Olanrewaju Howells: Pursuing innovative ideas
Tucked away in a serene place in Lekki, Lagos is Varden Farms and Resort. On meeting the Managing Director whom I like to call the Chief Farmer, there was nothing to show that the man standing in front of me has his hands dug in the not-so-tush business of farming. “Our goal” he says, “is to create a new generation of farmers and to get people to fall in love with farming.”
Olanrewaju Howells, a Mass Communication graduate of Ogun State Polytechnic, Abeokuta, has his hands in many pies; Hospitality, Entertainment, Real Estate, Agriculture and Mass Media. The certified member of the International Real Estate Management Institute is the MD of Beyond Buildings Investment Limited, a premium Real Estate company, aimed at redefining asset management and Real Estate investment culture.
His latest addition to his chain of businesses is the Varden Farms and resort which was birthed in 2016, a journey which began two years earlier. His passion for developing products for the emerging generation in Africa remains one of his priorities and his move from Real Estate to farming attests to that.
In this encounter at his City Mall Office, the founder of Rent Masters Realtors Ltd, a pioneer online rental and home management services spoke about his new passion a get-away haven for investors and families.
With Varden farms, are you taking on the whole value chain of farming?
We are taking on the whole value chain that is why we have the Varden camps, it is an agro co-operative, multipurpose society. There is a co-operative where we drop funds that are being deployed. There is a Varden farms that handles the production of the raw materials; there is a Varden foods that handles the processing and distribution to the shops.
Where are the farmers from?
We have different professionals who members of the co-operative, and every member is a farmer. If they are not actively involved, they cannot fall in love with farming. In order for them to fall in love with farming, we have to create an environment and ambience that will make them want to live the comfort of their homes, and come to the farm and that is where the resort is.
A farm resort is not common and sometimes, people especially women, look out for places like this where they can be close to nature and away from the noise.
For you why the resort?
Two things happened to us, five years ago when we did the first farming scheme; our investors couldn’t go to the farms because if they want to come, they want to come with their families and feel safe. Five years ago also, we discovered that, farm houses are privately owned. There were no commercial farm houses. So in other for us to create that, we needed to merge it with the farm. So as a member, I can own an apartment here, but when I am not there, the apartment is making money.
On the second part, I don’t have to own an apartment. I can book one. And while here, learn a lot of activities about farming; fisheries, how to paddle a canoe etc. What we are trying to do is to make sure that the new generation is able to pass it across to the next one indirectly.
Would you say now that you are using tourism to drive the farm?
Not just tourism, what we are actually doing is creating a new mind set for people who believe that farming is boring, dirty, and for the uneducated. We are trying to merge agro tourism and farming and use that as a bait to people who would ordinarily not want to leave the comfort of their homes to come to the farm. So, I can stay over at the farm and still enjoy my gym, still enjoy my lawn tennis, still enjoy internet and my freshness.
If I have a weekend to take my girlfriends out, what do you think they will enjoy at the resort?
The beauty of it is that, each of the apartments has its kitchen: which means, you can go into the farm market, get items and explore a new recipe. Also, there are lots of activities you can engage in; you guys can do your yoga, you can jog round the estate, you can take on games. You can learn about new things that ordinarily, the attention of the city would not allow you explore. While you are there, you guys can gather to pray. Women like to pray.
The issue of security is a big concern especially as we have seen people being attacked in supposedly safe places. How safe is the resort?
One of the things we have done is that we have installed a perimeter fence around the farm. It means that it takes someone to scale the fence to come in. Another thing we have done is that we have a lot of security equipments in the farm. We also have well-trained military men on ground, as well as our own patrol team that are permanently there. We are not just relying on manpower there is a place of technology. People can be rest assured that there is adequate security.
Real Estate and farming are quite some miles apart. How did you make the move?
It is interesting when I hear this question every time. What is called Real Estate is the land, what I use it for is the application of Real Estate. So, if I have a piece of land, I can build a house on it, someone else can use it to build an office, while another can use the same land to build a school. So there is actually no movement. We are trying to tell people, that real estate is far beyond luxury estates. We don’t need to restrict Real Estate to just building residential houses. So going into farming means I am just using part of the land for something different from houses.
What is life as a farmer and how has the farming experience been?
Interesting and humbling. One of the things farming has taught me is the ability to build patience capacities. You can’t be a farmer when you are impatient because it takes time for the seed to germinate. So you learn patience and you also learn to see beautiful things from the onset. You can picture a cucumber farm and others can’t see it. Farming will teach you that and help you shape your vision. You will learn to understand that every part is important, weeding is as important as plowing and it helps you to understand the power of God. If you want to see the real power of God, just see what looks like nothing becomes something and that is what farming does.
Let’s take a look at the country and the activities of the herdsmen, if you were to advise based on your farming experience, what would you say that can solve the herdsmen killings?
I do know clearly that when the purpose of a thing is not clear the abuse is inevitable. Decades and maybe centuries back, people have been rearing cattle, and they will keep rearing cattle. Our problem is that we found ourselves in an environment where our people either don’t want to face the reality or just like to play politics. I do believe that cattle-rearing is business. But the life of a human being is more important
An original cattle rearer who is a farmer, will not go after anyone’s life. He knows full well that the way his cow is important to him, is the way the crop is to the other farmer because they have the same emotional attachment to what they are doing. So how can someone who knows how it feels when something happens to his cattle, feels nothing for the other man when they are invading his farm? That tells you that there is a fundamental peril somewhere and only the government can help here. It is far beyond what the farmers alone can do. If the leadership is ready to fix this, they can always reach a compromise.
When you are not doing all of these, how do you like to relax?
Interestingly I think one of the things I have learnt with time is that, business built around passion is good because while everybody is working, you are enjoying what you do? So, I don’t really have a special time out. But when I am not really working, I love to take time out to play with family, friends. I love to visit places or people. I love to stay close to kids, I love to spend my time doing the things that are I lacked as a child.
Starting business very early was very challenging for me, so with time the attention I didn’t get from people then, some of them didn’t really understand my ideology, so it was a bit tough. Nigeria is a place where everyone is so busy and they can easily neglect the people who look up to them for something. So when I am not really active what I do, is to look after those who look up to me and just listen to them.
How has Real Estate and farming shaped the way you dress?
I am not so sure, but when I am not in the office I am on the site. When I go to a construction site, I dress to fit in, and that automatically, fits into the dress of a farmer. On the day I go to site, I look like the regular farmer. When I am in the office, I wear suit and tie. So what I have been able to do is to know my days at the office, and my days at site and that creates a balance for me.
What do you like really?
Well, I wear my Jeans and my boots that works for me.
What about travel?
One of the things that I naturally do is travel. Travel is a big tool of education, you learn new things, you see things from different perspective, you see things you didn’t use to pay attention to. Travel also broadens the capacity of the human mind and what we can do when we set our mind to it.
There is something about the Asian world that I like. It is really challenging; the way they see everything, the way they build their houses etc. It is technology driven. For a travel destination, I think I will take Asia, whether it is China, Singapore, Korea or Thailand. I also like them for the fact that they are very simple, and causal with the way they do things.
If we come back home don’t you think something is really wrong with us?
We have a lot of people suffering from self esteem and poverty has done so bad to people that every little opportunity, they have to show to someone else they are better.
Also, our value system is not properly placed and that is why we are where we are. It is even more serious for this generation that wants social endorsement from people. People are no longer developing capacity. I do think that one of the very few things that is going to separate the champions and the mediocre of this generation is time.