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From Zachary High Valedictorian to Agri-tech Innovator: Ikenna Nzewi's Journey to Revolutionize Africa's Agriculture

Feb 28, 2024 01:23PM ● By Lauren Pope

Ikenna Nzewi’s family arrived in Zachary just before he started his freshman year at Zachary High School. That’s a big transition for anyone, but it was particularly so for Ikenna. Up until that point, his mother had homeschooled him and his siblings using the Classical Conversations program. He credits her for setting him up for success when he got to Zachary. He graduated four years later as Valedictorian. 

Education is important to the Nzewi family. Ikenna’s father, Dr. Emmanuel U. Nzewi brought the family to Zachary because he was starting a professorship at Southern University teaching civil and environmental engineering. Ikenna’s older brother, Joshua, was also a Zachary Valedictorian. He attended Penn State. Ikenna himself went to Yale after graduation. 

While at Yale, the Nzewi brothers along with some friends had the idea to start a non-profit in the African agricultural sector. That’s how Releaf was born. The team got a big boost when they were selected to participate in the Y-combinator program. Upon completion of it, Ikenna headed to Nigeria to get his feet on the ground.

Focusing on Nigeria wasn’t incidental. His parents had immigrated from Nigeria to Michigan for college, and the family still had ties to the region. The senior Nzewis had some questions when Ikenna told them his plans. They had left Africa for a life in America, and here their son was going back. However, once he explained his vision and he started receiving industry recognition, including meeting the President of Tanzania and coming in 2nd in the Africa Business Hero contest, their initial skepticism turned to pride. 

Releaf creates technology to make food processing more efficient. They work especially with small holder farmers, giving them both hardware and software access to make their jobs more efficient. Releaf created an industrial nut-cracker called The Kraken which makes the job of harvesting palm oil far more productive. On the software side,  they’ve created a program called SITE which helps understand where the crops are growing best, where they shouldn’t be growing, and helps to develop a traceable supply chain. 

Palm oil has gotten somewhat of a bad reputation of late, but Ikenna explains “Palm is the most efficient vegetable oil by a factor of 8. It allows for massive potential for income in Africa. Africa currently makes up about 8% of the world’s population, but it is projected to make up 40% of the world's population within our lifetime. It can become a place that is a net exporter.  Palm oil is indigenous to Nigeria. A big part of its bad reputation comes from the fact that it was introduced to SE Asia where they’re experiencing deforestation. That’s not an issue in Nigeria or West Africa generally because it’s Palm’s indigenous area.” 

Furthermore, Ikenna sees palm oil’s potential to help lift Nigeria’s economy. “It’s a beautiful crop. It’s used in a lot of local dishes like palm wine. It’s only been an industrial crop for 40-50 years, so we’re really just in the early chapters of its story.”  When Indonesia first imported Palm, it had an economy similar to Nigeria's. Now, it has catapulted into a whole different category while Nigeria has slid somewhat in its economic standing. Ikenna believes that with the help of Releaf, Nigeria and West Africa can take full advantage of this unbelievable crop and use it as an engine of economic growth. 

"Achieving success in this venture has been incredibly rewarding, particularly in being able to employ a team nearing 100 people. It's been quite an experience to not only build a company to this size but also to see our revenue grow fivefold from our first to our second year, demonstrating a strong inaugural year. We are on track to reach profitability within the next 6 months, a testament to our robust growth strategy and operational efficiency. Our impact extends to supporting 5,600 farmers, highlighting our commitment to making a significant difference in the community. Financially, we've made significant strides by raising capital, with about $7.5 million already announced and more anticipated, provided current negotiations hold up. This capital infusion is vital as it presents a great opportunity in a space we are deeply passionate about and where we see substantial potential for growth. Our unique background has served as a catalyst for the industry, further amplified by the exceptional talents of our co-founders, positioning us as a leading force in our field."

Not too bad for a Zachary High grad! Ikenna wanted to give a few shoutouts to a few special teachers: First, Ms. Raz Ikenna says that she stretched him the most academically. Next, Erin Fink who taught American History. During his later years of high school, he started thinking about his place in history and who he could someday be. Her teaching inspired him to reflect on the past and work for a better future.