Apollos Ikpobe, an accomplished financial expert with about three decades of experience in the financial sector is currently the Chairman of Just Food Limited. The 33- year old Nigerian company with three production facilities in Nigeria and a presence across West African markets, JUST FOOD Limited is a player in the FMCG sector dealing in sales, production, manufacturing, equipment sourcing, and after-sales care in the hospitality industry. In this interview, Ikpobe speaks on the possible impact of the floating of the Naira by CBN; how local manufacturers can tap into the opportunities in ACFTA, the value of ice cream business in Nigeria, and his company’s expansion drive. There are several companies that sell ice cream in this country and we produce for them. He said it is cheaper for ice cream companies to produce locally perhaps through Just Food than to import. Daniel Obi brings the excerpts
Kindly take us through the journey of Just Food Limited’s operations since you opened for business in 1990.
We are a 33-year-old business and we play in the food service and manufacturing space. We focus primarily on B2B (Business to Business). We support all the value chains in the ice cream industry. I joined the company in 2012 and was appointed as the chairman of the company in 2015. Presently, the company is building on the original vision of the founder, Peter Mason. We are also diversifying and creating new product lines to keep us relevant in this dynamic environment with a population of over 200 million, and over 70 percent below 30 years old. To us, Nigeria is a growing market with Quick Service Restaurants (QSRs) still opening new outlets to serve the ever-growing customer base. The QSRs are our primary clientele and we have products that we sell in the modern trade stores. One of them is a ready-to-eat dairy Ice cream called Comelle ice cream. Our focus is to compete with international brands. We asked ourselves why should people have to import ready-to-eat ice cream when we can produce it here in Nigeria. Our dairy ice cream products can compete favourably with any quality brand globally. Also, note that we are the first company in Nigeria to produce a non-dairy ice cream product (Just Delight). This product caters for consumers that are lactose intolerant.
You appear to be conservative even when you have operated for 33 years, what informed that disposition?
The shareholders and the board believe in ‘making haste slowly’ hence it is our philosophy to be conservative. We just want to perform and let our products speak for us. Most businesses in the ice cream industry know us. Our brand name is strong and the idea is that any product that comes from Just Food will be easily accepted in the market. We are tapping into our strong brand equity to deliver quality products.
How do you think the present floating of the exchange rate will affect businesses?
Most businesses have been disadvantaged due to sourcing forex at a more expensive rate than the competition. Floating the naira will lead to a level playing field for all. If we are producing locally, it put us in a better position to compete with importers. Many businesses will start looking at local alternatives which will be more affordable. The policy will promote more local production which has a beneficial multiplier effect on the economy.
As a manufacturer, what policy direction would you like to see from the new administration to boost the sector?
The list of approved dairy importers should be enlarged. This is because there are so many businesses that are involved with dairy products conversion and processing such as infant formula, cheese, pizza, biscuits & Ice cream companies that are not on the list. The end users/consumers ultimately suffer by paying higher for products due to the difficulties arising from this and other challenging policies. Indigenous manufacturers should be encouraged by enabling policies, grants, subventions, and targeted funding to boost their capacity to produce, enjoy a comparative advantage, and position them to effectively compete internationally. This will result in more employment for our youths and a greater contribution to our GDP. The benefits of ACFTA, with this level of support, will allow Nigerian companies to export more to the continent and generate more forex for the country.
What is the value of the Ice Cream market in Nigeria where you operate?
The market value is estimated to be about N200 billion annually.
What are the developments since you were appointed Chairman at Just Food?
Before 2015, our business was primarily focused on importing and selling products with little value addition. In 2015, we decided to move into light manufacturing at our Ota factory with the production of Ice cream cones (JUST Cones) and premium and value ice cream products (Comelle Premium Ice Cream and JUST Good Ice Cream). Now we are engaged in contract manufacturing for other companies locally. We also have our own locally produced ice cream powder mix (Just Food Ice Cream Mix) that is currently making the waves in the market, especially amongst QSRs. We subsequently expanded our warehousing/production facilities to Asaba, Kaduna, Lekki & Accra – Ghana. We also decided to focus on specific OEMs (Original Equipment Manufacturers) suppliers such as Taylor USA equipment manufacturing for ice cream. For cooking and oven businesses we chose Rational ovens. It is worthy of note, that our technicians are internationally trained and certified to maintain the equipment of partners we represent. In West Africa, we opened offices in Ghana, Cote d’Ivoire, and Senegal, and the standard and culture of global premium quality are the same. We have also established a presence in Sierra Leone, Cameroon, and Guinea, however, Nigeria remains our biggest market.
Where do you see Just Food in the next five years?
In the last 8 years, we have structured new relationships with our partners and we have been able to triple our turnover in Nigeria in spite of macroeconomic and environmental limitations. Over the next five years, we plan to grow three times our current levels. We will continue to strengthen our relationships with our customers as a trusted partner of choice as they continue to expand. We will continue to create more products to meet the ever-changing needs of our markets. We expect more expansion into other African countries. We currently have several QSRs businesses we are supporting, and our equipment supply business and consumables sales to the hospitality sector will continue to grow to meet our projections.
What are the factors that give you this growth confidence?
We have a youthful and growing population. They are following new global taste trends and accompanying products. We keep developing different ice cream offerings and other products in partnership with our customers and suppliers. We will also continue to diversify our product range to reach as many more customers as possible and go further down the value chain.
There have been questions around this notion about non-dairy ice cream, which you need to re-emphasise, especially because of its health implications and the benefits it is bringing to the Nigerian people and the economy generally.
After a year of R&D, we came up with a non-dairy product (Just Delight Ice Cream). Just Delight brings to Nigerians its very first non-dairy ice cream. Designed specifically for those seeking a delightful frozen treat without the challenges they experience when eating dairy products. Just Delight is a delicious, creamy, and satisfying plant-based ice cream that serves as an excellent alternative to traditional dairy ice cream. Just Delight offers a delectable selection of flavours, including Vanilla, Strawberry, and Chocolate, ensuring there’s something to suit every palate. With its creamy texture and enticing taste, this non-dairy ice cream is bound to please even the most discerning dessert connoisseurs. One additional standout feature of Just Delight is its suitability for vegans, vegans can now savour the joys of ice cream without compromising their dietary choices.
Tell us about the contract manufacturing that you do for your customers and its economic impact on the sector.
We have several ice cream companies in Nigeria that have contract manufacturing agreements with us. The way we are set up, it is more economical to produce locally with Just Food due to our existing economies of scale and scope.
Can you tell us about your expansion across Africa and its impact on your business operations?
Currently, we have two hubs. One in Nigeria and the other in Accra, Ghana. Our partners are already asking us to move to all ECOWAS countries and Cameroon. We want Ghana to support Nigeria as the base to take care of other African countries.