FeaturedHN Q&A

Ada Osakwe: ‘It’s so important to guard our time, our minds, preciously.’

Ada is an award-winning food entrepreneur, investor and passionate African development advocate. She is Founder of Agrolay Ventures, an investment firm focusing on early-stage innovative food companies in Africa. Since 2015, the firm has built a portfolio of 8 high-growth investments in food and technology, including The Nuli Juice Company (‘Nuli’), Nigeria’s fastest-growing farm-to-table beverage producer and fast-casual restaurant chain that utilizes locally grown vegetables and fruits. Ada founded Nuli and serves as the start-up’s Chief Executive.

What is your take on “women supporting women”?
In my view, Women-supporting-Women is a fundamental human right! A no-brainer. Sisterhood should be a law. Honestly, we really all need to know that we are stronger together. In a world that has marginalized women for centuries, and now still doesn’t give us the total equality we deserve, we must constantly uplift each other to keep amplifying our message.

Ada Osakwe
Founder & Chief Executive, Agrolay Ventures and Nuli

You are extremely accomplished, talk us through the idea for Nuli, how did that come about.
Nuli came about from my urge to demonstrate that creating a high-quality food brand from local agriculture was possible. After years in private sector, I joined the Nigerian government as a Senior Investment Advisor to the Minister of Agriculture. During my time there I was exposed to the fact that my country, Nigeria, was spending over $12 billion on staple food crops like rice and wheat, making us highly food insecure. The interesting this was that there was an opportunity to grow these crops right here, on our own lands. And so I dug deeper.

With my investor hat on, I began to understand the vast commercial opportunity from bringing that production on to our own soils…and at scale. Indeed, why should we be importing fruit juice concentrate from Europe, when we were Africa’s largest producer of juicy pineapples and second largest of citrus fruits like oranges. And so I became obsessed with Agribusiness and creating commercially viable avenues for locally-grown agriculture produce.

I invested in companies that were buying from Nigerian farmers to process and add-value to agriculture, and in 2015, I decided to roll up my own sleeves, and build a company to do this myself. I did this first by investing to launch a juice company with someone else. Unfortunately, this partnership did not work out. After about 5 months, I was chatting with a friend about doing my own thing, and he said “Why don’t you start YOUR own juice company. You really had so much passion for the last one”. And that’s how I decided to launch The Nuli Juice Company, making fresh, all-natural beverages using ONLY locally-grown fruits and vegetables which we sourced from small scale farmers. This meant that we were directly contributing to creating sustainable demand for their fresh produce and because we were staying local, it also ensured we had a shorter supply chain allowing for greater inclusion, sustainability and nutritional value in our food system. By adding-value to this produce in the form of our products, we were building a local food brand, thereby creating a consistent, dependable market for local-farm produce. My philosophy was simple, our success is a farmer’s success too. We were determined to turn poverty to wealth.

What is the most important lesson life has taught you so far?
Work darn hard, and be good to people. These have a funny way of paying off. All the time!

When you are not working, what are you doing?
Cooking, eating, lying on my couch, watching a TV series, or video-chatting with my boyfriend or my family. I also love reading all genres of novels.

Can you tell us about the biggest obstacle you have faced so far as an entrepreneur, and how you overcame it?
Hmm….too many qualify as the ‘biggest’. Nigerian has showed me pepper as an entrepreneur. It’s still showing me pepper!

What motivates you to keep going, on days you do not feel 100%?
Gratitude! Knowing that I am so blessed to have the gift of life, and ensuring I use this gift to do all I can to do things that will leave the world better than I met it.

If you could go back in time, what is one piece of advice would you offer a younger Ada?
Learn to play a musical instrument. I really wish I learned! I just feel it’s such a gift to be able to create music!

