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Move Back to Nigeria: Ada Osakwe Takes the Leap from Private Equity Fund Investor to Special Investment Advisor to the Nigerian Minister of Agriculture



Move Back to Nigeria is a new series on BellaNaija. The aim is to encourage young and not-so-young professionals in the diaspora who are trying to make the decision of whether to move back to Nigeria. In collaboration with the guys at, we hope to bring you a weekly interview with individuals who have successfully made the leap. The idea is to share their successes and their challenges as they made the decision.

A lot of Nigerians in the diaspora have questions about making a change at home in Nigeria. Many suggest really good ideas on how to make things better; others would like to contribute to making a difference back home but are just not sure where to begin. This week  focuses on  Ada Osakwe. She moved back to Nigeria from New York to make her own contribution to positive development in Nigeria. With a strong academic and professional background (across three continents), find out how she became the Special Investment Adviser to the Minister of Agriculture in Nigeria. We hope you enjoy reading this interview and that you find it as inspiring as we have.

Tell us a little about yourself
My name is Ada Osakwe and I’m a young Nigerian woman who is extremely passionate about making an impact in Africa through my work. I went to High School in Lagos, and also did my A-Levels there, before traveling to the UK for my Undergraduate Degree. I studied Economics at the University of Hull, graduating in 2003 with a First Class Honours Degree. I also have a Masters Degree in Economics & Finance from the Warwick Business School. This was when I developed a love for finance and investing. So after Warwick, I joined the Debt Capital Markets team at BNP Paribas, a leading Investment Bank in London. I also have a Masters in Business Administration (MBA) from the Kellogg School of Management, which I did after a few years working in the finance industry. I’ve worked in three continents and travelled to over 30 countries during my career over the past decade and now I’m finally back home in Nigeria to stay.

What did you do in Debt Capital Markets at BNP Paribas?
I was on the coverage side, so we advised our clients on the raising of debt for various purposes. We managed the bond issuance for sovereigns, agency and supranational Institutions such as the IFC (part of the World Bank), as well as other development banks. I worked on pricing the bonds, as well as monitoring the markets to determine the optimal time to come to market. After about a year at BNP, I attended a meeting with the African Development Bank (ADB) during their Road-show in London, and met a member of the management team, a Nigerian, who thought I should be working for an African bank. She told me about opportunities on the Program for senior analysts (PSA) at ADB, now known as the Young Professionals Program (YPP), and asked me to apply. I did not know about the ADB at the time, but I was intrigued because I had always been passionate about Africa and business on the continent. So I did my research on the program, and was impressed by it as it was similar to the YPP at the World Bank and IFC, but focused solely on Africa. I applied, went through the rigorous recruitment process, which involved going out to Tunisia (where the ADB is based) for a series of tests and interviews. I eventually got the job.

Tunisia! That’s interesting. What was that like for you?
I moved to Tunisia in January 2006, and started on the three year YPP rotation program. My first rotation was on the capital markets team working on the ADB’s issuance of bonds in the Global Capital Markets, and particularly pushed for local currency bonds in local African markets. This was a novel initiative, and I am so glad to have been a part of it. I remember back then advising on issuing longer term bonds in Nigeria. At the time we had only 3-year bonds, and bankers thought we were crazy to be advising otherwise. But today, Nigeria issues up to 20year bonds, so I’m glad to have played a role in influencing development in the Nigerian Capital Markets and others across Africa.

For my second rotation, I joined the asset management team, so was working as a portfolio manager on the European portfolio. I invested ADB’s assets in bonds. This was building up to the 2008 global financial crisis, interesting times…but we had very stringent controls at ADB, and didn’t get too affected by it all.

For my final rotation, I joined the private sector department, engaged in structuring and investing in private sector-led projects in Africa. I was specifically in the Infrastructure Finance team where we worked on various projects, Public-Private Partnerships (PPP), Hydro-Power projects, toll-road concessions, and other infrastructure related initiatives across Africa – South Africa, Botswana, Senegal, Ethiopia, Morocco, Ghana, Kenya and Nigeria. I also invested in Private Equity (PE) funds on behalf of the Bank.

PE funds have been in Africa for about two decades now, growing quickly too given that the Continent is viewed as the last frontier for viable investments.  Development institutions like the ADB have played a significant role in spurring their growth. On my team, we supported infrastructure-focused PE firms being anchor investors. The role involved analysing fund manager skills, track records and investment strategies, among other things. I invested in 2 PE funds while in this role , both which are still strong performers and are raising fund two today. Overall, living in Tunis was great. I learned to speak French too!

