How I left engineering to start food business – Segun Olaye, MD/CEO, Ayoola Foods

The Managing Director/CEO of Ayoola Foods Limited, Mr Segun Olaye, shares his business’ success story and challenges, among other things.

Excerpts:

It’s been said often that agriculture is the way out of Nigeria’s economic recession. As an agricultural entrepreneur, what’s your view on this?

That statement is quite correct, if we do it the right way, because when hunger is out of your problems, I think you can think further. They say a hungry man is an angry man. I don’t see how a nation that can’t feed its people can make any progress, because you need food to survive. You may not change your shoes or clothes for a week, but you must eat, and if we cannot produce what we eat, we cannot survive as a nation. Agriculture can help in different ways. Apart from job creation, the cost of food items will be very low, especially if we have the facilities, as there’s no way any individual farmer can survive without government’s provision. The roads and other infrastructural facilities must be put in place. The problems we have in Nigeria today are enormous, but agriculture can solve a lot.

Specifically, what opportunities are there in agriculture for Nigerians to tap into?

We have the land and we have the weather. Our weather is good for so many produce. This is a tropical climate. We have the rain, sunlight, and every other thing. God has blessed us in this nation with all these gifts. Most advanced countries don’t have the kind of good weather we have, but the only thing is for us to make good use of these gifts that God has given us freely. There are countries like Israel that don’t have the natural resources that we have, but their agricultural sector is superb. They are doing it in a hard way, but we don’t have to do it the hard way. Unfortunately, we are still not there, we are just starting. We have been taking one step forwards and five steps backwards. That’s what we’ve been experiencing over the years, otherwise we would have gone far.

When I was growing up as a child, there used to be agricultural settlements. There was one close to Ondo town where I grew up and we used to have farmers bringing out their produce from the farms for sale. But now, we don’t see all these again. Imagine if every local government area had one farm settlement each; there would be jobs for the youth and there would also be abundance of food. Food prices would be cheaper because there would be availability.

Youths have always shied away from agriculture and moving out of the rural places to urban areas. Even if we had the agricultural settlements, do you think they would stay?

You may ask, why are they moving out? Because they have nothing to do in those places. If they had something doing in those places, I can tell you that some of those youths would stay back. If they know that there are no jobs in the cities, but they can get the jobs in their towns via farming, they would stay. Note that we are talking about mechanised farming and not about them using hoes and cutlasses. The youth would stay back in the rural areas if there were opportunities there.

You have been in the food processing industry for years. What has been your sustaining power?

I will tell you it’s not been easy. Anybody that tells you it’s easy to run a business of this type in Nigeria is not sincere with you. But by and large, we thank God that we’ve been able to withstand all the obstacles because life itself is full of challenges, irrespective of the type of business you’re doing. This is why you need to have the zeal, focus and determination. If you know what you want, no challenge will be able to make you go back, but rather you will see every challenge as an opportunity to elevate you. This has been my own idea about business. We are operating in an environment where there is no stable electricity, no rail network and no good roads.

There are challenges everywhere, but the courage to solve these problems is what has been sustaining us. Some people who started this same type of business are no more in it. But I believe you can always solve problems. You have to find the solutions to the problems and I believe if you are always doing the right thing, God will always give you the strength and wisdom to find a way out of every problem. In this company, we use products from farms. We are in an urban area (Lagos), but most of these products come from the inland areas, so one of the challenges is how to get the products down here. In some other countries, they use the rail system. For instance, a train can leave Kano and arrive in Lagos within four hours and before you know it, your raw materials are here. Likewise, the finished products can leave Lagos and get to Kano in time. But by road, there is the risk of accident, you may not get there in two days, there could be armed robbery attack and so on. All these make food to be more expensive. For instance, if we are transporting our products by rail, from let’s say Lagos to Abuja, the cost per carton should not be more than N25. But by road, it’s N500, which makes food to be more expensive. There are many challenges but we have been able to navigate through to remain in business.

Recently, you introduced the unripe plantain flour into the market. Is there any unique thing about unripe plantain?

