This Diaspora Start-up is Disrupting Business-as-Usual in Nigeria
Forget think tank—The Releaf Group is a build tank. Started in 2015 by a group of Nigerian-Americans, The Releaf Group builds bridges between Africa and its diaspora by matching talented students in the UK and United States with Nigerian agri-businesses. Ayiba’s Akinyi Ochieng spoke to Uzoma Ayogu about how the firm is leveraging youth talent abroad to fuel economic growth at home.
Why do you think the Nigerian economy has failed to adequately capitalize on agriculture?
Nigerians are very proud and independent people who tend to do things on their own. Despite the appeal of taking initiative to run your business, it can be counterproductive when farmers within a community are competing against each other rather than working together. You start to see a proliferation of subsistence farming, as farmers become content with just making enough to sustain themselves. Communities themselves lose huge opportunities for growth when collaboration is neglected.
According to a survey conducted by NG agribusiness entrepreneur Cynthia Umoru, the average age of a Nigerian farmer is 55-60. Agriculture is not seen as a “glamorous” or high yield career but there is such tremendous potential for monetization and economic development all the way through the value chain, from farming raw materials, through processing, to mechanization, distribution, and food production.
What’s the relationship between your two areas of focus, Project Ikeora and Value Chain Consulting?
Value Chain Consulting (VCC) links viable client companies to one another along agricultural value chains to maximize impact and profits via collaboration.
Project Ikeora is a web application we are developing to allow consultants and clients to be matched together to work on projects on a central platform.
VCC serves as the procedure and processes our consultants will use to tackle our clients’ biggest issues and both will be sourced via Project Ikeora.
Ikeora, an Igbo word meaning “power of the people,” provides the platform of constituents so VCC can take place.
Why did you decide to take this approach?
From our research we found without industrializing food industries, a country can never industrialize itself. Nigeria’s subpar agrarian sector is not a result of small work force in farming, but rather inefficiency. While largely unable to feed its people, agriculture currently employs about a third of Nigeria’s work force. Consider the fact that the US agrarian sector employs less than 1% of its people, but the country is a net exporter. Having so many Nigerians centered in agriculture but lacking food security not only shows the widespread inefficiency of the current agrarian market, but it also highlights Nigeria’s poorly diversified economy.
Agriculture is eleven times more efficient in reducing poverty than any other sector in West Africa.
Agriculture is the backbone of any West African economy. Without a strong agriculture basis, Nigeria fails to not just save millions in importation of widely common cereal crops such as wheat and corn, but Nigeria also fails to place the correct infrastructure to employ its people.
What’s the composition of the Releaf Group team?
Our founders are five first-generation Nigerian-Americans from two families that grew up together. Because of our shared experiences, we have learned to work exceptionally well together.
As an organization at large, we are students from Harvard, Yale, Princeton, MIT, Duke, Brown, Penn State, and the University of Michigan. We are Eagle Scouts, Gold Congressional Medalists, and Gates Millennium Scholars. We have students who have interned at Shell, Facebook, Google, Bain, Boston Consulting Group, GE, Goldman Sachs. These world-renowned schools, accomplishments, and companies have equipped us with the technical expertise to establish a functional and appealing platform. Also, given the schools and companies we’ve been at, we have access to many channels of talent.
More importantly, we’re capable of making this company a success because we are acutely in tune with our organization: we know our shortcomings as college students and we actively seek mentorship from experienced and accomplished figures when necessary. Former Nigerian Minister of Agriculture and current President of the African Development Bank, Dr. Akinwumi Adesina, serves as our mentor. Dr. Adesina believes in our initiative to the extent that he personally funded our trip to Nigeria in November 2015. During this trip, we met with some of the most influential names in Nigeria’s private sector, including social entrepreneur Ndidi Nwuneli and Nigerian billionaires Tony Elumelu and Fola Adeola. Due to this network, we now have the resources to help us access the growing pool of high-impact entrepreneurs in Nigeria.
What is your current process of client acquisition?
Releaf currently uses local partnerships to source clients as well as tapping into platforms like Nairaland that house entrepreneurs in the agribusiness space. Currently our primary source is from our formal partnership with the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA), to source agribusinesses. IITA is one of the world’s leading research partners in finding solutions for hunger, malnutrition, and poverty. Moving forward, we plan to reach more clients through building strategic partnerships with other programs that house or attract strong Nigerian talent.
Can you tell us about some of the work you’ve done for your clients?
Naate, founder of a Uganda-based NGO called Growing Power (GP), was our first client. GP implements biogas digester technology in establishing training centers for agricultural entrepreneurship within primary and secondary schools to alleviate rural poverty and high unemployment rates.
Research shows that many African startups fail simply due to a lack of aesthetic appeal. The importance of branding is often lost on entrepreneurs with limited resources and exposure. GP’s logo and website needed significant improvement, so Releaf Group worked tirelessly to build GP’s brand, logo, and website to ensure that the GP brand would appeal to future investors. With our support, GP developed partnerships with SNV Netherlands Development Organization, a nonprofit that supports African agriculture initiatives, and the second with Dr. Elizabeth Ross, founder of a Ugandan biogas digester project and a Harvard professor.
Finding a source of funding for GP was daunting, as only about 1% of the $3.8 trillion of private equity in the world is invested in Africa. Based on Dr. Ross’ expert advise, Releaf Group effectively crafted a comprehensive financial proposal that we presented to investors. To date, we’ve secured an investment from Rapid Advisory Services Ltd., and we hope to expand funding for GP in the future.
GP has already opened its first training center at a primary school and implemented two biodigesters.
Are your consulting services pro-bono or do you charge a fee for your services?
Currently our consulting services are pro-bono as we’re focusing on building strong credibility for our clients. However, as Releaf continues to scale and do continued work for clients we will begin charging appropriate premiums based on performance.
Will you continue to focus primarily on Nigeria or do you have plans to expand to other African countries?
We intend to keep our efforts focused in Nigeria as it is better to have scalable and measurable impact within a single country. Once we have experienced massive and sustained success and impact in Nigeria, we will begin exploring opportunities in other African markets.