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Turning Cashews Into Cash

Olam CEO Sunny Verghese has used his unusual business outlook and passion for socially responsible operations to make his company a global success.

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He tells his investor relations teams to discourage “the wrong kind of investors”, wants more global environmental regulation and taxes and believes that companies have an overwhelming responsibility to their supply chains. Sunny Verghese has an unusual outlook on business.

The Olam CEO has overseen the remarkable growth of the agricultural producer and processor from a sideline operation in Nigeria to a global business spanning 65 countries. The company’s success has come in part by turning social responsibility into a competitive advantage, making a solid business case for the kind of social investment that is only now finding its way into mainstream corporate culture.

Olam began with modest goals in 1989 as an offshoot of the Kewalram Chanrai Group, which had been operating textile factories and cotton spinning operations in Nigeria since the 1960s. When the oil price slumped in the late 1980s, the country began to suffer from an acute shortage of foreign exchange, and businesses struggled to find hard currency to buy inputs and spare parts. In response, the Kewalram Chanrai Group looked for a sector with quick export potential. They began with cashews, and expanded from there.

“When we looked at what was required for us to win in this business, it became evident that the large players were already very well entrenched and we were late to this game,” Verghese says from the company’s Ivorian headquarters in Abidjan. Despite the fragile political situation in Côte d’Ivoire over the past few years, Olam has continued to invest, opening the world’s largest automated cashew processing factory in February in the northern city of Bouaké.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the industry was undergoing huge change, as West African economies liberalized and broke up the state monopolies overseeing their commodity exports. The cocoa and cotton boards disappeared and were replaced by a fragmented, poorly structured industry of traders and license-buying agents, who had previously bought at the farm gate on behalf of the government. The rules of the game were changing, and Verghese saw an opportunity to take on the existing players.

“[Before] they could sit in London or New York or the major commodity trading hubs and source their raw material from the government monopolies, without really having to come here, dirty their hands or manage the emerging market risk,” Verghese said. “When the government monopolies started dismantling and disappearing, they started facing significant counterparty risk issues.”

The new traders were not able to manage pricing risk, so when the markets turned against them, they would default, leaving international customers without supplies.

“It was difficult for the customer overseas to come and enforce his contractual obligations in these markets. So counterparty performance and forward selling premiums became big issues under those circumstances,” Verghese explained.

“That’s when we realised that we had a significant opportunity to develop supply chain infrastructure and build counterparty credibility that was very high, so that in other countries, given the volatile pricing environment, we were still able to deliver reliably on a contract.”

Olam thrived in the new African markets, spreading across the continent and into major commodities, such as rice, cocoa and cotton and in niche products, like cashews. To do that, he explained, “we started at the origin and we resorted to buying at the farm gate, or as close to the farm gate as possible.”

But this was only part of the struggle. Creating supply security meant building loyalty and improving the lots of the smallholders that make up the majority of growers.

“Buying from the farmer directly, helping him improve his productivity, providing him [with] microfinance—in terms of loans—or agricultural inputs and market access, helping him to upgrade the quality he was producing, allowed him to dramatically raise his income and his livelihood, and therefore become a loyal supply partner for us.”

Verghese talks in terms that are becoming common in emerging markets and agribusiness. Companies, from brewers to traders, have begun to articulate what the Olam CEO calls “mutuality” to their investors and shareholders.

The reasons, he says, are relatively straightforward. Beyond it simply being “the right thing to do”, being welcomed into a country and being sensitive to its context is fundamental to being able to work there unimpeded.

“We believe in emerging markets it’s relatively easy to get a license to operate from the government but it is tougher to get a license from the community to operate in those markets,” he says. “You can only build a sustainable business in these markets when the community gives you license to operate. If they see you as a foreigner, as an exploiter of their resources, as not adding any value, they don’t want you there.

The growing trend towards consumer activism and responsibility has added momentum to the requirement.

“Our customers, like Nestlé or Unilever, in turn have demand from their consumers who are not satisfied in snacking on a bar of chocolate or drinking a cup of coffee without asking searching questions about where this coffee or cocoa is coming from. Is there any child labor involved? How environmentally sustainable is the supply chain for this product being used in their chocolate or their coffee?”

