‘Digital farmers’ scandal: Nigerians lose hope, investment to phoney agro projects
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It is now commonplace to see advertisements, especially on social media, placed by farms asking investors to invest in a section of their outfits for high Return On Investment (ROI), sometimes at over 60 per cent per annum.
In this report, GBENGA SALAU trailed three digital farmers, who promised investors high ROI to their offices in Lagos and farms in Oyo and Ogun states. The farms of two of the digital farmers could not be located at the advertised sites, while one of them that could not fulfill its financial obligations to investors has a closed office. The promoter of the third farm, though existing, has failed to give investors their ROI, more than three months after the due date.
WHEN Prosper Onyekachukwu saw an advert by HO Corn, a digital farm, in January this year that investors would get 50 per cent Return On Investment after six months for investing in its corn farm, the offer got him thinking deeply. This was because though he had no money to invest, the ROI was tempting. He thought it was a good business opportunity that should not pass him by. So, he took a loan from his organisation’s cooperative society to invest.
But nine months after, Onyekachukwu regretted taking that step, as HO Corn farm has neither delivered on its promise to return a 50 per cent profit on investment nor paid back the capital.
“I borrowed from my office cooperative to invest in HO Corn in January with the hope of paying back in July, as your CEO said payment would be made on or before six months after investment,” he wrote to HO Corn in desperation. “Since this disappointment on the payment date, I have been servicing the debt from August till date. So, I am hereby humbly reminding you that if your company fails to pay me on or before December 1, I will have to pay again for the coming month, which will be very painful to me.”
He said the failure of HO Corn team, led by Andrew Harrison Osemwengie, to pay when due has been making him lose money monthly. “I have literally spent the so-called ROI on servicing the debt. This is coupled with the recession that has drastically affected the initial invested capital. Please, pay my money. I am accumulating more interest. I am losing my sanity because of you. Stop being wicked to your fellow citizens, who trusted you with their money. It is for 11 month plus now. By next month, it will be one year since I invested in your company. Please, my case is peculiar, I need to return the money to the cooperative society,” Onyekachukwu pleaded.
But Onyekachukwu is not the only one experiencing this agony. There are more than 100 other investors, who are suffering a similar fate. Recently, about 40 of these investors formed a pressure group to demand the return of their seed capital and the ROI. One of them claimed that the total investment by members was over N30m. So, it was not surprising that they employed a lawyer, who wrote HO Corn on their behalf, aside petitioning the Economic and Financial Crime Commission (EFCC) on the issue.
Narrating her ordeal, Esther Oluwaseun, another investor, said she got to know about the investment opportunity through a marketer.
“One of their marketers gave me their flier earlier this year around Ogba Market. I called the phone number on the flier for enquiries. Thereafter, I went online to do my research. I came across their adverts online, interview with Channels TV and I also saw their website. So, I was convinced that the company was genuine and it would be a good investment.”
Like Onyekachukwu, Oluwaseun had to go looking for a loan. The only difference was that the N300, 000 she invested was obtained from friends. She explained that she did not envisage any disappointment, based on the ‘evidence’ on the ground, which was why she did not entertain any fear when committing the money.
She said: “I borrowed money to add to what I had to invest. Not only have they tied down my money, but I have also not been able to pay back those I took the loan from. It would have been a great relief, if the money had been paid at the stipulated time, because of the financial strain I experienced during the lockdown period. It also affected my business greatly.”
Oluwaseun belongs to the group of aggrieved investors that contracted a lawyer to write a petition to HO Corn, but without response. She personally visited HO Corn office on Lagos Island but met no one. This is aside calling the official numbers, which did not connect to anyone. “I have expressed my displeasure on their active social media handle, but I keep getting the same automated response. And the payment date has been shifted three times,” she told The Guardian.
