Fund a farmer, make a profit! Thus, says Thrive Agric, a popular AgriTech company that crowdsources funds from investors in exchange for a profit. The business model appears simple and easy for any basic investor to understand.
When you invest through them, they pool your funds along with other investors and then invest the collective sums in farms across the country. When the farmers harvest, they sell the farm produce at a profit, receive the cash, and split among investors who contributed to the pool. The company keeps a commission for itself. It all makes business sense, except for one thorny challenge – It is highly risky.
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Last week, a Twitter user posted a tweet demanding a refund of his investment in Thrive Agric – almost a million naira. The company lamented that they could not pay him, because they had experienced losses due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The investor was taking none of the excuses, resulting in a name and shame on twitter that has since gone viral.
AgriTech Investments as they have come to be known has gained popularity as a viable investment option for Nigerians, who are still afraid of investing in the stock market. The largely unregulated sector leverages technology, an easy and relatable business model, and the promise of a mouth-watering return to yield-hungry investors. What they however do not reveal loud enough is just how risky the investment is.
Farming in a country like Nigeria is a highly risky venture that relies on a value chain that is fragmented, full of middlemen, and largely inefficient. Nigeria’s average yield per hectare is one of the lowest in the world, largely due to lack of farming inputs such as fertilizer, irrigation, and insecurity.
AgriTech firms like Thrive Agric face these risks when they pool money from investors and pass on to farmers. Though part of their role in the investment scheme includes monitoring how the funds are utilized by farmers, they have no control over several risk factors such as the impact of COVID-19, which they alluded to as the challenges for not being able to pay investors.
Perhaps, if they disclose the inherent risks in the business, investors will be better informed and size up their risk against the returns. A cursory look at the company’s website reveals there is nowhere that it is mentioned that there is a risk of not getting all or part of your money when you invest. It probably would ruin the pitch if they did.
This is why when you visit their website and that of their competitors like Farmcrowdy (who pioneered this business) what you see are testimonials of just how well the investments are doing. You could argue that they had not defaulted in any of their previous rounds, so there was no need to say otherwise.
However, alerting investors about the inherent risks in a crowdsource investment scheme is not only responsible but a matter of best practice and compliance. The Security and Exchange Commission (SEC), noted this in its draft Exposure on Proposed News Rules guiding crowdfunding. Section 9a (iv) states that the crowdfunding company is expected to share a general risk warning on participating in funding through the company’s platform.
It also requires in Section 14 that they must publish on their website that “Investing through an online portal is risky and Issuers raising funds through the portal include new or rapidly growing ventures,” and that “Investment in the businesses hosted on the portal is very speculative and carries high risks; Investors may lose their entire investment and must be in a position to bear this risk without undue hardship.” This proposed compliance requirement is not been done by most AgriTech firms.
If this had been published on its website and duly communicated to its potential investors, we may have avoided the embarrassing and reputation damaging question that any fund manager wants to avoid – “Where is my money?”, especially if they don’t have it.
Why Treasury Bills at 2% is actually a good thing
While the current prevailing rate of 2% might not be good news for investors, the low rates could be better for the Nigerian economy.
Latest stop rates from the Nigerian Treasury Bill auction held last week revealed some of the lowest rates for the nation’s T-Bills market in recent times. The 91-day bills had stop rates of 1% and the 182-day bills was also 1%. For the full year, the 364-day bills had an equally low rate of 2%. This is actually a good thing, as investors will become more creative, amongst other benefits.
If you were a frequent Treasury bills investor in the pre-COVID-19 era, you will most likely agree that one of the favorite markets for risk-averse investors, has taken a major dip over the past year. In 2019, the rate was as high as 13.029% – enough to give you a fighting chance with the equally high rate of inflation, as opposed to a savings account offering around 4%.
However, while the current prevailing rate of 2% might not be good news for investors; theoretically, the low rates could be better for the Nigerian economy.
Double digits risk-free rates impede development
At the very basic level, having a risk-free investment that yields a guaranteed interest rate of about 15%, means that investors can put in their funds and fold their hands. Therefore, the option of making less risky investments become less alluring, as the lower rates can easily be mitigated by the relative safety of the principal (and return!) – something many businesses cannot boast of today.
Put simply, why should business owners risk employing people and possibly make losses, when they can invest in Treasury bills? After all, they too are exposed to the same inflation rate.
