‘Understanding the needs of women in farming will help in guiding them to succeed’

I started my career in 2007 as a consultant at the Chicago office of McKinsey & Company, engaging with senior management across several industries.

Lola Masha is the Executive Director for Corporate Services at Babban Gona Farmer Services, a social impact organization focused on supporting smallholder farmers to increase their yields. Babban Gona has worked with over 60,000 farmers in Northern Nigeria and has ambitions to raise one million farmers out of poverty by 2025. Prior to joining Babban Gona, Lola was the Director for Trust and Safety at OLX Group, and has previous experience working at Google. She was one of the earliest Googlers in Sub-Saharan Africa when the technology company began its operations in the region. In addition to Africa, Lola has substantial international working experience in North America, Europe, and Asia. She also worked in the Chicago office of McKinsey & Company, where she spent time advising senior executives on extensive strategic management topics. Boasting a Doctorate degree in Engineering from the University of California, Berkeley and a Bachelor of Science degree in Engineering from the University of Virginia, she discusses her foray into the world of commercial farming, helping women farmers make money, how Nigeria can attain food sufficiency and how the government can support women farmers amongst other issues.

You have an illustrious career, take us through it from your very first employment?
I started my career in 2007 as a consultant at the Chicago office of McKinsey & Company, engaging with senior management across several industries. From there, I moved on to a new role leading the corporate strategy team at Bank PHB (now Keystone Bank). After leaving Bank PHB, I spent four years at Google leading business development in Nigeria, as well as various product partnerships across EMEA and emerging markets. I was one of the earliest Googlers in Sub-Saharan Africa when the technology company began its operations in the region and I helped shape the regional strategy and executed on several core initiatives, leading business development efforts with key SSA partners including telcos, OEMs, digital content providers and local entrepreneurs. I later joined OLX Group in 2014, starting as Country Manager where I was responsible for driving all elements of the business including business development, product localisation, marketing and other functions. I also had the role of SSA Product Lead added to my portfolio. Before leaving OLX Group, I was Director for Trust and Safety, working across over 30 OLX markets. I transitioned from the tech word to Agri-business in 2019 taking on a new role at Babban Gona as Executive Director, Corporate Services. I have the privilege of serving on the board of Babban Gona, Doreo Partners (Babban Gona’s parent company and a venture capital firm that identifies and invests in visionary business models that drive social impact) and Descasio, a cloud computing solutions provider bridging the gap between cloud-based solutions and legacy on-premise solutions.
You said you ventured into the business side of farming, what informed this move?
Over the course of my career, I have worked in several very different industries ranging from chemicals, consulting, financial services, technology and now, agriculture. I am industry-agnostic and my motivation has always been the ability to make significant impact in whatever organisation I find myself. I am driven less by industry categories but primarily by my desire for business growth, transformation and optimisation. Core business functions, finance, operations, sales and so on are similar in most companies. How they achieve their objectives might be different (e.g. different business monetisation models), but the fundamental objective of what they do is the same. I was attracted to Babban Gona by the opportunity to learn about an industry I was not previously familiar with and the ability to apply my knowledge and experience in a new environment.

What exactly is Babban Gona and what does it do?
The Babban Gona agricultural franchise is a financially sustainable, high impact and highly scalable social enterprise, part- owned by the farmers we serve. Our model is designed to serve the bottom of the pyramid and transform agriculture into a job creation engine. Through it, we offer a suite of services to smallholder farmers that help them overcome the challenges of fragmentation and low economies of scale. These services include, Training and Development: Through our farm university, members are trained on good agronomy practices with a focus on minimising negative environmental impact. We also provide training targeted at improving their financial literacy, management and leadership skills.
●Financial credit: We raise cost effective debt to finance its members.
●Agricultural inputs: provides the appropriate balance of quality agricultural inputs at highly competitive prices.
●Harvest storage and marketing services: access to optimal storage practices, markets and increased profits. Through these services we have been able to dramatically increase the productivity of tens of thousands of smallholder farmers by two times the national average and their profitability by two and a half to three times the national average. In 2016, we grew to become Nigeria’s single largest maize producing entity, and with over the past eight years of operations have scaled to serve a cumulative of about 65,000 smallholders across five Northern states, Katsina, Kano, Kaduna, Bauchi and Plateau states.

As executive director, what does your role entail?
I am responsible for key functions including finance operations, business intelligence, supply chain, logistics, procurement, sales and marketing.

