Many people who read this blog don’t know much about me. In the past few years since I launched Smallstarter, I have written over 100 widely-read articles on business and entrepreneurship in Africa. I am very passionate about the business ideas and success stories I share, and hope to inspire a generation of young African entrepreneurs.
In today’s world, it’s common that ‘experts’ hardly practice what they teach. I’m not one of them. In my experience, there’s often a huge gap between theory and practice. That’s why the best way to learn, is to do. That way, the knowledge I share with the world is proven and practical.
I live in a country where agribusiness has been ignored for decades. Most young people in Nigeria, and even across Africa, hardly dream of working in agribusiness. Almost every young person in the urban areas wants to wear a suit and work in an office. I used to be one of them (mentally, at least).
In this article, I’ll share some of the insights I have learned from my four years as an urban farmer in Lagos, Nigeria. It’s been a tough but hugely exciting experience. By sharing these insights, it is my hope that more young Africans in this generation will embrace agriculture, appreciate its huge potential, and help to secure the continent’s food supply, now and in the future.
Let’s start from the beginning…
I took my first major step into agribusiness in 2011, and since then, it’s held a very special place in my heart. It has drawn me close to the amazing multiplicative powers of nature and how it effortlessly feeds billions of people everyday.
Since then, in my own little way, I have created jobs (mostly temporary), helped to secure the food supply in the city where I live and contributed to the GDP of Nigeria. In my own little way. It may be little at the moment, but it’s still a contribution all the same. 🙂
It’s important to say here that I come from a background of non-farmers (at least, my parents aren’t). Growing up, farming was considered to be a poor man’s business; an occupation reserved only for rural people. That’s the orientation I got.
Although my parents kept a small garden, it was actually a past time for them. The impression I had was that people who live in the city don’t farm. It’s beneath them.
Everybody wants to eat, but nobody wants to farm…
photo credit: mylekki.com
I live on the Victoria Island-Lekki-Epe corridor. If you’re familiar with this area of Lagos, you would know that it’s the fastest developing region in Nigeria. It has one of highest concentrations of upper- and middle-income households in the country. The spending power in this part of town is huge.
Residential estates, housing developments, office complexes and shopping malls are coming up everywhere. And hundreds of new people move into this area every week. In fact, the huge volume of traffic on this corridor is mind-blowing. Even though there is an ongoing effort to expand the roads, it will still fail to meet the mobility needs of the population in this area.
Apart from mobility, one other major requirement in this area is food. Everybody must eat. However, at the current rate of population growth in Lagos, there could be a food shortage crisis in the city if nothing is done to secure the food supply. Rising prices of foodstuff is already a telling sign.
The problem is, most people in my part of town are ‘office workers’ or ‘white collar job’ people, including me. All of us want to eat, but none wants to produce the food. We’re just too ‘cool’ to farm.
Because Lagos is largely an urban state, most of the food that feeds the people of this city is supplied from rural areas in neighbouring and far-off states. Even the most basic foodstuff are trucked into the city from faraway places.
That’s exactly the opportunity that led me into urban agribusiness. I partnered with a friend and took the leap. By being close to the market, we believed we would have a competitive advantage, and thus began our journey of enlightenment.
Land is Cheap, Labour is not…
Land is the fundamental and most important resource you need in agribusiness. In my case, crop production.
Anybody who knows Lagos would know that land is atrociously expensive in Nigeria’s most populated city. But interestingly, there are still parts of the city where land is cheap. It’s difficult to believe this if you’ve never been to those parts. But I have been there. I know. I farm there.
Over the years, we have secured about 4 hectares of land on lease. We lease the land at about 20,000 Naira per hectare per year. That’s about $100/year per hectare. In a city like Lagos, that’s a huge bargain.
In these remote parts of Lagos (especially in the Epe, Ikorodu, and Badagry areas), it’s still possible to get these incredible land lease bargains. In fact, the land we Ieased was still a virgin forest. It hadn’t been farmed since 1988!
But while land leases are cheap, labour is not. Most of the labour we use are migrant farmers from Northern Nigeria, most notably, Hausa-Fulani farmers. And these guys are the best negotiators I have met in a long time.
