Olusegun Akande and Oyetola Akande are Nigerian couple who both studied chemical engineering but found their purpose in selling African foods on a large scale in UK. The couple founded Samis Online, an Afro-Caribbean retail and e-commerce food business in 2011. Samis Online has since evolved and diversified to delivering all kinds of African foods and groceries including dry goods, fresh meat, fish, poultry, vegetables, amongst others through its chain of businesses which include and not limited to physical wholesale store, mini store, restaurant and online shopping platform. In this interview with IFEOMA OKEKE-KORIEOCHA, the couple take us through a journey on how they started the business and how they have grown to become a sought after food brand in the UK.
Can you take us through your journey to setting up Samis online in UK?
We identified a gap in the market. We were just regular people that did what we needed to do to survive. There was a time in our lives when I the husband, was on the road. I had a van and I would do deliveries for people. For instance, if you want to move your house in the UK, I did this. This is called removal, ‘Man and Van’. You could buy something online from a shop and you need someone to deliver it for you, I did the job. So, I was a conveyer of goods. So the opportunity came to get into food products just to convey properties and food products from one place to another. I did this for a while and at a point, it became clear that there was something missing in my resident city, which is Birmingham. Like I said, we moved few goods here and there, for instance bags from London, few egusi, garri and drinks etc. At a point, we noticed people kept demanding for Africa foods and we thought that if people are asking for these frequently, it then means that there is something that is missing. It meant people don’t have a place to access these things and that was what gave birth to Samis in 2011.
We set up and opened up a place which we made a one-stop place to buy anything and everything African Foods. UK is diapora and it has everyone including Francophone people, Congolese, Kenyans, Southern Africans, Zimbabweans amongst others. The products started becoming available. There is a lot more now. There is more exposure especially with social media, so we decided that we will set up a place where people can come back from work and walk into and buy your food and groceries. If you have sore throat and you need bitter kola, you can get it from our store. You can buy kola nuts from us in the UK and just do your baby’s naming the traditional way you would love it to be. One day, someone walked into our shop and said he learnt we have everything in our store. He then went on to ask if we had cowry. This made me laugh. So this only goes to show how diversified we are with the African products we sell. Over time, we have diversified and evolved into many things.
It is very easy to come to the UK and you just give in to the first thing that is available and you keep doing that. It was easy to just be doing the Man and Van thing. This is what a lot of people do. They come in, get a job and then stop at that. And I think what gave birth to Samis is that resilience and just wishing for more. We are thinking of where we came from and asking if this is really the best we can do. We are both Chemical engineers. We kept asking ourselves what we are doing and what more we can do. We kept asking ourselves if it’s going to be the ‘Man and Van’ business for the next 10 years. So in the spirit of knowing there can be more, we were given the vision very early. This is a city with a lot of Nigerians and no one thought to do this. People will rather travel miles every three months and bring so much back so that they could eat for the next three months. So I was wondering why no one thought of this. It is like living in Ibadan and everyone has to come to Lagos to buy all thier food to take to Ibadan every three months. So, we thought why we can’t just have this at people’s door step. There was a need and recognising that need was another thing and we thought of what has to be done to address the needs. This is how Samis came about.
Did you both go to the same University?
My wife studied in the UK, University of Birmingham and I studied at University of Ife. We met in Nigeria before my wife travelled for studies. We have been married for about four years before we set up Samis.
How do you source for the food you sell. Do you have suppliers in Africa countries that supply you food and how do you keep then fresh?
We mainly source dry goods from Nigeria. We source all the spices such as spices for pepper soup, Nsala, suya pepper, chilli pepper, Okpa (Bambara nuts), all the Nigerian drinks such as bear, malt; then grains like garri (cassava flour), Elubo, (yam flour), plantain flour, rice flour, ofada rice amongst others. All these, we source from Nigeria. We get products from importers from other countries. For instance, we have Ghanaians that we have tried thier products and we tell them to do a container of Ghana garri and send to us. We also bring in Indomie. We have a team in Nigeria in charge of our warehouse where the products are sent to. Once they have enough products to fill a container, they ship the products into the UK. This is for the dry goods. For the more delicate goods like the fresh vegetables, they are brought in via flight. Three times a week, we get supply of all Nigerian fresh vegetables like pumpkin leaves (Ugwu), Efo Shoko (Lagos Spinach), Tete leaves (Green), Oha (Pterocarpus mildbraedii), Uziza ( Utazi, Ukazi (Piper guineese) and afang leafs (Gnetum africanum).
We get them delivered to us three times at Birmingham by air through DHL. The more delicate products like smoked fishes which are not allowed in, we don’t deal directly on them. Luckily, we found three suppliers in the UK that smoke the fishes in the UK and supply them to us. We stay away from anything that is contraband. We ethically source our products. We got here because we don’t compromise on the quality of what we sell. So ultimately, people come back to buy from us because of the quality of what we sell overtime. For red oil, once it is sourced ethically and it is 100 percent pure, we get it. Sometimes our containers are inspected and product testing and sampling are done on them and once it passes the test, they allow it in. Once they find out that you have a good track record, they always let your products go. This has been the case with our products.
