The increasing demand for superfoods among consumers continues to spur a global market, coupled with the health and wellness benefits that come with it, there is potential to increase the market demand in the coming years.
Superfoods have a high percentage of fibers and antioxidants, and these demands won’t go down anytime soon.
Reports show that in 2021, the global superfoods market reached a value of USD 152.71 billion while it is expected to reach USD 214.95 billion, by 2027.
Technology is required to drive the value chain of superfoods so that their benefits could reach smallholder farmers who basically produce them. AgroEknor is introducing this technology into the value chain of superfoods to improve efficiency, increase traceability and reduce wastage.
From processing and storage to fumigation and transportation, AgroEknor is building on traditional agri-food production expertise to create more efficient operations and profitability across the value chain.
Over the last 5 years, AgroEknor has empowered over 5,000 smallholder farmers, built on traditional agri-food production expertise, created efficient tech-enabled value-chain operations and exported more than 15,000 tons of agricultural products to clients globally.
In a chat with Timi Oke, CEO and Co-founder of AgroEknor, he discussed the challenges and opportunities that come with catalyzing Nigeria’s superfoods value chain, the role of technology in improving productivity and efficiency, as well as the importance of impact-driven inclusive partnerships to drive the development across the agriculture sector as a whole.
From retail banking to agriculture, what was behind the drive?
I trained as an Economist, and I worked a bit at a stockbroking firm in Nigeria, following that I went to the UK for a degree in International Business and Strategic Management.
From my earliest memories, I’ve always been interested in agriculture, trade, and entrepreneurship as I was engaged in a bit of trade during my NSYC days, and even prior that, I have always been a trade head.
I also had an interest in agriculture, during my master’s program, I got introduced more to the concept of international trade and business, even though at the time I was trying to be a consultant, I found myself working at a retail bank, which was a stepping stone in my career. During this, I was engaged with management consulting on one side.
While working as a retail banker, I always seem to stumble across agriculture. I recall, how my colleagues usually tease me on this matter as I even have a folder on my desktop computer with loads of research materials and agriculture in Africa.
Eventually, I ended up having a conversation with two people, a business partner and my brother on the desire to launch full-time into agriculture, I told both of them, “I wanted the pursuit of personal freedom in the aspect of entrepreneurship.”
I explored the opportunity of both trading and technology in agriculture a little further, and I found an opportunity that we could take advantage of. I quit my bank job, went a bit bullish about it. By 2023, my journey into agriculture would have been a decade.
There are many options of agricultural products that can get a value chain transformation, why superfoods?
We export agricultural produce, which means that there is a niche market for them. I was interested that superfoods aren’t left out of this, though it was a bit overlooked in the Nigerian agric space.
Apparently, there were a lot more conversations around cash crops like maize, cocoa, and cashew, but the superfoods like hibiscus, and ginger weren’t given much attention. I felt there was an opportunity for that, we made a forecast that demands on superfoods will continue to grow exponentially owing to them having multifaceted users across different industries.
It would make a lot of sense to focus on these superfoods since both the market and value chain are developing, we could offer a direct value proposition to people at the back end and off-takers on the front end.
How to leverage technology to scale agriculture in Africa?
Looking at Nigeria’s agriculture sector, it’s one of the largest, permit me to say, the most important, however, you see that the deployment of technology in this space, isn’t up to expectation. Here, over 70% of smallholder farmers do not even deploy technology in their farming.
These are the people we rely on for the sustainable supply of food crops, however, the good thing is that agriculture and technology in Africa are evolving and expanding, with the space becoming a bit more tech-centered.
It’s also guided by a younger generation of entrepreneurs who believe in innovation. In a company like AgroEknor, we believe in innovation and impact.
It’s rising, and we know that technology is going to play a very significant role in optimizing agriculture value chains across Africa.
What are the challenges and opportunities that come with catalyzing Nigeria, superfood value chain?
The opportunities have been obvious to us, we’ve deployed a bit of precision farming technology, in hibiscus cultivation.
What that has represented has been higher yields on the same farm sizes. Farm sizes that once produced one ton, are now yielding about 1.5 times.
What is also happening with technology, is agricultural sustainability because, through technology, you can regulate, and optimize the value chain in a way where you’re using fewer fumigants and fertilizers.
Technology will be an important partner, as we pioneer agricultural sustainability, in Nigeria and eventually in Africa. Higher productivity, with less labor, and that’s another plus for technology.
Beyond that, on the global end, when you deploy technology, you will have access able to traceability of goods, while processing them to global exports, and standards.
