ASPIRE CEO: Ayo Olajiga, The Nuts’ Man Set for World Domination

It is difficult not to love cashew nuts after you’ve spent some time with Ayo. Charismatic, disarmingly honest and always focused on his business, Ayo Olajiga is the Chief Executive Officer of FoodPro, the largest indigenously owned and managed cashew nut processing company in Nigeria.

FoodPro has been processing cashew nuts since 2013 and with the recent expansion of the factory in Ilorin, Kwara State has increased its annual processing capacity from 1,000 to 5,000 tonnes of raw cashew nuts.

I had called earlier to let him know that we would be taking photographs for the interview. He asked what he should wear, I told him to dress like he would on any other work day.

He rises from his chair to welcome me and give me a seat opposite him across his desk. He is wearing a long sleeved shirt, sleeves rolled up to his elbows and tucked into trousers. He’s wearing good shoes.

Tall, dark, slightly athletic and in his early forties. There is a self-assuredness about him that could only come from having a very good idea of who he is, what he is about and what the future holds. It is barely a few minutes past 9am on the Thursday before Christmas, but he looks like he’s been awake for a long time.

I try to get him comfortable as we start the interview (not that he needs it) by asking him what people are most surprised about when they get to know him. “They are most surprised about the shift from investment banking to processing cashew nuts, then they ask questions like ‘Why cashews?’ and ‘Are you sure you have made the right decision’?” he says.

Ayo has an impressive resume from his days as an Engineer, Management Consultant and then Investment Banker. He describes his journey saying “I started out as an engineer, working in America and servicing American Express which was one of our company’s clients. We would go from New Jersey to service them in the city wearing jeans and T-shirts like we always did, while they were always dressed in suits and looking sharp. The glimpse into corporate America had me intrigued, so I attended Kellogg Business School and joined McKinsey and Co after business school. I got transferred to South Africa and stayed on for two and a half years. My schedule was really hectic as a Management Consultant, so I started thinking of doing something else.

Coincidentally, about the same time I got talking with a friend of mine whose wife worked at Rand Merchant Bank. He asked me to consider investment banking as there was an opening over there. That is how I became an investment banker and spent 9 years at Rand Merchant Bank”.

Did he enjoy being an investment banker? He says “Management Consulting is pretty exciting the way McKinsey does it but investment banking does make it look like you are working for peanuts as a Management Consultant”.

He tells a really good story of how as a 26 year old engineer, he left one job on a Friday and resumed at another the following Monday  because he had gotten a pay cut and did not find out until he saw it in his pay cheque. “Every time I think about it, I go like nah, that wasn’t a cool thing to do. You should never walk away without saying anything. These days I have learnt that I can’t control what you do but I am in absolute control of what I do. If I deal with you and you burn bridges that’s fine, I don’t have to deal with you anymore but to just walk away….it felt really good at the time but I shouldn’t have done that” he says laughing as he finishes the story.

An avid reader and a one-time wrist watch enthusiast, his best times whenever he travels are spent going to libraries and book stores where he literally takes off his shoes, and sits on the floor to skim through books.

He was reading ‘The Four Obsessions of An Extraordinary Executive’ and ‘The Advantage’; both books  by Patrick Lencioni at the time. “Because I read a lot, I come off being very knowledgeable and it allows me to communicate with people effectively, I can engage better and in problem solving situations I find that I am able to apply stuff that I have learned from the books that i have read”.

His favourite places in the world are Cape Town, Old Trafford (he’s a Manchester United FC fan) and South India. “South India is the most educated part of India and reminds me of what Nigeria could be.  The factory where we bought machines had sand floors! But was producing state of the art machines and equipment” he says with an incredulous look on his face.

Ayo admits that processing cashew nuts wasn’t always the plan.  It was completely by accident. While he was living and working in South Africa, he got into a conversation with a Nigerian friend who was also living and working there. They were both really impressed with the way that South Africa had not suffered the global recession as much as the rest of the world because of how their economy is designed to be self-sufficient. What did they do next? They picked up the Nigerian import list and after almost three years of investigation and research decided that anything that had to do with agriculture was the way to go.

Primary agriculture is extremely capital intensive in Nigeria so we looked into processing – our plan was to find areas where Nigeria had a strong production capacity but was exporting raw produce, and in time we would go into farming. By this time a third person had joined us and one day during one of our brainstorming sessions, tells us that his family has an abandoned cashew factory in Ilorin. We looked at the numbers on excel, and it looked interesting. After another two years(from 2010 – 2012) of investigation and research studying cashew nuts processing in Vietnam, Benin Republic, attending conferences and all – here we are”.

He has no set daily routines (hopes to change that in 2018) except a quick run or work out early in the morning, a quick 10 minute morning meeting at the office where everyone shares their plan for the day and on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays he drops off and picks up his children from school. “But I miss running regularly especially really early in the morning, it’s just you and everywhere is so silent and peaceful. No interruptions, it’s just you. On days when I do that, I find that I get so much done before 7am. I should definitely do more of it in 2018”.

