A 2017 Mandela Washington Fellow and agribusiness entrepreneur, Usman Ali Lawan is the founder of Wholesale Integrated Farms, a fully integrated farming system that also works to train young graduates in agribusiness practices. Additionally, Usman is in the process of establishing a full-time agribusiness school to educate young people on topics such as productivity improvement and value addition. We spoke to Usman at the 2018 Mandela Washington Fellowship Summit to learn about his experience in the agribusiness sector and get insight into the many agribusiness opportunities in his home country of Nigeria and across Africa. Read some of the important takeaways from this conversation:
What does agribusiness entrepreneurship mean to you?
Usman explained that agribusiness is comprised of an entire value chain. From preparing the soil to growing the crop, to harvesting and preservation, to packaging, branding, and sales, agribusiness includes all the processes that carry a product from the farm to consumers’ plates. Usman discussed how in Nigeria and a lot of other African countries, people are focused on farming and fail to engage in the other steps along this value chain. He sees farmers encountering product losses that smart agribusiness practices could prevent. For Usman, agribusiness entrepreneurship is about taking advantage of these areas where improvements can be made, and getting farmers involved in more than just producing. That is why he created the Integrated Center for Entrepreneurship and Agribusiness Development, to teach both the technical and business aspects of the field. Usman would like young people to see that it is possible to be a farmer and still make money, and he encourages more people to enter the field of agriculture to change society’s opinions on farmers and farming. “People see farming as a way of life, so it’s always been a subsistence thing,” Usman said. “The people just farm to keep their grain in their house and eat and wait for the next farming season.What we need people to understand is that farming is a business.”
What attracted you to agriculture and business?
Usman grew up in a small farming village to a family of farmers. His mother made him go to school, but he was always interested in farming. Usman says he always knew that he wanted to be an entrepreneur. He studied business administration in school and started saving money to buy land. Usman tried to educate himself on the best growing practices, but found that he could not get all the information he needed from books. He knew he needed to consult with experts. So he started building networks with other farmers and talking to them on WhatsApp and Facebook about their practices and how they increase their productivity. He began to notice, however, that productivity in Nigeria was very low, despite the country’s large number of farmers.“I was just at the countryside in Oklahoma state, because I went [with] my instructors [from] Oklahoma State University,” Usman recalled, “and I met this farmer and … I saw his machine. And I was fascinated. Now, I tell you, that farmer alone in Oklahoma City is worth maybe 300 farmers in Nigeria. Just one man. … It’s not just about lack of resources, it’s also a lack of knowledge.” To Usman, low productivity meant that farmers in Nigeria were not producing effectively. He wanted to fix this problem and help farmers in his community. “I developed my capacity so that I can pass it on and then share the knowledge and then build capacity for other people, especially young people, and then help them to increase their productivity and also improve their livelihoods,” he said.
What are some areas of opportunity for agribusiness in Africa?
Usman identified several areas of opportunity where interested entrepreneurs can enter the agribusiness field. First, people can get involved in farming, the first stop on the value chain. Then there is processing, where one can process produce, packaging the product and selling it. He also mentioned communications, as there is an opportunity for those who can help bridge the gap between farmers and consumers by marketing products. Next, Usman discusses training and empowerment, an area that he is well versed in. “In Nigeria, a lot of the farmers only apply skills that have been handed over to them by maybe their parents from several, several generations,” Usman explained, “and you find out that these processes might have worked in the past, but the world has moved on, and if you want to improve productivity, then you need to have more training to gain more skills.” Lastly, Usman sees promise in exporting. “Agribusiness agriculture can be exported from Africa, if you do it the right way,” he said. Opportunities exist for those who can help establish markets for African agriculture abroad.