What is one bad habit you are committed to changing?
Doing too many tasks at once. I mean literally. I’m constantly on overdrive, even if not physically, but mentally, my mind’s buzzing with a million things like “Why has the rider not picked up this order for the customer”, “I wonder if I can get some cherry tomato seeds to grow at home”, “It would be great to invest in a really cool artificial intelligence company”, and other random stuff. It’s so important to guard our time, our minds, preciously. So I’m working actively to be truly protective of my state of mind, so that I don’t burn out!

Time Travel or Teleportation?
Definitely Time Travel…would love to have a sit down with some of history’s greatest leaders!

What would you like to be remembered for?
That I came to earth and lived a successful life. And not in the typical way success is measured, but by how I changed the narrative, how I touched lives, how I made a positive difference in our world.

You recently founded SBNN, the Small Business Nigeria Network, tell us about it and why you saw a need to start this network?
The COVID-19 health pandemic led to a sudden and unprecedented halt in operations of businesses across the formal and informal sectors. The impact on Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs) has been catastrophic, with companies reporting a reduction in income of more than 80% and in some cases, a complete halt in revenues. This has resulted in mounting cost pressures and extremely strained cash flows with runway of up to only 2 months, after which many would have to shut-down their businesses. As a result, millions of employees are at risk of financial distress and unemployment, leading to lost livelihoods.

African Governments around the world, including countries like Ghana, Kenya and South Africa, quickly launched fiscal stimulus packages to support their SMEs, largely considered to be the engine of growth of the economy, to ensure millions of jobs are retained and to subdue the negative economic impact of a slow-down. Unfortunately, in Nigeria, small Business owners are yet to see any meaningful supporting actions from the government, leading to wide-ranging job losses and causing a great deal of fear and uncertainty of the future of their businesses.

Honestly, I saw this attitude as the culmination of a government that has typically not executed on supportive policies to drive the growth of SMEs, because many continue to face some of the biggest hurdles to doing business in Nigeria. Even though there are a plethora of supposedly SME-led institutions already in existence. And so I believed we needed a stronger, bolder voice for Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs) in Nigeria. A voice of SMEs, for SMEs and by SMEs…The Small Business Network of Nigeria (SBNN) was born.

The SBNN, a non-profit organization, was set up to provide a strong national voice that represents the interests of the broad set of legitimate start-ups and small business owners. We are a community of small business-owners passionate for change. We represent the interests of small business owners in Nigeria on issues around policy and business environment and support our members with essential resources to help them thrive.

A lot has changed in the government policies for businesses, how have SMEs especially female owned businesses been affected by this?
From a policy perspective, I don’t know of any specific efforts for women-owned businesses. This is quite unfortunate, given that studies show over 40% of Nigerian women are entrepreneurs, the highest proportion in the world.

How is SBNN helping change government policies affecting SMEs this Covid 19 period?
We’re pushing really hard. Our first intervention was publishing a policy brief with ten clear recommendations on interventions from the government to support SMEs in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. We also intervened with the Central Bank of Nigeria, on behalf of our members, to receive the small loans being given out. We are currently working on a funding vehicle for the government to launch for .

Speak directly to the Government – what is SBBN requiring urgently from the government during this period.
More funding support. And support that gets to the REAL SMEs, not fake ones.

More About Her
Ada is a renowned authority on private sector investing in Africa’s agribusiness sector. From 2012 till 2015 Ada was the Senior Adviser on Investments to Dr. Akinwumi Adesina, Nigeria’s Minister of Agriculture, where she launched novel initiatives that attracted millions of investments to Nigeria’s agribusiness sector. She was responsible for advising the Minister on all agribusiness investment-related activities involving private sector investors, and led the development and launch of the Fund for Agricultural Financing in Nigeria (FAFIN), an innovative private equity fund focused on investing in agribusiness processing companies in Nigeria. In her final assignment, Ada played a lead role in the campaign team that successfully ushered in Dr. Adesina as the current president of the African Development Bank Group (AfDB).

Connect with Ada Here

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