One Of The Things I want To Do In My Life Is To Ensure That Things I do Are Sustainable - FARMKONNECT CEO

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At exactly 3:10 pm, March 29th, 2021, Olanrewaju Ola led Adedoyinsola Peters, and Toyosi Olosunde to Ramat House, FarmKonnect Headquarters in Africa, Bashorun Area, Ibadan, Oyo State, to meet with the team lead of the organization, Mr. Azeez Oluwole, as he shared some of his FarmKonnect journey experience and some things to expect as the company grows.

Azeez Oluwole Saheed is a young, enthusiastic, and smart 'Agric Preneur' expert in Nigeria; Presently he's the one leading the team at FarmKonnec & one of the company's focuses is to contribute immensely to food security and sustenance through the agricultural real estate of modern technologies and methodologies.

Mr. Azeez hails from Ogun State, Nigeria, but was born and raised in the ancient city of Ibadan, Mokola area to be precise.

He went to Nigeria Defense Academy, and was commissioned into the Nigerian Armed Forces. After he spent about 17years of reckonable service in the Nigerian Armed Forces, he resigned to focus copiously on his established firm, FarmKonnect which started in the year 2014 and officially registered in Sept. 2017.

As you read further, enjoy the attention-grabbing interview below:


Can you tell us about your educational background?

Ahhhh, I'm an illiterate and that's a very bad thing, you make me remember that I dropped out of school 6 times, Yes, because of money, and of course because of my work schedule, I couldn't finish up my Master's degree, I just scratched it. But, I attended a nursery school, I started from IMG in Mokola, then I moved to Aunty Pat Nursery and Primary School, then I went to Methodist Grammar School, Bodija and thereafter, I went to Nigeria Defense Academy, where I got my first degree, and I was commissioned into the Nigerian Armed Forces, and I spent about 17years of reckonable service in the Nigerian Armed Forces. While I was on the job, I tried severally to acquire one master's degree or another but had challenges that made me drop out.

 

What inspired the name 'FarmKonnect'?

Whaoooo! Every time, somebody asks me this question, somebody still asked me yesterday, the day before yesterday, even they've asked me the same question abroad.

FarmKonnect as it were took me two weeks of intensive thinking, I did that alongside a friend and junior colleague in the Navy, of blessed memory (Abraham Vicerwa Wuta) It was two weeks of very stressful thinking. We came up with 42 names and with lots of permutations and all. At some point, I just saw FarmKonnect among the names and I told that my colleague, … “that's the name”, the guy looked at me like 'really'? I told him, just pick that name for me and don't make it two words, make it just one word.

 

When did you start FarmKonnect?

FarmKonnect was officially registered on the 26th of Sept. 2017, it was previously running as a project under then Naffins Investment Limited, since 2014, but as people began to hear about my intention for it, so I was advised to register it as a company.


What are the things you think we need to know about the company, especially your driving force?

Yeah! I remember when I started FarmKonnect, I was telling my team this morning, my dining room was our office, boardroom, and everything. We were four guys, later we became five, seven, 17, 30, and we're still growing that way, I remember those guys were receiving as low as 20k or so, but they believed in the dream and not the salary I was paying them, they just came to help me in a journey of stability, people like Ridwan Lateef, Alade Wunmi, Oreoluwa Adeleke, Suliat Adegbola, Emmanuel Owuka, Lukas Merenini, and many of them. But the vision seemed clear, but getting clearer as I began to work on the journey. I understood the problem of sustainability. When it comes to business, one of the things I want to do in my life is to ensure that things I do are sustainable, I always teach a course on '10 principles of warfare and how they apply to business' and the last principle of warfare is "sustainability", don't start a journey you can't complete. And it's one of the reasons why I actually resigned from the Armed Forces so I could face this business, because it gets to a point where business calls and activities were distracting me from military work, so I concluded Navy doesn't deserve half of me, so I resigned and moved-on with this business.

And when you're talking about sustainability, the reason why a lot of companies don't have that is all because there is no proper planning and structure in place. I shared a story to some of my team members today, When a friend Akintunde Teslim, harassed me literarily, talking passionately, (But, I love him) saying; why are we not there, why are we not doing this and that, I just smiled, I looked at him and replied; you don't appear to a king naked, I am not building a company to just make money and it goes, no. If your business is only about making money, you're in a bad business, I've made millions since 2005, so I’m not after money, and besides, I'm pensionable, if I don't do anything again and just sleeping and waking, I will be receiving my pension and living fine till I die. But, no, I have what is driving me & not just to make money, but to have a sustainable system, building capacity first before you go out and start collecting money from people.

