Women in Agriculture: Key lessons I’ve learnt exporting Nigerian food

10 min

Women in Agriculture: Key lessons I've learnt exporting Nigerian food

Ogochukwu Maduako, a graduate of Agricultural Economics and Extensions of Abia State University, is a food processor in Rivers State. She obtained her master’s degree in International Economics and Finance from River State University of Science and Technology.
Ms Maduako started farming in 2017 as a side hustle but resigned fully in 2019 to focus on her business. In this 19th episode of our Women in Agriculture series, Ms Maduako shares her experience on how she turns eggshells into body scrub.
Ogochukwu Maduako
PT: You are into agriculture, what branch of agriculture is that?
Ms Maduako: Actually, we started up owning a plantain farm that belongs to poachers, that’s people that come to steal and we never really profited from the whole farming thing so we went ahead to venture into recycling.
Firstly, we run a company called ifarm. After the whole plantain thing, we didn’t make a profit, and all that poachers kept on stealing whenever plantain was ripe we couldn’t get to harvest it and all. We decided to then think about something that we could do, I came up with the thought of recycling agric waste, but at a point, I was like which of the agric waste will I recycle?
So I went ahead to think of what to recycle. One day I went to a market in Imo State, and I ran into the snail shell and I think the snail shell is rich in calcium. What about recycling it for farmers?
I just felt the snail shell has a lot of advantages. So I spoke to a friend, who is already in snail farming and he said that snail shells are very good and all of that and that recycling snail shells is going to be tougher.
Since I’m just starting, instead of snail shells, why not recycle eggshells? I was like the last time I heard of it was in secondary school, when we actually recycled some into scrubbing powder and that people already know about it and he said what if they don’t?

I went ahead to research and I liked what I saw and there were a lot of details on eggshells on Google and it’s probably something I can do. By then, I was working in an oil servicing firm in Port Harcourt (9 – 5). I just started going to bakeries telling them about their egg shells, indomie and egg spots, restaurants and all of that; that they should keep and I’ll be coming around to pick it.
I arranged a pickup team whereby we go around picking up like twice a week; Tuesdays and Saturdays. For the first one year we got it for free, but when we were now consistent they were like “madam this thing you’re always coming to pick that means there is money in it”.
Then they asked us to start paying so we started paying a little amount of money monthly for the generated eggshells. So we kept on picking and recycling calcium for birds, vegetables like tomatoes and so on. So we formulated them into calcium supplements for farmers, we started talking about it on social media and educating people as people that already know the use were contacting us and purchasing little by little.
While we were looking for a common product people can buy, not necessarily farmers, so I just thought about turning it into scrubbing powder since it’s what everybody likes and everybody can use. I went ahead to start producing scrubbing powder, got the packaging material. We actually formulated our own scrubbing powder made from eggshells and then we took it up that we have scrubbing powder for sale and people were amazed at our packaging so we just kept on pushing the stuff into the market trying to look for buyers.People were showing interest and trying to buy up and resell, it was a good one but something in me was like “you can get something better why not just think of something else”. I don’t believe in one source of income. I believe in a lot of channels to bring in money so that if this one is not doing well, the other one will definitely do well as such you’ll always have money in your hand.
In 2019, I heard of breed the farmers conference that usually holds in Dubai, I felt it won’t be a bad idea to attend since I’ve not attended any agric conference. I see them on Instagram and other media but I have never been opportune to attend probably because I am in Rivers and most of the time it is held in either Abuja or Lagos. I am not really disposed to travel for them, I was like okay I can try this since I was already planning to travel to Dubai for a vacation so probably travel for the conference and start my vacation after the conference.
When I went, I registered, as it wasn’t free. The first day of the conference I was impressed as I met a lot of people and we exchanged contacts, but something kept coming to my mind that nobody is actually talking about recycling of agric waste or anything related. But only talking about food! food!! food!!!.

How come Dubai doesn’t have farms, no good choice, most of their foods are being imported and all. It didn’t really sink in because all on my mind was how to sell my brand to these people. At some point, I felt this conference really centred on food then during the conference they were taking on packaging and branding and already in my Instagram I do this small tip and one was on branding. We can actually do your branding for you if you have an agricultural product you want to brand you can bring and we’ll help you brand it and all. So when they talked about branding I just felt let me take it up.
Brand for just agric products and people were like that’s true in the agric sector we are not serious about our products, we don’t brand. The second day was still about food. So after the conference I was like okay I’ve not really had a good Nigerian meal in Dubai so I kept asking where I could get a good meal so I got some options and I chose Thezer.

