• Thursday, April 25, 2024
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Our dried fruit factory would help tackle post-harvest losses – Williams

Our dried fruit factory would help tackle post-harvest losses – Williams

Affiong Williams is the chief executive officer and founder of ReelFruit. In this interview with David Ijaseun, she spoke about the Nigerian fruit industry and how ReelFruit is changing the narrative.

Can you share your 10 years of entrepreneurship experience?

ReelFruit has had a remarkable decade of being in existence and as you know, we are the pioneers for this sort of sub-industry in Nigeria. When I started the business, dried fruit didn’t exist and I didn’t know that it would be something that could work but I believed that Nigerians were not closed-minded when it came to trying new products. If we put out a quality product, we would have a chance at success.

Also, it took several years to build the market demand. We had to build the market for our products by making sure that we were everywhere where people are, in stores, and pushing our products and distribution around the country. That has been the journey that we took in the past 10 years to be where we are today. We’re currently in over 860 stores nationwide and I’m very proud of myself and the team for achieving that feat – a product that was not in existence 10 years ago can now be found across the country.

We are quite excited about the future because, in our first decade, we’ve been able to build this foundation. The first 10 years have been great, with lots of learning, and challenges, there’s no easy path, but our perseverance and resilience have gotten us this far. We’ve raised institutional funding, and we are launching a world-class factory in Abeokuta to process dry fruits on a large scale in Nigeria.

Let’s take a step back to the beginning. Why dried fruits in the first place?

This is a very interesting question because it wasn’t like I was a lover of dried fruit before. I wanted to play in the agricultural space and I wanted to focus on value-added agribusiness, and I started looking at which industries made sense where I could start a business in value-addition, and the fruit sector kind of came to mind and seemed like a very feasible one in terms of some of the goals I wanted to achieve.

My initial idea was around fruit juice but that was capital intensive and then I just started thinking well, dried fruit is also a good opportunity, it doesn’t exist in Nigeria, so I would get the first mover advantage but also, it’s a snack that has a long shelf life, so it doesn’t need power.

I was also looking at the growing trend of health, fitness, and upper-middle-class consumers in Nigeria seeking more convenient snack options. So, it just seemed like it was a good opportunity to introduce the product into the market, of course, not knowing how it would work out, but that’s kind of what led me to introduce dried fruit.

What gave you the conviction to pursue such an untested market in Nigeria?

Being a pioneer has been incredibly difficult, but I think it’s a gift and a curse, in the sense that in the beginning, you have to be the one that started with creating the market, introducing the product into the market and people are watching you saying what product is this? Why should I have it? But you know, after a while, if you’re successful, you’ve built some competencies, competitive advantage and it’s more difficult for people to compete against you, and that’s kind of what we want to enjoy going forward.

We’ve spent the first five or six years investing in the sector, marketing, and building it. We’ve seen competition come, and I welcome it in a way, but I hope the advantages we’ve built will make it difficult for people to compete against us effectively. We’ve built the largest distribution, a strong brand, and a wide product range, but they didn’t happen overnight, so we’ve gone from being a pioneer to a household name.

What are you doing differently to remain in business?

It’s not a secret, it’s the resilience and persistence that myself and the team have built over the last 10 years. Nigeria is a very tough place to do business, I mean in general, 95 percent of businesses fail within the first five years, so it’s not like entrepreneurship has great odds anyways, but to last this long has just been staying resilient and grace. I’m a Christian, I’m not gonna pretend, I’m not gonna underplay the effect of what I feel, it has been just God’s grace in the business.

I’ve worked extremely hard, but I’m not the only hard-working person in the world, I do believe there’s that factor. I’m a very determined person, and I think I’ve demonstrated that to my coworkers so they give their all. Likewise, my investors have seen my commitment since I returned to Nigeria.

Read also: “I am seriously committed to the grooming of the next generation of women entrepreneurs and professionals”

You resorted to raising capital in small amounts as proof of concept. How did that work out?

Yes, that was more of a necessity for me. I knew I needed millions of dollars to grow the business, but I didn’t have proof of concept. Nobody would hand me millions for a new product. I realised I could sell my vision. We wanted a huge factory, lots of employees, and our products everywhere, but no one could see it. So, I changed my plan and started selling the short-term picture instead of the big picture.

What about the journey to getting your factory in Ogun State or is it still something in the pipeline?

We bought a great factory to expand our market, customer base, and export business. which will be commissioned in January 2023. We want to sell more outside of Nigeria and to different business customers in Nigeria, and our factory can already produce 6 to 10 times as much depending on our product. So we’re ready for scale and to launch new products we couldn’t before due to capacity. This milestone is a game changer for the business, and we’re excited. We’re so excited to build a world-class factory that will continue to demonstrate the kind of company we are, which is pioneering, innovative, and daring with the products we’ll launch from that factory, and we want that to solidify our position as the market leader.

Speaking of capacity, can you please give me a rundown?

Depending on the product, our production capacity will go up by anywhere from 30 metric tonnes of dried output per month to 100 metric tonnes of dried output per month. So that means we’re going to buy a lot more fruit from farmers, our demand for raw materials is going to go up, and we’re going to have a much more positive effect on our value chain in that way.

What are your focus and expansion areas for the next decade?

For the next decade, we’re working on diversifying our customer base. So, while people know us as a consumer brand, which we will continue to be, we want to process a lot more inputs for large manufacturers, like the baking industry, and we also want to focus on exporting. These two segments are where we see a lot of our growth will come from, and that’s where we’re going to focus on building the capacity to do so. And of course, as a result, we’re going to impact even the private sector of our value chain, uplift farmers, by improving their productivity and bringing best practices in the way they farm.

From your wealth of experience, what advice will you give intending entrepreneurs in the country?

Yes, entrepreneurship is a very difficult journey. The key thing I can share with people is that they need to accept that it’s hard, and also that they need to be resilient and as a new entrepreneur, you will forever be tested. So you don’t expect the road to be easy, you just get tougher. You need to network and learn. I like to avoid mistakes by learning from others. Your network is your net worth, I believe.

Also, I think every problem has a solution, and an entrepreneur’s job is to find the most efficient one. That means talking to people, learning from others, and building a strong support system for when things are tough; have people you can go to for support, problem sharing and solving. And of course, know that you’re playing the long game because there’s nothing like quick wins in business. You know, what do they say? An overnight success takes 10 years.

Are there any investments you are putting in technology to ensure that as time goes on, we’ll have the latest technology here to get the best as quickly as possible?

Yes, we imported our driers from South Africa, which we believe is the expert in post-harvest processing, and we made sure to get the best from the best. This shows our intent to bring these technologies to Nigeria, introduce them to the market, and show that we’re bringing the best products and can produce the best products that we can sell around the world.

While I was in the North, lots of fruits were wasted, especially in Benue. How is ReelFruit helping to tackle post-harvest losses?

It is from the rural areas we aggregate our fruits from, so our big fruit mango centers are in Kaduna, Niger State, Nasarawa, Adamawa, and even up to Ekiti State. So we are going into the regions, we have field agents in these regions that are working with farmers ahead of the season. By doing so we are mopping up excess fruits and reducing wastage.