[CAVIE-ACCI] Chairman of Voriancorelli and Co-Founder of Cellulant, Mobolaji Akinboro in this interview with Ugo Aliogo, sheds light on his new initiative and venture-building journey, and how Voriancorelli is trying to transform the agriculture sector
You cofounded Cellulant Nigeria and then Voriancorelli, what concerns were these startups aimed at addressing?
I would like to address this question from the viewpoint of my life’s journey. The fundamental premise for me was that the people that will save Africa are Africans. There is no prosperous country on earth that was developed by outsiders, China is a perfect modern-day example, they lifted more than 400million people out of poverty in the past 30yrs. In my life’s journey of helping people, the instruments employed have been different at various stages of my life, but underneath these instruments are technology and mobile. From the beginning, I wanted to use telecommunication technology to solve different kinds of problems. I have lived a life that started from healthcare, then into the FMCGs, into higher education, Fintech and now Agritech. A few years ago, I started thinking about the challenge of making our people prosper on the continent and I looked at China, I realised that the country succeeded because they were determined to become the factory of the world. Also, United States (US) and Europe succeeded because they decided that they wanted to become the innovation and financial capital of the world. In Africa, what we have is agriculture, so we should take advantage of it, we can become the food basket of the world. The fundamental premise was how to position Africa, not just in making a difference but as the food basket of the world. So, the ultimate goal at Voriancorelli centered on how we can feed our people more efficiently, create jobs from end to end across the agro-allied value chain, from the villages to the cities and beyond the cities to the international market; that was the fundamental premise of my approach to the problem.
Regarding leveraging technology to drive increased penetration for businesses, corporates, and startups, to understand how much of a role technology has played in supporting the agro-allied value chain, how much progress have you recorded?
We have recorded a lot of successes in that area. Nigeria is a very interesting country. I would like to say that the largest experiment in the world regarding deploying technology among rural farmers took place in Nigeria. But like many things that come out of Nigeria, we do not like to celebrate things that come out from here. When Dr. Adesina Akinwumi was in Nigeria and we ran the E-wallet programme, a lot of people, except those who were following the initiative did not know that the E-wallet programme was one of the landmark achievements that contributed to his ascension to President of African Development Bank (AFDB). It was the first time that somebody who was a non-finance minister became the President of AFDB and also the first time a Nigerian will become president of that institution. He became president because we made sure that eight million farmers yearly from 2012 to 2015 were receiving high quality inputs such as seeds and fertilizers, through the E-wallet programme. The simple idea was that you were given a subsidy by government through your E-mobile wallet, you brought your own counterpart funds and added to it, then you went to an aggregator to collect your inputs and then planted. It was more like the marketplace for inputs. Since Akinwumi left office till today, the price of a bag of rice, which was between N8,000 to N13000 is now N22,000 to N30,000. In 2015 the price of processed rice doubled, it increased because farmers are not growing as much as they were growing because to a degree access to inputs is not a freely available and that is why you see farmers Associations clamouring for a continuation of some of those approaches that they have seen work despite the fact that they had some problems.
You did some training programmes in Nigeria and Overseas. How has it impacted your technological journey, especially cofounding one technology startup and later established another one?
I am grateful to Nigeria because it educated me for free till I graduated from University, and I was fortunate to graduate during the era when the idea of internet services just started, and we were among the early pioneers to be exposed to it, so that helped tremendously. The second bit of the puzzle of how technology has affected me relates to what I describe as “beyond the internet stage” which is the bit that is related to the emergence of mobile phone technology at scale on the continent in the late 90’s and early 2000’s. The third bit of the puzzle was the value of education. Remember I had my first degree in Pharmacy, but through the years, I began to get exposed to education that goes beyond pharmacy which is my business economics programme in Oxford, and various executive programmes at Harvard, INSEAD and Stanford organised by the Endeavor Network founded by an awesome American lady, Linda Rosenstein. I am an individual who has been educated through a combination of a formal university programme in a technical degree-Pharmacy, executive programmes in all the aforementioned Institutions, as well as at Heriot-Watt University, Scotland. All of this helped but there was also the fourth bit of the puzzle; the involvement of technology to support growth and development. For this point I owe the World Bank a lot, they pioneered the use of technology in education in Africa, through an entity called African Virtual University, where I was privileged to be the person that lead and executed the launch as a business of a computer science degree + a teacher education programme for the STEM (science, technology, education, mathematics) wholly delivered as an open, distance/ e-learning programme. Those things have just come together to make the whole puzzle work. What made everything work was that first there was opportunity and ability to identify those opportunities. There was also timing, which involves being present at the right time and place (i.e being in certain spaces in Nigeria and Africa at the time) so that was the second bit of the puzzle. Then there was exposure to information and knowledge that is relevant. Those bits and pieces of the puzzle are things that worked together to make the person and the journey possible.
Can you give an insight about your experience when you cofounded Cellulant with a partner. How did the experience help you to succeed in the market especially the agro-allied value chain, how did it help you to support rural farmers with regards to knowledge sharing, build footprints in the marketplace and create a niche in the market?
