April 4, 2016

ADA OSAKWE: The Creative Food Entrepreneur

ADA OSAKWE: The Creative Food Entrepreneur

By Jemi Ekunkunbor

She typifies the quintessential brain and brawn. She has a CV that is as impressive as her looks. She holds a BSc in Economics (First Class Honours) from the University of Hull, U.K., a Masters in Economics and Finance from the University of Warwick, also in the U.K., and an MBA from the Kellogg School of Management, Northwestern University, Illinois, United States, where she was awarded a Merit-based Scholarship and the Kellogg Leadership Award, the highest student honour given for distinguished leadership.

Her chosen career path has taken her to top investment institutions such as the African Development Bank (AfDB) in Tunisia, where she worked as a Senior Investment Officer. In London, she worked as an Analyst in the Debt Capital Markets team of BNP Paribas – an investment bank. In New York where she lived, she was a Vice President at Kuramo Capital Management, a private equity firm. She also worked briefly with Actis, a multi-billion dollar private equity fund focused on emerging markets investment.

She returned to Nigeria and served as the Senior Investment Adviser to Dr. Akinwumi Adesina, Nigeria’s former Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development between 2012 and 2015. In this role, amongst various initiatives, she led the development and launch of the Fund for Agricultural Financing in Nigeria (FAFIN), an innovative private equity fund dedicated to investing in small and medium agri-business companies in Nigeria.


A lover of nature and food production, she likes to describe herself as a creative food entrepreneur. She is the founder and CEO of Agrolay Ventures, a four in one company, Nuli Juice, Nuli Foods, Nature’s Bounty and African Courier Express.

Recognized for her efforts, in 2014, she was named one of Forbes 20 Youngest Power Women in Africa. She is also an Archbishop Desmond Tutu Leadership Fellow of the Africa Leadership Institute and a fellow of the African Leadership Network (ALN). In 2015, she received the ‘Achiever in Agriculture’ Award. She is also a 2016 Young Global Leader of the World Economic Forum.

When I met Ada Osakwe at her Ikoyi, home (in Lagos), she looked everything unconnected with agriculture; fiercely fashionable, the runway missed a model!

Agriculture is not a popular career path for women. What sparked your interest?

I am not the typical farmer, you would say, but while I was with the ministry, we were always going around trying to get people to look at agriculture in a different way and bring the sexy and the umph back. I think, what really brought me in was my interest in private equity; private investments. For me, agriculture is amazing. When I look at the entire value chain, it’s not only about farming. You can see these farmers need markets and you can create those markets by taking the farm products from the farmers and processing them into finished product.

It’s not just about processing, it can also be the chain; the logistics of packaging and taking these products to retailers and, eventually, to our tables as food. At every single point, there is business opportunity on that chain. That is what got me thinking that there is more than a typical hoe and cutlass that people see when they see a farmer.

After your interest was kindled, what was the first thing you did?

My interest was about how to take our agricultural products and make them into good finished products that can compete on the world stage. The first thing I did was to tell myself that I want to stop accepting mediocrity when it comes to agricultural products. I want it to become the norm that you buy a product first because it is well packaged and of good quality before you realise it is a made in Nigeria product. That was how I got started and, in that sense, I had to think of how to start getting quality products that are tasty because if you have the right packaging and it doesn’t taste right, they will never buy you again. That’s why I believe in creative agro-business. I like to call myself the creative food entrepreneur. So I started with processing fruits and vegetables. It’s called Nuli Juice. First NAFDAC registered fruits and vegetables juice.

What does it mean to be a creative food entrepreneur?

As a creative food entrepreneur, you are going over and above just the farming of agricultural produce and even the processing which is value addition. You are taking an added step to think about innovation and creativity when it comes to food products. So, you can’t just stop at adding value, you have to grow that value and make it a product that will actually sell; a product that people will be attracted to, a product that people will feel safe to pick when it comes to food.

You have to start having the right regulations, the right certification. That is creative agri-business because you are thinking about all the various aspects – the authenticity, the art, the design, the packaging, the logo of your brand, the name you call it etc. All of that is what creative entrepreneurship is about – bringing locally grown agricultural produce and adding value to them.

How effective is this in our country?

