Our #EndSARS Story — The 2017 Struggle

by Ayodeji Balogun, CEO AFEX

Sometimes I wish 2017 never happened.

As a business owner, there is no doubt you will face countless challenges every day. That was the case in 2017. On paper, things never looked better for AFEX. But these numbers only tell part of the story. The other part, the hurdles we experienced, completed the narrative.

2017 was the year we were to die as a business. We simply refused to, and the rest was mere luck and miracles. On Saturday, the 7th of July 2017, around 10 am, I received a call from Dalhatu, our staff in Zaria, Kaduna State. It was a distress call.

“Our warehouse has been broken, they are using trucks to carry our Maize”, he shouted over the call!

I was seeing a basketball game with my family. I told my wife that it seemed we had a problem in Zaria, and we left immediately. A part of me was scared, but the other also thought — we are insured. I could only imagine armed robbers breaking in, little did I know, it was worse.

Officers of the Police #EndSARS had broken into the warehouse and handcuffed our staff. They came with about 20 trucks and carted away 5,571 bags of Maize. Three days later, the maize was sold in the open market. The Nigeria Police Force had no arrest or search warrant against AFEX. No case was instituted, neither was any of our staff called for interrogation till today. It was blatant theft by those who we seek protection from. It felt like we were raped. It was a mess. We had lost almost half of our balance sheet, and all revenue earned over three years in one day.

I got to my office the following Monday. I was shaking with fear and bitterness. I peeped into my office, looked at my chair, and I felt it didn’t belong to me. I paused, took a few deep breaths, maybe more than a few. I found the courage to take the steps and sit. Everybody had questions, but I had no answers. One question kept coming to my mind, who do I report to the Nigerian Police too? At least, we should know what we did wrong; where and why our Maize was taken to Funtua, Katsina State.

The DPO in Zaria was the first to confirm that the guys were from NPF and he hinted that they were from Katsina State. We sent our staff to the Police Command in Katsina, but we weren’t given the audience. Three days later, they started selling our Maize to the open market. We had secretly tracked the stock TOT of the warehouse where they were taken to.

That wasn’t our only problem that year. We then owed a lot of people money. A whole lot, since we had lost almost all our working capital.

I remember for months, once I get into the office, I will get a cup of strong coffee, grab my phone, and call my top 20 creditors. They were very difficult calls, but it felt better every time I initiated the call, so I will beat them to it. Thanks to Anthony Ewing Bogdan Lapuste and Sadiq Usman for the help in navigating these hard times. Trust is the greatest currency in trade. They stayed as allied partners through the hard times and never lost TRUST in us.

My big brother Ade Adefeko also played an important role.

“Deji, ma worry” he would say.

Olufemi Awoyemi, FCA of Proshare Nigeria, and Caleb of BusinessDay were very helpful in building our brand after the smear.

That week I was devastated. The shoes all of a sudden didn’t feel right, and I felt like quitting. I could have.

Another part of me said, fight! But, fight who?

We pulled a fight, we won, and that we are alive today, and have continued to grow despite the set back is a testament that we won.

Today we have the largest trade infrastructure across the country, with close to 500 direct and indirect staff. Nigeria could have killed us, NPF would have been the assassin, and it would have just been another casualty.

I don’t even know what the lesson of this should be, because it should not happen to anyone. But if you want to build a business in Nigeria, you have to come with your nine lives; the odds are stacked against you, and Nigeria will happen to you. But after all those battles, lies the treasure.

We had good support on the case. President Akiwumi Adesina gave us a voice and a platform. The then Minister of Agriculture Audu Ogbe, Andrew Alli, Wiebe Boer, Ph.D., and other business leaders also lent their voice in our favor.

It was based on this that the Nigeria Police Force started engaging, led by Abayomi Shogunle. The corruption was so high up, that even at that level, they could not help. Just like that N85 million was gone.

I owe a lot of Agriculture players for their support through this time. Richard-Mark Mbaram took this like it was his fight. I will be eternally indebted to him for this. It always feels good to have people in your corner. Corporate Farmers International, Wole Famurewa, Kenneth Igbomor, Frederic Van de vyver, Boason Omofaye, you all were exceptional.

Three years after, with four court injunctions in our favor and zero appearance by NPF, our Maize is still at large.

Surviving after a Crazy Blow

Just like the pandemic in 2020, for us, 2017 makes every other year an easy ride.

We got funding from our investors — they stayed with us, but even I knew this was our “get out of jail card”. We paid out all our debts, restructured the outstanding due to the police raid, and kept something small for operations.

Recall we tripled our warehouse count and staff strength in 2016. We had doubled our operating cost, and only earned half of our 2016 revenue. Our numbers were in the muds. During the aggressive growth, Jendayi had always cautioned me on the risk of growth, I argued that if we are building an infrastructure, we are either a big player or we go home.

She was right, and I was wrong.

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This is the fourth part of an ongoing series on Building AFEX. Please click previous stories if you would like to get the whole view.

AFEX Beginnings — Saying Yes and Other Stories

What’s Important in Year One

Invaluable Lessons You Learn in Entrepreneurship

Reshaping the Landscape — Our Survival Story in 2018

Know your True North

Big Audacious Goals : Introducing Project Black Elephant

AFEX’s infrastructure and platforms drive capital to build a trust economy in Africa’s commodity markets.