By Isabella Akinseye
Leonard Ebute quit his job as Head, Supply Chain, Kimberly Clark West Africa to start a revolution in the agriculture sector. Currently the Chief Operations Officer at Crest-Agro Products Limited, Ebute has worked as Head of Procurement for North/East Africa at Sanofi-Aventis and held various roles at Nestle Nigeria PLC. He holds an executive MBA in management and strategy from Lagos Business School, a graduate diploma in supply chain management and a bachelor’s degree in Economics. An astute social commentator, Ebute is a regular guest on youth talk show on Channels TV. In this interview with Africa Interviews, he discusses leadership , agriculture and why it the “most realistic way” out of the current recession in Nigeria .
What is your earliest green memory?
We have always planted gardens. I grew up planting tomatoes, pumpkins and different vegetables. Growing up as a child, we would head to Benue State every two years to see our grandparents who were farmers. So we always joined in the farming which was always fun. The farm was an extension of the playground. Maybe that was how we lost the fear of farming.
What made you venture into agriculture?
I did not set out to farm. I got involved in agriculture when I saw the opportunity for solving a value chain problem for multinational companies especially with cassava starch. The initial plan was to set up a starch plant in Nigeria in an area that has sufficient roots to drive sustainable production. When we drilled further in, we saw the major risk was the reliability of subsistence farmers to supply the product. To hedge our supply risk, we decided to farm. It was incidental. Then we realised that having a farm is more than hedging a supply chain risk, it is a critical success factor. So today the farm is central to the business model.
How has your experience in FMCG prepared you for your latest role?
My career in FMCG was all in supply chain; import and export, logistics, demand planning and procurement. So it gave me all the competencies required for the current business that we do. We want to marry the farm to factory and that is what I did as an employee. It is almost an extension of what I did on the factory side but now on the farm side so it is directly correlated.
What has the experience been like?
The experience has been a journey instead of an event. With farming, every single day holds its own store of opportunities and challenges. Whether it rains or not, I have profit and loss consequences. We were surprised that our biggest challenge is not operational as we expected. We are seeing challenges that we did not foresee such as security. Our response to that is a partnership with the Kogi State government; we have armed police men working at the farm, vigilante and our own internal security. We have about 30 people working in security. This year, we intend to invest in a more digital approach to security so we can have information gathering abilities to share with the state security apparatus. This is where we think the government can step in to offset some of the costs associated with businesses that are in a priority sector like agriculture. We have been forced to become security experts which takes away from the real issues.
What is the potential of agriculture in Nigeria?
The obvious numbers; agriculture today is the biggest contributor to real GDP. It contributes 22% to real GDP based on Q3 2016 figures. Oil on the other hand is under 8% and is number four. Nigeria is in recession. Currently only two sectors are not in a recession; agriculture and ICT. Agriculture is the most impactful sector and is the single most realistic way out of the current recession. In terms of potential, we believe that two major issues; government revenue is not diversified and forex (oil is 98% of forex earnings). Agriculture is the realistic solution to both issues. This is why government should pay strategic attention to the sector.
What leadership lessons can we draw from the farm?
Patience. The Bible says that as long as the earth shall remain, seedtime and harvest shall not cease. The literal manifestation is the farmer’s life. You invest resources, there is a gestation period and there is a harvest or return on investment. It deals with the crisis of the generational apathy towards delayed gratification which is a hallmark of nation building because old men plant trees.
How can our elders plant trees for the next generation?
From a business perspective, we don’t have a single Nigerian company that has outlived its founder. Our businesses like our countries are built around super personalities instead of sustainable institutions. This is what needs to change. We need to build our business around institutions that have no lifespan.
When you are not on the farm, what do you do for fun?
I like to travel. Sometimes, I play tennis, football and chess. I enjoy reading and discussing topical issues. I also enjoy spending quality time with family, loved ones and friends. I love going back home; visiting Otukpo in Benue State.