Tell us about this franchise model, how does it work and how do the farmers benefit?
The model supports smallholder farmers with the key service of professional management by structuring them into farmer groups called trust groups under the leadership of a trust group leader. Through this model, we provide a suite of end-to-end services to them from the beginning of the planting season to the very end, giving them access to technology, input and services which have proven to improve their yields and incomes. The average trust group has three to five members who grow staple crops like maize and rice with an average farm size of 0.7 hectares. Our farmers benefit from the end-to-end suite of services we provide from the beginning of the planting season in the form of training, inputs and so on, to the very end, down to the bags, threads and needles needed at harvest. After harvest, the farmers bring their grains to us and we store for sale at a later date. Upon collection, our farmers are issued harvest advance loans. Our provision of storage services to smallholders allows us improve their market access and obtain a premium on the sale of their grains relative to the prevailing market price at harvest, and we transfer this profit to our farmers in the form of future bonuses paid to them on a quarterly basis.

Tell us about WEDI, how is it helping women in this industry?
Our Women in Economic Development Initiative (WEDI) was designed with the goal of recruiting female relatives of our member farmers to retail fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG) such as bouillon cubes, noodles, pasta and other products. We piloted this model in 2017 with 240 women and increased to 1,200 in 2018 across our existing hubs. The goal of WEDI is to increase the net incomes of women in our communities by providing them with a viable business opportunity, with the aim of transitioning them to become full farmer members at the end of a two-year period. By targeting these employment opportunities to the female relatives of our members, we leverage on trust, which is a key element of our work. Given the patriarchal nature of the communities we operate in, it is of essence that we obtain the buy-in of the leaders and family-heads for gender initiatives to succeed. As at our last planting season, the number of our members stood at about 16,000. Each of these farmers belongs to an average rural farm family consisting of about 5-7 individuals. This program is designed to ensure that an additional source of generating income is created through the female members of each family, and for the women serving as a powerful tool of empowerment.

What would you say are the greatest challenges facing farmers today in Nigeria?
The majority of Nigerian agricultural production is performed by smallholder farmers. Yet, despite being the backbone of the agricultural sector, the majority of smallholder farmers remain impoverished, earning less than $2/day. In particular, in northern Nigeria, where our agricultural franchise is focused, farmers face extreme poverty. Smallholder farmers typically own small plots, averaging between 0.5-0.7 hectares of land dispersed over non-contiguous fields. As a result of this fragmentation, smallholder farmers suffer from low economies of scale. These low economies of scale inhibit farmers from attaining high levels of profitability in three key ways including the high cost of production; in the agric sector in Nigeria, there has been a dis-incentive for private sector companies to invest in efficient distribution networks, to deliver agricultural products efficiently and effectively to the rural communities where the smallholder farmers are majorly based. Due to the unavailability of these agricultural products, a typical farmer needs to travel several kilometers to purchase inputs that have gone through several vendors, leading to highly inflated prices, and often adulterated low quality products. Also, low yields; smallholders are poor with limited purchasing power to purchase the quantity and quality of inputs to get high-yields. Hence, they need a payment plan that matches the seasonality of their income. Due to these poorly developed agro input distribution systems farmers are unable to access the knowledge they need to optimally utilize the inputs they can afford, further impacting their yields. Finally, low market access and prices for commodities produced; most poor farmers are not linked to markets for a variety of reasons: remoteness, low production, low farm-gate prices, and lack of information, to name a few. At harvest smallholders are unfortunately under significant cash flow pressure, as they have not earned income for almost a year, hence they market their excess product, that is, what their family won’t consume at the same time, so prices are very low. If they were able to delay the sale of their produce by three to nine months they would be able to attain a premium of between 25 per cent and 40 per cent.

The Federal government recently shut the country’s borders to reduce importation of food items, how has this action helped or harmed you?
Currently, our agricultural produce is 100 per cent for domestic use and most of our customers buy their grains locally. In the short term, we have not yet seen the impact of this government policy on domestic prices or on production volumes from our farmers.

Would you say Nigeria could ever attain total food sufficiency without resorting to import?
Absolutely. We strongly believe smallholder farmers are key to achieving food self-sufficiency as a country. If smallholder farmers (researched to be responsible for almost 80 percent of total food production) are provided with the necessary support in the form of low-cost credit, quality inputs to increase productivity and yields, improved post harvest storage and market access, the latent potential in the sector will be achieved.