What that means is you’re able to sell the product higher, thus prosperity spread across the value chain, if global off-takers can pay exporters higher just because we use technology to help in producing the goods and add value to them, then everyone across the value chain earns a bit more, and that’s where we want to take this selected superfoods to.
Concerning the challenges, we’re a developing nation, thus there’s a bit of challenge when it comes to the penetration of technology.
If you go to precision farming, we work with rainfall scientists to send weather predictions and analysis to a bunch of our farmers, but in situations where sometimes they do not have electricity to power their phones in receiving these timely SMS alerts, you know, there’s an issue there, which is bigger than obviously the agric value chain.
However, for a developing nation, there are certain infrastructures, that can be better, but I mean, we’re optimistic that that we will get there.
Statistics on your website show that you have over 70,000 harvest tons, 3000 empowered women, 5000 farmers, and 1000 engaged youths, can you tell us more about these milestones?
When we started the business, we wanted to make sure it was all about innovation and people. While we were recognizing the gap that innovation was going to fulfill, we were also looking at the socio-economic impact our operations were going to create.
As a team, I have two co-founders Attah’ebwa Musa Anzakwu and Ayo Oke my brother as I mentioned in my introduction, early on we recognized the role AgroEknor played in the environment we were operating in as this environment basically rural people, rural people.
We found out there was a shortage of opportunities, thus we sat down as a team, and asked ourselves, “how can we ensure the work we do contribute to creating jobs, reducing poverty, improving food security, and also promoting gender equality?”
We then set out the woman empowerment path, ensuring that our operations were made up of 80% women across the value chain. We were thankful enough to our partners along the journey like the Nigerian Export-Import Bank (NEXIM), the Development Bank of Nigeria through FCMB, and also private equity, called Aurora Capital.
Having this data and financial partners, AgroEknor has been able to expand our operations in a way such that we’ve been able to meet some of our internal targets including job creation, and gender equality.
AgroEknor has an impact-driven, backward integration scheme called FEEP (Farmers Education and Empowerment Program), a synergy of innovation and impact, and we’ve registered over 3000 farmers, and right now we’re currently even registering more farmers.
The goal is to provide them with the farm inputs that they need, fertilizer, a bit of precision farming, which I mentioned earlier, and also access to credit capital.
Through this scheme, we’ve been able to reach the grassroots, owing to the volume of what we export around 1200 to 1500 tons of hibiscus annually and that’s about 124 different containers.
This implies there’s a lot of employment creation for drivers, motor boys, and the operatives that load and it’s just those little things across the value chain. We also have a multi-storage and processing center.
Our daily operations sometimes have about 120-250 people working as part-time and temporary staff, leading to all activities that bring about this socio-economic development.
“We measure our progress, not just the numbers, the numbers are great, but also with impact metrics.”, Oke added
How will impact-driven inclusive partnerships drive development across agriculture in Nigeria and Africa?
A lot of AgroEknor’s products in this space, that’s superfoods, are cultivated by smallholder farmers. Smallholder farmers operate less than a hectare of land while deploying subsistence farming.
For us as a business, we understood that whatever success we’re going to achieve in the future, it’s going to rely on the people who are giving us these products, our future success is going to depend on their prosperity and their well-being.
Thus, if planting hibiscus or ginger is not seen as viable and attractive for them, they will not plant it, and then no matter how much we invest in technology to process and communication, you won’t have the product.
Therefore, we need to make sure that we’re creating a future for them, where their income and standard of living will rise, Just so that they and other generations, after will see that smallholder farming is viable, they would see that the people they are supplying these products to, believe in them and respect the work they do as well. This is what inclusive partnerships are all about.
Has the government done enough supporting small holder farmers in Nigeria and Africa?
The government is going to do a lot, and we’re grateful for it, but to fully optimize the value chain, there has to be important private sector players, because what smallholder farmers need is access to capital.
However, there’s a path for everyone to play, both government and private sector, and I think to achieve the results we desire, it has to be inclusive partnerships end to end, even with government inclusive partnership for the farmers, inclusive partnership with the exports, as with the regulators, an involvement that is inclusive, that’s the only way we can maximize the aggregate growth potential in this country.
“Mentoring people coming behind us is a big part of what AgroEknor does. I would advise anyone who wants to come into this space of agriculture and technology to be solution-focused because we believe in ideas and sustainability.“, Oke concluded
Featured Image: Timi Oke, CEO and Co-founder, AgroEknor
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