How were you able to raise start-up funds for Samis?
We had support from people around us like family. For us, it was sort of organic because we already got something going on before we opened up the store. So we already started by buying in bulk and repacking in smaller units. So we had some customer base and because of that, we have been able to build a network of suppliers that supply to us. People will support you when they know you are reliable and they don’t need to chase you to get their money. As long as you readily pay and you are readily available, as long as you are frequent and loyal, they will support you. This is what you need as a business. Sometimes it is not really about the money that you have but line of credit which we already have. So we got family loans and some personal loans to help out as well. My wife’s mum was kind enough to give us loan to buy a van that we used to convey goods. So our initial funds were just family support and personal money we put together.
How has the scarcity of foreign exchange and foreign exchange rate affected your business ?
When we started, the foriegn exchange rate was quite stable. For a period of six to seven year, the conversion of pounds to naira stood at N250 to one pound. It was very stable. You could project. About three years ago, on average, to load one container cost about N7million and now it cost about N35 million. This is five times higher than what it used to be three years ago. The exchange rate was N250 to a pound and now it is above N1,000 to a pound. This doesn’t mean that you are getting less or more for your money. Our manager in Nigeria just sent me a message this morning saying that indomie price has increased. So we find out that every month, prices increase. The foreign exchange rate leads to inconsistencies. When you bring those products, it takes about a week or two to put them together and another three weeks to get to us. By the time it gets to us, we can’t buy those goods in the container again for the same price. By the time you are buying a new one, it would have gone up by another three million to five millon naira. The effect is having on us is that we can’t directly translate that increase to the consumers because it will really be unaffordable and that is one of the things that brings down a business. We keep our products as affordable as possible. We have to keep managing the costs and our margins.
Samis seems to be a broad business which include ready made meals. Can you give us a breakdown of what the business is about ?
Samis is broad. I call it Samis Group. Under Samis Group, we have Samis Wholesale. Samis Wholesale is the physical store where people come in and they fill their trollies. Samis Physical store has all your dry goods, fresh meat, fish, poultry, vegetables and every other thing. This is basically like ShopRite. You go in and buy everything you want. We have Samis Express which is like a mini store that has everything but in smaller quantities. You cannot buy a sack of garri there but you can get like four kilos of garri. You can’t get a box of chicken. You just get the ones that have been packed in the freezer. We have the Samis Online which is our e-commerce platform. We are online in the UK. You buy from us anywhere in the UK and we deliver to you next day so you can get all your African foods. In Samisonline.com, we get all your goods delivered to you the following day including vegetables, fish, meat, poultry; everything is online. You can get them there.
We also have Pride of Africa. Pride of Africa is our wholesaler’s portal. Anyone that has shop or restaurant in the UK can go to Pride of Africa to shop. This is like our bulk sale unit. It is our trade website. We have our product brand. All our products are branded Pride of Africa. All our products from various countries carry the Pride of Africa brand. Other shops can sell it. So you can go into other shops that is not Samis and you see Pride of Africa products.
We have Empress Bar and Grills which is our restaurant. This is our sister company. Empress is attached to the Samis wholesale and if you go into Empress, you will get any Nigerian food you want, from Jollof rice to friend rice, pounded yam, Amala, Grills amongst others.
After Empress, we have Oyetty Meals. Oyetty Meals is ready meal business. We had to go through a lot of process to get a licence to be able to operate Oyetty Meals. Here, the food is cooked and sealed under appropriate conditions and well labeled. It is frozen. We have a website where we operate from but we can also supply to other retail outlets. We have freezers where we stock our foods in like the Eforiro soup, Oha soup, Bitter leaf, suya, cooked beans amongst others. They are packed and labelled and they go into the freezers. We sell and supply to anyone in the UK. So, we have so many things we are doing.
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Are there times you have to deal with stereotype as a Nigerian operating in the UK and what were your major challenges?
There are equal rights everywhere especially in Europe where rights are a bit more grounded. If there is systemic racism, whoever is into it cannot be vocal about it, you will be called out. We realised that we had every right and opportunity to be there and that also helped us with confidence we had, wanting to be entrepreneurs.
In terms of challenges; when we started, we had to put everything together. From the very beginning, it wasn’t all about importation. We had to almost buy everything we sold before we grew to doing our own importation. What we do in the UK is what we call the niche market. Africans as people like care and attention and we go all out to satisfy them. We have logistics as an issue. When we send out goods sometimes, we deal with damages and delays. We have to keep products fresh. When the products get to people and it is not fresh, what do you do ? They have the right and sometimes you have to do a refund. These are some of the challenges we have faced in the business.
How much is this business valued ?
It is possible to assume that our business could be valued within millons of pounds. This is a safe assumption.