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‘There’s opportunity for women in agriculture’

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Abisola Olusanya

Abisola Olusanya is a tenacious and result-oriented professional with almost 10 years of professional experience in leadership roles. She’s been at the forefront of executing strategies towards food security, SME inclusion, growth and profitability within a sustainable ecosystem.
  
A leader with participative management style and proficiency in establishing and managing entire operations with key focus on a sustainable organisational culture, she attended St. Margaret Nursery & Primary school (Ikorodu) and obtained her First Leaving Certificate in 1994, and then proceeded to Queen’s College, Yaba- Lagos for her secondary education where she finished in 2000. Armed with a Bachelor of Science degree in Architecture from the University of Lagos (2006) and an MBA from the prestigious Lagos Business School (2011), Ms. Olusanya joined Olam International, one of the world’s largest food and agro supply chain companies in 2011 under the West African Management training programme. Her immediate stellar performance propelled her to senior management level by end of 2014. Leading Sales, Marketing and Supply chain operations for one of the largest business segments in Olam (Ghana) has provided her with extensive industry and international exposure to trading, which has enabled a broad global mindset as a result of working with stakeholders in Mozambique, Cameroun, Vietnam, Thailand, India, UAE, and Singapore. In this interview with BUNMI AMOSU, Olusanya who is the current Commissioner for Agriculture in Lagos State shares her career experiences, her activities as Agric Commissioner, and how women can take advantage of opportunities in the agric sector.

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From Architecture you switched to Sales\Marketing and Supply Chain Management in an agricultural firm, what informed the switch?
It wasn’t so much of a deliberate switch to Supply Chain Management from Architecture; it was me searching for my life purpose and thinking to myself that it possibly to be in another vocation outside of architecture. I felt at the time as an undergraduate that I struggled a lot with building design conceptualisation. This was why I chose to have an MBA degree to broaden my horizon thereby giving me more career options.

Looking back now, I realise that not finding something easy at the beginning is not necessarily a tell-tale sign that its not meant to be; one just has to dig inside and be persistent at learning and persevere through the challenges. On a funny note, I tend to be happiest now when I am sketching or doodling on paper, which likely means I’ve still got the creative juice.

Agriculture is not often the first choice for women who want to get into top management roles, how were you able to convince yourself this was the right path?
Supply Chain Management cuts across all sectors, and I just happened to be a part of that at Olam International whose core operations is in the Agricultural sector. I tell myself that I could easily have been in any other sector, not necessarily agriculture because, as at the time of rounding up my MBA studies at Lagos Business School, all I wanted was to try my hands at any field and was quite open minded. Also, the ideology of only one path being the right one as regards careers is faulty in my opinion; it tends to box one and not give room for exploration of possibilities which ends up stifling creativity.

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You went from being Special Adviser to becoming Acting Commissioner and now Commissioner, how was the journey?
They say, ‘the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.’ It is indeed a rare privilege being a part of the Lagos State government under the leadership of Mr. Babajide Olusola Sanwoolu. I remember the day the cabinet nomination list was made public, July 14, 2019, and all I did was freeze. How I was able to function between that time and the screening process to the cabinet inauguration ceremony is beyond me. All I could think of was, ‘God, Why me?’ To cut the story short, I was paired with an experienced administrator who is now the current Oniru of Iruland, and we worked quite well together in driving the Ministry of Agriculture forward.

So, in the course of the change from Special Adviser to Commissioner, I had been schooled to a reasonable extent in public service administration and still learning, and also able to bring to bear my experience in having worked at Olam International Ltd.

Did you envisage the rise would be that swift?
Not at all; it was not something I dwelt on. Being a part of the Lagos State cabinet is a privilege in itself, considering the fact that there are millions of brilliant individuals who could have been in this position, and yet the opportunity to serve was given to me. What I see before me is an assignment to touch lives and be a part of an agenda to create efficiencies in the system and serve the people. With this mind-set, the idea of a ‘rise’ does not come into play. Rather, it’s ‘impact.’

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Lagos has the lowest landmass in the country but has the most population, how hard or easy has it been to ensure food security in the state?
Lagos State with its large population has been able to sustain, to an extent, adequate provision in terms of availability of food resources for its citizenry. Nevertheless, with its fast-rising population projected to reach 88million by 2100, sustainable and increasing food production and alliances with other States for food production is needed to meet these demands.

