She was destined to a bright future at the World Bank, IMF, or perhaps even the African Union. Ada Osakwe has the academic paperwork and a wealth of experience to prove it. The thirty-something-year-old from Lagos wanted more from life, and a promising career in banking and finance wasn’t part of that. So, three years ago, she set up a fresh juice company, Nuli Juice, followed by a chain of proudly Nigerian health food lounges.
Growing up in Lagos with an older brother and younger sister, Ada Osakwe has fond childhood memories. “We were a close-knit family, with both my mother and father being lawyers,” she says. Food always played an important role in her family’s day-to-day life, she recalls. “Some of my favourite memories revolve around my mom preparing interesting dishes. I remember her preparing a pasta dish with cheese and bacon bits. It was simply delicious. I recall standing on a little stool, listening to her explaining to me how to boil the milk and prepare this dish.”
As she became more inquisitive and her young mind started to develop, Osakwe decided that she wanted to study something that would allow her to travel and work overseas. “My parents always wanted us to be the best we could be. My mother even took me to the Alliance Francaise for French lessons to prepare me for the day I leave home to see the world,” she recalls. After completing high school, Osakwe packed her bags and went to London for an undergraduate degree in Economics, followed by a Masters in Economic and Finance.
Dusting off her French
Whilst in London, where she ended up working as an Analyst in the Debt Capital Markets team of the investment bank BNP Paribas, Osakwe met a Nigerian woman who worked at the African Development Bank (AfDB). “She told me all about the bank, what it was doing, what it stood for, and which projects it was involved in. This organisation, of which my mother had told me so often, began to intrigue me and so, after some research, I applied for a position at the bank’s Young Professionals Programme.”
After bagging the job, Osakwe moved to Tunisia in 2005. This was where the bank was headquartered back then, before the social and political unrest of 2014. “As the youngest professional hired in the history of the bank, I joined their treasury’s capital market development team, which had the objective of developing African markets and enabling African businesses to raise finance in their own countries,” she recalls. “It was an amazing job, one which gave me a true sense of where I was from, besides my Nigerian heritage. It also allowed me to dust off the French I had learned as a child.”
the AfDB’s infrastructure department, which oversaw funding large construction projects throughout Africa, from roads to power plants. “It was very exciting. Working on projects in Ethiopia, Nigeria, and Kenya opened my eyes and mind to Africa’s developmental issues, including energy shortages and food insecurity.”
Plight of African farmers
This eventually drove her back to school: she went to the US to complete her MBA, after which she became the Vice President at Kuramo Capital Management, a private equity firm. It was there where she met the then Nigerian Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development, Akinwumi Adesina, who was looking for a senior investment advisor. Without too much hesitation, Osakwe moved back home after obtaining her degree. “I was excited. This position allowed me to drive the issues I had become so concerned about, including food security and the plight of small scale farmers,” she says.
Whilst working for the minister, she became increasingly drawn to the fresh produce sector. “This industry has a great potential to add value to local crops, drive economic growth, and empower people, particularly the youth,” Osakwe says, adding that one of the problems small African farmers face is a systematic lack of access to capital. “Small businesses in Nigeria struggle to get funding. Most venture capital goes to large companies, whilst smaller ventures need access to capital the most. This also counts for farmers and smaller food companies.” All of this resulted in Osakwe starting an investment firm called Agrolay, which invests in early stage food and agricultural companies. “I was still working for the minister, a job which I only quit very recently,” she says. “Agrolay invests in companies across the value chain and continent. Its purpose is to show the world that Africa is able to produce amazing, world-class, and locally-grown food products that can compete on the global stage in terms of quality, branding and packaging,” Osakwe says. “That is my hope and dream. That is my passion.”
From investment to juice Besides investing in start-ups, Agrolay incubates its own food companies. Nuli Juice, a fresh juice venture, is one of them. The business, of which the name is derived from the Nigerian word for happiness, aims to create a market for young farmers and add value to local produce. “Why a juice company? The answer is simple. Many juice businesses in Nigeria import their concentrate – the raw material – from Europe and the US, even though we produce plenty of fruit and vegetables ourselves. Nigeria is one of the largest growers of pineapples in Africa, if not in the world. The same counts for citrus fruit and tomatoes. We grow everything here, yet we import so much. I wanted to tap into our local wealth and sell juice made of local fruit and vegetables.”
As a result, 98% of Nuli’s ingredients – from fruit and lettuce to carrots, peppers, and tomatoes – are grown on Nigerian soil, mostly by small farmers. “The rest is imported from other parts of the world,” Osakwe says. “Nigeria, for instance, doesn’t produce apples. We source them locally, though.” Following Nuli Juice, Osakwe opened her first Nuli Lounge in January last year. Over the past twelve months it is slowly growing into a chain of health food cafés. “We opened our first store in Abuja. It was a small place, but it grew very quickly. Besides juices, our Nuli Lounges offer a variety of health foods, from couscous dishes and smoothies to health wraps and salads. Again, we use mostly local produce. Even our strawberries are locally grown, something which apparently surprises many people. I love the fact that we are not just feeding people but also educating them about what their country has to offer.”
98 % of Nuli ’s ingredients – from fruit and lettuce to carrots, peppers, and tomatoes – are grown on Nigerian soil , mostly by small farmers
A recent setback towards the end of 2016 has led to more brand recognition for Osakwe, that has allowed her to make a deal with a local gym to open a juice bar. More locations have since followed.
“We have come out stronger, eventually. I hope to have six locations by mid-year. I have even received requests for partnerships in the Ivory Coast and Kenya,” Osakwe says. “I am blessed and very grateful, and I am proud of how far we have come and of where we are going. I am very excited about this journey. Nuli is my little baby, whom I have been taking care of and nursing for the last two years.”
Apart from growing her fresh juice and healthy food empire, Osakwe has another dream: inspiring a healthier and happier generation. “That is our ethos. For me, starting this company was not just about dealing with the agricultural sector and creating a market for farmers. It was also very much about creating a brand that was conscious about the environment and about our bodies. That was the essence. Well, that is still the essence.”
Q & A
What is your favourite organic based food or drink?
It’s Nuli all the way. I love Nuli cold-pressed juices. Our blends of fruits and veggies are simply unique Think cayenne pepper and mint in a drink, to name only one. And it’s all organic!
What do you personally do to reduce waste or carbon emissions in your daily life?
I am quite deliberate in playing my part to reduce carbon emissions by using energy-saving lights at home and at all Nuli premises. At Nuli we use PET bottles and have a recycling program where we collect used Nuli juice bottles from clients that we send to plastic recycling companies. Finally, we just had an audit of our premises to fit in solar panels and I hope that we will be able to switch to solar power soon.
Where do you see Nuli Juice in 5 years time?
I see Nuli Lounge restaurants in Nairobi, Kenya and Cape Town and South Africa. Even in Shoreditch, London, and the East Village in New York. I see us truly expanding our presence globally as we inspire a healthier and happier generation.