I ordered okro soup and eba. It wasn’t really as fresh as it is in Nigeria, as it was a bit stale but nothing really came to mind as I just ate my food. Then after eating I asked the guy how much my bill was, and he told me how much in their currency. I sharply carried my calculator to convert to naira. It was N11,500 and I asked how can I eat N11,500 for just okro soup and eba?
The guy replied that it’s like that, the cost of bringing in these things and all that. At that point my eyes opened very well that the person bringing in these stuff for them is really making it big. So when I left, the N11,500 didn’t leave my head as I kept thinking of it. I told myself that when I’m back in Nigeria, I’ll start exporting food. So I went on my Instagram and posted that, “Those in the diaspora, what do you lack? What do you need with respect to food?”
People were saying “we don’t have yams, good oil” and the rest but I was not thinking of doing the fresh food aspect; all I was just about the dry one as its something I’m just starting. The whole of December I was thinking about how I’m going to run it, following up on people already in it. I noticed there was a gap and that gap is branding.
They were not really sending it well just doing it in a shabby manner. The package wasn’t really appealing. So I decided to do something more fantastic as I believe the eyes should eat first before the mouth. I chose the item I want to start with palm oil, crayfish, egusi and ogbono.
I then started making enquiries and I started making tags and labels for it. I called my IT guy, he’ll do some and I’ll reject that I want something catchy, that’s how we kept working trying to get out labels right then okay, what will I use to package them? The oil, but for the crayfish, it wasn’t so hard because we had some of our packages for eggshells with little leftover and I started with them.
I put our labels on them and people were like “this is very beautiful” and all of that. As I did that with the crayfish, I kept thinking about the palm oil. How am I going to do this? I stumbled on one post on Jiji about a clear standard pouch for water when going on a picnic or something like that and I was like okay, let me try oil as there’s no harm in trying.
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I ordered for the pack, it came and we used it; labelled it and my team said it was good and beautiful. I was asked if it was durable and strong but I was all about the beauty and when I post and people don’t like it we can rebrand. But when I posted it, everyone loved it and the palm oil was our selling point and people were asking for it. Some in the business asked their suppliers if they can get the packs to rebrand theirs.

In fact, palm oil is our breakthrough as those in diaspora keep asking and some have to leave where they were shopping to come to us. We started exporting in two months which is something that most people in the food sector said before you can export you’ll have to meet some tasking requirements but for us we didn’t really encounter any issues as people easily gave us their money to send our products over.