The company is creating its own “Olam standard” of sustainability, and is in the early stages of an environmental footprinting exercise to work out the carbon impact of its individual products and supply chain.

Verghese can rattle off statistics about the threat that climate change poses to the world’s population, and the links between global energy, water and agricultural supply. He talks about the water requirement per kilogram of meat in the same terms that most CEOs talk about their financial statements. His sense that there is an imperative to act, despite the high cost, is strong, although he acknowledges that to do so alone risks unilaterally imposing a drag on the company. The competition could gain short-term advantage by avoiding unlegislated “obligations”.

“It’s a catch-22 situation,” Verghese says. “We believe that the long-term solution is that carbon should be priced and carbon should be taxed because you cannot influence behaviour if that is free.

“I think stakeholder pressure will intensify to a level where everybody will have to comply with the minimum standard. So we are taking the view that it is the right thing for the sustainability of our business so we should do the right thing here, because if you want a business that is enduring, then we can’t take [that] view.”

The issue of “enduring” business, and the kind of long-term view that encourages corporate responsibility, is difficult in the current funding environment. Olam listed on the Singapore Stock Exchange in 2005 and the demands of “typically transient” shareholders with short-term investment horizons frustrates the strategist in Verghese.

“When we are investing in plantations, say a rubber plantation, the first yield is [after seven years]. The first maturity is [after] 12 years. The cash flow break-even is in 14 years,” he said. “As a CEO there is very little incentive for you to think that far ahead, because analysts are looking at the next quarter and getting upset if you [deliver] below expectations.”

“The problem with the current capital market structures and CEOs and their time horizons persuade people to be very short-term in their outlook.”

Despite this, he has no intention to change tack.

“I tell my team your job is not to go and market the company, your job is to go and de-market the company,” he said. “You have to tell them ‘are you sure you want to invest in us? Because here is the deal: we’re going to be cash flow negative for five years’. Most people would fall off their chair.”

Continuing with the heritage of the company’s early days and trying to improve its footprint “from seed to shelf” is going to become a competitive advantage all over again, as best practice in sustainability becomes more widespread and pervasive.

“One of the reasons why we have succeeded is the way that we have innovated our business model,” he says.

“We feel that benchmarking best practice is an important first step, but is lousy strategy, because at the end of the day, everybody is trying to follow best practice, so if you achieve that goal, you will at best be at the middle of the pack.

“You can never be a leading company, or a very successful company, by just being middle of the pack. If you want to be exceptional, you need to create the next practice.”

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The Maverick In Tech

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The founder of some of Nigeria’s best-known startups on the mistakes and the millions that made him click in the technology business.


Sometimes, the simplest business ideas can come from strange places, or even strangers.

In his first year studying law at Waterloo University in Canada, Iyinoluwa Aboyeji was approached by a stranger who asked to stay in his house.

 “I was like ‘I don’t know you, you have long hair and you are white; I don’t know about this’, but I said, ‘ok cool’, and he stayed over and we became good friends.”

About a year later, Pierre, the friend, decided to head to Silicon Valley for his cooperative education term.

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“He told me about this amazing world of Silicon Valley, tech and investments, and I was sold. A few months later, we decided to start our own tech company called bookneto.com,” says Aboyeji.

It was a platform that enabled students to download past examination questions and work with a team of people at the school to help answer them.   

The company did decently for three years until it got sued by the university, but at least that marked a turning point in Aboyeji’s entrepreneurial life.

It turned out that the intellectual property for past examination questions belonged to the professors at Waterloo University, a fact that was “unknown” to the pair of entrepreneurs and they were found “guilty of piracy”. The venture was eventually sold to a professor who wanted to teach students not enrolled on campus, for a small fee.

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“We had it for three years, and by this time, I had graduated and looking for a new adventure and I was pretty sure I did not want to run another business in Canada, so I had started looking at other markets and Africa was a big one for me, Nigeria in particular,” says Aboyeji.

After graduating, he returned to Nigeria in 2013.

