How, co-managed by a young female engineer with a community-building track record, Aspuna Nigeria is harvesting agro-processing innovations to address some of Nigeria’s socio-economic challenges …
When, in 2016, Mr Abdulhakeem Tijani set up Atland Foods in Nigeria’s Ogun State he did so with a sense of purpose. His previous factory and residential building situated in central Nigeria, had been burnt down during the much publicised Jos communal crisis. He had relocated to western Nigeria for a fresh start. Mr Tijani was strongly committed to delivering social and economic value to the region he was making his new home. His aim was to run a profitable business processing locally grown agricultural produce into food, feed, and industrial raw material for local and international markets with minimum negative environmental impact.
Around the same time two graduates from the University of Cambridge Executive MBA programme were a year into establishing Aspuna Group, a new type of social impact business. Aspuna, a name which derives from the English word ‘aspire’ and the Wolof word ‘aduna’, meaning world, aspires to become the leading social impact commodity business in the world. Investing in its first cassava processing plant in The Gambia in 2016, it was not long before this ambitious start-up had passed the proof of concept stage, and began seeking further opportunities in Africa.
Next came Tanzania. An agreement was finalised with the established JB Biotech Enterprises Company Ltd in 2017. The aim here was to expand and enhance the organisation’s cassava processing capabilities. And then, in 2020, thanks to an introduction to Mr Tijani from an associate on the Cambridge MBA programme, came Nigeria.
Dr Luis Prazeres, co-founder and chief operating officer (COO) of Aspuna Group, explains more:
“Aspuna is a new type of international commodities business. Not only do we trade in African agricultural products, we invest in and advise on the development of sustainable agro-processing plants. From business planning and investment, to agricultural surveys and feasibility studies, to engineering and construction, we roll up our sleeves and get involved. But only if those we are partnering with share our willingness to generate positive social returns for local commodity producers and communities. Atland Foods does and had all the hallmarks of an Aspuna partner.”
So, what are the hallmarks of an Aspuna partner?
“We partner with local governmental and non-governmental bodies and private enterprises. Our partners do not need to currently have agro-processing capacity but they can do. So long as they can evidence that there is a profitable business case that creates employment for, and improves the livelihoods of, local small scale farmers and their communities, there is a strong potential for partnering,” Prazeres advises.
People, planet, profit
Whilst profit is everybody’s endpoint, mindful of the necessity to operate sustainably and safeguard their commitment to local communities, Aspuna Group is also passionate about partnering with the right people. In Atland Foods all three ingredients were present.
“Whilst we bring investment, business planning, trading and engineering expertise to the party, it is vital that the teams we partner with have great relationships with smallholder farmers in their location. Not only does Mr Tijani bring this. His broader team brings local investment, sales and marketing expertise, and knowledge, expertise and a passion for leveraging advanced engineering, including AI and robotics, to deliver against sustainable development goals,” Prazeres adds.
Pioneering agro-processing solutions
Over to Atland Foods’, and now Aspuna Nigeria’s board member and product manager, Ms Khaulat Abdulhakeem. Alongside this role, Ms Khaulat is also a machine learning researcher, public speaker, and founder of AI Abeokuta, a Nigerian artificial intelligence community.
“I am very interested in Artificial Intelligence. There is a clear place for it to help our business, and the smallholder farmers who supply us with raw material, to improve yields and production capacity, better manage resources – and therefore profit margins – and reduce our carbon footprint.
“Thanks to Aspuna’s knowledge about and relationships with leading agri-tech and agro-processing specialists, this is part of our long-term plan.
“However, the overall purpose of this partnership is to upgrade our factory so that we can produce internationally tradeable starch, as well as to strengthen the domestic marketing activities. So, the short-term goal is to identify interim machinery to enable us to maximise the potential of our existing infrastructure and meet the growing demand for our products as we gear up to regional, national and international provision.
“With Aspuna’s expertise, not only will our business increase sales and margins, we will lock the value of locally grown produce into our community. The smallholder farmers from whom we purchase cassava will be ensured income at the market rate; we will increase employment in our factory, improving the outlook for and livelihoods of the wider community.”
Stage one, the research and analysis stage of the joint venture agreement commenced in January with two new pieces of machinery identified, to be installed this Spring. These upgrades will meet the interim goal of maximising garri production for the local market, whilst the business gears up to raise investment and meet international standards and demand. The plan is to run them and future machinery using renewable energy sources.
Innovations such as those above will enable Aspuna Nigeria to become close to a zero waste organisation within three years. For example: Cassava peel will be dried with the aid of a rotary dryer; used starchy water and/ or slurry will become a source of energy and solvent for the organisation’s to be developed biogas digester; the digester will produce liquid fertilizer for sale, while methane gas released as a by-product will be channelled to security lighting, cutting down on energy costs.
Above and beyond
While it is still early days, this partnership’s potential is clear. In addition to the above, part of the Aspuna process is to sponsor apprenticeship schemes providing training and high yield starter kits to young farmers within the vicinity of its processing plants. As well as, of course, access to pan African and international markets.
Indeed, co-managed by a young female engineer with a track record of community building, Aspuna Nigeria is harvesting the power of innovation within the agro-processing sector to address some of Nigeria’s, and the wider world’s, socio-economic challenges.
We leave the final words to Mr Tijani:
“The partnership will strengthen Atland Foods, supporting us to faster achieve a sustainable world class and community friendly organisation. It will contribute positively to reducing post-harvest loss on our farms and enhancing small holder farmers’ income and the Nigerian economy, while generating next to zero waste in the long run.”