I spent two whole years creating a structure and foundation for FarmKonnect, I had clarity about where I was going. I want to set up a system, I want to be able to travel for months and the company will still be running because of a good structure. I am not boasting, FarmKonnect cannot die in my lifetime, never, it's not possible because we don't just operate we have clarity of purpose and have everything spelled out.


What an insightful session there, can you share with us some of the vision, mission of FarmKonnect?

Ok! Let's start with the mission, our mission is to contribute immensely to food security and nutrition, there's a difference between eating and being nourished, it's not about putting things into your mouth. So, our mission is to contribute 'immensely' to food security and nutrition through the Agricultural Real Estate of modern technologies and methodologies. How do we do it? What do we use in doing it? Is it modern? Can it help our youths? Can it help our efficiency?

Then, the vision is to make profiting from agriculture easier and consistent to all and sundry. Whether you're a Vulcanizer, Bank MD, you work 24hrs or 7days or you don't even have a job, you should be able to make money from agriculture, regardless of your skill, your time, your location, your boundary or anything, that's our vision and we're very clear about it.

 

You resigned as a military man, and also not doing so bad, so what is that thing that's driving you?

I hate hunger, I grew up hungry, and I remember when we used to mix garri and palm oil and so many terrible things in life... Chai! See talking about this will make me remember my late mum, she sold all her clothes for me to even go to school, she had only two wrappers, and one was complete the other one was not, it's a very painful experience that one will not want to talk about, and that is why we call this place 'Rahmat House', her name is Rahmat (meaning Mercy), I named this building after her, she passed on the 14th of November, even the month I was born! So, there's a lot of sacrifice that made this man you're seeing here.

What made me to become a millionaire early, my cousin became a Naval officer, he got married and my brother  asked me on his wedding day if I'm interested in becoming a military personel, so, I went to NDA school, NDA is a destiny shifting platform that took a son of nobody and made him somebody. I didn't have a blurry future, I had an opaque future, and I didn't see anything.

You know, as the last child of 6 siblings where the first one and the third child had to get out of school for the 2nd one to go to the university, so also when the 4th left school for the fifth to complete her education, and she was my dad's favourite. So I knew I had a low chance, I started working as a truck boy, cement vendor, and those menial work. I had worked at Lafarge, the Portland cement at Jericho, magazine road, they know me there, you can even go and ask 'Saheed Omo Alfa' there.


Do you ever see yourself in Agribusiness while growing up?

No, I wanted to be a pilot or neurosurgeon


Sir! I will still like you to tell us more about your background?

I grew up in Mokola, behind Veterinary to be precise is my father's house; I even started my aquaculture business there.


So you're from Ibadan?

No, I'm from Ogun State by blood, but from Ibadan by birth, I’ve lived all my life in Ibadan, so I can say I’m an Ibadan man. Just that when I want to become your governor now, you people will start the history aspect, (laughing). But I really love Ibadan, it's a blessed land for me and I want to give back to this city.

 

Do you think Nigeria is doing well in the Agriculture business?

We can do much better.

 

Why do you think so?

I'm not thinking, it's known nah, (arun oju ni nah), the data shows it, the potential we have we're not tapping into it.  Nigeria has huge potentials, so what happens in the Southwest, all of us want to be doctors, lawyers, we want to go abroad and all, but look at the North. Though majority of the farmers there are illiterate. We also need to change the perspective in the Southwest that educated, rich, handsome, intelligent, even professors can do farming. Food is a serious business, everybody eats on a daily basis except you're fasting, so it's not a business of poor people and we need to re-orientate them and let them know. And we need to be deliberate about it, the banks, politicians will think about agriculture, if politicians think about agriculture, they'll not allow Fulani Herdsmen to be killing people on their farms, they'll crack down on them and protect farmers and their farmland the way they protect oil-rig and the likes.


What makes FarmKonnect stand out from others?

Because it is FarmKonnect. (Laughing out real loud) before they became plenty, I have been asked exactly the same question. Well, when you talk about Agricultural Real Estate, have seen 'Farm city' 'Farm Town' 'Farm village' 'Farm everything'. Agricultural real estate as a concept, started from me, Azeez Oluwole Saheed (beating his chest) on African soil. They may duplicate the idea and give it different name. See, I'm even bringing it as a course that we'll be teaching from this place, starting from next month. When I saw crowd funding, I was afraid that it will be abused, so I came up with Agriculture Real Estate for sustainability issue. When a lot of them started having issues, I discovered that some of them started adopting my models, now, part of the things that scare me is, do they really understand how Agricultural Real Estate works? This is five years of test built on 24years agricultural experience, and they're just copying and pasting! But what matters to me is that, there's food security, FarmKonnect cannot take all the value chain, so we need a lot of other people to come up. I set up this Agricultural School to train more youths, get money for them and say go and do it, or how do you train people to become your competitor! ahah, for you to know we are not in competition with anybody.

