The Founder and the Chief Marketing Officer, FarmKonnect Agribusiness Nigeria Limited, Mr. Azeez Oluwole Saheed speaks to our reporter, Akinlabi Afolabi, in an interview in his office in Ibadan, on the achievement and project of the First Agricultural Real Estate Company in Africa. Excerpts:
Sir, let’s go into you being a trained chemist, a soldier and a farmer, how were you able to merge these three personalities?
I grew up as a farm boy and my father had to supplement his earnings by running a small garden behind our house together with my mother. I helped my parents those times; I was always on the farm every weekend and every evening. My dream and desire as a kid was to be a neurosurgeon or a pilot and I was told by my mother that I also wanted to be a doctor or be like Babangida, maybe that manifested by me joining the military. However, being the last child of a family whose father was super-broke, my siblings had to step down for each other to go to school. Then I had an uncle in the military who advised me to join the army. But then I asked him these questions; Am I going to pay school fees? He said “No”, Will they go on strike? He said “No”, Will they pay me money? He said “Yes.” and I was like these are enough for me to start a life in the military, so I applied and put in all I could. That was how I joined the Nigerian Armed Forces. When I got to the Nigerian Defence Academy, I wanted to be in the Navy and also be a Chemist, so I chose Chemistry and they gave me exactly what I wanted. That was how I became a Trained Chemist. I finished as the best in my department in NDA. When I moved to the military, I was in the Navy and I must say I really enjoyed my career. Sincerely, one of the best things that happened to my destiny is joining the Nigerian Armed Forces, because it moved me from being the son of just an ordinary person in the family and placed me among leaders. The Nigerian Armed Forces contributed a lot to me and whatever glory or excellence FarmKonnect will ever radiate will always connect to the foundation the Force laid; be it leadership, human resource, material resource, time resource and financial resource management. At some point I needed to supplement my income, so I had to leave the Force. I served in the Armed Forces for years. I started FarmKonnect as a project where I and my colleagues put money together to farm. I started doing crowd funding in agriculture as far back as 2007. At a time while I was in the Military, I had an incident whereby a file was dropped in my office to be treated and my cleaners came in, moved the file from the cabinet to elsewhere and for two weeks I didn’t treat the file. When I was asked of the file, I got angry because files don’t spend more than one hour with me, but I later realized what happened and also realized that I didn’t notice the file because FarmKonnect as a project is clashing with my career. I worked with the Military from 8am to 4pm and then resumed to my project from 5pm to 1am. So I worked like that every day and fully on weekends. This wasn’t easy for me, at some point I asked myself one question, “What if I had a crash?” I told myself one day that the Armed Forces had given me a lot and doesn’t deserve a half of me, so it’s either I give all I can to the service or I check out of the service and give all I can in diaspora. A lot of distractions kept coming up and being an excellent officer I didn’t want to change so it’s better for me to pick one thing than to run multiple things and be a failure. So I resigned on the 18th of November 2017 and my resignation was approved on the 17th of February 2018. This is how I have been able to move from a Chemist which I think goes along with the military before becoming a Full time Farmer.
Let’s delve into your educational background…
My top most degree is Bachelor of Science in Chemistry. You can say I am not a brilliant man, as I dropped out of Masters degree six times because of career challenges. When I put in the first time, I was transferred and I had to stop, I applied to Lautech for Transport Management and didn’t go through, I got American Intercontinental University (AIU); an online school in America and I was doing a course on psychology, because I was becoming a Police in the Armed Forces, then I had a gunshot incident and before I recovered I had missed a lot and I needed to spend a lot of money on my health so I had to withdraw and so on. I’m still going to school, I like education, I know that to serve in the country, you need to have academic certifications but I want to make sure my system is fully established then I can now go back to school as I have some pending Masters to pick up. I just want to make sure FarmKonnect is successful, stable, before I go back to school. I actually did a post graduate course in agriculture, I was applying for agricultural course in Canada so I had to build a two years PG to position myself. As a matter of fact, trying to go for that course, I knew that Navy will not allow me because of my alignment, which was also one of the motivations for my resignation.
Going into the genesis of FarmKonnect, there is a saying you started with just $200, how is this possible?
