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Ada Osakwe: The making of a creative food entrepreneur

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Ada Osakwe is a creative food entrepreneur and passionate agribusiness advocate. As the Founder and Chief Executive of Agrolay Ventures, an investment firm targeting early-stage agribusinesses, Ada seeks to redefine the food production and retail opportunity across Africa’s large consumer markets. Agrolay invests in food start-ups as well as incubates its own new agri-ventures. The company currently has four investments including The Nuli Juice Company, Nuli Foods, Nature’s Bounty and African Courier Express. For three years, on a secondment from the Tony Elumelu Foundation, Ada served as the Senior Investment Adviser to Dr. Akinwumi Adesina, the former Nigerian Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development. There, she advised the Minister on agriculture investment-related activities involving private sector investors and led investment policy and financing initiatives including the development and launch of the Fund for Agricultural Financing in Nigeria (FAFIN). Prior to her role at the Ministry, Osakwe was a Vice-President at Kuramo Capital Management in New York, where she led the firm’s Private Equity investments. For four years, she was a Senior Investment Officer at the African Development Bank Group (AfDB), based in Tunisia. She began her career as an Analyst in the Debt Capital Markets team of BNP Paribas investment bank, London.
Ada received her MBA from the Kellogg School of Management, Northwestern University, holds an MSc in Economics and Finance from the University of Warwick, U.K. and a BSc in Economics (First Class Honours) from the University of Hull, U.K.
Osakwe is a Young Global Leader of the World Economic Forum and on the 2016 Choiseul 100 Africa list, a unique ranking of young African economic leaders. She received the ‘Achiever in Agriculture’ Award in 2015 and in 2014, was named one of Forbes 20 Youngest Power Women in Africa.

When you returned to Nigeria to serve as the Senior Investment Adviser to Dr. Akinwumi Adesina, Nigeria’s former Minister of Agriculture, what were the personal goals you set for yourself?
My decision to return to Nigeria to work in government and the personal goals I set was heavily influenced by my constant desire to make a direct and purposeful impact in Africa, a desire that has always driven my career decisions. I had started my journey as a debt market analyst at BNP Paribas investment bank in London, and after a year, I joined the African Development Bank (ADB) in Tunisia. At 24 years old, I was the youngest professional to have ever joined this large and influential institution. I was so excited about being part of something bigger than me, developing Africa! From working in the Treasury team for 2 years managing a portfolio of assets and supporting capital markets development in African countries, to joining the pioneering Public Private Partnerships team financing infrastructure projects like hydropower dams, toll roads and ports, I was determined to make a difference. However, 3 years into the job, I soon became disillusioned. The bureaucracy involved in such large institutions became an unnecessary distraction for me, affecting my view on how I could significantly play a part in Africa’s development. I wanted to be even closer to the issues facing Africans on-the-ground and play my part in shaping these issues, unhindered.

By this time, I had started investing in Private Equity (PE) funds in my role as a Senior Investment Officer at the ADB and appreciated that this was an impactful tool that directly benefited people through investments in entrepreneurs and businesses with the potential to transform economies. And so I decided to pursue this path and on leaving the ADB for Business School, focused on building a career in Africa private equity investing. After giving this a try with a few firms, the disillusionment I felt a few years earlier set in again. This was because I observed that as Africa PE got more attractive, practitioners seemed more concerned about raising larger-sized funds, resulting in earning more fees. With larger funds came larger minimum size investments (e.g. $50 million), and as a result, too much money quickly started chasing too few opportunities, given that in Africa, there are not so many investment-ready companies that require as much as US $ 50million investments. Instead, there are many smaller, earlier-stage companies who need much smaller amounts of investments. I found that not only were there no active angel or venture investments into Africa to address this latent need, but not many people were focused on building the world-class, investible businesses from scratch that investors could put money into. Given my ever-present drive to make greater impact, this issue worried me, and I resolved to do something about it.

I left the PE firm I was working with in New York, and took up a public sector role in Nigeria’s federal government to truly help me understand the policy issues that affect the every-day entrepreneurs and business-people responsible for driving growth of our economies. My position was fully-funded by the Tony Elumelu Foundation and I was seconded to support Dr. Adesina, Nigeria’s Minister of Agriculture in his bold plans to transform Nigeria’s agriculture sector through focused, progressive policies and increased private sector investments. In this role, my personal goals remained the same, to drive true impact on-the-ground. After nearly four years on the job, I am grateful to have received a birds-eye view of critical national policy issues that affect businesses, which ultimately helped me in my resolve to go even closer to the roots and build those early-stage, world-class companies that PE funds typically avoided. Today, with my company, Agrolay ventures, I am doing just that. I am not disillusioned anymore, but ignited by a fire within me to change the narrative in Africa’s economies through all my endeavours.