Talking about some of the lessons he has learned so far in his entrepreneurial journey, “most surprising even though I was told is that you underestimate the effort it takes to do anything. But I have also learned that you underestimate the possibilities as well. So now I say that if it is going to take 10 hours to get something done, then it should produce a 10x result or outcome. There is just no point otherwise.

“Another thing is that as a business, it is the end of 2017 and we know all the things we have done wrong but we have not taken the time to appreciate all the things that we have done right.”

The Impressive Facts:-

  1. FoodPro is the largest Nigerian owned cashew nut processing company in Nigeria.
  2. FoodPro is easily one of the top ten cashew nut processing companies in Africa.
  3. FoodPro is an employer of labour providing a source of livelihood for over 400 people of which are primarily women.

“We have been able to create a platform which is set up to do some interesting things in 2018.” he adds.

As for his thoughts on the Intrapreneur vs Entrepreneur debate. “There is room for both the intrapreneur and the entrepreneur. I would love to have intrapreneurs at FoodPro, people who have the mindset to always create something new and deliver results. In the same way for society to grow, you also need people to go into business, create new solutions and disrupt industries.”

He is currently a participant of the Stanford Seed Transformation Program – West Africa, which provides entrepreneurship training and networking support required to grow and scale African businesses that will inevitably lead to prosperity in the region.

We talk about him leaving a legacy and he jokes about it being too early but he is involved in the Teach For Nigeria program for primary schools which is about changing the trajectory of education in Nigeria. “The whole idea is to get the smartest people in schools to stay back and teach for at least two years after school and hopefully catch the fire to continue to teach, go into school administration, fund schools or the public sector – all of them having a burning desire to change the way people learn. It’s not just the curriculum but the mindset… a driven, focused and problem solving mindset. That is education! The state of the mind – that is what determines success.” He says this with so much passion.

He goes on, “As for how I want to be remembered, I don’t know yet.  It would probably be something to do with education. The FoodPro shareholders are currently looking into doing something that our workers would say happened to them or for them, because they worked at FoodPro. For the older ones you can increase remuneration or extend benefits but for their kids….possibly getting their children access to better education so they are equipped to aspire to do more and be more…but I don’t know! We are still figuring out the details.”

The first of five children, he was born in Ibadan, Oyo State and grew up in Akure, Ondo State, where his parents worked for the government until their retirement. He admits to worrying sometimes about how his own children are being raised. “Are my kids going to be able to survive and excel in the world that we currently live in? How do I raise my kids so that they are connected to Nigeria but also able to compete globally? Then there’s a concern in general for the African kid. We are so far from what is happening in the rest of the world, light years behind to be honest. Does this mean that African kids are going to be perpetually locked in their situation? How do we as a society break out? That is the real change we need as a people.”

Ayo is married to Wani Olatunde, a successful portrait and wedding photographer.  She was also an investment banker when they met at a restaurant in Johannesburg, South Africa through mutual friends.  They were married after dating for three years. They have two adorable sons, ages 6 and 3. They both binge-watch TV and enjoy catching up on their favourite shows together, but have made a pact to go out and even entertain more in 2018. The way he laughed when he talked about it, he did not seem convinced that it would actually happen.

One of his favourite things is going to new places even though he is a terrible tourist, planned holiday itineraries are an absolute No-no!

Other interesting trivia.

  • He loves documentaries, an absolute favourite is ‘The Men who Built America’.
  • He is not very big on splurging, but admits to spending a lot of money on books and a particular Grant Cardone course.
  • He enjoys watching football, Formula 1, and hanging out occasionally.
  • He can eat only Okro soup as a meal.
  • He went through a dark period of his life during his under-graduate days, when he could not go a day without drinking hard liquor. He made up his mind to stop, and he did.
  • He used to preach as a fellowship pastor in his under-graduate days in the University of Ife.
  • He does not have a formal mentor yet but would love to have one.
  • His team members must have a respect for time and not just get things done but get them done in a timely manner.
  • He never leaves home without his phone and letting his family know where he will be.
  • He can’t work without knowing why he is doing what he is doing.
  • He never goes into a meeting without a plan.

What is next for FoodPro? With no hesitation at all, he replies “Now that we have had our factory commissioned, we have to reach and exceed the installed capacity. We need to de-emphasize the wholesale part of our business by making ‘Lion Cashews’ and ‘Go Nutz’ the go-to brands for entry into the local and global retail markets. We need to build more factories so that Africa is processing at least 50% of the cashew nuts that it produces and we can also provide more jobs. Our entire transformation initiative is to become an FMCG branded Foods Company on a global scale.”

As I get up to leave, he gives me a 220g pack of GoNutz – Suya Spice flavoured cashew nuts. They are delicious!

The current Nigerian government’s economic agenda to reduce the country’s dependency on crude oil export by diversifying the economy, primarily through agriculture and agro-based industries appears to be well on its way to realization. Ayo Olajiga should be the poster boy.

Photography: Dami Taiwo

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