 

What other uniqueness does FarmKonnect offer?

Lol… You know that every business has trade secrets, I will keep my trade secret here before they will start doing copycat again (…laughing). You see, Agricultural Real Estate is a model that took me a long time to test;

Firstly, how many of them genuinely have a farm that they're running? Every time we ever collected money and gave to a third party farmer, we lost that money already. So, I'm not ready to do that, we run our own farm program ourselves, I bring in people, train them and we're good.

Secondly, I'm not farming because I want to farm, I farm because I want sustainability, I know how to plant tomatoes, I learnt it and I am also not doing it alone. I have over 6 different companies from the best country in the world, from Kenya, Netherlands, Jordan, etc. As a matter of fact, the running of some of our projects are done by those expatriate, I'll rather pay more for people who have expertise.

Thirdly, System, when you're talking about FarmKonnect, you're talking about systems, we are always thinking system, if you look at that hall there, we created the first electronic extension service centre on the African soil, we're still waiting for our console to arrive from the port, and from there we can monitor anything going-on on the farm, FIDAS as an institute has an extension for research. If research institutes are not doing their best, FIDAS can go from market research to agricultural research, we even have a foundation that can fund FIDAS. I am more driven by the need for nation building, and that's why we're creating an eco-system, this same FarmKonnect will still raise nothing less than 5000 Africans in the next 15-20years who will also draw investment into agriculture, we are already in Liberia, so we're not out because we want to put our name everywhere or just to make money. Nation building is critical, we are a patriotic people and that differentiates us from others. We also like money but that is not just where we are going.

 

Can you tell us more about the Financial Inclusion of Daily Earners (AFIDE)?

You see, every time I see people complaining about the government, I start separating things that individuals or cooperative can do from the things that government can do, like policy making, law enforcement and others. See financing agriculture to success is in the hands of private people. Private sectors and cooperative, like 10 or 100 people coming together to do collective agricultural project is the way forward. Is it CBN that you want to wait for? You'll apply for their loan and they will delay you for 2 or 5years before you can get it. If at all you'll ever get it! That some certain regions in the country are getting fund faster than other regions, is that what you want to wait for? It’s high time people come together and get things done. That is what AFIDE stands for. AFIDE is a cooperative called Agricultural and Financial Inclusion of Daily Earners (AFIDE), where people who do daily business like Okada riders, taxi men, pepper seller, vulcanizer, cloth sellers, can all come together and achieve along their normal behavioral pattern of contributing, contribute and let money go into agriculture and we'll facilitate loan for them to enhance their business under that cooperative model, as I speak, we have different mini cooperatives, which will become a mega, super, even till it grows to Microfinance Bank. For example, as a member of our cooperative, and you are selling nose mask, the little money you're contributing will be given out to another person to trade and it grows like that, you can now see that we are all into the business of agriculture. AFIDE program exposes you to banking, loan, and insurance; these are the things that you should enjoy as a member of a cooperative. AFIDE has 4 major components; Financial membership, Operational, Trade, and Service component.

 

As a young man, is there any program you have for the youths and young people?

I like that question, and I even like the way you started by saying that I am a young man, I believe the destiny of agriculture is in the hand of young people and women, if you give a woman #10, she will never eat that #10 alone, I believe someone somehow will definitely eat from that money, especially children, they have a way of compounding it. Another is a young man, the energy is still there, you can see the way am talking with energy as if I’m a generator, I looked at my father this morning and ask myself if I really want to grow old, many years back he was also full of energy, but he's now old. So, why do you want to do agriculture without talking about the youth? Youths are the soul and future of agriculture; it is only in this country that youths are being put aside. It is not until you see one big man with a big tummy before you can see people doing great stuff. No, there's nothing wrong with a young man controlling billions of naira, when such a man at 25, 26, 27, and 40 has seen money and managed humans, when he/she eventually becomes a governor he/she will be smart because he already learned that in the business process, not just to go and bring anybody from somewhere who can't manage resources.