It’s very effective especially with foreign exchange depreciation; everybody says buy Nigeria, save the naira but, in the end, the only way we can save the naira is if we are exporting our products that are done here. The only way you can export your product is if you have a competitive product in the market. I want to see my juice products on the shelves when I travel. Why would I have to walk the shelves in any of our super markets here in Nigeria and pick up a product and see made in Portugal, made in China, made in the UK? No, not when we have it here. So the reason why I go into the creative agro-entreneurship is that in order to compete, our products must meet that standard of food and beverage products abroad in the look and feel, in taste and packaging and certification. That entire process is what is so important to me.

Are the relevant authorities doing their bit in this regard?

It’s not just about NAFDAC or Standard Organisation of Nigeria (SON) stamping something. It’s also about the fact that there are global agricultural good practices, standards that we need to meet in order to be able to export our products. Packaged and processed foods is a $2 trillion market and we don’t even feature in it.

We are hearing now that the UK is banning beans coming from Nigeria because our beans are not good enough. All we have to do is package right, put a nice sticker and send it out and let them know it came from a farm in Nigeria that is doing the right thing.

How many of our women are processing or is it that they just farm and sell off their produce?

Not many women are processing because it’s not always easy. There are small scale processing whereby a farmer takes her cassava and makes it into garri but there is a form of processing whereby, for example, the cassava starch is substituted for corn starch that Nestlé uses. That is another level. If you go to the North, they process shea. You also have the moringa seeds. Right now, in the USA, shea butter is something that everybody wants. But where are we featuring? Instead, Ghanaians are entering that market and taking it up just because we are not packaging and branding well.

What is being done to train these women?

A lot of training and awareness workshops are going on to teach them how they can earn foreign exchange because many of them don’t even know the opportunities that are available to them. They say that our hibiscus is one of the best in the world. We have companies abroad who use it for tea and drinks. I think the awareness needs to be raised. The Federal Ministry of Agriculture does training for women but the more conscious effort is in the creative agro-business aspect which captures over 50% of the value chain. That is what we need to focus on.

Are people investing in agriculture?

They are now getting there. We spent the last four years in government focusing on the fact that the government should just provide the enabling environment but let the private sector lead and the only way we could do that was to demonstrate to the private sector and Nigerians that there is opportunity in agriculture. Now that we are where we are now with the economy, everybody is talking about diversification. Farming is not always considered easy. If you are sitting in Lagos and you expect to be running a farm in Anambra State, it’s going to be tough. You need some serious oversight if you are doing it on the scale one wants to do it. But Nigerians are waking up to the opportunity; policies are being put in place but there are limitations.

What are they?

Well, because it’s still a new area, people are still learning about it. Even our financiers don’t understand. There is a high perceived risk and there is a long gestation period but you have fruits like cucumber, tomatoes that take a shorter time to cultivate. There are many things one can do. It may be just packaging. One can invest in just storage and ensure that products don’t go bad. But for us to truly compete in the scale of Brazil or Indonesia, serious investment needs to go into it.

How has Nigeria Incentive Risk Sharing of Agricultural Lending (NIRSAL) helped in this regard?

Well, they introduced a scheme whereby seeds and fertilisers were given through mobile phones and there was shared risk between the government, the CBN as well as the agro-dealers who were providing these. I am no longer in government so I don’t know what is going on now. But we do have a government that is focused on agriculture as a way of diversifying the economy. We have a CBN that is focused on policies.

How easy is it to get fertilisers accessible to women?

You still see the numbers are not in favour of women in many areas; it’s a cultural thing too that the woman may have a farm but the man goes to collect the fertilisers. But we did see concerted effort by government in the way they empowered the women with a new system of distributing fertilisers through mobile phones. So the women have their phones and if they get an alert that they should come and collect their fertilisers, then they can go.

Now, you can see how with the use of technology, many woman have been empowered. But indeed, there could be a more focused effort because you still have majority of our farmers who are women. The former Minister of Agriculture, whom I worked with and who went on to become the President of African Development Bank; through his leadership there, they have now dedicated a funding line, millions of dollars towards providing credit to women in agriculture which is great.

That can complement what the government and the private sector is doing here. I have a big focus on hiring women. Over 60% of my staff are women. It’s very important to me that women get an understanding of value addition in agriculture.