His proclivity for identifying opportunities inducted him into the world of massive open online courses (MOOCs). The dominant players at the time were Coursera and Udacity.

According to a report by Component, globally, the MOOCs market is estimated to hit $20.8 billion by 2023. Aboyeji wanted in. He set up a company in Abuja called Fora.com focused on incorporating MOOCs into the university environment especially for courses that were relevant but not provided by Nigerian universities due to a lack of quality resources.

“I was very naïve. I imagined that it would be a breeze to build that business and learned the hard way that anything regulated doesn’t operate rationally. So, the regulators didn’t give me any approvals and universities were skeptical and didn’t want to be laid off so it didn’t work out. We ended up pivoting that business and ended up selling online MBAs instead. Our typical clients were young bank managers who wanted to get an MBA or advanced degree courses to improve their chances of being promoted,” says Aboyeji.

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The firm began to gain some traction. People were paying for the application courses and Aboyeji decided to pilot a loan program where financial institutions would offer loans to students.

“So, we were making money but it wasn’t popping off. I went to New York with the team because we had just gotten some new funding and we had to meet the new investors. I had met a guy named Jeremy Johnson when he was in Nigeria earlier so I pinged him and told him what we wanted to do. I wanted to learn from his experiences. He agreed to meet for coffee in New York.”

During their meeting, Johnson expressed his idea about a new form of education geared towards skills rather than degrees. Aboyeji also talked about unemployment in Nigeria and how that represented a massive opportunity.

It was a match made in heaven.

“One of the things he told me was that he could not find a sales force engineer for $150,000 in New York. They just didn’t exist so I said, ‘man, I can train you sales force engineers’. And he said ‘if you decide you are going to pivot, what you are doing or adding to it… I would fund you and I will be chairman and we can do this together’. So, I said ‘someone is going to fund you to do a new business, why not’.”

Aboyeji had just stumbled on a new gold mine and Andela was born. He started with one person and began teaching him how to code. He repurposed the team from Fora into coding masters, bid masters and operational staff, and shifted the focus of Fora because they had the flexibility to do it.

“I don’t think at the time we had any idea how big what we were doing was. We did the first one, it was semi-successful, we trained the next four, which was really good. We put out a job description saying no experience required, we will pay you to learn how to program and we had over 700 applicants off Twitter and we knew we had something.”

They whittled down to about four or five people that completed that program. To find work for his new coders, Aboyeji used Upwork, the popular freelance jobsite, to bid for jobs.

“We didn’t know anybody, so we bid for jobs, executed it and before we knew it, we had about 150 people in the room. That was how the transition happened from Fora to Andela,” says Aboyeji.

The company has since gone on to raise $180 million in venture funding from the likes of Mark Zuckerberg and other notable investors from Silicon Valley. Aboyeji left the company after three years in search of his next adventure but is still a major shareholder in Andela.

That voyage led him to co-found Flutterwave, an integrated payments platform for Africans to make and accept any payment, anywhere from across Africa and around the world. Under his watch, the company processed 100 million transactions worth $2.5 billion.

Turning his eyes firmly on future opportunities has led Aboyeji to set up his own family office called Street Capital, with a focus on identifying passionate and experienced missionary entrepreneurs with the integrity and courage to flawlessly execute in Africa.

With a solid track-record of unearthing diamonds in the rough, Aboyeji hopes to empower the next generation of African entrepreneurs to achieve their fullest potential and help build some of Africa’s fastest-growing and most-impactful tech businesses.

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The Movie Buff With A Happy Ending In Business

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Kene Okwuosa continues to make profit selling the immersive cinema experience across movie halls in Nigeria.


If trailers of Simon Kinberg’s upcoming X-Men: Dark Phoenix have whetted your appetite for more action-packed cinema, you could take your pick from the likes of Hobbs & Shaw, John Wick 3: Parabellum or Avengers: End game. But as any film buff would tell you, watching these adrenaline rushes on DVD or TV is no match for a full-throttle cinema experience.

Kene Okwuosa is bullish about letting Nigeria’s 190 million population experience the thrilling excitement of the celluloid world. Using the theater to extract a sizeable profit from the Nigerian culture of socializing and communal engagement, his Filmhouse Cinemas has grown from just three screens to multiple locations across the country.