It’s a long story you don’t want to hear. When I tell people I started FarmKonnect with as low as Thirty (30) thousand naira, even me I don’t believe, but I remembered when I was in service at early stage of my life, I started investing. The first money I was paid was invested in buying lands but I lost as I made a terrible mistake at some point in my life. One of the problems we have is that people want to get rich fast and we put money in a dangerous territory and be calling blood of Jesus, I am particularly an example of that, taking stupid financial decisions and praying to God for mercy. I invested in multi-level marketing whereby you bring #10 to collect #20 and I invested heavily as it was introduced to me by my uncle. I ran into debt because I borrowed money from the bank to invest, a 3-year loan and it crashed. So all of my training allowance in the Navy went away in the process of paying back the loan, which gave birth to the name “Mr KaloKalo”; which means “someone that wastes money.” Now I use the name to encourage people. One day I sat down and I foresaw that in another three months, I might not be able to feed my family especially supply of protein to the kids, I had two kids then, since I know how to farm, I brought tilapia fish, it doesn’t need much food to grow and by three months it would have multiplied and I can use that to supplement my family for protein and that’s where the idea of FarmKonnect came up. I am spiritual but not religious, I believe there is a force, I call him God that is strong enough to direct my path in life, I have a stable voice, I heard the voice saying that I will expand the business but I laughed, that was 2015. One of my friends, Joseph Alakija, my four years junior in the Armed Forces walked up to me one day and asked, “Oga sir, what business are you doing?”, I said am not doing any business, he didn’t believe, so I told him okay I am doing fish farming and I asked him, can we contribute money and do the fishing business? then he said we should talk about it. I told him we need to raise 1.2 million naira to do a number of fishes and six of us should come together and contribute 250 thousand naira each. I spoke to about 14 people hoping 6 will come through but only Joseph Alakija came through while all of us including myself didn’t come through. I knew that 250 thousand naira will not get to anywhere, as small scale farming is a money-burning venture, I didn’t know what to do and while I was still in the dilemma of telling him what happened then he called me, oga sir, why are you like this and why don’t you allow people to invest in your project? I sat down, called him back that I will do something about it then I sat down again and began to look at the economics of production of things I knew how to do, and started testing different projects. My most prominent project then was cat fish, this is something I have been doing as far back as 1992 as an apprentice with my brother and his friends. As a 10 year old boy, I had learnt how to inject catfish, extract the eggs, to condition fishes for pairing so they can mate; I could do everything, so it’s just a lifestyle for me. I asked myself, why don’t you put all of these together and perhaps you have a direction for them. Then my friend got a loan and said to me, Oga go and start farming. Joseph Alakija is my junior in service and I can’t afford to waste his energy, with his money, I had no alternatives than to succeed. I remember another person that came to my aid, a senior colleague and his wife who invested money again just because they trusted me, I also remember I wrote something on Nairaland, a guy, Mr Oloyede Oluyemi traced me to Ibadan and eventually gave me some money for the project. These unleashed my capacity beyond the fear of heart that I can do all things through Christ that strengthens me and that I can grow the business. Later we decided to structure the company since we have the greenhouses and other things. Let’s put it together, let’s test it, so while I was working in 2016, I said I’m going to start FarmKonnect and there was no funds so I took from my salary which is not very large because of debt. So this month I will pay for website and next month pay for another thing. I did the former FarmKonnect Logo myself because I had to learn to reduce the cost and had to write a thousand documents myself. I read a lot of books to help myself and talked to people who have experience. With no money and family to support but I have people who are already taking their shot on me so I sat down and restructured and I started what is called Agricultural Real Estate. FarmKonnect is the originator of Agricultural Real Estate as a business model in the whole of Africa. This inspiration came when I asked what the meaning of real estate was and I checked the dictionary, it is a property consisting of houses and plant so I said, take the houses away. I know house can never produce the same money plant will produce. So I began to develop Agricultural Real Estate Model. Agricultural Real Estate is a simple concept I will like to explain. So this was how FarmKonnect started and people started showing interest in what we do. We grew from one person in my sitting room in Akobo to hundreds of personnel.
