For almost a year, the Managing Director of Titan Farms Gbenga Eyiolawi was in public discussion over failed agribusiness projects where he collected money via crowdfunding and struggled to repay return on investment (ROIs) as promised. In this interview with Olugbenga Adanikin, he spoke on the crisis, admitted investing ‘excess cash’ into the property business, and how he paid the debt of N1.47bn to aggrieved investors with a new repayment plan of N274.7 million through mediators and the Oyo State Multi-Door Court. Excerpts.
Why did the Titan Farms project fail?
The Titan farms project didn’t fail. The investment part of the project failed, and this is due to economic factors, policies, and society. The SEC policy on crowdfunding caught us in a corner as the policies came in when we collected investments from most people under an agreed term which must be fulfilled.
As a company, we could not afford to operate without a license, as all crowdfunding platforms were given a deadline to register and be licensed. We did all we could but couldn’t meet the deadline; in fact, we wrote SEC on the deadline, informing them of our desire to get licensed but could not meet the deadline, which led us to stop collecting funds from the public at a crucial time which was around the time Ileya (Sallah) supply was at the peak with government bodies, cooperatives, and other bulk dealers waiting to be supplied.
As a result, we had limited resources to work with as we still have regular supplies ongoing that could not be stopped because of festive supplies. At the same time, the festive supplies could not be rejected as they were majorly regularly festive clients.
Usually, during festive periods, we announce investment opportunities for people to participate. These funds are used to augment the production and supplies during this period without affecting the regular working capital. But unfortunately, at that time, we could not raise more funds as doing so would have been illegal. So we had to run our regular supplies and the Ileya supplies with the working capital.
Special supplies to organisations and some government bodies during festive periods don’t turn to cash immediately as most of them pay the balance in postdated /instalment format, hence, giving us a slight delay in pulling the funds together.
We pay our investors at specific times, and unfortunately for us, the expected funds from those deliveries didn’t come as and when expected, and as such, we couldn’t pay our investors on time, and naturally, that delay led to panic amongst investors.
Eventually, when the expected funds came in and we paid, the panic had already spread, and everyone whose payment was due after that batch started requesting a payout as against them asking us to deliver profit and continue using the capital to trade. We kept paying, and our working capital kept reducing till we had no option but to suspend payments so we could use the remaining funds to generate more through trading.
We sought an extension from our investors and, of course, without new funds coming in. And as you know, business thrives on cash flow which we at the time had lost; hence, It was a tight one for us and unfortunately, because of investors experience with some other Agri-Tech businesses in the country, they could not trust our words on the extension, and a lot of the investors started coming at us with full force in a bid to secure their funds thereby disrupting the plan.
For almost a year, people who invested in Titan farms called you out for breaching the agreement on ROIs, How many people invested and how many have been paid their benefits?
This is true as money related issues are sensitive and can bring out the other part in anyone. Everyone did what they could to attack the company and me because they assumed we would also do what others did.
For some, it was their last savings. For some, their widow’s might and for some, business funds. These are all essential parts of everyone’s lives, and we understand all our investors’ pains. The names calling and attacks were their ways of expressing themselves and ensuring we do the needful. While that is not supposed to be so, we understand their plights and cannot blame anyone but our company for not doing better than we are doing. Our best has not been enough. What is important to us is having them back on their feet and clearing our name, as we cannot afford to be classified with firms that failed and disappeared.
We had over 8,000 investment accounts in Titan Farms, but at the time of the incident, we had 1,658 yet to be settled, out of which 1,330 have been paid to the tune of N1,471,698,800.
We had over 8,000 investment accounts in Titan Farms, but at the time of the incident, we had 1,658 yet to be settled, out of which 1,330 have been paid to the tune of N1,471,698,800. This covers the majority of the heavy investors, accounting for about 85 per cent of the total sum with 328 investment accounts yet to be settled, that is, majorly lower investment capitals who do not qualify for asset exchange and a few heavy investors who do not want asset exchange. Again, this covers the remaining 15 per cent of the debt value (N274,745,000), and I can tell you that the settlement plans are now in progress for them through mediation.
I have to admit, the pressure did get to me and slowed my initial response, but all is on track to ensure we see the last of this, and until every last investor is settled, I will not rest.
You have repeatedly failed in your repayment plans. What new strategy have you deployed to ensure swift payments this time?
We just looked inward and settled investors in cash, products and asset. For every business, there will always be times that they would have excess liquid (Cash). When we did, we acquired lands in various locations and started our Real Estate arm by launching Opulence city, which has since appreciated.
These land were allocated to investors as soon as their due dates came (August, September, October, November), of course only for those whose capital meets the value and are interested in the exchange. In fact, at a point, we had to sublet our office spaces to reduce cost and also save money. We now operate from a single office solely for marketing and distribution sake, while investors related matters are handled through the mediators whose office addresses and contacts have been released publicly.
Most people have asked me why we didn’t do this immediately after it happened in July?
There was simply no allowance to coordinate with various investor’s attacks on our staff and office. We will return to business on June 1, 2022, but we will no longer take investment as announced last year as we aim to grow from within. We will also not be receiving any direct orders that may disrupt our new model, so we will restrict our relationship with our customers and distribution chain at this time.
For the rest yet to be settled, the company has appointed Mediators (Atama Aminu & Associates – Elohim Chambers), and the settlement has been brought before the Oyo State Multi-Door court, which will enforce and ensure the payment is done according to the tripartite agreement signed between the Company, various Investors and Mediators.