Unripe plantain has so many health benefits, which is why we introduced it. You see, Nigerians are now careful of what they eat because as the saying goes, you are what you eat. Plantain flour is a very good food for any age group, demography, gender, body shape. We use 100 per cent unripe plantain for the product, that is, when it is still green, because that’s the stage when plantain has so many vitamins. It contains vitamins B6, C, A. Unripe plantain helps in strengthening the bones because of the high calcium content, helps in enhancing good vision, helps in boosting the immune system and it enhances sexual performance, that is, it boosts libido. You can also use it to reduce fat tummy, it helps in losing weight. It also has carbohydrate. These are facts. And in our plantain flour, there is no additive, it is processed when it’s still green and the process is just drying.

What advice would you give youths wanting to venture into agriculture?

The earlier the youth understand that their destiny is in their own hands, the better. If everybody kept waiting for government or white collar jobs that aren’t there, they would be wasting their time, and time is money. Everything involves a bit of risk. To go out there to start something is a risk, but you’ve got to take it. Truly, it’s not easy. When I started, things were better then, at least £1 was exchanged for between N12 or N15. When I started the food business, many people thought I was crazy, asking how could I leave my profession as a structural engineer and come to Nigeria to start a food business, which I knew nothing about?

Some people thought I was sick, some of my colleagues were even making jest of me. But you have to decide for yourself, be focused and be determined in your ability to get it done. If you don’t believe in your ability, you will opt out at the slightest challenge. The youth have to start small and not be in a hurry, as you start small and grow, you will get the experience. By the time you grow up there, it won’t be easy for anyone to pull you down, even with their money. The land is there for the youth, so they must make use of the opportunity. You should not be distracted by sights and when the results start coming, the same people who abused you when you were struggling would praise you and ask how you did it.

The youth must just start something because I can see the jobs are not there. We have so many universities and other higher institutions in all the states, but what percentage of graduates that are churned out every year get jobs? The earlier they realise and start something, the better. Don’t deceive yourself, it doesn’t matter where you make the money. If you make it in one rural place, it doesn’t matter. But when we talk of the youth starting something, they need capital and that’s where the government comes in. Without the capital to implement your idea, an idea is just an idea. Irrespective of the size of any business, you need money, and this is where the government should help the youth. The banks will never come to your aid when you are just starting.

As a major food company in the country right now, do you plan exporting your products to other countries?

I laugh when people ask me this question because in the first place, we started this business by exporting to other countries. Up till 2004, all we were doing here was to produce for export. You could never get our products in the Nigerian market. We were packing virtually every Nigerian food and exporting to the United Kingdom, the United States, Canada and so on. We were selling to the big stores in those countries. Let me tell you how we started selling our products in Nigeria. One elderly Igbo woman returned to Nigeria from Houston, US. But while she was there, she used to eat our fufu, which has no smell like the one here. She came to visit her family in Nigeria and she told them to buy our fufu for her. The children went everywhere but couldn’t get our fufu in the stores. The woman was surprised that even in the US, she used to get the product. She then told her people in Houston to send our fufu wrap to Nigeria so she could show her children. She gave the wrap to the children, still they could not get it.

One day, as the children went to work, the woman took a cab and traced our office address. I was in the office that day. When I received her in my office, she brought out the fufu wrap and told how she used to eat our fufu in Houston but couldn’t get it in Nigeria. She asked why it was so. I told her we weren’t selling any of our products here, but for export. She asked, ‘How could you do that?’ That’s when it occurred to me that we should start selling in the country, after 10 years of operation. At that time, though, I was already thinking of rounding off the food export business and retire. But somehow, that woman changed my perspective and that’s how I decided to sell here. At that time, I always thought the local market wouldn’t accept the product, but when we introduced it, they loved it.

How do you unwind?

I love going to relaxation spots, especially jazz outlets. I love jazz music a lot. I also have a gym where I work out. I also travel out of the country to relax. In fact, every six to eight weeks, I travel to different holiday resorts across the globe. I also love watching football and lawn tennis.

Which is your favourite holiday destination and why?

That would be the South Coast of Spain called Coastal Del Sol, also known as Coastal Del Golf, because there are over 30 golf courses in that axis. I love the place because of its nice weather throughout the year, the sea, the mountains, the hospitality there, the quiet lifestyle and very low crime rate.

Does your wife also love jazz music?

Yes. We attend jazz music spots together.

Being a Russian, does she cook Western or Nigerian foods for you?

My wife cooks all sorts of Nigerian foods. She’s been in Nigeria since 1987, that’s 31 years. My mother taught her how to cook all the foods. Today, my wife can prepare pounded yam, amala, ewedu soup, edikaikong, among others.

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