Do you think this can help with poverty alleviation?

That is for sure. There is no doubt about it. Women are amazing; just the kind of things they can do if they get a job to keep her family together and achieve goals.

While we are talking about women empowerment here, a bill on gender parity was recently thrown out by the Senate. How would you react to that?

It’s so sad and unfortunate to see the lip service that is paid to gender equality! Even the things that I have done and accomplished, it’s still unfortunate that you still walk into a place and people say: “na woman na”.

We have a long way to go with the psyche of our society. This is not about paying lip service but demonstrating it through law and ensuring that we have that equality. That is why I love what you do at your magazine; just keep showcasing and promoting women and what they are capable of.

Sometimes, it’s a cultural thing and in a country with different religions, it gets complicated.

As a person who has worked both in private and public sector, what is it like for a woman in the boardroom?

I tell people that since I came back to Nigeria as a professional, I have never felt an outright discrimination as a woman. I tell people, I just have to speak at a meeting and give my point of view and whatever concepts the men may have about a woman falls away. Know your stuff as a woman! You have to be extra prepared.

If you are in school, stay up late and read. If you are making a presentation in the office be on Powerpoint, do your research and come prepared because that is the only way this male-dominated society with the perception that they have can be changed. I tell every woman that I mentor, know your stuff if you want to make it in this society. Have confidence. Nobody can take that away from you. Also, find a good supporter, mentor or role model.

So how do you like to dress for those big meetings?

It’s been a balance in terms of the way I dress, going through the corporate ladder. I like bright colours. I like being feminine but there were times when I had to tone things down because I wanted to be what society describes as professional.

It’s only when you are high up there that you can start relaxing and say I can wear what I want. But prior to that, people only take you seriously when you conform to a certain extent. I keep a serious face and I always try to speak or say something. I always say to those I mentor, be the one to take notes because at the end of the meeting, it will give you an opportunity to say something. It adds up.

I like shoes a lot. So, even if I am wearing a dress suit, I will give a pop of colour with my shoes. If I am wearing a dress, it will not be a simple straight dress, it will have some detail. I pick unique pieces that I can find anywhere.

How would you describe your style?

Easy but quirky sometimes. I go with a lot of elegant looks where possible. I do like pearls if I am going to work but there is a great simplicity to my style. I like good cuts when it comes to suits or trousers. It could be simple and elegant but the quirky part, I use colour there.

Do people sometimes think you could be underpins because of your glamorous posture?

I’ll tell you a story. When I was working as Senior Investment Adviser to Dr. Akinwumi Adesina, he was invited to speak at the Bankers Committee Meeting with the former CBN Governor as chairman. They all went to Calabar for their annual retreat. My boss couldn’t go so, he said: “Ada, please go and stand in for whatever they have to say on Agriculture”.

At one point, Dr. Sanusi was lamenting why my boss could not come and so he was told that he sent somebody and he was like, “Who?” So, I stood up. I was wearing a blue, short straight dress, keeping it nice and elegant with my heels and I had long hair. The governor was like, “Is this the person Adesina sent?” And he added, “Things are changing in Agriculture”. And I said: “Yes sir. This is part of the transformation agenda.”

What won’t you do in the name of fashion?

I always like to look elegant and respect myself as a woman and in the way I present the essence of being a woman. I may want to be sexy, show legs where possible but no exposure. I work with my body. I wouldn’t wear something that would make me an object of somebody’s wet dreams. We can be sexy and elegant without showing anything. I will not go to the extent of showing parts of the body that the Lord has given to me to be covered and kept.

When you are not working, where do you love to go to rest?

I love anywhere where there is a beach. When I choose to rest, take me to a place where I can hear the ocean in the morning when I wake up or a place where I can just sit and listen to nature or read a book. That is for rest. But I like shopping.

So, where is your favourite destination?

I love New York. I love shopping there. I love Italy, Rome particularly. I like the history. I could go there over and over again.

Between beauty and fashion, which would you emphasise?

It’s a balance but I think I like fashion because I like dressing up. I like shoes especially the Sophia Webster shoes.

What designers do you subscribe to?

I can go crazy with Sophia Webster shoes. Otherwise, I don’t bother with label. It’s more of functionality for me.