Bravo! Sounds like you had a great experience at ADB. What did you do after that?
ADB was indeed fantastic! Well, I had an Economics Degree and had been working in Finance, but knew I didn’t have any specific company analysis/ valuation skills. I had become really interested in Private Equity, and knew further rounded skills would be required to get into the sector, so I decided to get a second graduate degree.

I was influenced by mentors at ADB. One of my bosses was an Alumna of Harvard Business School (HBS) and she spoke to me about the benefits she was enjoying following her MBA, so I decided to apply. I took the GMAT and applied for a place at HBS, but did not get in. I wasn’t deterred. The following year, I researched more schools and cast the net wider this time. I visited a few schools, spoke to students and alumni of the schools I was interested in, and also intensely prepared for other aspects of the application process such as the essays, references and so on. I applied to a few of the top-five MBA programs and chose the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, as I was impressed by their program and also the calibre of people that I had interacted with during the application process. I got a merit-based scholarship too.

Glad you got a place on the MBA program at Kellogg. What was it like?
Before I left for my MBA, I took a 2 year leave of absence from ADB, just as a hedge, to at least be guaranteed of a job after the MBA. I was excited about Kellogg because they are strong in finance, strategy, marketing and leadership, all the skills I wanted to gain to be a more ‘rounded’ professional.

I had an amazing time at Kellogg. We worked hard and we played hard. There was a strong culture about getting things done, and Kellogg helped me become what I am today particularly due to the strong focus on case-based learning and delivering excellent work on time. I learned to be more confident, focused, and to priorities and meet deadlines.

There were a lot of social activities at school, and as part of the Kellogg Worldwide Experience and Service Program (KWEST) and the Global Immersion in Management (GIM) we got to go on trips to study countries around the world. I was extremely interested in Latin America, particularly Brazil, as the country has overcome a lot of similar development issues we face in Nigeria and offered opportunities to learn. I studied Brazil for an entire quarter that cumulated in a 2-week in-country visit to Sao Paulo, Rio de Janeiro and Recife. I also visited the Dominican Republic and Peru during my time at Kellogg, which were fabulous experiences as I got to do things like white water rafting, cascading off 50-feet high waterfalls, zip-lining, bungee jumping, and a lot of other fun student-led activities, which helped me build strong relationships with my classmates.

Back at school, I also got involved with extracurricular activities to build my leadership skills. I was on the 8-member Student Government team, elected as the Global Affairs Vice President. I also introduced “The Kellogg Debates”, an interactive panel discussion with faculty and students about pertinent global issues and the program has been such a success, the debate still goes on in Kellogg up till this day.

I also got involved with the African Business Club at Kellogg, and co-chaired the 2011 Kellogg Africa Business Conference, where we attracted President Thabo Mbeki (former President of South Africa) as the keynote speaker. Following this, the next team was able to attract former President of Nigeria, Olusegun Obasanjo, as their own keynote, so Kellog is now known as the business school that brings ex-Presidents to its business conferences.

For my internship, I joined ACTIS, a Private Equity firm based in Lagos, which was my first real experience working in Nigeria. I knew I wanted to move back to Nigeria after business school so this was a targeted strategy, to get a feel for being on-the-ground, without having to do it permanently yet.

I graduated from Kellogg in 2011, winning the Dean’s distinguished Service award and the Kellogg Four Pillars Award, which was truly gratifying and humbling, the icing on the cake following an amazing experience at Kellogg.

Congratulations on your awards. What was the next step after Kellogg?
Nine months before graduating from Kellogg, I went to Tunisia to visit my colleagues at ADB, just to “check in” and explore if I would be returning. However, as I came closer to graduation, I realised I wasn’t going back to ADB as I wanted to do much more on impacting change in Africa, and this time, in my own country, Nigeria. I ended up accepting a job offer to work at an Africa-focused Private Equity fund based in New York.

I joined Kuramo Capital as a Vice President on the investment team. The firm was also fund raising at the time, so I got a lot of exposure to that side of the job, in addition to putting my newly developed skills to bear on the direct investing side too in PE deals. I also got the chance to transfer to the Lagos office, so I was looking forward to this.

Sometime in 2012, I visited Nigeria and spoke to a friend who runs a Private Equity fund and we spoke about the industry in general. I explained about how I enjoyed doing Private Equity but still had a deep passion for development. I was looking for something that merged the two. He told me about the Tony Elumelu Foundation and the work they were doing to develop the private sector and entrepreneurs in Africa, and he made me aware of a job they were recruiting for to be seconded to the Ministry of Agriculture as a Senior Investment Advisor to the Minister. I had a look at the job description and returned to New York to think about the opportunity, especially the compensation, given it would involve a significant pay-cut from my PE salary. After a few months, I got a call from Nigeria, reminding me to apply for the role if I was still interested.