So, we are conscious of how to make our youth become responsible. One of the things that make agriculture a failure in Nigeria is character; many of us are nurtured with poverty character. The second thing is a knowledge gap, a farmer has to understand that it's a business not just about putting seeds to the ground, he must understand the business of agriculture and he must also know finance. If you don't understand how money works, you cannot make or build money. I don't think God gives people money; instead, He gives idea, energy, wisdom, inspiration and blesses what you're doing. People need to understand finances and that is why we started FarmKonnect Institute of Data and Agribusiness Studies (FIDAS) so that we can bring youths together and bundle courses for them. Nobody puts his money in the hands of an idiot, he will squander it, but when they understand how money works, he will never be excited, give me up to 60 billion, I will never be excited, not because I have that kind of money before, but because I know how money works, if they have the same understanding, and also need to rewire the mind of these youths, so I'm passionate about it.


So, can we call it an Agric school?

It's an institute, and that is what we are using all the ground floor to do.


Ok, it a school that teaches about farming?

Not just farming, business, finance, character development, emotional intelligence, and all the skills that make you a successful business person.

 

What is the duration?

It depends on the courses; there are some that will take weeks, some 2 months, 6 months, and even a year. There's even one that at the end of the training, which will help the person source the startup capital, however, we must build that person to the level that he/she can manage the kind of money we are placing in their hands.


What program do you have for the grassroots farmers?

For me, I have a foundation called Agricultural and Social Entrepreneurship Foundation (ASEF) to help people, and in a way of giving back to the society, and to also take care of the old farmers, give them food, money, medical attention, etc. till their time past, that's my plan

 

What are the major challenges you've faced so far?

Challenges! First of all, Nigeria as a country is a big challenge, governmental policies are one of the greatest problems I am facing personally and the inconsistency. Let's talk about CBN, today you can send money tomorrow you cannot, next tomorrow you have to fill that form before you can send or receive money, and a lot of things like this happening is too expensive for us. See dollars, you place your order at #360/$ and by the time you're to remit money, you're to pay at #460/$, these things stretch us. You make an economics production at #350/$ and by the time you're paying it is now at #480/490. International transfer, a lot of people want to give us money to do business, but the exchange rate issue is killing us, it's one of the challenges am facing. I can't just criticize the government based on sentiment, assumptions, or scanty information, I just feel the government needs to be deliberate and supportive to small agricultural businesses if they are really passionate about food security which is the fundamental of all security, because any nation that lacks food security can never have any other form of security.

Another challenge is the lack of trust, at the beginning people were not believing me, but now even when people come around and doubting us, I'll just tell them not to bother if they have doubts in their mind, sometimes, I'll just tell my members of staff to put them in the car and take them to the farmland so that they can see what's going on there themselves.

Another one is getting experts, but at a time we get that solved once and for all, I have to bring in people from abroad. Another one is the integrity of people, partnering with other company (chai...) even when you sign a contract with them, they'll still break it, a lot of people don't have integrity in this country. All these are challenges and worrisome.

 

How cordial is the relationship between you and your staff?

It is like having a table tennis bat, if you look at it, one side is usually black and the other side is usually red or sometimes green and red, ehn ehn. Someone ask me sometime how would I react to a situation and I said even myself do not know how I will react to a situation, I’m a mysterious person (…laughing). But there's something about me, I have respect for humanity, I believe every human deserves the honour for being a human being, and being a CEO I can't achieve anything without them. So I have a law, when people will say 'customers are king, customers are king' I don't argue, but 'members of staff are king makers', I still said it to them this morning. I take my staff welfare seriously, and I’m not an oppressor, I can't get the best from them if they're not confident, I have to demilitarize for two years, so that I won't be harsh on them. Though some of them still get afraid of me, but to me a confident staff is a more productive staff; I carry them along. Sterling bank's representatives were here last week and gave me feedback; saying these your staff members are not stooge, that they know what they're doing, confident, and genuine, YES, that is what I want in them, they have clarity, I communicate my vision, my pathway with them and I tell them if I  rejecting anything, I tell them why and instruct them on the way forward. I also give them some measure of power which they can decide and negotiate certain things on my behalf, we're a team, the money is not mine in the first place and why will I have to claim it and arrogate that to myself, the money is of the people and some even invested because of them, so I should give them the opportunity to understand how the business works so that we can collaborate towards greatness nobody attains alone.

 

So are you saying you have a lot of investors and want more?

Any company that runs only on its money, is not a company, it is just a group of people that have money (..smiling). Other people's money is the sweetest money, I definitely want more investors, FarmKonnect has the capacity to accommodate more. A wave city project is a #16 Billion project, so if you slap me with 16 billion naira I will turn my other cheek for you to slap again. And another 16 Billion project is also coming up in Imo State, I don't have that money, so I'm still open to more investors.

 

Hmnn! So what is your staff capacity level?