What is currently obtainable with regards to food in the State is that almost 90 per cent of what is consumed is imported from other parts of the country and externally. This leaves Lagosians at the mercy of middlemen arbitragers who place high margins on food commodities; a resultant effect of post-harvest loses and the need to protect profitability. The administration of Mr. Babajide Olusola Sanwoolu is changing this narrative as it looks to introduce a food transparency and market systems policy reform as well as drive the necessary changes required to bring food prices to reasonable levels, as well as ensure constant availability.

The use of technology – SMART Agriculture is also a fulcrum in the administration’s drive to ensure sustainable food security. The large-scale use of greenhouse technology for vegetables production, modern feedlot and cattle fattening centres for red meat, trawling for large scale fisheries amongst others are some of the initiatives being brought to the fore to drive increased yields, using more energy efficient methods, and less resources that could otherwise be channelled to other areas for the betterment of the people.

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These initiatives will have a massive impact on the lives of Lagosians with regards to traffic, environmental pollution, nutritional needs, disposable income vis-à-vis quantity of food purchases, as well as health.

From your work back in Olam, do you think we have a food security or food-processing problem?
Food security is defined as the state of having reliable access to a sufficient quantity of affordable, nutritious food. Therefore, permit me to rephrase the questions as I see from my perspective. Do we have a food security problem in Lagos? No. Do we have a food linkage system malfunction? Yes. Do we have a food-processing problem in Lagos? No. Do we have a bureaucratic system that acts as a bottleneck to helping businesses such as those in food processing set up? Yes.

Lagos caters to 10 per cent of Nigeria’s population on a landmass of 0.4 per cent. The ratio imbalance, as well as the economics around migration, means that it will have to partner with other states and actors that have the land mass for food production in ensuring food availability. The key is for us to get these production and market linkages right in addressing food security issues.

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As regards food processing, Lagos being the economic nerve centre of the nation has abundant resources – human as well as financial for businesses in this field to come into. The objective is to improve on the ease of doing business parameters and more processors will come into the food chain.

For a male dominated cabinet, how has it been for you as a female member of the executive?
Gender disparity has no role to play in the cabinet of Mr. Babajide Olusola Sanwoolu. The key challenge thrown before us all is to deliver on the administration’s THEMES agenda, and we are all working assiduously to bring that to reality. Being a man or woman plays no part in the weight of responsibilities as we are all expected to perform well. Suffice it to say that the cabinet also has a sense of family about it, making cohesion better and work more enjoyable.

What challenges do you face as a young, female commissioner?
The challenges I encounter, as a young female commissioner are not any different from those I faced in the private sector managing sales/distribution and marketing operations in Ghana. Our societal values and traditions are steeped in hierarchy as it pertains to age. This in most cases becomes a bottleneck with being female in the mix making it a little worse. But what I have come to see is that age/gender has very little to do with being in a role with responsibilities. People react positively to those with a passion for results, hungry for knowledge, and firm with decisions – whether male or female. So, the key is to thirst and run after knowledge, seek help from field experts, and never be afraid to admit to mistakes. The main challenge therefore after identifying the success factors is the time management.

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It will amaze you to know that attending to enquiries, looking over proposals, being in meetings could take 80-90 per cent of the day in this position if one is not careful to apportion blocks of time in order to cut out the distractions and focus on the deliverables, and for me, this has been a challenge.

The pandemic has brought with it a whole lot of challenges that has confounded countries and states, your ministry was very key to the lockdown last year, describe how you navigated that period successfully?
The pandemic-induced lockdown of 2020 across key states in Nigeria, with Lagos being the epicentre, was in no small way a challenge, considering the novelty of the situation. With no bias and all sincerity, the leadership exhibited by Mr. Babajide Olusola Sanwoolu and his deputy, Dr. Kadiri Obafemi Hamzat helped shape the reality of reduced coronavirus infections, as well as timely responses to emergency situations. Food and its provision especially to the less financially buoyant, played a major role in stemming the tide of infections and deaths, as Lagos took the lead in Nigeria in the provisioning and distribution of free food items to over 500,000 households (3million individuals) pre- and post-lockdown.

The critical success factor was the team effort displayed by all actors towards ensuring the vision of Mr. Governor for the underprivileged and vulnerable in society to have food. The collaboration cut across wonderful food-drive volunteers, private sector donors, MDAs such as LASSRA, LNSC, LASTMA, Lagos State Volunteer Corp, to the media houses and people that helped ensure we reached as many people as we possibly could.

