Apart from infrastructural challenge, lack of financing is the next critical bane that continues to worry Nigeria’s rural farmers. However, Usman Lawan, a subscriber of the modern school of thought that financing can stem from redistribution of wealth from haves but unskilled or occupied to the haves-not but skilled is set to fill that vacuum. With his new concept, Farmers in Suit, he hopes to garner N500 million for rural Nigerian farmers through investments in farms sponsorships. In this interview, he shares his vision with TEMITAYO AYETOTO
Could you unpack this new concept you are promoting; farmers in suit, what does it mean?
Over 80 million people are going into agriculture. However, despite this population going into agriculture, we still have to spend so much money importing food. And when they say about 85 million Nigerians are living below poverty line, I can assure you that over 70 percent of these numbers are rural agriculturalists. So, despite the involvement of people in agriculture, they are still very poor. Nigeria is still very poor in terms of food. But clearly, there is no shortage of manpower or the willingness to earn a decent living among our rural farmers. However, they lack a lot of things like agricultural financing, farm mechanisation, improved seedling, farm extension services, among others. Depending on whatever crop you see, the average farmer in Nigeria loses between 40 to 70 percent of whatever they produce to post-harvest losses. You can’t do most of these things without money and that has brought about this concept.
So The Farmer in Suit is an investment platform that provides professionals who love farming, who understand the problem of security challenge and want to be part of the solution, but either do not have the time or the knowledge of farming. We have all the resources but we don’t have all the money. Give us the money, and we give you a guarantee on the money and a guarantee on the return on your investment, so that we are able to use your money to provide all of the things that the rural farmers need to the rural farmers, like farm inputs, improved seedling. We monitor these things all through the process and at end of the farming circle you get your money back, plus your guarantee on return on investment.
This way, we are able to democratize wealth through agriculture. We are able to increase productivity and improve the livelihood of rural farmers and we are able to create more wealth for the absentee farmer.
So, this explains your solution to agricultural challenges?
In Africa most of the losses happens immediately post-production. It’s mostly in handling and logistics that we have our waste. In developed societies however, waste happens on the food table. In African societies, it is the farmers that are wasting the food more. They do not have the resources and the technology. Yes, my solution cannot solve everything, but it is an enabler, a big helper.
What sets you apart from the flock of digital agriculture platforms springing up today?
What makes Farmers in Suit different is that we are not an agricultural marketing platform or a produce marketing platforms. We are actually institutionalizing agric financing. We sell farms to other professionals, giving them the opportunity to be farmers. What we are doing is for people to come and buy farms and produce? We are also creating a zero-waste farming system where every cluster on our platform provides market for another cluster. For instance, we have in our circles grain producers who produce grains. We also have feed millers to mill feeds. And then we have the poultry farms and the fish farms. So here is what we do. The grain producer will produce grains and sell them to the miller and the feed miller will sell on to the next in the value chain. So it is a system where the waste produce of one process serves as input for the next process.
What is the scope of your market focus?
First we have the farm sponsor market and then the produce market. For now we are doing grain, poultry and commodity trading. The target is about $6.8 billion. What I hope for is that Nigeria stops importing agricultural produce. And then maybe we can begin to export. We actually are looking at N500 million within this year.
How do you intend to pull such a huge amount in?
Every farm we open has on an average 1,000 farms. So by the time we launch, we are looking at, at least selling four farms. Four of those farms rake in about N40 million. We intend to raise it from the public. What we are doing is to say, that village boy that left and came to the city and makes and now doesn’t want to farm; we say okay, you don’t actually have to go back to farm but you can support your father or grandfather, from the city by way of sponsoring their farms. So give us the money and we will do that.
Have you established any partnership with international bodies?
I have been working with the United State African Development Foundation USADF. As an individual I got a small grant from them already. So I’m really looking at them supporting us to scale up by way of providing funding, as well as training and mentorship. We are also looking at working with DFID.
What is the size of coverage you plan for the Nigerian market?
Right now, we are looking at covering nationally. So what I have been doing in the last five years in the agric sector is living in my own small corner which covers only Nasarrawa and Abuja. This is actually the project that will change everything. What we are saying is that everybody look, we have a problem. By the year 2050, Nigeria could reach 350 million [in population]. If we continue to produce food at the rate that we produce today, by 2050, all of us will starve. People don’t seem to understand this but I do. We can all fight it in the way that we can.
Would you say the Nigerian operating environment is enabling enough for your idea?’
I do not think that it is enabling enough. I think there is a lot of work being put in place but I think that a lot more needs to be done. I have had the privilege of living in the UK and in the US. I know how things work there and because of this I do not think it is enabling enough. However, an enabler is the person who is moving the vision. My opinion has been that I can make things happen.
The CBN has just introduced a 9 percent interest rate lending policy, how does this fit into your vision?
The CBN loan is such that needs aggregators and this is where we come in. Under our platforms, we have 7,000 farmers. So we have the kind of avenue that the CBN is looking to put in those monies. In terms of infrastructure, the major infrastructure that a rural farmer needs is road access. It super imports because that’s the only way you are able to get your produce to the market. The other is resources like dryers, packaging materials that help you to manage and reduce post-harvest loss. That brings us to issues of stuff like silos. People don’t have this. So these are the kind of solutions that we are bringing to the rural farmers.
What is your message to those who still find agriculture unattractive?
This platform is more or less for absentee farmers, professionals, doctors, lawyers, engineers, bankers, among others. It is for people who understand the food security challenge, have passion for farming and understands the plight of the Nigerian rural farmers who want to farm but do not have the time.
Averagely, what is the return on investment?
It depends on what you want to invest in. for instance, if you are doing poultry for 5 months, your return on investment is 14 percent. If you are doing maize or soyabeans, the return on investment is 12 percent. The most interesting part is that, if you want to go and see and have a feel, we also arrange farm visitations for our farm sponsors.
What is your assessment of the impact of digital revolution on Nigeria’s agriculture sector?
Digital technology has done three things to agriculture in Nigeria and the world. The first one is precision agriculture. This means you are able to use computers and analytics and analysis to be able to determine soil content, soil nutrient level and soil nutrient need. Then you are able to determine our crops are growing and determine what they need and what they don’t need. The technology really helps you to understand and in fact you are able to predict what your yield is likely going to look like. The second one is the online farm shops. A lot of people in Nigeria are using the platforms of social media, whether it’s Facebook or Instagram or even their individual and personal website, where they are able to store farm produce. The third is the issue of agric-financing by way of leveraging on technology.