One of the things we had done very well in Cellulant that has helped was a great understanding of User Experience (UXP) which involves using technology in a very interesting way. Technology in itself is just a platform which means that it can only do what your mind can conceive that it can do. If your mind cannot conceive what it can do, it is not very useful. So, this is the nuance that I think a lot of people who are trying to do technology startups don’t really understand. We understand that technology is an enabler which will only work in certain circumstances and situations. The enabler can only do what your mind can conceive that it can do. If your mind cannot conceive what it can do it will not really achieve much. So those possibilities came because we were at the right place at the appropriate time, we understood what the technology was doing, we had opportunity. We also understood the interesting ways that Africans could use these technologies that were springing up because we were not the only ones; there were many other tech startups in the market. We acquired a footprint in the market because the job required me to travel extensively. I have lived in Ghana before living in Kenya. Before going to Kenya, I had travelled to many countries on the continent all before I was 30years old. What this meant was that I literally knew people everywhere, and when I was in Kenya, I had a job that necessitated always been on a plane. In fact, from the age of 27, I had spent half of the year travelling from one destination to another and meeting many people as well as relocating to different countries. So, what happened was that there was an opening, which involved one of the founders having an opportunity to move across the continent and as a result it was relatively easy to leverage that to build a presence across the continent. For instance, I lived in Malawi for two and half years that was when Cellulant Malawi started. I lived in Tanzania that was when Cellulant Tanzanian started, I lived in Ghana and that was when Cellulant Ghana started, I lived in Kenya and that was when Cellulant Kenya started. The company grew because of my nomadic lifestyle. If you have not had my experience I doubt if you will be able to do what I’m doing. I have lived in villages across Africa, Tanzania, Malawi, and Kenya. So, what living in all those villages did for me was to help me understand how rural people think and operate. Contrary to what people think about rural people not being able to use technology, they can. If you focus on Facebook, as a technology platform to measure this, the question becomes what does a rural farmer need Facebook for? The people that are his world, are right in front of him. Understanding those dynamics and behaviours in rural areas allowed me to connect to our target audience, and like I said earlier that was one of the major strengths of Cellulant; the quality of the user experience. So how we were able to build a unique advantage was that we were able to use technology to assist rural people which are known as market linkage. The focus was of this initiative was using technology to connect them to market in a much more efficient way because today, the biggest fear of a farmer is that they will grow and not sell. By being the best people at solving that now, you carve that niche for yourself in a market in which everybody can come in if they have a computer. This is also what distinguishes Agritech. In Fintech, you can go and get access to API’s from a great company like Interswitch, and other aggregators, and from your bedroom, you can launch your fintech idea. This is not so with Agritech because Agritech is split into rural, semi-rural and urban segments, so if you’re not able to connect those three dots together, you cannot have a competitive advantage. So those are things I have taken advantage of through the years. Also, I like to tell people that I am probably the most educated Nigeria in this sector, because the Federal Government of Nigeria, on the subsidy programme invested $2billion into the subsidy programme e-wallet to trigger that input in the marketplace and I had the privilege of running and managing this programme for the government. Beyond that, the FGN invested more than $200 million in various experiments designed to continuously improve the programme, for example, a test was conducted to test three different models of enumerating farmers. We were able to try various tests and improve on them. You know all that was really learning and it was funded by the government. When you bring all those learnings together, what happens is that you have an individual who has done experiment across every local government area in Nigeria, who has also failed during those experiments, as well as succeeded. So, converting that knowledge gained for the benefit of Nigeria and the world was very easy; for example when I went to Liberia, Afghanistan and Togo to replicate the same programme, I knew precisely what to do to help these countries. In a way, you could say other countries are blessed because Nigeria spent money training Bolaji.
You confounded Cellulant and later became the Chairman of Voriancorelli Was there a gap that you wanted to fill with the setting up of a new startup?
The truth is that I needed to move at the speed of my mind and meet the need of the moment. The human person is basically like water and that water must flow and when water is flowing it has got a river channel. When you have water that must flow very fast, at times, the channel is not very wide or is restricted. In this case, the river of water known as Bolaji needed to flow faster at the speed of his mind and affect more people and doing that required breaking free from any limitations and shackles, and embracing a new vehicle and a better way. VorianCorelli Limited is that instrument that allows me to move at the speed of my mind and the needs of others because millions of farmers need systems that are technology based, and connects them to markets, while also solving the problem of poverty. So, I just needed to move faster and that is the reason for VorianCorelli Limited. The startup is aimed at helping us achieve in two years what would previously have taken 15 years. I could no longer keep waiting to change lives; I need to do it now.
What are the cardinal objectives of VorianCorelli Limited?
There are 23 million households that are in agriculture in Nigeria today. If a household contains four persons on average, then almost 80 million Nigerians are involved in agriculture in one form or another. So you discover that if a large number of people are involved in agriculture, if the market doesn’t work, those people will not succeed. When you try to find out the problem, you discover that at the extreme end, you have the consumers at the household level, at the other end you have the producers who are the farmers, and in between you have processors, logistics, storage site operators and banks in the value chain. But you discover that nobody has tried to connect these people together efficiently and at scale.
There is a matching problem, which involves connecting these individuals. It is just the same way Uber connects the driver who has a car and wants to offer rides, to the passenger who needs a ride very efficiently. So VorianCorelli Limited is solving how you match a farmer, food processor, transporter, consumer, and bank in the agriculture sector efficiently. The breakthrough of this is the validation of the problem and scale because we switched on the VorianCorelli matching app platform four months ago and in those four months that we switched it on, we have moved more than four million kilogram of agricultural commodities on that platform, and we are now at the cusp of bringing the firepower of capital markets to bear on the sector.
The problem of leveraging the capital market to transform agriculture is another problem that we are solving. If you begin to treat agriculture the way you treat shares, it will be effective because you are bringing billions of monies into the hands of people, to support farmers that need access to the money in one form or the other. The third success is the fact that for a company that is just five months old, we have already secured our first investors, who is coming into the company at a very nice valuation. So, it goes that our thinking on how to create value is correct.
Interview By Ugo Aliogo