Kasope Ladipo-Ajai co-founded OmoAlata, a Nigerian food packaging business, in 2012. With plans to export products internationally, her company has already redefined the fresh foodstuff business in Nigeria.
With a degree in computer science, Kasope Ladipo-Ajai gave up paid employment to start her own business. Six years later, her business supplies 500-700 packs of organic pepper-mix to retailers across Lagos every week. She tells us how she made her business a success.
Why did you decide to establish a food packaging business?
Most of our delicacies in Nigeria are made from fresh foodstuffs and that makes Nigerian cooking time-consuming. Busy or working people living in cities often have to eat out because they do not have the time to shop for foodstuffs and blend the tomatoes and peppers, which is what I experienced while I was in paid employment. So this inspired me to start doing research and that was how the dream of OmoAlata started.
Our first product was the OmoAlata pepper-mix, which contains fresh tomatoes, onions and peppers blended into a paste, packaged and frozen. We started with this product because, virtually everywhere in Nigeria, peppers and tomatoes are used in the preparation of meals. However, even though OmoAlata means ‘pepper seller’, the business is not just about peppers, but packaging all Nigerian foods in the correct way for upwardly-mobile individuals and families – those who are interested and ready to pay for the convenience, because what we are actually selling is convenience.
How has your business evolved?
Our factory is in Lagos. When we started, we were buying from the open market, which gave us a lot of issues as we didn’t know the source of our raw materials. Now however, we are supplied directly by organic farmers on the outskirts of the city, so we can guarantee that no fertilisers or any chemicals are used in the production of the crops.
In late 2016, we expanded our capacity from 500 to 5,000 packs a month. We do not yet produce up to that quantity because we are still growing the business, but we have the capacity to do so in future. I want OmoAlata to be the biggest packager of foodstuffs in Nigeria and known worldwide. The short-term plan is to start exporting to the USA in 2018 and hopefully to the UK in 2019. I am also planning to add a couple of other products to what we have right now.
What is one of the key factors to building a successful business?
The right marketing and branding is vital because anybody can set up a business, but building a strong brand makes a business successful. The difference between Coca-Cola and other cola products in the market is the branding. Every small business must learn to find ways to stretch the small funds available for marketing. I connected with the owner of a small marketing communication business – 360 Degrees. When I have a roadshow, I ask the owner to consult for us and we do the legwork by ourselves, so we have been able to effectively advertise in a cheaper way. When people check online, they have an idea of what OmoAlata is out to achieve – we might not be there yet, but we are building the brand. We want to become an international, global brand and we always ensure everything we do is taking us towards that.
But you no doubt have faced challenges in establishing your business?
Yes indeed. The first challenge for many Nigerian businesses is electricity supply, which is needed at the factory and at our depot office. So we have to run generators and that costs so much money. We sell to retail stores, supermarkets and also directly to consumers and the products have to be kept frozen before use, or at least refrigerated, because we do not add preservatives.
Another major challenge is the delay in payments from retail stores. A few stores pay immediately, but most stores will hold on to the money until they finish selling all the products we supplied and ask for more stock before making payment for the ones they have already sold. Any entrepreneur in Nigeria that supplies products to retail stores will testify to the same challenge and this creates a real cash-flow problem for small businesses. Unfortunately, until the product grows to the point when it is a big brand, there is nothing we can do about it.
What lessons would you share with other up and coming entrepreneurs, particularly if they are young women like yourself?
I would say never be afraid of your dreams. If I had dwelt on how hard it would be, I would not have started at all. So start with what you have. Don’t wait for the big thing. Those looking at OmoAlata from the outside will say I have achieved so much. But my partner and I started little by little and it has been hard and it is still tough. We often struggle to pay salaries and other bills. My partner has an 8-5 job and I run another business, as well. I also now have a 4-month-old baby – I came back to work before my baby turned 2 months. I have to go to the factory, arrange purchases from farmers – there’s a lot of hustling involved.
A lot of people say entrepreneurship is fantastic, but it is also hard work – you have to be ready to sacrifice a lot of things. So, I would say to any young lady planning to go into business, don’t be fooled by the glossy look on the outside. But if you are ready for some backbreaking work, you are passionate about what you want to do and you are sure of your goals, just persist and you will get there. If you don’t persist, your business will fail.