Ninety percent of factories in Nigeria are running at below fifty percent of their installed capacity due to scarcity of quality raw materials and the capital to purchase them. Releaf, an Agtech startup that develops proprietary hardware and software solutions to drive the industrialisation of food processing in Africa, is working to change this narrative.
Starting in Nigeria’s oil palm sector, the company is creating technology that will make farmers and food factories in Africa more efficient and profitable. While palm kernel oil (PKO) production is not foreign to Nigeria, Releaf’s technology and scale allows the company to produce 500 tonnes of PKO weekly and also crack palm kernel nuts with ninety-five percent efficiency using their newly developed technology, Kraken.
Releaf acts as a bridge between smallholder farmers and food manufacturing companies, providing working capital for farmers to access more palm kernel and equipment, and processing the raw materials into factory-grade inputs for vegetable oil factories.
Releaf’s CEO and Co-founder, Ikenna Nzewi graduated from one of the world's most prestigious universities, Yale University, in 2017 with a Bachelor's Degree in Computer Science. He co-founded Releaf with two of his brothers (Joshua and Tobechukwu Nzewi), two cousins (Isaiah and Emmanuel Udotong) and Uzoma Ayogu while they were all still at university. Releaf is a family business in every sense of the word.
Nzewi went to Nigeria for the first time in 2015 while still studying at Yale. During this period, he spent some time at the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) in Ibadan. He was inspired by the experience in Ibadan and saw that there was a lot of opportunity to do business in Nigeria, especially in the agricultural sector. This also spurred his decision to relocate to Nigeria post Yale, alongside some of his family members with whom he co-founded the company.
As soon as Releaf’s co-founders moved back to Nigeria in 2017, they visited more than 20 states in six months, buying and selling various agricultural commodities, while trying to get an accurate understanding of how specific value chains function and investigating opportunities to develop technology to catalyse their industrialisation. After several months of trading various agricultural commodities, they discovered that the biggest challenge food factories faced was securing enough quality raw material to fulfil their growing demand.
During the company’s early years, Nzewi also worked as an Associate Consultant at Bain & Company, one of the biggest management consulting firms in the world, as part of their Private Equity Group, conducting commercial due diligence for leading global private equity funds with Assets Under Management exceeding $400 billion - an experience that helped him to develop the ability to identify viable investment opportunities in African agriculture and other vital skills that have contributed to the ongoing success of Releaf.
Releaf’s technology creates hope for Africa’s agricultural sector
Releaf uses proprietary hardware to increase the availability and quality of raw materials for food factories, and sourcing software that connects them directly to more than 2,000 smallholder farmers. They also use digital technologies including USSD - a global system for mobile communications similar to text message, and open banking to work seamlessly with their network of smallholder farmers, who have supplied over 10 million kilograms of quality palm kernel nuts to food factories.
Because their technology is proprietary and large parts of the agriculture sector are yet to be industrialised, one of the company’s biggest challenges is building the framework from the ground up, to power the change that Africa’s agricultural industry needs to see.
The company has also completed the development of a very impressive proprietary nut cracking technology that they call Kraken - a task which has taken them less than a year to complete. Kraken cracks nuts with up to ninety-five percent accuracy, which means wastage is minimised, thereby increasing the quality and availability of palm nuts to food factories.
Releaf have built a network of food factories and currently help more than 2,000 farmers to boost their productivity and profitability using technology. The company is continuing to develop proprietary technology that will kickstart the next phase of development across the continent by building a network of decentralised factories, powered by technology, close to farming hotspots across the continent.
Connect with Ikenna Nzewi on LinkedIn here.