A lot of young people avoid farming, why is this so and how can we change their mindsets?
For a long time, agriculture has been thought of as an occupation for the poor. Young people have long associated farming with back-breaking, hard work without commensurate returns and so they avoid it, in the process some have become unwitting agents in insurgencies. They are also usually without substantial collateral to access credit, have little or no land holdings of their own and do not have the fallback of labour provided by family members older farmers might have. We identified all these factors deterring youth from farming and these informed the design of our agricultural model. With our model improving the productivity of our members by up to 2.5-3 times the national average, we currently have 40 per cent of our member base as youth. Our training and development sessions run via our farm university platform have been instrumental in driving a mindset change for our farmers from subsistence to commercial. This way, they approach farming as a business and not in the traditional way their forebears did.

How profitable is this business?
With the right structures in place, agriculture is a very profitable venture. For rain-fed agriculture, right structures include insurance, low cost credit, access to markets and so on. More and more, we are leveraging technology to improve the profitability of our farmers using applications that drive increased yields and our general efficiency as a business. Our in-house enterprise development team has developed a suite of mobile-based applications, which make our operational activities more efficient as we scale. We are using technology to expand our reach and deliver seamless end-to-end services to the doorsteps of rural farming families.

Commercial farming tends to exclude women, in your opinion, how can we guide more women to become successful in this field?
Understanding the needs of women in farming will help in guiding them to succeed. For instance, we have our operations in Northern Nigeria and we undertook a study to understand the factors that hindered the participation of women in our program. We discovered some key deterrents such as distance from the input collection points, and their unwillingness to interact with male extension agents. To ensure their participation and success in our program, we have tried to ensure that our input collection centres are at most 15 to 25 minutes away, and recruited female extension agents for this segment. We also developed the WEDI program I described earlier based on this, to ensure that we were supporting their needs appropriately. For women participating in WEDI, their shops are most times located in the front of their homes, providing a convenient means to earn money and still be available to take care of their families.

How can we tackle post-harvest wastages and get food items even when not in season?
We employ an innovative storage solution that is helping smallholder farmers address the problem of food loss and wastage as a result of poor storage after harvest. Our hermetic cocoons have enabled us to attain a historical post-harvest loss rate of less than 0.1% and helped our small-scale rural member farmers to reduce wastage and damage to their grains due to moisture, pest and fungi-further improving the energy content and reducing the levels of aflatoxin in them. Scaling on innovative ideas like this, and improving smallholder access to cold storage options will go a long way in tackling post-harvest wastages.

In what ways can government provide more support to farmers, especially women farmers?
With government interventions, there is always room to grow and improve. Data has shown that men’s production and earnings are at least five times that of their female counterparts. To bridge this gender gap, I believe government initiatives could provide more support by tackling challenges they face, particularly with respect to their possession of smaller and less secure plots of land, less access to physical inputs and less access to labour and extension services relative to male farmers.
You wear several hats including being a mother, how do you balance them all?
Unfortunately, the reality is that, in general and for a variety of reasons, it is harder for women to succeed in the workplace than for our male counterparts. It is definitely not easy balancing professional life with life at home. To not only survive but also thrive in the workplace, I actively delegate and ensure that I have a strong team that is clear on their goals and priorities. I try not to micromanage them but provide the needed guidance and support that they need to be independent and successful with minimal handholding from me. At home, I ensure that I’m available for all the important activities, milestones and day-to-day needs of managing a home. Also, I have a very understanding husband who steps in often to support with the demands of raising a family.

If you could improve one thing for Nigerian women, what would that be?
I’m a firm believer in the strength of women. For the Nigerian woman, even though it is difficult to maintain a healthy work-life balance, it is possible. If I could improve one thing for the Nigerian woman, it would be to ensure that they have a conducive work environment that effectively supports them.

How do you relax and recharge?
I enjoy spending time with family and friends. I don’t watch television very much, but I listen to radio shows on my phone. It’s actually a good way for me to relax. I love to spend time with my family. I also proactively try to connect with friends and family and try to have a very healthy social life, not necessarily parties, but finding time to visit my old friends and family members that I haven’t seen for a long time. It is in those connections or interactions that you truly form deep relationships/connections. So, it’s very important to me to get out, from Monday to Friday work and truly connect with my social network in a deep and lasting way.

What would you say to any woman reading this that has been inspired by you and wants to venture down this path?
I would say keep your priorities straight and have a strong team in place that supports you. I’m not only referring to a strong team at work, but across all spheres that are important to you, a strong team at home, a supportive structure at church or any other religious activities you may be involved in, a dependable social structure with friends that provide positive encouragement and frank but fair feedback. Constantly stay positive, optimistic and see the good in every situation. It is not easy, but can be truly rewarding and fulfilling with the right priorities and encouragement to achieve one’s goals.

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