I researched the role further, and learned more about the Minister, Dr. Akin Adesina. Everyone spoke very highly of him, he had a very strong academic and professional pedigree, and I realised it was a good opportunity for me to contribute to the country, as well as learn from such a charismatic person. The role was also relevant to my skill-set, as it involved being the point-person driving private sector investments into Agriculture in Nigeria.

I met the minister for an interview in the U.S, and after 3 hours of chatting I was convinced I wanted to be part of the ambitious plans he had in mind for Agriculture in Nigeria.

I had been sold on the role, so was not too bothered that I would be taking a pay cut to do the role. In New York I had been earning around $150,000 per annum (in addition to bonus and ‘carry’), but this role would be paying less.

I got offered the role, so I took another leave of absence, this time from the Private Equity firm in order to take up the opportunity at the Ministry of Agriculture via the Tony Elumelu Foundation.

Interesting. So what does your job as the Special Investment Advisor to the Minister of Agriculture in Nigeria entail?
I started with a 2 week orientation program at the Tony Elumelu Foundation in Lagos, and then moved to Abuja to report for duty at the Ministry of Agriculture.

Living in Abuja is a lot easier than living in Lagos. There is less traffic and more stable power. However the cost of living is probably slightly higher relative to Lagos, so something to consider for anyone moving to Abuja.

I have been in the job now for 7 months and it has exceeded all my expectations. I am the point person for the minister on matters involving investment in the Agriculture sector in Nigeria. So I could be dealing with global companies such as Unilever, SABMiller, Nestle, or other types of investors looking to gain exposure to Agriculture in Nigeria.

There is an agricultural revolution happening in Nigeria today, and a lot of investors are getting involved. Agriculture provides one of the best opportunities for Nigeria to diversify away from its over-dependence in the Oil and Gas sector, and many people are stepping up to the plate. Take the processing sector for example. Nigeria is the largest producer of Pineapples in Africa and the second largest producer of citrus fruits. Yet, for all the juice we drink, Chivita, Dansa, 5 Alive, etc, none of the fruit concentrate is locally-sourced. Instead, we import over 95 per cent of concentrate from countries such as South Africa.

This is ludicrous, given the production capacity we have. I am working with investors who are planning to establish fruit processing plants, and I’m excited about this. Also, take cassava. Nigeria is the largest producer of cassava in the world, with 40 million metric tonnes annually. But we account for less than 10 per cent of global trade value, because all our cassava either rots after being harvested, or just stays in the ground, because there are no markets for our farmers.

Today, we have introduced high quality cassava flour as a mixture with wheat flour in Cassava bread. I eat this, mostly buying it from Park and Shop, and it’s delicious. We’re also working with investors to process cassava into starch, to replace the corn starch that companies like Nestle have to import. There’s so much opportunity for import-substitution, as there is no reason why Nigeria cannot feed itself and the rest of Africa.  I feel really passionate about playing my part in this Agricultural Transformation Agenda.

The Minister has also put a lot of initiatives in place to promote the sector to investors, for example we had a slot at the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos, promoting Agriculture in Nigeria to global investors, and have also hosted events at the WEF in South Africa and visited Brazil to learn how they overcame some of their Agricultural challenges. In Brazil for instance, they used technology to transform their Cerrados (Savannah region), and we were able to take away some key points to leverage in our own Guinea Savannah region too.

It’s great to hear you speak about Agriculture so passionately. Finally, what advice would you give anyone thinking of making the move back to Nigeria?

Before moving back, make sure you are ready, and do not do this simply as a knee-jerk reaction e.g. if you are made redundant abroad. Living in Nigeria requires a lot of mental preparation. I will say do not compromise when looking for a role in Nigeria. As long as you have the skills, companies in Nigeria will find a way to pay you. Also think about hedging yourself, so have a backup plan in place in case things don’t work out as planned. If you do your research properly however, you should not have the need for your back up plan, but have this as a hedge.

Also have a long term view about living in Nigeria, and if possible, move to Abuja as it provides a softer landing (at least it has for me).

Finally make sure you are confident when you interact with colleagues or partners in the work place or business environment in Nigeria. Particularly if you are a woman, and you are young (or young-looking), some people in the work place tend to disrespect you or take you for granted. So you need to know your stuff! Be articulate in expressing yourself, be confident in your interactions with people, and hold your own. Just think about what you bring to the table and focus on that. It’s all about what value you add.

Thank you very much, and we wish you all the best moving forward.

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