Talking about FarmKonnect being the first Agricultural Real Estate company, how did you achieve this?
Agricultural Real Estate, the inspiration came when I visited Dubai in 2010, a guy met me and asked me to come own a house in Grand Emirates, I was surprised, and he said I can own the house for just 21 days for 21,000 USD. Meaning the house is there, I will own the house for 21 days and another person will own it after. It was madness to me then but it later became the soul of my business in 2017. Agricultural Real Estate is just like the conventional Real estate, they acquire large expanse of land and as many people as possible will have their portions and build their houses, so if we do that for houses we can do it for plants as well. Because many people will even build multiple houses, lock it up and be in diaspora. So I decided, instead of building houses, it could be agriculture. Many people in other business field don’t have time but love Agriculture, some people have the time, they don’t have the money maybe they are going to do a project of 50m but only have 5m and without proper management, they just waste the money. Or they are living in Canada and they don’t have access to lands there, will they come to Nigeria to expose themselves to the situation in the country? When they have a job in Canada. So we looked at it that people are limited in skills, some have the money, the land but they don’t have the skills set. Another thing we need to take seriously is that people shouldn’t abandon an industry for another. When Oil came, everyone left for Oil. Now everyone wants to be in communication industry, Oil and gas and real estate, every industry is important and if it’s not important, it won’t exist in the first place so why can’t people be in that industry and still contribute to agriculture. Agricultural Real Estate means you can be a doctor and you can own a piece of farm with FarmKonnect and we will just run it, it is different from cooperative or collective farming and contract farming though they look alike. In Agriculture Real Estate, it has to be a commercial stage, it must be scalable, it must be collectively funded, it must be have a unified management and system driven, and it must also be regulated. In FarmKonnect, we regulate ourselves and we are open to regulation. For instance our snail project runs under a franchise that regulates us, tell us how much level we go per time, they are not our superior but they advise us, similar scenario goes for our Wasimi Vegetable (WaVE) City project as well. Another one is security, we insure, physical security and financial security so as to avoid a problem, the next element of Agricultural Real Estate is high yield. It has identified benefits; Glamour, the reason why youngsters don’t really get attracted to agriculture is that it is seen as a messed up thing, it is associated with mediocrity, but I farm. When you do all these, how do you attract the next generation? Anything you do that doesn’t attract the next generation is not sustainable so there is need for post charity so you need to glamorize that culture and make it sexy, make it appealing so that people would love to be part of it. One of the things is that you have to use modern technology and methodology because it’s doing well abroad. Once its glamorized, another thing is working toward efficiency. When people come to FarmKonnect and they want to invest, we conduct you on a tour, we don’t speak too much English. When you get to farm then you can decide, 97% of people who have gone on the tour have come back to increase their investment. We are not farming in the air. I am not in this project because I want to be a millionaire, I have been a millionaire since 2005, I’m not here because I want to make money, I am here because we need to change the landscape and I am willing to nurture many people as possible, we have not even penetrated the 5% of the potential of Agriculture and Agricultural Real estate is flood gate that can open that.
Your Electronic Agric Extension Center will be the first of its kind in the country or maybe in Africa, How was FarmKonnect able to do this?