How was your experience working in a government setup coming from a private sector, especially from outside Nigeria?
Wow, it was different! Having worked with world-class private institutions, I was now thrown into a Nigerian civil service culture that despite having some truly talented individuals was significantly flawed organizationally. At the heart of this is the fact that there was limited accountability for actions and there were no serious repercussions for inaction or poor performance. When a civil servant knows that it is almost impossible to be fired, but only perhaps re-deployed, and when they have the mindset of “Minister come, Minister go, we civil servant always remain”, then there is no incentive to deliver exceptional work.

In spite of this, I was privileged to work for a Minister who was a brilliant professional and who understood how to rally his team around a laudable cause; to positively transform Nigeria’s agricultural sector. He did this with a private sector-driven professionalism and mindset, which quickly began to permeate through our work place. Soon everyone, including the civil servants at the Ministry, were staying at work till 1am to ensure deadlines were met, were preparing solid investment proposals, and were talking about agricultural value-chains and the importance of private sector investments. This, without a doubt, made my job as a private sector investment professional much easier during my 3 years in government.

Women are known to be subsistent farmers. But your experience transcends that level. Why agriculture?
Why Agriculture? Well with agriculture, I have now found that purpose that I have searched for throughout my career. A job whereby I can not only create wealth through impactful investments, but also make a positive impact on millions of lives.
Indeed, over half of African farmers are women, responsible for feeding our continent. But women are typically the most segregated when it comes to value-driven activities in agriculture, which actually is most profitable. I am lucky to have been exposed to the entire value-chain from farming to value-creating agriculture, enabling me put my education and experiences to work and to focus my efforts on the segments of the agricultural value chain that have a greater potential to create wealth and ensure inclusive growth. Segments such as agro-processing, which is essential for reducing the post-harvest crop losses of farmers, losses of up to 60 percent in some cases, and which is needed to create steady markets for farmers, ultimately ensuring that they are paid better and have a sustainable livelihood. I am also very passionate about growing the value created through an increased development of well-branded, packaged food products that utilize locally-grown agricultural produce as their raw materials. The global packaged food industry is expected to reach US$ 3.3 trillion dollar value by 2020, and to think that it all begins on the farm. I want to keep playing a role in industrializing our agriculture sector, moving more women, and men, from being subsistent farmers to being mechanized farmers. Ensuring that more processing is taking place to transform our produce to ensure that it becomes part of this multi-trillion dollar global food market.

With your involvement establishing the Fund for Agricultural Financing in Nigeria (FAFIN) and understanding of the Nigerian agricultural sector, how do you think investing in agriculture in Nigeria can be made attractive to skeptical investors?
The key here is to demonstrate that agriculture is a money-making business, and not some charity project, and a business that can deliver some astronomical returns. Establishing FAFIN was a deliberate effort to showcase to the world, particularly private investors, that investing in agriculture is profitable. I also worked with my colleagues and development partners to create investment briefs that outlined the lucrative investment opportunity for various agriculture crops and livestock. A big part of this was presenting the local market demand for foods such as poultry, fish, rice, flour and fruit juice, and then showcasing how currently, billions of dollars was being sent to foreign countries to purchase these same products to import into Nigeria to meet this local demand. And yet, we have all the elements to produce these products locally! Elements such as over 80 million hectares of arable land to grow the food (Nigeria is the largest producer of many major crops in Africa), abundant water resources, and a bustling consumer market with over 170 million people to purchase this food, particularly since they have no choice but to eat to stay alive. So showcasing to investors that they can invest in agriculture locally to substitute for the imports coming in, and thereby tapping into a multibillion-dollar market, is a major case I make to anyone who remains skeptical about investing in the sector.

As a food entrepreneur, apart from the problem of unstable power supply, what other challenges do you have to contend running your business?
Getting great talent to build world-class businesses remains a problem and a serious concern. My businesses will only progress if I am able to build a solid team that can execute on our vision. I am saddened by the state of affairs in our country with graduates who do not meet minimum standards in basic education. I interview so many who cannot do basic addition and division of numbers. How can they apply to be sales reps if they cannot even make basic mathematical calculations or string complete sentences together? My heart bleeds for Nigeria when I see this because we cannot talk about moving Nigeria forward without investing seriously in our education systems to raise the intellect of our youth who are the future of our nation.

Was it easy getting the workforce who can drive the vision you have for the business?
No, due to the challenge of sub-standard education and professionalism that I just spoke of. So it is still very much work in progress. 2017 is all about talent acquisition for me.

I am so thankful to my colleagues that have helped me build the businesses up till today, some who have been with me since the start in January 2015. I look forward to their continued growth within the company as we become bigger and better at all we do.

