Edobong Akpabio, Chief Executive, Visionage Agro Tech, is woman of many parts whose post-career experience cuts across banking, construction, logistics and consulting. But after putting over two decades in paid employment, she decided to set up shop as a mechanised farmer. She speaks with Yetunde Oladeinde on her passion for agriculture, challenges and prospects of start-ups, among others.
What spurred you into agriculture?
The company was incorporated on May 4th 2006. I can never forget the date because it was the anniversary of my mother’s death. I had so many personal goals. For instance, I had a personal goal that I should get married before I am 25 and I did this after my 24th birthday. I also had a personal goal that I would have all my children before I am 30 years old. I had my youngest a few months before my 30th birthday. I also had this personal vision that I should stop paid employment before I am forty. When it was closing in, I started to ask myself what I would do to make that goal.
What were you doing just before this?
I worked since I was 23 years. I worked at Flour Mills and when I got married we were living in Kaduna, then we left for Lagos to work in a construction company and from there I worked in a bank and later a logistics company. I was also with the National Sports Lottery before moving to a consulting firm. It was when I was in the logistics company that forty almost met me. Then I needed to ask myself what I could do. I did not have any commercial skill and my parents were salary earners. I did not have anyone to encourage me in that direction. My mother-in-law was the only one in business and she would always say that you won’t be able to do the business that we are doing. So just go and wear that skirt suit and do your hair.
I started attending programmes and seminars and I devoted a lot of time and money to it. Then God was on my side because my employers supported me, not because they knew what I was doing but if I told my boss that I had meetings to attend they would just allow me to go. It was at that time that President Obasanjo introduced the cassava revolution .Then I attended some seminars with International Institute Tropical Agriculture (IITA) and that was how I got fired up by agriculture. It was cassava that they were actually talking about. So I decided that I was going to get land and do cassava. That was what I had in mind but when we got the land, the same IITA people who came to do the soil test told us that cassava was good but there were so many other things that could be done on the land.
What would you describe as the turning point for you?
Soon after my husband travelled to Israel for a conference and exhibition, he met someone who introduced some seeds for sale. He told them that our people were not used to the seeds and he gave my husband some to test. My husband came back and we tested the seeds that included cabbage, carrot, seedless watermelon, spring onions, tomatoes and pepper in all kinds of colours. They did very well. We had many packs but just opened a pack for testing and before we knew it, 10 acres of land were occupied. It was when they started growing, that we knew we were in trouble. We were giving it to friends, relatives and neighbours and it was so much. I went to a friend who was a General Manager with UAC in charge of UAC restaurants and discussed with her. She took me to the Managing Director of NANDO’s which was a South African subsidiary of UAC. The South African man was very interested and he came to my farm and saw what I had there. He gave me a bill to supply them with vegetables. That was how I offloaded the vegetables. Someone also introduced me to Jades Restaurant, a Chinese restaurant that had outlets in Ikeja GRA and Victoria Island. I started supplying to them and that was how I knew that this was serious business.
The people who gave us the seeds were also using us to test the markets and the vegetables did very well. The seedless watermelon did very well, it grew very big but just before it gets ripe it would rotten. So we discovered that the planting season was different. It does not like water and when it grows and it is getting ripe, it would start having worm activity because it is still raining and the water remains under it. It was better for us to plant it in October but we didn’t know. We gave them the report and they gave us some instruments. Now, we have to buy the seeds and those seeds are expensive. We did a serious cost analysis and discovered that we could not afford the seeds. We were encouraged because we discovered that these things are possible and that we had very good soil.
How did this experience affect your production?
At that time, we had only 30 acres and we bought an additional 100 acres. We did palm oil and palm kernel .In fact, one of the Israelis we worked with said we could use the chaff from this as rickets for suya barbecue. There is also someone from South Africa and they are still asking us when we are going to start. This is to show you that there are lots of potentials in farming. I think that from that moment, I was fired up to remain in agriculture. I began to learn a lot more; I began to get more exposure and not so long after my son said he wanted to study Agriculture. He had always had a flair for that even in secondary school and so he studied what he wanted. We do not put pressure on our children to do anything. They are the ones that tell us what they want and our own is to support. The additional responsibility is that in order to support him I must know what he wants to do.
So I had to open myself to so many opportunities and in doing that they started inviting me for speaking engagements at the Covenant University, Babcock, LASU and College of Education, some of which were in schools. I spoke with the Minister of Agriculture, Dr. Akinwunmi Adesina and he was really excited. It was through him that I got the speaking engagement at the Covenant University. It was in one of such speaking engagements that I discovered that the young ones do not want 10 or 50 acres of land to plant cassava. They are interested in processing and production to provide you with support. While we are rearing table size fish, one of the young ones is interested in only fingerlings. The largest capacity of the catfish for this pond cannot be more than 600 but you can have 50,000 fingerlings and you rear them every eight weeks. So you can imagine how much he can make in a year. He would make more money and that is what they want. So they would concentrate and develop it.
Did anyone also influence you in this direction?
I read English for first degree and also did a Diploma in Logistics and Supply Chain Management. I have nothing to do with Agriculture except the garden that my mother had at the back of the house and any Ibibio woman had this while I was growing up. My mother actually raised piggery and poultry. We were many in the family, all seven children. I recalled my mum told my father that it was going to provide eggs for the house. That was how my father agreed but if she had said it was commercial, he would not have accepted it. His wife was a nurse. I believe very strongly that if he had supported her, she would have done better. It was that piggery and poultry that bought our socks, provisions and other needs when we were going back to school.
My husband is not a farmer but he is interested in farming. He is ready to support me all the way. When he went to Israel it was for something else, only for him to discover that there was a conference on agriculture and he went there. He goes to the farm with me and that has made the difference in where I am today. When I tell people that I did not read Agriculture, they find it difficult to believe. I had to develop myself consciously because there are a lot of people who are dependent on what I know.