As part of the company’s strategic expansion plans, Okwuosa signed a pioneer deal to bring IMAX, the world’s most immersive cinematic experience, to West Africa in 2016. In doing so, Filmhouse has flipped a switch not just to beat competition from other local cinema chains, but also become one of the fastest-growing IMAX businesses in Europe, the Middle East and Africa.

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Quite a feat considering Okwuosa’s first stint at the cinema business did not have a happy ending.

The year was 2008 and Okwuosa and his partner at the time, also named Kene, were desperately looking for greener pastures beyond the borders of the United Kingdom (UK), where they were both employed as assistant general manager and general manager respectively at Odeon Cinemas.

“I had a conversation with Kene on the first of December 2008 and he was saying there is an opportunity with a friend of his who was an investor in Nigeria and we could go back, set up a company and create a great product in Nigeria. I resigned from my job on the second of December, I saw my family on the third of December and I caught a flight on the fourth of December after not being back in Nigeria for 11 years,” says Okwuosa.

And their voyage back home was favored by lady luck. A South African company at the time was exiting the Nigerian market and their assets were up for grabs. With the help of their investor, the pair bought up the assets and just like that, Genesis Deluxe Cinemas was born. It was a magical moment in the lives of the newly-minted entrepreneurs.

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With three chains of Genesis Cinemas under their belt, the pair were ready to reap the profits of their entrepreneurial pursuits until everything went belly up.

“A year later, that deal went so bad we had to exit. Myself and Kene exited the company to our dismay.  The private investor owned most of the business and there were issues between the investor and my partner relating to a slight misalignment of the company. We were torn between either staying in Lagos or going back to the UK. We decided to stay and tug it out,” says Okwuosa.

The pair had to downsize from the guest house they were staying in to a smaller flat and survived on noodles, while they hatched their next plan. They turned their living room into an office and went back to the drawing board.

Okwuosa believed there was still a market in the cinema theater business and he was not wrong. According to PricewaterhouseCoopers, the Nigerian film industry is globally recognized as the second-largest film producer in the world. Total cinema revenue is set to reach $22 million in 2021, rising at 8.6% CAGR over the forecast period.

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The cinema industry is one of the priority sectors identified in the economic recovery growth plan of the federal government of Nigeria with a planned $1 billion in export revenue by 2020. Furthermore, the National Film and Video Censors Board estimates the Nigerian movie industry needs at least 774 cinemas across the country for it to tackle the menace of piracy.

“So, for two years, I was literally waking up and going to every single office trying to pitch and raise money. We didn’t know anybody and we are not sons of rich men, we had already failed with Genesis, we had no assets or collateral. We were literally telling people we were going to modernize Nigeria’s entertainment scene and everybody was looking at us like we were crazy.”

In 2009, the Intervention Funds, created by then president Goodluck Jonathan to boost the Nigerian creative industry, would prove to be the lifeline Okwuosa and his partner so badly needed.

“I am proud to say we were the very first to access that fund in 2012, which was about N200 million at the time which, when you look back is not that much but considering the exchange rate, it was over $1 million. It was enough to help us kickstart Filmhouse. We had nothing, so that particular facility was largely uncollateralized,” says Okwuosa.

The fund took a bet on Okuwosa and his partner and it paid off. The loan was used to open their first three-screen cinema in Surulere, Lagos.

“It had a slow start but ultimately grew to be one of the biggest locations in the country and that organic growth led us to open two more cinemas prior to our second round of investors, which was private equity money from African Capital Alliance.”

The investment helped Okwuosa to scale to 10 operational locations across six states. The original vision when Okwuosa started Filmhouse was to be the biggest and best cinema and create an amazing space where people could escape into a different world.

Two years after, the company set up the production and distribution part of the business.

Filmhouse now represents about 50% of tickets sold in Nigerian cinemas, according to Okwuosa. With just a dream to conquer the Nigerian market, today, Filmhouse has a vision to become a media entertainment company.