Was it difficult for you to source funds for starting Agrolay Ventures?
I am yet to source funds for my investment holding company, Agrolay Ventures. So far, my personal money has gone into the company and I have also raised funds at the portfolio company levels. This period has allowed me to prove the concept of investing in early-stage agriculture and food related businesses. I am now at the start of the process of fundraising from outside investors to allow the company broaden its portfolio from its current four holdings to our vast pipeline of interesting agribusiness opportunities that have the potential for significant shareholder returns.

The Lagos State Government demolished your flagship store in Ikoyi last year. How has that impacted your projection for the business?
The Nuli Juice Company is one of our star portfolio investments of Agrolay. Since its launch in January 2015, the company has expanded from selling a single juice product to opening up Nigeria’s first farm-to-table casual dining restaurant. We currently have four outlets in Abuja and Lagos and are set to open four more by March 2017. Indeed, we had the unfortunate circumstance of our Ikoyi, Lagos outlet being one of five stores that were brought down by the Lagos State Government on the morning of 1st September 2016. But this difficult operating environment we are in only makes us stronger. We have come out of that experience with a renewed zeal to be successful and to be a brand that Lagosians, and all Nigerians can be proud of. It is since the demolition that we have thought even more innovatively about our growth. We have also started becoming a voice that pushes for an improved treatment of small and medium enterprises (SMEs) across the country by our governments. Governments must do a much better job as facilitators of enterprise, and not be a hindering force to SMEs that we all know are the engines of growth and employment in any economy.

Was there any sort of compensation from your landlord or the government?
No! No compensation was given! And in fact, we didn’t bother pursuing with the government. Not sure I want to sit in court for decades. We decided to just move on.

You once remarked in an interview that you went into “creative food entrepreneurship” because you want food and beverages produced in Nigeria to meet international standards. Have you achieved that with Agrolay Ventures?
This was certainly my vision setting out and still remains the case. I am so passionate about seeing Nigerian food brands on the shelves and streets of other African countries and beyond. I train the colleagues that work with me to be diligent at their jobs, to create great products, deliver excellent service, maintain high and consistent standards, and to adopt the right values. We look for these traits too in the companies that we seek to invest in. As long as we continue on this path, I have no doubt that we will achieve our vision for Agrolay.

How does African Courier Express fit into the business?
Great question! Being an e-commerce logistics company, it definitely seems like the outlier in what should be an agro-centric investment strategy. However, we took a view that the company will eventually be convinced about the investment opportunity in the agro-allied sector, servicing the huge unmet demand for logistics for moving farm products over thousands of miles in the country, or fresh produce that requires cold truck logistics. Logistics is an extremely important and lucrative aspect of agribusiness and one that is not being looked at enough.

Your time in both public and private must have been eventful. Which of these has an impact on you as a business owner?
I am so blessed to have seen most sides of business in my career. From private sector, to quasi-public to full-blown public sector, I have had a truly rich and unique career, and one that not many people can boast of. I have received unparalleled professional exposure and it is really a combination of these experiences that have prepared me for what I am building today. But really, I think it’s in my genes. I have a father and mother who have both built their own individual businesses from the ground up, with the utmost integrity in Nigeria. These are my inspirations.

With string of awards to your name, all testifying to your achievements, do you see yourself as a model other young women can look up to? Do you mentor young women who have interest investing in agriculture?
I am extremely fortunate to have had my hard work recognised by many. It is humbling. I certainly see myself as a model and mentor quite a few young women and men who seek to go into agriculture and general entrepreneurship. In fact, one of the things that drove me to continue building my business after all my hard work, money, and sweat was torn down back in September, was the fact that I needed to show courage for the many young Nigerians who have looked to me for encouragement and mentorship. I needed to let them know that all my advice to them to invest in Nigeria’s agriculture, to be bold and audacious in their goals, was real advice, and that in spite of the adversity that may come from time to time, particularly in Nigeria, we all have to pick ourselves up and keep moving to achieve our dreams. I was recently invited by the the President of African Development Bank to join his 12-member select advisory group on the ADB’s Jobs For Youth In Africa. I am excited to use the platform to continue being a voice for youths across the continent as they seek to develop their dreams in an environment that is not always friendly to them.

Who is Ada Osakwe?
She’s a woman determined to break boundaries in the world and play a leading role in the transformation of Africa and its generation of young people.



4 Comments
  • Ola Roti

    Very impressive!

  • Kemmii

    Brilliant mind. I hope I get to work with you on any of these projects soon. Proud of peeps who not only care about their roots, but also about challenges of small biz especially in a difficult terrain like agriculture. Go girl! Rooting for you all the way

  • kay

    Awesome..

  • Osita Aniemeka

    Foudroyant!