We have always used temporary labour. In my experience, it’s flexible but more expensive in the long run. So, we just recently hired a permanent farmer who settled in the area after he fled the Boko Haram violence in the North. Andrew is from Chibok, the town in North-East Nigeria from which the terrorists kidnapped more than 200 school girls. He fled the village with his wife and five little children.
For the work that he does on the farm, we pay him a fixed monthly salary. It’s not very much, but it helps to support his family, put food on the table and send his kids to their new school.
We’ve tried a couple of hands since we started the agribusiness, and I think he’s a good addition to the team. He’s honest, hardworking and willing to learn.
Modern Century, Crude practices…
While the use of technology (like mobile phones and computers) have spread across Africa like wildfire, technology has not fared very well on the continent’s agribusiness scene. While we live in a modern century, the farm practices used to grow our food is still crude. Very crude.
Let me share some of these crude practices:
- Bush burning – Despite the threats and devastating effects of climate change, most farms in Africa are prepared for planting by bush burning. Although this crude practice destroys both plant and animal life, it remains the cheapest and most effective way for local farmers to ready the land for the planting season.
- Seasonality – This is one of the biggest threats to food security in Africa. Crop production in many parts of the continent is heavily dependent on annual rainfall. This means that the price and availability of certain food items are largely determined by the seasons. Without improvements like irrigation, most crops cannot be grown all year round. The seasonality of food production is very risky, and at times, could lead to acute food shortages.
- Storage – From my experience, a large portion of the food crops produced in farms don’t make it to the dinner table. A lot of them rot and spoil due to lack of storage on the farm, and in the local markets. The volume of food that is wasted every year in Nigeria due to this problem is shocking!
The Crops After My Heart
The greatest miracle on earth is the manifestation of a planted seed. On several occasions, I have watched as dry and ordinary seeds are buried into the earth. And days later, they would resurrect with virgin green life.
Nature is one of the most productive, motherly and impartial forces that exist on earth. It’s often a shame that humans don’t do enough to appreciate and preserve her work.
In this section, I’d love to share my experience with some of the crops we have planted in my years as an urban farmer in Lagos.
Egusi is a type of melon that is popular in Nigeria and parts of West and Central Africa. It looks like a small-size water melon but its flesh is bitter and inedible; only the seeds of the fruit are eaten. The dried and shelled seeds are ground for use in egusi soup, arguably Nigeria’s most popular and most widely-eaten soup. Everybody eats it here, which makes it a highly demanded food product.
Egusi easily became a choice candidate for our farm. It’s easy to plant, grows and spreads fast, and is ready for harvest in 90 days. Yes, just 90 days. And best of all, it’s always in high demand in the markets.
I still remember the bumper harvest we had with our first and only batch of egusi melon (I’ll explain why we didn’t continue with it). All the melons were big size and they grew everywhere! It would have been too expensive to transport it away from the farm so we had to process it in-farm.
The egusi value chain. In my experience…
The biggest problem with egusi is its processing. And that’s the reason why we wont be planting it again. Processing egusi is a dirty, labour- and time-intensive endeavour. First, the egusi must be harvested, gathered and allowed to rotten over several days so the seeds can loosen from the inner flesh. And the whole process is just so smelly and dirty. But it’s part of the business. 🙂
The process also requires lots of water to wash off the sticky rotten fibres from the seeds. We’re lucky the farm is located close to a river. If not, it would have been one hell of an experience.
We sold the semi-processed egusi on the open market and made a modest profit. But in my opinion, if only egusi processing wasn’t such a hassle, the profit would have been great.
Nowadays, I have a newfound respect for a dish of well-prepared egusi soup. And that’s because I understand the amount of effort that has gone into it, all the way from the farm to the cooking pot. 🙂
Cassava is a very important food crop across West and Central Africa. It’s a very versatile crop that is food to both humans and animals. In Nigeria, more than 70 percent of harvested cassava is processed into garri, a coarse flour that’s a staple in many parts of the country.
Because cassava-based food products like garri are consumed throughout the year, the demand for cassava is always very high.
Cassava is a starchy tuber that has to be uprooted at harvest time. This means that most cassava is harvested during the rainy season or at times of the year when the soil is loose, and allows for easy uprooting. I have tried to uproot cassava in the dry season when the soil is hard and dry. Trust me, it is one hell of an experience.