Unsurprisingly, this has contributed its own fair share in impeding the growth of the nation. Think about the percentage of the income of Nigerian financial institutions like banks that are from Treasury Bills. Conservatively, Nigerian PFA’s also have a significant percentage of their funds in Treasury bills – doing little and gaining little. It is always about the “cheapest to deliver.”
No society can effectively spur development with only safe investments, as it comes with its own benefits like creating more jobs, building the stock market, and ultimately strengthening the industries in the country.
‘Model’ economies have really low risk-free interest rates
Some of the largest economies like the US, Japan, and Germany are known to have some of the lowest rates for risk-free assets. Whilst their rates cannot also be isolated from their equally low borrowing costs, the facts are crystal clear.
From a demand and supply standpoint, at 15%, it means that what the government is willing to pay to get capital is high. This makes it even more expensive for the government to fund infrastructural development.
From a private sector standpoint, it is by taking risks that angel investors emerge, companies get seed funding, and further development is enhanced. Without this development, very few jobs will be created. Interestingly, most of the countries with the highest amount of venture capitalist investments have some of the lowest rates for risk-free assets.
How investments should be done
There is an old investment strategy known as “Carry Trade.” The way it works is simple – you borrow at a low-interest rate, convert the borrowed amount into another currency, and invest in assets that provide higher rates of return in that currency. If Treasury Bills offer such high rates, “foreign investments” of this nature will not aid in the overall development of the economy. As long as the exchange rate is stable, investors get to make a killing with no value-added. This is just one of the many lapses of investing in high risk-free assets.
With the rates low, people can now invest the way investment should be done. Investors will now be forced to be creative. Consequently, this will birth even further infrastructural developments. For example, with this rate sustained, mortgage-backed securities and other forms of infrastructural funding can now take place.
Though, it is not without its own limitations, keeping the free money low is always a better option.
#ENDSARS Protests: Why this is different
The #ENDSARS is not just a protest about rogue police officers, it is larger than that and this is why.
In June 2019, the Hong Kong Government revealed plans to implement a controversial law that allows the extradition of Hong Kong citizens to mainland China.
As the government dithered, pockets of protests broke out, which triggered clashes with Policemen that most protesters viewed as excessive. Within days, protesters went from a few thousands to over 2 million, the largest in the history of Hong Kong.
By the time the government decided to pull back the bill; the protesters, many of them young, were already demanding for more than just a withdrawal of the bill. They wanted the police investigated and prosecuted for using excessive force, amnesty for protesters, and a right to vote for all.
The protests lasted for about 6 months only to be dissipated by social distancing requirements, due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Before then, protesters had grounded the economy, which drove the Hong Kong economy into a recession and $3 billion in stimulus.
Nigeria is experiencing its own version of protests similar to that of Hong Kong, except that it does not have any money to inject as stimulus. The latest protests were triggered by anger over the alleged violent killings and extortion by the controversial anti-robbery unit of the police, known as SARS or FSARS.
For years, young Nigerians, mostly via social media, have called for the unit to be disbanded and rogue elements in the force brought to justice. Despite repeated promises by the government, they have failed to heed to their demands, triggering a new wave of protests that has now spread across the country.
From demanding an end to SARS, prosecution of rogue police officers, and reforms; Protesters are more emboldened, threatening to continue if all their demands are not met. The government is scrambling to contain a situation that is escalating and could dangerously metamorphose into violent clashes with authorities, leading to loss of lives and destruction of properties.
There is also fear that this week’s protest could be sustained for more days, if not weeks. You only need to look at the economy of the Nigerian Youth to understand why this is such a critical moment.
According to data from the National Bureau of Statistics, Youth unemployment is at an all-time high of 34.9%, making up 64.3% of total unemployed Nigerians. University students have also been at home for months, due to the 7 months ASUU strike.
Their parents are also facing tougher economic conditions with inflation rate galloping past 13%, after multiple devaluations and the removal of fuel subsidy. It was just a matter of time for them to find a rallying point to vent their frustration.
There is still a window for the government to de–escalate tensions, and it is not just by accepting the terms of protesters on paper and making bogus pronouncements. Nigerian youths want concrete actions and it starts by making immediate changes in the leadership of the Police – the rogue unit in particular. Officers suspected of murdering innocent Nigerians need to be made to face justice.
The government also needs to urgently resolve its dispute with the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) on the Integrated Payroll and Personnel Information System (IPPIS). Students and young Nigerians also need to be offered grants and palliatives to help them cushion the effects of an economic crunch that is in no way their making.
