a bid to do that we organized a seminar and we had a huge turnout. Then the next day, that was on the 15th of November, 2015, I was in Church thanking God for the success of the programme and I heard God say “what you have done is good but that is not what I told you to do; what I told you when I asked you to change you name was to teach farming by revelation” and the concept is that many of us go into agriculture to make money and there is nothing bad in that, but we are in an African environment where we still have some element of our tradition. You can go to UK or Russia and set up a farm and you excel, but around here in Africa, there are traditional issues that need to be taken care of. For example, you employ some farmers to work for you and what they will be thinking is that when your farm starts flourishing people will not be buying from them again, they will be buying from you; so they sabotage your business, forgetting that they aren’t planting the right seeds in the first instance. So revelation simply means new insight. So you can call it, farming by new insight. Then there is another aspect of it, which is they prayer aspect. Also, as Christians or Muslims we need revelation to understand agriculture now.Again, there are other sides to agriculture. Agriculture should be a unifying factor for us in this country. Like I ask my Christian or Muslim friends when they are eating; the tomatoes you used in preparing the food, the meat and other vegetables, who planted them Is it a Muslim or a Christian? They said they don’t know. So when it comes to agriculture or food, there is no religious barrier or ethnic barrier. Currently the country seems to be more divided along ethnic lines than before. When the northerners were producing grains and the southerners were producing Kola, the northerners depended on us for Kola and we depended on them for grains. So we were business partners and we needed each other; so also when the east were producing palm oil, other religions needed them. So when we were trading on agriculture commodities, nobody wanted to go, we needed each other, but when we disengaged in agriculture we began to see each other different from the other because we weren’t trading anything again. So it takes farming by revelation to know that it is not just developing and producing crop, but that we are business partners as brothers and as long as we go back to agriculture our unity will be more secured as a nation. Look at the agitations here and there; if we engaged ourselves in agriculture people perhaps will be too busy. Look at the Boko Haram elements; they were operating on agriculture lands that were not fully cultivated anymore. If sambisa forest was cultivated like it was during the era of the groundnut pyramid, there would have been no incubation places for them, but you have across the country, incubation locations. So if we go back to developing agriculture and trade as means of development and its attendant benefits, we will no longer be seeing “Igbo, Hausa, Yoruba”  we will be seeing partners in progress.

What’s your partnership with the Hungarian government? 

One, hungry as a country has been food sufficient for over 40 years and they are just 10million people, but they produce everything they need. Food is not an issue in Hungary.  Two, at a point in time we have had about 10,000 alumni who have studied in Hungary, apart from that, they are open people and the only country in Europe that did not colonize any other country, so they understand collaboration, not what to grow in their country and come and dump in Nigeria. They are looking at technology transfer. So they have a model to support and partner with businesses here. For me, having gone round most of these countries, Hungary has a more sincere and open approach to business collaboration and others. So they have relevant adaptable technology. Recently, they did a presentation of some equipment that use solar and can be used in the rural communities.

What next?

We will be creating an information hub; one of the reasons people fail is because they don’t have the right information. So there is trial and error and we are creating an information hub which will be like an ecosystem where information will be readily available for all practitioners and be traded. We are precisely setting up two weeks agric vocational training school and two or three weekends for the working class. We are be promoting “Green Collar Jobs” which is our initiative to develop entrepreneurs who will create jobs. We will be there for the people who will loose their jobs because of the challenge in the economy and assist other professionals expand their incomes through agribusiness value chain. This year we have a goal to raise 1000 people, small businesses and new entrants into the agricultural value chain make one million naira profit. The most serious ones will achieve this goal by August.