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We certainly did have teething problems with distribution, and I would imagine this to be true of any first-time venture, but we were able to quickly address that by changing the distribution strategy to cut across target group lines – from People living with disability, Artisans, Ethnic group Associations, Market men & women, to Riverine communities and many others; thereby ensuring accountability and more transparency. Reaching out to 13 per cent of the entire Lagos Population obviously did not sit well with a lot of people, but considering the resourcefulness, creativity, hard work, and team spirit behind the initiative, I dare say that the Ministry of Agriculture under the able leadership of the State Governor did do a commendable job.

As a woman, how do you keep your team motivated, considering you came from the private sector where things are done differently?
Regardless of gender, a good team leader has the responsibility to keep his or her team motivated and productive by communicating the vision aligned with the task given so clearly that the team members work with a sense of purpose. I do not subscribe to the notion that gender nor sector (whether private or public) has anything to do with team motivation. The truth is, everyone wants to feel and be useful, and to be a part of something greater than self – a lot of us just don’t know how to get this to become reality.

Personally, articulation of vision and recognising the capabilities in team members that will help bring the vision to reality is what I do to keep motivation high. Also, showing genuine interest in their personal lives and dreams is a great incentive for team members to put in greater effort towards attaining the objectives set forth.

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Who do you look up to for inspiration or mentorship and why?
Inspiration/mentorship for me is not constricted by geography, age or gender. I also do not believe in drawing 100 per cent inspiration as regards everything about life from one person. As humans, we are fallible creatures and usually portray only what we want others to see. I draw inspiration from my favourite book in the bible – Proverbs, which portrays the ‘there is nothing new under the sun’ concept. I draw inspiration from my beloved character excluding Jesus, King David – he showed the fallibility inherent in us all and exhibited the gamut of emotions we go through today.

For mentorship, I look to those with strengths in my areas of weaknesses and try to emulate them in what they do to achieve the desired result in overcoming those weaknesses – I have quite a few mentors in the Lagos State executive cabinet as well as the private sector.

How important is education and mentorship for young girls who may want to play in the agriculture space like you?
Looking at young girls today, I assume many think of agriculture as not being cool enough, archaic, and in many ways sweaty and dirty. In fairness, they are not to blame. The promotion of Agriculture in Nigeria has not been that great. The re-education of the youth, particularly girls in agriculture needs to start with the fact that the sector is multifaceted and deals with chains/sequence – emanating from input manufacturing/provisioning to actual production (which is where farming /animal husbandry etc. take place), to logistics, warehousing/storage, to processing and then marketing/distribution before it reaches the final consumer. All these legs in the chain are still Agro-led, and many companies whose brands are popular in Nigeria and beyond, fall within these categories. The lever in the re-orientation is in the ability of the government with the help of the private sector to bring to light the business opportunities and gains vis-à-vis the risks in venturing into the space.

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Modern and innovative agricultural systems will also serve as a platform to encourage the youth who want to venture into agriculture. The sustainability of all these lie in the number of success stories that can be found in the Agri-space, and the internship/mentorship platform to be created in linking would-be-agripreneurs to established and successful ones.

The Lagos State government is currently working with private sector partners in bringing this to reality with the creation of linkages between the Lagos Agripreneurship trainees and successful and operational Agro firms in and around Lagos.

What opportunities do you see in the agric space that you think young girls and women can take advantage of?
The agricultural space is wide and there are lots of opportunities to be tapped; young girls and women can take advantage especially around food processing. This aspect in the food chain needs serious attention and dedication to minimise food spoilage and wastage. The impact of this is reduced food prices, availability, job creation for more people, and increased wealth and prosperity.

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We all know women are naturally wired to pay more attention to details. This aspect definitely needs the female touch and I believe they can function properly and effectively.

What is your daily routine like?
Routine takes immense discipline, and I scold myself a lot for failing at keeping to it whenever I draw up one. I try to wake up early enough to pray, and then exercise for about an hour. After that, I study my bible and daily devotional, and then sit to put my activities in motion for the day. Once I am done with this, I freshen up and head off to work where a ton of meetings are waiting. I try to limit these as it has the potential of sapping time and energy, leaving little room to strategize and implement on key result areas. By the close of work, I head straight home, looking over files and proposals before shutting down for the day.

What are your five success tips?
My success tips are as follows: Be principled and disciplined about your principles; seek for help from those more knowledgeable; plan your day well ahead or else, your day makes plans for you; make the vision plain for all critical to your success see their role in it; constant communication and feedback are non-negotiable.

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