Proceeds from the Nigerian Youth Investment Funds should be disbursed immediately to those who have applied. The government also needs to introduce student loan schemes for millions of Nigerian youths, who can’t afford to pay for quality university education.
The National Assembly also needs to introduce laws that protect young Nigerians from police brutality, status profiling and wrongful arrest. Investments in mega tech hubs across the country, establishment of recreation zones in major cities must be carried out by State Governments, to keep them engaged in activities that can better their lives.
No investor, local or foreign will put money in any country where its youths are in a long-drawn protest with the government. As the economic cost of the protests for the last few days continues to mount, the negative effects could be more dire than a deeper recession.
#ENDSARS does not just represent a protest against rogue Police officers; it is a symptom of the poor state of the economy, which for months has only gotten worse. Fortunately, the agitation can still be managed but time is running out.
First Bank is cutting inefficiencies and focusing on its strengths
While the bank has everything to be thankful for, care should still be taken towards driving its growth objective.
Being the first entrant to any industry, no matter how lucrative, is only an advantage when there is zero competition. In the real world, for any business to stay in the game, it must constantly innovate, expand its market share, and carry out the necessary moves to survive the equally changing business and economic landscape. First Bank being the premier bank in West Africa has undoubtedly witnessed this change over time. If there is one thing the bank has done, it has stayed relevant through decades, even after many that came after it have fallen by the wayside.
The year 2020 had forced many businesses across the world to reassess their positions, and a strategy many have adopted is cost cutting – for good reasons. Given the economic and financial constraints with limited resources, cutting operational inefficiencies and focusing on areas that offer the best value has proven to be worth the effort for many. While the COVID-19 pandemic might not have had anything to do with FBN Holdings cutting off its risk underwriting business, FBN Insurance ltd, the company made the decision within the year and it couldn’t have come at a better time than when it did.
First Bank’s performance in Q2 2020
Like most companies, First Bank’s revenue (Net interest income) took a hit as stated in its Q2 2020 Y-O-Y results. Net interest income dropped by 7.34%, from N141.7 billion in Q2 2019 to N131.3 billion in Q2 2020, following significant reduction in investment securities over the quarter. Profit before tax grew by 14.3%, from N36.2 billion to N41.4 billion for the period under review. Profit after tax grew by 56.3%, from N31.6 billion to N49.5 billion year on year.
Operating expenses also increased by 0.9% y-o-y from N137.9 billion to N139.2 billion; while it suffered impairment charge for credit losses of N30.7 billion from N22.1 billion in Q2 2019. Its Gross earnings increased by 5.8% to N296.4 billion, from N280.3 billion in the period under review.
Divesting from its risk underwriting arm and its capital injection
FBN Holdings completely divested from its risk underwriting arm, completely selling off its 65% stake in FBN Insurance Ltd to Sanlam Emerging Markets (Proprietary) Ltd. effective from June 1st, 2020.
According to the group, “we successfully divested from the underwriting (insurance) businesses, to focus on our banking operations. We are confident this will enhance greater value to our stakeholders and strengthen the Group’s resolve to consolidate its leadership of the banking sector.”
This single action did many things for the bank. Following the divestment, the holding capital, FBN Holdings, had injected equity capital of N25 billion into the bank, thereby boosting its overall Capital Adequacy Ratio to 16.5% (excluding profit for H1 2020). In a similar vein, the bank’s total assets was boosted by 14.9% year-to-date from ₦6.2 trillion as at Dec 2019 to ₦7.1 trillion in June, 2020. By pumping the required capital into the bank, it was able to effectively mitigate the regulatory requirements that many banks have struggled with over the past few months. Not only does it have a comfortable buffer against regulatory requirements; it has the available financial resources to look out for emerging business opportunities, and fully deepen its strengths in its core business areas.
While the bank has everything to be thankful for, with the play of events; care should still be taken towards driving its growth objective. In truth, its financial position excluding the capital injection does not particularly reveal new strengths. Hence, a false sense of security, given the current economic challenges amidst the COVID-19 pandemic and all the challenges it births, like possible increase in impairment provisions, ailing investments, and so on, could have the company dissipating its newly injected capital.
For investors, while an amazing growth opportunity does exist especially given its new resources, the best bet is to hold as a dividend stock, patiently waiting for its long-term growth strategies to play out in the years to come.