Freshly harvested cassava
We planted a little over two hectares of cassava at this time last year. And we should start harvesting it over the next few weeks. Raw cassava tubers don’t fetch an interesting price on the market. And they have a very short shelf life; they start to rot from 2-3 days after harvest.
To make more money from cassava, you’ll have to process it into other stable forms like garri, starch or flour. But these often require an investment in a location, machines and labour. Our business is not yet in that processing phase so we just may sell off the raw cassava tubers.
It’s hard for us to make money selling raw cassava tubers. So we don’t plan to plant it again after this harvest. Worse still, cassava can take between 9-12 months to yield. Despite the additional costs of weeding the farm (at least three times before harvest), we don’t expect the proceeds from the sale to excite us very much.
In my experience and opinion, cassava can be lucrative. You just have to process it into other forms before you sell. Selling raw cassava will only fetch very little. And we’re just not ready to make that move yet.
If you’d like to learn more about the amazing business potentials of cassava in Africa, read this detailed and interesting article I wrote sometime ago: Gari and Cassava Production – A Small Business That Could Change Your Life
After our experiments with egusi and cassava, we decided to take on plantain. On the farm, plantains and bananas look very alike. Most times, it takes an experienced eye to tell the difference.
Plantains, 10 weeks after planting
Along the VI-Lekki-Epe corridor where I live, plantains can be very expensive. They’re widely eaten as food – fully ripe plantains are fried and enjoyed as ‘dodo’, a common and popular addition to a meal of rice or beans. Unripe plantains are fried into a tasty and popular snack, known as ‘plantain chips’.
We were quite unfortunate with our plantains because we planted them during the end of last year’s rainy season. As a result, they suffered without water for most of the year. By early this year, most of them were dead. Or so we thought.
Plantains are very rugged plants, and multiply very easily too. Despite the drought they suffered throughout last year, all of them made a strong comeback as soon as the rains returned. And they’re looking really good.
As plantains can produce for several years, we are positive about our harvest sometime next year.
4. Ugu (Fluted Pumpkin)
Ugu or fluted pumpkin is a tropical vine plant native to West Africa but occurs mostly in its cultivated form in various parts of southern Nigeria. It is widely cultivated for its nutritious leaves, which are used mainly as vegetables in several local soups.
Our first ugu pod. Each pod contains up to 60 seeds that can be eaten or replanted to expand the farm
To date, Ugu is one of the best crops we planted. It’s easy to plant, grows very fast and ready to harvest in just six weeks. The beauty of Ugu is its cashflow. From the time it reaches maturity, you can harvest and sell it every week.
On the average, our Ugu harvest can fetch up to 3,000 Naira every week and we plan to quadruple this volume over the course of the year. It’s not much, but at least, the proceeds from Ugu help to reduce our running costs on the farm.
Sometimes, we get to take the vegetables home. It’s such a beautiful feeling when you can make dinner with something that grows on your farm. Not many people in the concrete jungle of Lagos know what it feels like. 🙂
If you’d like to read a detailed article about urban vegetable farming, I wrote one a while ago. You check it out here: Urban Vegetable Farming – How To Make Passive Income From Your Backyard Garden
5. Maize (Corn)
Corn has become my latest darling. Every year, during the rainy season, a corn fever grips Lagos. It’s common to see everyone, including the rich folks, park their cars by the side of the road to buy cooked or roasted corn from the roadside sellers who make a killing during the corn season.
Photo credit: faqs.org
Despite the widespread love for fresh corn in Lagos, and throughout Nigeria, people can only enjoy this versatile food in its fresh form during the 4 to 6 months rainy season.
But why? In places like the USA, corn is grown and harvested all year round. In fact, corn is too important to be a seasonal food in Africa. Just in case you don’t know, corn is one of the most versatile and widely-used food crops in the world. It’s used to make everything from breakfast cereals, beer, starch, food additives and most importantly, animal feed.
So, our plan is to target the market’s corn off-peak season. By installing a bore hole and using water from the river close to the farm, we want to harness the untapped powers of irrigation in Lagos.
You know what, it only takes 90 days from the time of planting to harvest ripe corn. Just three months. That’s amazing!