Commenting on HO Corn Instagram page after a mail from the farm outfit hit her mailbox, Oluwaseun said: “I just went through your mail. I invested in other platforms after you, and they have paid me my returns. Which pandemic are you lying about? So many farmers went to the farm to plant. To be sincere with you, there is a shortage of maize in the country. Government also banned the importation of corn, so I know there are many buyers around. But if you say you do not have buyers, I will do my best to connect you with buyers. Now, I have many requests, but first of all, show me your maize storage unit, and what is left on the farm.” But she got no response from HO Corn.
Tunde Ilupeju also invested with HO Corn. He explained that the investment was meant to last from February to July. But in July, he was informed that due to COVID-19, the payment date had been changed to August and later October. “While still expecting the payment in October, I received a mail that payment is ongoing and everyone will be paid by December 30. Even though they always respond to my messages, but why I’m a bit uncomfortable is because I’m yet to see anyone who has been paid,” Ilupeju said.
But some investors like Adetunji Akande Tajudeen argued that HO Corn team’s inability to deliver on its investment promise was because it was a scam.
Commenting on HO Corn Instagram page, Tajudeen said: “You are a big scam. You don’t have any farmland anywhere. Your office is under lock when it is time for you to pay. It is only a criminal that acts as you do. HO Thieves. You shall be dragged to filth. You have toyed with the wrong set of people. We won’t rest. We shall exhaust all mechanism to retrieve our money to the last kobo. You criminals.”
Tajudeen said he had to lash out at the agric company because he was frustrated. He claimed to have invested N200, 000, which was meant to pay his house rent. But with the unfortunate development, he has been unable to pay his rent. Currently, he is in a dilemma as to where to get money to pay the rent.
The Guardian correspondent’s visit to HO Corn’s office on Victoria Island, Lagos, yielded no fruit initially, as he was told that the outfit was no longer operating on the Third Floor of the Africa Re-Insurance Building. An officer disclosed that the HO Corn team left the facility about three months ago and that the facility was only a workstation.
Surprisingly, the security men at the main gate of the gigantic building did not show signs that anything was amiss when the reporter visited HO Corn’s office. But returning to the main gate after the enquiries, a security man accosted the reporter, asking if anything was wrong. This led to a discussion where he revealed that many investors had been coming around, complaining and lamenting their plight, including a female naval officer, who claimed she invested N1.5m: N500, 000 each for herself, the husband and her first child.
The security officer said the naval officer was very bitter and visibly angry during their interaction.
With nobody in the office to explain why HO Corn has failed to deliver, the next step was to visit the farm. The idea was to see if actually there was a corn farm, as some investors had insinuated that there was none. On its website, HO Corn claimed its farm is located in Iseyin-Ofiki town in Atisbo Local Government, Oyo State.
Upon arrival at Iseyin, locals disclosed that Ofiki town is not part of Iseyin, though it is under Atisbo Local Government, and Iseyin is not part of Atisbo Local Government. The next day, the reporter headed to Ofiki town, which is over an hour drive from Iseyin. On getting to the town, a resident in the community said HO Corn farm actually existed. Located in Oke Iluku part of Ofiki, the farm is, however, inaccessible by vehicles, as the road is rough. The resident said it would take about 40 minutes riding on bike to get to the farm. The journey was actually an hour and 10 minutes.
At the farm’s entrance were two security men armed with local guns. It was indeed a massive maize farm. The reporter asked to see Harrison, whom the security men said was sleeping in one of the farmhouses. After waiting for about 30 minutes, and he failed to show up, the reporter approached the farmhouse, where Harrison was supposed to be. After waiting for another five minutes, a lady came out to ask what the reporter’s mission was.
After telling her, she directed the reporter to stay in an open space around the farm kitchen, where workers usually assemble during the break. She added that once Harrison was awake, he would come to meet the reporter though that might be in the evening.
Not deterred, the reporter headed to the open space. After waiting for about two hours and Harrison failed to show up, the reporter left the farm.