Well, on the admin level currently we have 121, and we have 250 employees working on the farmland, that is about 371 people, in our next project we may have to recruit more people, the ICT center here will also accommodate up to 40 people working here for the professionals in data management and data analysis and other 500 field officers.

 

How do you unwind?

Hmnnn, well I observed that I'm a humorous person saa, eh.. eh.., I don't drink, I don't smoke, I don't go clubbing, but I can be sociable if I want to be, it's the skill I learn it's not my nature, so, I can go to the club if I want to, I can go to church to even act like a pastor and preach the whole of Bible, and Walahi ta lahi I can also lead the Islamic prayers, I learned those things, so I'm not over serious, I just have a lot of things on my table at this moment so I also like relaxation, even people around me know that Oga dey catch fun o.

 

What is that thing that has happened to you that you cannot forget?

There are lots of them, but the most recent one is the loss of my mother, I won't forget my mother because she gave me almost everything and when I started making money she fell sick and died, it is very painful. She didn't eat my food, she didn't flaunt my cloth and she just died, it's the most painful thing for me, so every other things, I have passed through, they built me to become a man and I'm grateful to God for all my difficulties. They're the best thing that have happened to me.


What is your happiest moment?

One thing I have learnt in life is not to be overly happy or overly sad... (..Hiss) happiest moment? I'm thinking... well, I'm always happy and always grateful, I just live my life full of gratitude. I think the most important thing for me is the gift of life, when God gives me the ability to be alive and strong, I can impact more lives. I just don't get overly excited over anything. So, I'm a mover and always on the journey.

 

What is your advice to young people out there?

That question you asked me is very tough oooo! Let me tell you my story, at 17 I was already in the NDA, and that was already a kind of employment on its own, so I've never experienced looking for a job or something. Except I will tell them that all of you go and take NDA form and become soldiers. I had a rough childhood but I changed it around. So, what I will say to them is,'be positive about your experiences, look inwards and trade your strength, forget government, stop putting your energy toward being bitter with your parents and government, harness your strength, if you package it well someone might fund it for you'. If you want to go abroad, please go anywhere you want to go, I'm not going to tell anybody not to go abroad or anything. I love Nigeria and I want to give back to Nigeria. What I am not sure of is if Nigeria gives a hoot about me.


Where do you see yourself and FarmKonnect in the next five years?

(Laughing…interview question) I'm not out for competition, like saying I'm the best this and that, but in the next five years, I see FarmKonnect having hands in most of the successful cooperate farming that will be happening in Nigeria and Africa at large.

 

How about globally?

No, I don't think I'm a messenger of the world, I think my jurisdiction is Africa, I am not interested in anywhere outside Africa, especially sub-Sahara Africa, so I see FarmKonnect having hands in most of the successful cooperate farming through the e-center solution, also producing more of Azeez Oluwole Saheed in other people who will even perhaps grow potentials better than myself. I want to have children better than I am. I am not saying biological children in this case, in five years I should start seeing their seeds germinate and doing better than I do, I want to see FarmKonnect as a mentor to so many in the business of agriculture and food security in five years' time.

 

Are you open for youths and young people for mentoring, and advice?

That's what gives life fulfilments.

 

What have you learned from this interview?

Well! Firstly it's feedback to me, that the hard work is going somewhere for you to take your time, passed through everything, and come here to interview me, that's the sign that the name is going somewhere. Secondly, it's a sign that what I have inside of me is useful to some people who might not even have direct or physical contact with me and have I learned to be consistent.

 

Is there any aspect where government policies are affecting your business?

Yes! I won't necessary blame the government, because I have served in the government at some point too and it's easy for you to stay in a place and be pointing accusing fingers because some of the people that take that decision do so base on the interest of the state. Also, their knowledge level might be limited or on a particular bias. For example, regulation of drones, you don't want to blame the office of the National Security Adviser for regulating the importation of drones, even though you know drone is very critical to modern-day Agriculture, but remember that same drone can be used to breach security gap, you also don't want to blame the government for the regulation of fertilizer because it is needed in farming, however, the content of fertilizer can be used for explosives, nonetheless, those policies have a way of straining us, but we must remain tenacity, and I think what is also important is to understand the regulations very well and navigate around it and comply with the ones you must comply with, look for the one that gives you a way to do your business and don't break the rule, I like to be on the right side of the law all the time.


So, what is your advice for the government?

I don't think I'm in the right position to advice government, but the only thing I will say is, whatever regulations and policies they are making, they should not do it based on partial information, they should try and have wholesome information, look at every dimension, not for few people sitting down somewhere and making decisions without regards to other aspects of the economy and other stakeholders.

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