If you’d like to learn more about corn and its amazing potentials as an agricultural crop in Africa, I wrote a detailed article about it some time ago. You can check it out here: Maize Production – An Interesting Small Business Opportunity You Should Consider This Year.
5 Key Lessons My Urban Farming Experience has taught me…
Forget theory. Like my mom would say, ‘experience is the best teacher’. I did some agricultural science in my secondary school days and I can tell you that practical farming is a different kettle of fish, when compared to the theory we learn in school.
So, I’m going to share five key lessons I have learned from my short experience as an urban farmer.
1. Passion is key. You need to love it to do it.
It didn’t take me long to realise why a lot of young people are not interested in farming. It’s hard work. It’s not the hardest work in the world, but compared to sitting in an air-conditioned office and tapping away at a computer, it’s hard work.
I have found that if you don’t have a passion for farming, you can’t succeed in it. At least in Lagos, you have to love it to do it. Period! Most Saturdays, when most people relax or party, I wake early and drive more than 2.5 kilometres to the farm. Without passion, it’s hard to do this.
I notice that a lot of people talk about how much they love nature and farming. I usually don’t take them seriously until they put their passion to the test. It’s easy to talk. It’s much harder to do.
2. Get your hands dirty – the best way to learn is to do
Make no mistake about it, farming is a full contact endeavour. Of course, I don’t do the actual farming work myself, but supervising the labour is a difficult task in itself too. You can’t just stand aside and hope that things will go well. In my experience, things will never go well unless you’re ready to roll up your sleeves and get your hands (and feet) dirty.
But again, I’m an educated dude. I can’t be ignorant to the risks and carelessness of working in the open. I bought myself a pair of rugged rubber boots (to protect my feet), hand gloves and a straw hat to shield me from the sun. It also helps me to look the part. 🙂
3. Embrace modern farm practices and technology
Like I mentioned earlier, most of the food we eat in Lagos is grown by rural farmers and transported into the city from faraway places. Many of them still use old farming practices and crude tools. These are less productive, less efficient and unsafe.
I don’t have a tractor yet, and haven’t leased one quite frankly. But I have seen the power of using fertilisers, and modern pesticides and herbicides. These things really work and can save you time, money and stress. And a lot of them are cheap! A 50kg bag of NPK fertilizer costs about N5,500 ($25) and it’s just enough to get the job done on a hectare of land.
4. Think long term
If you’re thinking of making money overnight in farming, forget it. It’s not a get-rich-quick path to wealth. Not at all. To build wealth out of agriculture, you need to think long term, not short. You have to pay your dues and respect the learning curve.
The learning process may be painful, but it’s totally worth it in the end. And if you happen to love farming, the learning process will be an exciting adventure. And every lesson you learn will pay off in the long term.
5. Persevere and be consistent.
One of the most problematic aspects of farming are weeds. Just as you want your crops to grow, weeds want to grow too. They grow where they’re not wanted, they compete with your crops for sunlight, water, space and nutrients. Weeds are the most persevering thing I have ever known on earth.
And that’s exactly the approach we should take to life and business. Problems will always come up but you need to persevere and be consistent in the down times.
This point is important because many people come into farming with a lot of excitement and energy. But after a short while, all of it wears off. They give up and stop showing up. They abandon their farm to weeds and lose their crops. It’s sad but I see it happen every year.
I’m a farmer; and I’m loud and proud about it!
I am a trained engineer, business consultant and accountant. I have years of experience in the professional services industry. Like most urban dwellers, I live in the corporate world and know what it’s like; the suits, ties, cosy office and all the ‘packaging.’ 🙂
But the truth is, nothing else that I do brings me so much closer to Mother Nature. On the farm, the air I breathe and the joy and freedom I feel are the purest in the world. Away from all the noise and pollution in crazy Lagos, I always look forward to the escape.
Photo: Abraham, Jacob, Joshua – three of our farm hand’s kids. They fled Chibok, their hometown in North-Eastern Nigeria, due to Boko Haram’s terror attacks. Their father, Andrew, works on our farm.
So, while you read my blog and all the detailed articles that I write, always remember that my best inspiration comes to me when I’m with nature.
I’m a farmer. And I say it with all the pride in the world!
Any thoughts, comments or contributions? Let’s talk. Have your say in the Comments section below. 🙂