While on the farm, however, the reporter interacted with some workers to have an insight into activities within the farm. This is more so since HO Corn had claimed that one of the major reasons it could not pay investors was because there were no buyers for its harvest. But when two workers were asked if there had been challenges selling corn harvest from the farm, they disclosed that nothing like that happened. Rather, the challenge has been meeting buyers’ demands. One of them pointed to two trucks waiting to pick produce, which were stationed some metres away. He explained that when harvest started, trucks were always coming to move to produce to town.
And probably to ensure that there was no gap in meeting customers’ demands, it was gathered that another planting season process has commenced on the farm. The source said planting should have started a day before the reporter came, but surely it would start the next day, as everything had been put in place to commence another round of planting.
On the farm were about four tractors, two of which looked new. Some metres away from the tractors’ garage was the farm warehouse. There, some workers were seen shedding dry corn.
Attempts to get Harrison to speak on phone afterwards were unsuccessful. His personal line was switched off, just like the official line.
HO Corn claimed on its website that it was covered by Anchor Insurance, but The Guardian investigation showed that the insurance policy it took had been terminated, as it failed to provide the insurance company with the whole truth about its business activities.
A spokesperson for Anchor Insurance said: “If you go to our website, you will see the explanation of agric insurance products, that it covers the crops. For instance, if there are fire incidents on the farm, flood, drought, pests and diseases that normally disturb or damage crops, those are the risks that we insure against, not against invested money. We are not an investment outfit. It is just like you insure your car against accident and fire. Anywhere in the insurance sector, the agric insurance policy covers those risks.”
On whether HO Corn reached back concerning having challenges on its farm, he said: “No, it did not. There was no claim reported to us. We got to know that HO Corn customers were thinking their financial investment was covered by the policy, they were wrongly informed, especially as we were not privy to the agreement between the investors and HO Corn. But when they kept calling us, we invited HO Corn to find out why their customers should be calling Anchor Insurance, as it does not have any business with them. We reprimanded them and terminated the policy because there is what we call Uberrima fides in insurance, that is, Utmost good faith. When you are taking an insurance policy, you ought to declare the truth. And when it is discovered that you did not tell the whole truth, then the insurance company has the right to terminate the policy, which we did.”
On the size of farmland that was insured with Anchor, he said: “I do not know that”
The Alageere of Ofiki, Oba Bashir Iyiola Oyesiji, the traditional ruler who gave out the farmland to HO Corn on rent, disclosed that the only challenge the chief promoter of HO Corn discussed with him was around April or May when Harrison complained about insufficient rain. Consequently, the king said he consulted different religious groups, to appease the gods for rain, which eventually fell.
The royal father commended Harrison, saying he was organised and committed with the way he went about his farming, which was why it prospered.
However, claims by investors like Tajudeen that the whole HO Corn project might be a scam could be true. This is because on the management team of HO Corn, Mr. Edimaobong Matthew, who was designated as a Software Engineer/Data Security Expert on the company’s site, has started another crowdfunding farming business. He named it Farmtisa, which specialises in the piggery. HO Corn website described him thus: “Edimaobong Matthew is an experienced software engineer with a passion for developing innovative programmes that expedite the efficiency and effectiveness of organisational success. Well-versed in technology and writing code to create systems that are reliable and user-friendly. He is a certified Digital Marketing Expert and Data Security Expert.”
Interestingly, when Farmtisa was contacted through WhatsApp and was asked about its pedigree, it claimed to have been into pig farming for the past 10 years and has recorded great successes. A search on the Corporate Affairs Commission’s website, however, showed that the company was registered in August 2020.
UNLIKE HO Corn, whose farm is about two states away from Lagos, though still difficult to access, Farmtisa claimed its pig farm is located in Akwa Ibom. It also did not provide the farm’s specific location, saying the farm’s is located in Etim Ekpo Local Council. And while Farmtisa Lagos office exists, it is a workstation in the Ajah area of Lagos. It is just like that of HO Corn located on Victoria Island, but the difference is that while those manning the Victoria Island workstation knew and accepted that HO Corn used to be a client, those at the Ajah workstation said they did not know Farmtisa, as an organisation. While HO Corn promised 50 per cent, Farmtisa promised 25 per cent after six months. HO Corn has a management team, Farmtisa does not, especially if the information provided on its website is anything to go by.
