On this week’s edition of Entrepreneur of the week, we have Ms. Tola Johnson, Managing Director of Agboola Farms, the biggest soya beans farm in Nigeria.
Without being aware of it, Nigerians consume more than 5 million métric tons of soyabeans every year.
A significant portion of its consumption needs is sourced from imports with the domestic soybean production estimated at 500,000 metric tons despite an existing huge potential to produce more (as of 2018).
Tola Johnson, an ambitious Nigerian entrepreneur, and soyabean farmer embarked on a quest to change that, and in so doing became the biggest soya bean farmer in Nigeria.
Her farm, which is situated in Kishi Town, Agede in the west of Nigeria, currently sits on 45,000 hectares and employs a large number of the natives.
My discussion with this female agricultural entrepreneur opened my eyes to a lot about the agribusiness sector,
Scroll through to learn how she was led to the soyabeans niche, how she’s trying to change the perception of agribusiness and the struggles females encounter in the agricultural sector;
1. What are your current views on the agricultural industry?
Tola Johnson: The agricultural industry is actually an evolving one. It’s been wit us from inception but AGRIBUSINESS is an industry on its own and very different from farming. More people need to understand this difference and see that agriculture can be a business and not a lifestyle. That being said, things are getting better.
2. Can you outline the strengths and weaknesses of running a successful start-up in Nigeria? E.g funding from the government, the presence/absence of agricultural unions.
Lets start with the strengths because I’m a positive person…
Nigeria has both the market and an ample population to take our supply. Any farmer that selves into agriculture and can retain just a percentage of this population is good to go.
In addition to this, we have the resources and climatic condition to facilitate running a successful agricultural start up.
However, in terms of weaknesses, there’s a limited access to funding. It’s not easy for the big agricultural firms to access government funding talk less of a start up. In order to access CBN funding for example, you need to go through a PFI, this involves listing out your collateral. A small farmer who may be renting space on someone’s land had nothing to use as collateral and is automatically at a loss.
Another weakness is the mindset of existing farmers. Even when they receive funding, farmers must stop seeing that money as a share of the National cake. Transparency within unions will go a long way in combatting this. So within unions, farmers need to come together and think of others coming up after us. When any farmer receives funding they must work to achieve what that funding was disbursed for in order to return that funding to the union bank so another farmer can benefit.
3. How did you know when you had the right idea and what made you focus on soyabeans as a niche?
Soyabeans is a very important crop!
It can be used to make oil, extract milk, produce flour, it’s the cheapest form of plant protein, it is used in poultry and livestock as feeding, it’s also an international crop and the benefit of growing soyabeans is that it is a 90 day crop i.e. if we choose to irrigate, we could have 2 seasons of soyabeans harvest in a year. At Agboola Farms, we discovered the high demand for soya beans and we understood that if we did it right, we could achieve a lot in that area.
4. The agricultural sector seems highly underrated in Nigeria,Most people go for oil & gas roles before even thinking about agriculture, what are your thoughts on this?
This is because of the way Agribusiness has been perceived. It’s been seen as a business for poor people. The public perception is that it’s an extremely rural job. However, the more people see that you can become a billionaire from this business, the more people will flock to agriculture.
Young people need to understand that career fulfillment exists in agribusiness. In fact you don’t necessarily need to study agriculture in school, there’s so many roles in the value chain that can be filled.
Such as; supply of input, land development , harvesting and off taking, agribusiness marketing, and so much more.
5. Intra-Africa trade is currently at 12% according to Forbes Africa. How is Agboola Farms taking part in increasing levels of trade, and investment across the African borders?
This is very KEY. However, we have not managed to meet the demand in Nigeria so before we say we are going to export, we need to meet local demand.