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In addition to IMAX, the company represents other international brands like Warner Bros and Lionsgate. With the institutional investment, Okwuosa has strengthened his core team, which no longer includes his former partner, as well as providing the company the impetus to scale with the right mind and right trajectory.

With a GDP of $375 billion making the Nigerian economy the 30th largest economy in the world, Okwuosa believes there is still a big chunk of money to be made from the entertainment and media space.

“I think we haven’t even scratched the surface of this industry and we want to position ourselves at the forefront of Nigerian entertainment.”

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Advances In Nigeria’s ‘Burglar Watch’ Industry

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The escalating safety and security issues in Nigeria raised the alarm for this innovative entrepreneur.


Today, organizations not only face escalating risks but also the certitude that they will face a security breach at any time, if proper precautions are not taken. Such was the case for Paul Ajibulu when his office premises were ransacked by thugs in Adeola Odeku, Victoria Island, Lagos.

“We had just got our office fully furnished with MacBook computers and the whole works. When we came in the next day, we found the locks broken and all the office equipment had been looted. I lost about $20,000 in all that day and that set our business back for a couple of months,” says Ajibulu.

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To solve his problems, he reached out to Extreme Mutual Technique, an automated digital systems solution and renewable energy service provider.

The company says it boasts top-tier clients such as MTN, the Embassy of Sierra Leone, South African Breweries, and Africa Finance Corporation, amongst many others.

Akpobome Ojoboh, its founder and Managing Director, is adamant his systems are a must-have for every organization in Nigeria.

“We initially started the business called Extreme Surveillance Systems limited. Coming from my previous background, we decided to focus on CCTV and digital security. Considering the fact that Nigeria was being terrorized by security mishaps, we decided to [resolve] that,” says Ojoboh.

Safety and security have never been discussed in Nigeria as they are now. Threats are from everywhere, and at all places. Routine security checking at offices and shopping mall entrances has become the norm.

The idea of preventing crime is an appealing twist in today’s times and although it’s comforting for many to imagine a competent police officer monitoring every camera in Lagos, the question remains whether CCTV systems really do prevent crimes from happening or do they merely help in nabbing a criminal once a crime has occurred.

In a city like Lagos where you have constant disruptions to power, the long-term success of these systems presented significant hurdles for Ojoboh in the early days.

“There are so many limitations to digital security vis-à-vis the lack of a proper database that even when you have [identified] the culprits, you cannot find them. Furthermore, there were limitations to how people took ownership of their equipment because there was [often] no power. So, you put a system and people say ‘what if there is no power’?”

To combat these challenges, Ojoboh decided to provide another solution, by moving into the world of inverters.

“Then again, these inverters run down when there is no power to charge them so we went into renewable energy called solar to back up our inverters and digital solutions. That is when we changed the business to Extreme Mutual Technique Limited,” says Ojoboh.

Security is one of the largest businesses in the world, according to Ojoboh.

He has seen an increase in more families opting for peace of mind by having big brother watching over their loved ones whenever they cannot be with them.

“When I first became a mum, I would always worry incessantly about my daughter left alone at home with my nanny. Then, we started noticing strange marks on my daughter and I had heard about people mistreating children they cared for but I never thought it would happen to me. I reached out to a security company to install a camera in the house and lo and behold, I saw the nanny hitting my daughter. My whole world crumbled,” says Rebecca Gyan, a grocery store owner in Accra.

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“You have to be prepared because if you are not, then you almost cannot stop any security breach. It helps you to know some proactive measures to protect yourself. If you have a CCTV system and you notice there is a particular group of people visiting your building, you will be able to notice and react,” says Ojoboh.

As organizations become familiar with probable threats and vulnerabilities, they will be able to establish both preventive measures and responsive systems, to decrease the likelihood of intruders and attacks.

Since starting out in 2007, Ojoboh has grown the team to a 40-member business spread across Lagos and Abuja. The company has also moved into IT and engineering services in the areas of energy infrastructure, home automation, fire safety and digital security solutions.

With power still an issue in Nigeria, Ojoboh sees the future of his business in the area of renewable energy to power his systems to provide that all-important peace of mind to his clients. 

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