Farmtisa claimed its farm was insured by the Nigerian Agricultural Insurance Corporation, which turned out to be false. HO Corn claimed its farm was insured by Anchor Insurance, but the policy it took was terminated on the basis that it did not provide full information before taking the policy.
Just like HO Corn desires to be the largest corn farm in Africa, Farmtisa wants investors to collaborate with it to build the biggest pig farm in Africa.
Investing in agriculture seems to be the new business in town, as many organisations now claim to be digital farmers, engaging in crowdfunding to finance their farming business with bogus ROI.
On many social media platforms, Nigerians are invited to invest or sponsor a section of a farm with Return On Investment sometimes yielding between 15 to 70 per cent within a year. As an assurance, investors are told that the farms are insured in most cases.
There are a number of such farms, and they include Abande Farms, which promises 30 per cent ROI, with claims that the farm is fully insured by Leadway Assurance, while Farmtify promises N500, 000 returns every three months. For Eatrich Farms, it is 50 per cent ROI after six months. On its part, Ampersand Farms promises 30 percent ROI after five months. AgroEmpire Estate asked investors to invest in its rice processing business with a 25 per cent ROI in four months.
Other farms in this category are SGL Farms, Ajebo Farmers, Dickem Farms Africa, Blue Farms, Famerboy.ng and Farmfunds, among others.
Aside HO Corn, efforts were made to identify if SGL and Menorah Farms existed. While SGL Farms is still asking investors to come on board and is presently doing mop-up sales, Menorah Farm like HO Corn has failed to pay its investors.
SGL claimed it has farms in Ogun and Oyo states. In Oyo State, SGL said its farms in towns and villages around Iseyin L.G.A alone include, Wasimi; 150 acres SGL Farms Rice Field; Ado Awaye I; 250 acres SGL Farms Rice Field; Ado Awaye II, and 150 acres SGL Farms Rice Field.
When the reporter visited Ado-Awaye in Oyo State, there was no rice farm belonging to SGL Farms, though it made attempt to set up a rice farm at Wasimi, a neighbouring community to Ado-Awaye. Indigenes of Wasimi said there was an attempt, but they were surprised when about four months ago, promoters of the rice farm moved out of the community, discontinuing its farming. It was learnt that all the signposts announcing the rice farm were pulled off and taken away. They did not know if SGL was the promoter of the rice farm. They said it moved out after it brought some people, who might be investors to see the farm.
The Chairman, Ado-Awaye Community and Apex Chairman, Psaltry International Outgrowers Association, Pa Nasiru Oladokun, said no such farm operated within the Ado-Awaye community. He also said there was never any attempt by SGL Farms to set up a rice farm within the community. He explained that though there are rice farms in the community, they are smallholder rice farmers, who are residents of the community. He invited two of such small-scale rice farmers to interact with the reporter and both confirmed that SGL Farm does not operate within the community.
The reporter visited the two offices of SGL Farm in Lagos. The one-tagged Island office is located in Ajah and was operated by a lady, who said she was the company’s representative. According to her, the company investment offer was still open, as it is engaging in mop-up sales. So, instead of the six months investment plan, the mop-up sales is for four months and the ROI is still 50 per cent. She said the rice farm the mop-up sales is catering for is located in Ogun State, and that the farm is insured by Anchor Insurance.
The same narration was tendered, when the reporter visited SGL Mainland office in Ikeja. The only difference and addition was that while on the Island the farm is located in Anilado, the Ikeja office said the farm is in Wasimi. Also, while the Island office could not provide any information about the farms in Oyo, the Ikeja office said the Oyo farm is still on, though not open to new investors.
Menorah Farms claimed its farm is in Ago-iwoye, Ogun State. And unlike SGL Farms that is still inviting investors to come on board, Menorah Farms like HO Corn has failed to pay investors.
