In perhaps the most popular commencement speech of all time, Steve Jobs stood before a group of Standford students in 2005 and said, “You can't connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future….” Without knowing, he was describing Onyeka Akumah’s journey to becoming the founder of Farmcrowdy, one of Nigeria’s tech startup success stories.
Farmcrowdy started to gain widespread recognition in 2017 after it raised $1 million in funding, a huge amount for any African startup at the time. But the story, as with all other successes, began long before then, long before the idea for the company was even conceived.
In this interview, Onyeka Akumah takes me back to the beginning -- of Farmcrowdy and of his career. We talk about all the events leading to this point, how the founding team was formed, how Farmcrowdy was initially funded, and the mistakes he has made in the past that make him who he is today.
The interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
Business Insider Sub-Saharan Africa: Tell me how Farmcrowdy started.
Onyeka Akumah (OA): In 2015, I was looking at investing in Agriculture. I wanted to work with a farmer and trying to decide which farmer to work with, which one I would be able to invest in and he would get the work done so I can get the return on investment after the harvest. I got in touch with one of my co-founders (Ifeanyi Anazodo) and asked if he could help me identify someone to work with. We met a lot of farmers. While they were talking, I noticed that they had certain challenges they were facing -- access to funding, technical know-how to improve their yields, and market access to sell whatever it is they produce.
So, that then became for me an opportunity to see how I could connect these farmers with so many other people interested in investing in agriculture beyond me, that were constantly told by this (Nigerian) administration to invest in agriculture. At that time, the phrase agriculture is the new oil’ was becoming popular and everyone was excited about investing in opportunities that saw Nigeria diversify its economy away from oil.
Connecting those people with the farmers we had identified was how the idea for Farmcrowdy was born. We put some things together, I designed the website and put some money aside from my previous job, assembled a team of people to work with me on the business plan. I had someone from the finance angle, another person came in from the technology angle, one came in to help with data, and another person to help with the core operations in farm. Together, we just went live on September 14, 2016, but we did the market test for 3 months to see how people would receive it and how the farmers would respond.
On November 14, that year, we effectively launched the business and it’s been growing since then. A month later, we got our first investor, Rasheed Olaoluwa of Niche Capital, former MD of Bank of Industry, who gave us an angel investment of $60,000. It was interesting for us to connect with him because he said he wanted to do something similar to the Farmcrowdy model two years before we came to him but he couldn’t find anyone to do it with. So, coming to him with the idea felt like the perfect match since it was something he had already done his research on. He was happy to get involved.
In 2017, we got into the TechStars Atlanta Accelerators programme and there we were able to raise $1 million and that helped us build the business to what it is today.
Today, we have a team of 40 working out of the Lagos and Abuja offices and we have farms in 10 states around Nigeria. We’ve been able to work with more than 7,000 farmers to cultivate close to 9,000 acres of farmland across the 10 states. We’ve raised over a million chickens in the course of our work. (Nigeria currently consumes 2 million chickens every day). In 2019, our goal is to cultivate 2 million chickens. We want to be responsible for at least one day’s consumption of chicken in the country.
BI SSA: What were you doing before you started Farmcrowdy?
OA: I have a background in Software Engineering from Sikkim Manipal University, India. I graduated top of my class, then joined the British Council where I worked for 2 years as a webmaster. Later, I worked with Deloitte as their e-marketing coordinator for 6 countries in Africa. After that, I started my foray into the startup scene.
In 2010, I joined Wakanow and designed their first website. I was their online marketing manager for 2 years, then I joined Rocket Internet -- I was the first Nigerian to join that team. I was director of marketing for Sabuta and Kasuma which later merged to become Jumia. I left there and had a stint in GTB to launch the SMEMarketHub.
From there, I joined Konga as Vice President, Marketing to set up their marketing team from scratch. I did a lot of things there including launching their Fall Yakata Sales. After Konga, I decided to run my own startup. The first was Quick Gist, a news aggregating website. I ran it with a co-founder, Pelumi Aboluwarin who is now the co-founder and CTO of Kudi.ai. We raised some money from a local investor and launched Quick Gist. It was doing well, getting to about 800,000 downloads within 3 weeks. As soon as we raised money, I started making mistakes that I’ll never make again. You raise money and then you think you can do everything.
We started creating our own content and instead of just aggregating content, we wanted to become reach media. Quickly, we burnt out our investment funds and even my own money. Eventually, we sold it to BusinessDay Newspaper for an undisclosed fee.
After selling Quick Gist, I moved on to help launch a travel agency, Travelbeta. I never call myself a co-founder of Travelbeta, my duty was just to help launch and I was more of the Chief Commercial Officer.
It was in my second year in Travelbeta that the idea for Farmcrowdy came and I started planning towards it.
BI SSA: You mentioned that there were mistakes that you made after raising money. What are some of these mistakes that you made that you will not make again?
OA: One mistake was that we raised money and felt like we could change the model immediately. It’s a mistake that many people make when they raise money or have a bit of breakthrough. It’s advisable to create your niche and stay on it. And even if you raise money, just amplify the efforts of what it is you're doing.
One of the things that happened with Farmcrowdy is, even when we raised money, the 5 farms we started with remain the 5 farms we run till today. Although we are in a better position to scale our operations into other things and add new farms. Don’t change your model, especially if what you're doing is working. You can add one or two things, but it’s important that you maintain what you’re doing that is working.
The second thing is, as much as I had brilliant people working with me, I was the only founder. I didn’t have people to bounce ideas off, rather I had people I only dished out instructions to execute what I had spent my time working on. Do not travel alone, that’s something I would tell everyone. You need people with complementary skill sets.
Three is when you raise money, you have to raise more. Even if you don’t have an active window for investors to come in, you need to be providing updates to potential investors that want to come in. So, it’s not when you want to raise money that you start having conversations. Let people already know your business before you have those conversations.
The other thing is, I promised myself that whatever I do again, it must be something that is making money from the onset. I’m not going to wait 3 years before I look at how to make money with any business. It must be something that I can see the margins already. It doesn’t have to make us profitable from day one, but at least I know that if we are able to get to a certain level in our operations, we will break even.
BI SSA: Did you know anything about farming before you started this business?
OA: No, I was a software engineer and I all I did was help businesses launch. But, what I feel is that there are 3 sectors where people haven’t done a lot with technology -- Agriculture, Real Estate, and Transportation, from an African’s perspective. This is not like Uber coming here, or somebody building classified sites and listing all their properties. No. I’m talking about building technology that creates solutions that touch Africans today.
I looked at these 3 sectors and picked Agriculture because that was the season when people wanted to invest in Agriculture and I, too, wanted to invest in the same thing. I know a lot more about Agriculture now. My years of working in Farmcrowdy have given me 10 year’s worth of knowledge and most of my learning I did on the job.