There was this woman we used to export but her charges were outrageous so some people who needed would have to maybe send it to their relatives or friends in Lagos who are coming over to bring it for them. Meanwhile, the sole aim is to export not necessarily to serve this within but those in diaspora. You know that earnings in dollars is preferable to naira. So I decided that I needed to get my export area and the value chain right. I started asking questions and I fell into a good hand; very honest guy. We started off together and are still in business. You order your product, we dispatch and within two to three weeks you pick up your goods. Sometimes it’s less than two weeks and we get back positive reviews. We kept on and in two to three months we kept getting more visibility and people kept referring us to friends, so we started expanding.
We did Canada, Australia, Egypt, Dubai, Ghana and some other countries as we just also turn one year in December 2020. So looking at everything, we noticed that this food aspect is doing well and it’s generating good revenue for the company. Not that we left recycling, but all the recycling, scrubbing powder, calcium supplements was still on going but we noticed that the food aspect (branding and export) was really bringing good revenue to the company. We then decided to exert more pressure on the food aspect and we started telling people we are open to partnership. In fact, we want to get our products into African shops as we are looking for a way to dominate that sector abroad where you can walk into an African store and look for “I farm, You eat” and you can get a product from us like egusi, ogbono, crayfish, okporoko, or oil as these are the five items we are looking to export. We’ve been making plans, trying to get our ticket rights, with NAFDAC and the rest of them, it’s quite difficult but we are trying and I think that’s where we are basically.
PT: The eggshells, you use machines to process them?
Ms Maduako: Yes
PT: How are you able to get the machines?
Ms Maduako: Actually, the machines we use, I acquired from my little earnings as I earlier told you that I worked 9-5. So for now we don’t hire.
PT: Currently, how much do you buy a bag of eggshells?
Ms Maduako: For egg shells, we are registered with some companies like spar where we pay N2,500 monthly of which we get about 13 to 14 bags but it depends on what they use. With the bakery we pay 2000 as it varies among other companies. For the Indomie and egg factories, we pay N1,500 monthly.
PT: You said you went for a conference in Dubai 2019, so do you think that Nigerian farmers can compete globally with farmers across the world?
Yes we can, if only we can get the processes right because all I gathered in the conference I noticed we have a lot of loopholes starting from our ports, the packaging, handling, we have a lot to put in place. We can compete with others because we have a lot of resources that other countries don’t have, but in Nigeria the problem is that we don’t have the right tools to get these goods to the end users. We are struggling to do something we should easily do, because we have all our take except the right tool.
We need to go back to the drawing board which includes the processing, packaging, handling, our port is messed up and government should reduce and make amends on their policies. So that people can easily dive into this aspect of agriculture because if you’re looking at export, it’s very tedious and big as it’s not something the one man, two or even hundred men can handle on their own. But why people shy away from it is because of the export guidelines, the policies around it, the money involved, people will just say they don’t have strength but when you go through the process of preparing the products and it’s time to export.
The rubbish happening at the port, no good road to the port, so government needs to fix the roads and work on the ports. Which will prevent time wastage and quicker and better exports. So we can compete and win in the global markets if everything is put in place and working as expected.
PT: Aside from the challenges in exporting, what other challenges would you say you’ve faced and are currently facing generally as a farmer and a woman in agriculture as you know that women are under regarded in this sector?
Ms Maduako: Firstly, when I started, I didn’t experience this underrating thing because I did not start up thinking profits because people already have this mindset that people in agriculture they look dirty, unkempt, but for me, I started when I worked 9-5 and when I want to go to my farm I put on my coverall, so people ask if I’m sure in doing agriculture, like I’m the one doing all the stuff I did like picking up eggshells and all of that. I don’t really have that “under regarding” issue. For me, the challenges I had are access to grants, we won that access bank grant when they did their grant challenge. But we generally don’t have access to grants. Also, another challenge we have is proceeding certificates like NAFDAC and the rest.
The simplest certificate we’ve gotten as a company is when we registered as an exporting company and the certificate came out the third day after registration. Visibility is also a challenge as in Nigeria, we see people who are not making the sector what it is or what we which it should be are the obscene m ones getting the visibility compared to us that are really putting in the work.
I think these among others are the major challenges we have as a company.
The thing is getting a certificate in Nigeria and having access to grants in Nigeria can be vering tasking, there are no recounted packages for SMEs. The last time I heard NAFDAC was giving discounts to small businesses, I quickly jumped at it but when I called the contact person, she said I should forget all those things so we had to embrace the reality of paying the same amount of what we used to pay. Those are the basic challenges that we have, another challenge is power, I believe it is a general challenge we all have.
PT : So the food you package, how do you get the raw materials to process them?
Ms Maduako: We partner with some local farmers, I grew up in Akwa Ibom State, so that is where we get our palm oil from. When I made up my mind on packaging food stuff, I already knew I was going to go back home when it comes to crayfish and palm oil. We go to some villages in Akwa Ibom, we discuss with farmers so we are sure of what we are buying. We talk with them, tell them what we want, they give us options.
These local farmers will tell you that they don’t make much from good products, they will ask you “How do you want it? “Do you want it mixed with colour or do you want the straight one? They will tell you the truth. Since we are about integrity and promoting agriculture, we don’t want to do something now and tomorrow our integrity will be at stake. Also we patronise the local farmers because we believe we will get it at cheaper rates in order to bridge the margins of profit. We have a lot of people selling crayfish and palm oil so what is really the difference?
We don’t know their quality so we ensure that what we have on our own plate, we don’t want to but chafe and give you, then tell you it is crayfish, we want to buy the real thing. For crayfish we go back to women that harvest from the sea in places like Eket, they fry it we arrange with them. Then transport it down to Port Harcourt where we process them and package for the market. The ones we can get from Port Harcourt like ogbono we make do with them. There are a lot of fishing ports for it so we have access to it.
PT: Processing and packaging sounds like a hard job, already agriculture requires serious labour. Do you employ women to work in the processing department?
Ms Maduako: Of course! 80 per cent of our workforce are women. I employ women because I feel they bring the energy you need into the business. I brought in men because we need their power to carry heavy bags. What people don’t know is that a 50kg bag of eggshell is very heavy. You can’t carry a full bag of the broken eggshell. We need guys in this aspect, like bags of ogbono, egusi, palm oil, those things are very heavy we employ guys to do those work. When we want a good output, our women give us the best.
PT: Your story tells us that you seem to be in the right direction, where do you see yourself in the next five years.
Ms Maduako: I see myself on Amazon and Walmart, I see us as a household name. I see people walk into the supermarket requesting for “I farm, you eat” product even without an advert. I want to see our products sell itself. We see ourselves in different countries in the world.
PT: Comparing yourself with the past four years when you were a 9-5 person, how will you rate yourself now?
Ms Maduako: Money wise, I will not say the inflow of cash has been awesome. Sometimes you feel you are making so much money then one thing just comes and takes the money off. It’s either you have to pay for electricity, community bills, because here in Port Harcourt, we experience a lot of that. Maybe one machine is breaking down at the end of the day, you are going home with little.
I would say on a personal level I have grown, I have built myself. My personal development has been top-notch. It went from 20 per cent to 80 per cent. It has built me emotionally, financially, and physically. Even if I’m not making all the money, I know I am going towards it. In fact, my ex-boss had to chat me up he said: “ah Ogochukwu, I didn’t know you had all of these ideas in you and you did not bring it to my company”. I laughed in my mind I said this man sef, for my boss to reach out to me, I feel I’m doing something very good I don’t think if I was doing bad he will reach out to me.
I am thankful for the challenges; when I resigned, it was rough for me. I left my job in January, February and March I was working on the powder, after I launched it in April, I experienced a downtime. I started questioning myself if this was the best option. I asked myself too many questions but throughout that process, I knew it was shaping me into 2020. I never I felt I was wrong. I kept pushing and I know I have grown. It is not easy to be a business owner, you have a lot of responsibilities. Sometimes your workers have gone but you are on ground to complete some tasks. There is no closing time for me, I work at mid night. I’m the one to meet the client, I’m the one to market the product; all these efforts are to see to the growth of the business.
PT: How many staff do you have?
Ms Maduako: Currently I have seven of them, three in the recycling and then we have four in the processing and packaging.

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