When the reporter visited Menorah Farms office around the Idimu-Ikotun area of Lagos, the compound looked deserted. But after repeated knocks on the gate, a young man came down from the top floor of the one-storey building. The reporter asked if the compound housed Menorah Farms office, he said not any more. It moved out about four months ago. He enquired why the reporter was asking for the company, but before a reply came, he asked again if the reporter invested with Menorah Farms and that many had come asking for the farm’s promoters, as they invested and could no longer reach the company’s promoters.
The visit to Menorah Farm was after combing the whole of Ago-Iwoye, navigating through the various farm estate settlements in the community to identify where Menorah Farm is located, which turned out to be a wild goose chase. Efforts were also made to identify the farm through small and large-scale farmers in Ago-Iwoye, to no avail.
A former Menorah Farm manager could not identify where the farm is located. And though the description she gave that the farm is close to a quarry in Ago-Iwoye was followed, it yielded no result. She later claimed she did not know the name of the community hosting the farm, as she only visited once or twice.
But many of these investment and digital farms boosting investors’ confidence and giving the impression that their money is safe, often claim they were insured. When Leadway Assurance, which many of the farm promoters often claim as their insurer, was contacted, a staff said some of the farms are a bit fraudulent in the way they put out their message. She said the impression that the investment is insured is a lie, as it is only the farms that could be insured.
The spokesperson of Leadway Assurance said: “It is a wrong impression that they are insured by Leadway, and some of them do not even have a policy with us. Regardless of the names on the list of farms with an insurance policy with Leadway Assurance, the important thing to note is that the farm, whether it is poultry or corn farm that is insured, protected against agricultural risks. We do not have anything to do with those investing in the farm, as we do not have any contractual agreement with them. We only have the platform in terms of the farm. For instance, if something happens to the farm, such as flood, pest infection and it is covered in the policy, we would pay the insurance claim to the farmer. We do not have any contractual agreement with the investors. One of the things we are doing now is to tell people about this, as well as the platforms, not to say “insured by,” but “farm insured by Leadway”, not the investment.
“The problem is that many of these farms do not have an insurance policy with Leadway Assurance and they are just using our logo. Also, a lot of them do not insure their farms 100 per cent, but just a fraction of it. There is a lot of work and we are getting around it. In case of any damage and we pay the claim, we cannot even mandate them to pay the investors.”
When contacted, the spokesperson of Nigeria Agriculture Insurance Corporation (NAIC) said: “We do not insure by proxy. We insure what is on the ground and we do not insure based on return on investment. So, they cannot be telling investors that they are insured by NAIC. We do pure insurance.
“They should show evidence of their insurance with us. We have a lot of these going on now by fraudulent people. They mention our name because they know that we do agriculture insurance,” she said.
COMMENTING on the issue, the Technical Adviser, Knowledge Management and Communication to the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development, Mbaram Richard-Mark, said though farm companies are private businesses that entered a contractual agreement with their investors, those who feel aggrieved in the contractual have a right to seek redress in court and through relevant government agencies for remedy.
Richard-Mark added that due to complaints, the minister is already looking at setting up some form of regulatory appraisal body that will bring these people or their activities under some form of regulations.
He said: “Most of them hide under the disguise of Information Communication Technology (ICT) competencies to do some of these things. There was one that information has reached us about, because a lot of people on social media had complained that they have not received payment, despite making a commitment over a period.
“We also know that because of the pandemic, which disrupted a lot of things, most businesses went under, particularly agriculture businesses. And they would have been the first line of casualties, given the economic downturn caused by the pandemic.
“Nevertheless, they owe their subscribers some measure of information and good faith to be able to indicate their challenges. These are realities, but we have got to learn going forward and ensure that people are not swindled. I do not want to call them criminals, persons with the intention that is not to steal. But those who ordinarily go out to capitalise on such circumstances to undermine people should be checked. So, we are looking at regulations very strongly.”
This report is funded by the International Centre for Investigative Reporting, ICIR.