To do this, the company has handed over assets whose value covers the rest of the debt to the Mediators to be held in trust for the investor for sales by approved agents through the Mediators and onward settlement of the rest of the debt under the supervision of the Multi-Door Court.
Do you think the anti-graft agencies have been proactive enough to forestall investors from being ripped off?
It goes beyond the anti-graft agencies. I think there should be the regulatory agencies setting the tone before them (Anti-graft). Now that the SEC has a comprehensive policy guiding the sector, many prospective investors will now be protected because prevention by regulatory agencies comes before the act of rip off.
If fewer errant and illegal investment schemes are out there, there will be fewer cases for anti-graft agencies to deal with in this regard. Still, so far, they are doing a great job helping investors to recover funds and bringing the culprits to books.
Many crowdfunding platforms (especially Agri-Tech) were caught on the web because they were already in the business before the regulation and had no way to meet up. Of course, some were legitimate and had good intentions, but a lot were not, and the anti-graft agencies have been doing fantastic jobs separating the real and unreal as they are not out to shut down legitimate businesses.
What will you say is responsible for the failure of multiple farm investment firms in Nigeria?
The reality is that most of the so-called farm investments are Ponzi [schemes] and do not do what they say they do. We have always told people and our investors that we are not a farm operating business and we do not own a farm; contrary to what the name connotes, we only deal in the processing of farm produce by converting them to food products through contract milling and processing, and then we market and distribute this for trading and our products are visible as we also supply State Governments hundreds of thousands of bags, but most of these so-called farms have two (2) acres of farm and collects billions of investment from the public to run the so-called “farm”.
So basically, when their cup of greed is full, they disappear to the detriment of unsuspecting and innocent investors. A particular state Government patronised us by buying thousands of bags monthly for their food distribution scheme till we had our challenge and were unable to meet up anymore. We are forever grateful for the opportunity.
It will actually do us all a great deal if there is an agency or private organisation out there that will provide due diligence to prospective investors, even if it is at a fee; at least it protects everyone from further loss. Because if that had happened, we would only have legitimate businesses taking investments and when they have challenges, as they will at a point or another like any business, the investor will not panic, knowing fully well that it is just a business phase.
It goes beyond having a license. Do they do what they claim they do?
The recent multiple failures of the few real ones were a result of investor panic, whereby investors make simultaneous panic withdrawals. Most investors are referrals of other investors, and most investors invest on multiple platforms at the same time, so the failure of one’ farm’ will definitely have ripple effects on all the chains of investors around them and the farms they invested in. And when companies start losing running capital rapidly, then there is a problem.
No doubt, most Nigerians have lost hope in investing in the agricultural sector due to sharp practices from investment firms. Can this trust ever be restored?
In my opinion, trust can be restored, but it is more about the investors than the companies. If investors encourage the real ones rather than attack them, I believe that will be a step in the right direction.
For example, Company A disappeared after taking investors’ money, and people kept quiet because he was not reachable. Still, Company B stayed and chose to see the settlement to the end but was under constant attacks because he didn’t disappear.
Are we not encouraging the sad menace ourselves? So company A comes back after a few months with another name, and the same investors go back there to invest because they didn’t even do their due diligence. Still, company B settles her investors and vows never to take external investment from the public again, with or without a license due to his experience.
This will only encourage the investors to go to the most attractive available platform, licensed or not, while investors’ traffic to such platforms will always encourage the people operating them to continue. So if we look at it from this angle, it may be difficult to sanitise the sector thoroughly but yes, the trust in the industry can be restored, but it has to be a collective effort.
It is the responsibility of the Security and Exchange Commission (SEC) to regulate investment activities nationwide. Will you say they are doing enough?
I would say the regulation came relatively late for the Agri-Tech / crowdfunding sector, but since it came on, they have been doing well clamping down on errant investment companies and illegal operators. This, I believe will give hope to legitimate businesses and innocent investors.
How will you describe the ease of doing business in Nigeria?
It is straightforward to set up and run a business in Nigeria. However, it is tough to run a sustainable and profitable business in Nigeria. The primary factor is energy costs which can swallow any business without a strong standing. Until that is sorted out and we have stable electricity, running a business in this country will be tough.
Aside from that, Nigerians can get by any other challenge as we are a nation of strong, versatile people but with that energy, there is no way around it…not even alternate sources of energy as those are expensive and for any business to thrive. That may be the beginning of the end.
Your last words for the aggrieved investors
As an investor in the business myself, my life has practically not been the same since this started so I fully understand what most of them are going through. We have people with medical emergencies, School fees debt, Family emergencies and some whose business and mortgage payments relied on the income they generated from us. To them and other categories, I have not mentioned, I am sorry.
My apologies cannot take away the pain. Even if the money for the rest of them is paid today, it still will never make up for the time value; neither will it make up for the emotional trauma they have gone through. Homes were affected, relationships were affected and if any of those categories of people ever see this, please forgive your spouses, I am sure they meant well as we did.
This phase is almost over and will be history soon. I appreciate the love of every one of our investors that stood by me and the company at this time and brought us to this last phase of settlement.
Please kindly cooperate with the Mediating Firms (Atama Aminu & Associates – Elohim Chambers and A &A Attorneys – Rehoboth Chambers) as they will ensure everyone left will be settled. They will give periodic updates so if they don’t respond to your emails on time, be patient they will eventually.
Lastly, I promise to make the Titan brand a brand you will be proud to tell your children you were a founding investor in…a trans-generational brand. The higher a building intends to go, the deeper the foundation. This is a foundation, for this brand and someday soon, it will be a brand you can be proud of.