When I started putting plans for those big projects, we knew that there’s an element of failure, if you want to succeed and expand in Agriculture, if you want to have people do conventional farming in successfully in Nigeria, you have to put a system in place. Why should we stay somewhere and castigate government? The destiny of industries are in the hand of private sector, so we need to transform Agricultural sector and one key thing we need is data. Many people are blind farmers, they believe you get seed, put it in that land and make profit. We need systems; we need things that help farmers regardless of their educational background succeed. How does a farmer understand the influence of a weather, a climate change on his productivity, how do you know that your land maintain high level of fertility. This 2020, rain didn’t fall as maize didn’t grow and do you know. Talking about sensors, put sensors on your farm, when your plant develops a certain symptom of disease, you will act quickly before the disease is spread. What are the parameters your plant needs to perform well, census will tell you, you don’t really need to be on the farm to know, you can do it through the cloud. What is the use of satellite, there are satellites up there if Nigeria does not have one, other countries do because they are expensive to access so satellite can warn you about pest infestation, plant health, what happened to drone services? We have a partner in Holland, they have a triangulation of weather, soil and plant meaning when you get a location, they tell you the weather of the place, the soil and the plant that will do well there and the kind of fertilizer that is suitable. Another thing we need to control is wastage. Majority of fertilizers are not essential, how do you control or regulate the system? Sensors can help you reduce water when plant doesn’t need water, he knows when the soil is dry and needs water, it knows how many drop of water needed. All of these must have a control centre so we took it upon ourselves in FarmKonnect to make these services available in Nigeria. For instance, our project is One million square meters of greenhouse for vegetable farming at WaVE City, another One million square meters of greenhouse in Imo State, how would you run two million square metres by running up and down? So we started the E-centre first of all to protect our investors’ money and by extension to other farmers. We could manage and monitor any farm in Africa using satellite technology. There is another one for irrigation, you don’t need to be on the farm, from the satellite, it can plant and make irrigation plan for a farm. We don’t need to visit the farm, from the E-centre we could do everything. This will be a backup to help farmers on site, we run it 24/7, and we see signals if anything are needed. We will be launching it by March 2021 with the help of Oyo State Government. It is really going to change the future of our country.
Do you think Agriculture can help boost the economy of the country?
I think agriculture has a big potential to change the destiny of Nigerians. For example, look at the small company of ours, we already employed hundreds of people and by the time we launch our new farming projects, we will employ more people. What’s economic impact? Individuals have access to finance, to manage their personal lives. They could do things and we can produce high quality, export them in excess and even if you are not exporting, you have food in the house. This creates an indirect job as some people will trade the commodity as money is moving from here and that’s economic activities. Agriculture goes beyond economic impact, it create jobs, financial prosperity, food security which is the fundamental element of physical and social environmental health security. If you don’t want people to roam the streets, if they have food, they won’t, if you don’t want people to be falling sick, health security, its good food. Financial security, if food is common, it will go cheap. Agriculture goes a long way and in FarmKonnect, we say Agricultural is Peace.
Can you tell us about the projects FarmKonnect is embarking on and its uniqueness?
we have some projects, I like to talk about Igbeja Snail village, we’re doing that under the franchise of Touchstone snail technology, they are the biggest in snail production worldwide with experience far back as 1989, we are riding on their shoulders. Currently we have the biggest snail farm on Nigeria soil and with full capacity; it should be the biggest in Africa. Another project is what we call the Wave city which is in Wasimi in Osun state, we have a replica in Imo State and Cross river state for the production of tomatoes, peppers, etc using control farming environment. All of our projects, we use modern technology because we want to have control of the parameters. I already discussed our Electronic Agric Extension Center for Precision farming. FIDAS is also another project; it is an Institution of Data and Agribusiness studies. At FIDAS we teach our farmers how FINANCE works, CHARACTER; the most important in Agribusiness success, COMPETENCE; to position our farmers for the best opportunities, technology and methodology in Agriculture. Moving away from that, we have AFIDE, Agricultural and Financial Inclusion of Daily Earners, it is a massive programme that will be launched in November and we hope for it’s stability. We see this opening ways for over 200,000 daily earners and ensure their financial stability. By January, we will commence 160 Hectares of fully irrigated open field tomato farming and 50 Hectares of Onion farming. We are growing another variety of potatoes, we have done it, tested it, we are done with the first batch and we are moving to second batch. It is the Orange Fleshed Sweet potato fortified with Vitamin A.
Advice to the Youth concerning Agriculture
I will tell them to follow their hearts and that’s why I talked about glamorization of agriculture, make it pleasant, make it profitable. The essence of this hustling is to live a good life and if we make agriculture good, people will come in to do more and invest. The key element of agribusiness success (Finance, Competence and Character), if people are exposed to it, it will help especially the Youth. No Industry can survive without the Youth.
Work, Work, Work, how do you enjoy your free time?
I have a problem, I am a boring person but I discovered as boring as I am, I still make people laugh, let’s say I am funny. I love to swim, I spend time with family and my evening with my kids I do early morning running as well. You see, when you are doing what you love, you are not working.