Now, even if we manage to meet this demand there are various challenges hindering intra Africa trade. Logistics has been a massive challenge. It’s not everywhere you can access by road, this stretches as far as neighboring countries but if Nigeria were to properly engage in Africa trade, usage of water transport has to come in. I’m not at liberty to say much but Agboola Farms has recognized this need and is currently in talks with another particular African government about developing our connectivity in terms of movement of goods.
6. Every successful business has a great team, because as the saying goes, team work makes the dream work … how did you build your team?
We are not yet there, we are still building because it’s a journey and not a destination.
Thus far, you need to be able to get skilled people who are PASSIONATE.
We invest in proper profiling; when employing staff our critter is goes beyond those who carry the certificate- if they are not passionate then you’re automatically at a loss. We use consultants with respect to appropriate profiling of individuals but trust me, getting the right Human resource is a key challenge in Nigeria.
When we acquire staff, we motivate them and we share the vision with them no matter their level of employment, from the top right to the lowest levels.
They must be trained and aware to ensure that everyone is on the right track and it’s a mutually beneficial relationship.
If one person does well then we aren’t doing well but if everyone does well, we are all headed for the top.
7. What are some of the mistakes you wish you could have avoided in the process of running Agboola Farms?
KNOWLEDGE, KNOWLEDGE AND MORE KNOWLEDGE…
Acquisition of knowledge. I wish I knew more of some things that’s why I always say to people, find someone who has been doing it and is open/willing to share this experience with you.
I wish I acquired more knowledge; that’s the secret to success.
8. What makes Agboola Farms unique and are there any practices or technological advancements you implement that sets the farm apart from others?
The investment that has gone into the business, the capacity that we have and our resources. In terms of investment, we currently have 20 tractors…some states don’t even have five. Agboola Farms prizes itself on hiring workers that are very determined and committed. We make use of appropriate consultancy that have both local and international experience. We test the soil thoroughly to ensure soyabeans works there. And we engage in industrial scale farming as opposed to subsistence farming which many other farms in Nigeria practice. Industrial scale type of agriculture is a niche that sets us apart from others.
9. Farming is usually seen as a male dominated role especially when you take into consideration the successful farmers in Africa. Are there any particular challenges you face pertaining to being a female entrepreneur in this field?
Firstly, this is a struggle women go through in every business not just agribusiness. But of course, we cannot deny the fact that agriculture is a male-dominated business. In fact, when You find women, it’s usually more focused on poultry.
So as a female entrepreneur in this field, you constantly need to prove your capacity, you have to work not twice as hard but 10x as hard.
You must know your craft thoroughly. This way you turn that prejudice around with the amount of knowledge you have and that’s how you earn respect and honour.
10. What is one piece of advice you have for anyone wishing to venture into agriculture?
Gain as much knowledge as possible!
If you have the right knowledge you’d be able to take the right decisions. If you lack the knowledge, you’d be handicapped.
And not just text book knowledge because ofcourse you can read, head to YouTube and watch tutorials and enroll in courses but all this cannot be compared to gaining knowledge from someone who has been there and done that.
Merely learning from their mistakes and succeeded will enable you evaluate better.
11. What is your vision for Nigeria’s agriculture sector?
TJ: I envision more and more people comin into the agricultural sector and running it not as a lifestyle but as a thorough business.
A friend of mine expressed her interest in entering the sector and she mentioned a bunch of crops she wanted to grow and I told her; Pick one crop and become the icon in that field.
Learn everything about that field and do it on an industrial scale.
I look forward to people entering this sector and finally shirking the perception that agriculture is a business for the poor.
Albeit not studying Agriculture and graduating with a Bachelor of sciences in geology and mineral sciences from the University of Ilorin, it’s impossible to miss the passion and intense desire she holds to educate the youth about the endless benefits of Agribusiness.
The media has a lot to do in terms of shifting the mindset and perception of Nigerians when it comes to agribusiness and the agricultural sector as a whole therefore my hope is that in my own little way this interview can open doors for Tola’s endless efforts to foster a new wave of agribusiness in Nigeria.