Fervently chasing after a passion that took me quite long to identify.”
This is what Affiong Williams’ Twitter profile reads. Spend a day with the 28-year-old entrepreneur and you believe it’s not just a clever line, but the story of her life. Her first job out of college may have been in the corporate sector, but for Williams, her passion for business was one she couldn’t ignore. It had tugged at her since she was a child growing up in Nigeria.
She was only six when with the help of her cousin she cooked and sold food to her neighborhood. By second year in college, she had already dabbled in a few odd businesses, such as buying and selling handbags on campus. She left Nigeria when she was 11, spending most of her formative years in South Africa. College was a defining time. It was here she realized what she didn’t want to do.
With a bachelor’s degree in physiology and psychology, she wanted to switch to medicine but realized her strength was business. The post graduate degree she pursued in business administration at the Witwatersrand Business School in Johannesburg was invaluable.
Williams acquired a job with an entrepreneurship incubator, which exposed her to the world of start-ups and businesses. Here, she could apply all the theory she had learned, spending four years, starting as an intern, ending as a portfolio manager. She looked at services that would help entrepreneurs grow across different sectors. It awakened her innate flair.
“I was most inspired by the entrepreneurs. In any economy, small to medium enterprises create the most jobs. I told myself this is what I want to do.”
Williams started researching business ideas and the sectors that inspired her. The South African economy was highly-developed and she knew her competitive advantage, being a foreigner, was also limited, so she veered towards Nigeria.
“Agriculture was becoming very topical. I started reading up and asking questions,” she says.
Why is there so much inefficiency? Why is there so much waste? Why are fruits rotten? Why can’t we create finished goods? Why do Nigerian products look unappealing? What is stopping Nigerian products from being sold anywhere in the world? A few more pertinent questions and it was the light bulb moment she had been waiting for.
“I decided this is the sector I wanted to get into. I also knew agriculture is a big job creator. I wanted to make Nigerian finished products look good, I wanted to use up our raw materials, and employ a lot of people. I became obsessed. I read about fruit juices, cassava, cash crops etc, and moved into fruit.”
Capital was the next issue.
“I looked at the capital required for food processing. I started figuring out cost in terms of investment. I then stumbled upon [the idea of selling] dried fruits and realized very few people were doing this. It was not that expensive and there were not that many healthy options out there.”
In February 2012, determined to win a government entrepreneurship grant, Williams made the decision to move to Lagos.
“I knew I would win this N10 million (just over $60,000) grant that was going to be my source of capital. I traveled to Nigeria for a second round of applications and made a decision to move back, because I was so sure I would win this grant,” she says.
But did she?
“I did not. My name was not called.”
It was a setback, but Williams had it mapped out. With her savings of $15,000, she started on what was a sink-or-swim journey into a tough market that required more analysis. She drew from her experiences.
She started understanding the value chain better, and engaged in some market-research to see what consumers thought of her dried fruit product. With a tighter rein on funds, it was time to focus on the market.
“Lagos is a hugely urbanized city with a growing middle class and this is where we focused the business. We found a fair percentage of exposed and well-traveled Lagosians already familiar with the product,” she says of the growing number of health-conscious Nigerians, who had little or no time on their hands. Food choices available on the go were a major determinant of health trends.
“Because we are a food product, we are lucky. People can use an immediate taste test to prove whether they like it or not. For our core market, it’s an affordable product,” says Williams. The epiphany may have taken a while, but it was the formula she required.
Agriculture is the most important sector in the Nigerian economy and contributes up to 35% of the country’s GDP. Its 170 million population represents a large domestic market that can support and sustain local production and processing. Unfortunately, limited collaboration exists across regional value chains.
As agribusiness plays a role in jump-starting economic transformation through development of agro-based industries, successful agribusiness investments stimulate growth by providing new markets and developing an input system. This hadn’t escaped Williams’ notice.
She introduced ReelFruit, a healthy range of snacks with variants of mango and pineapple, into the Nigerian market. These are preservative-free fresh tropical fruits, dried and ready for snacking. Its target market is mainly working women, and more products are being developed: a fruit and nut mix, a cashew brand, health drink and kids’ candy. Over the past year, ReelFruit has sold in 62 locations in Nigeria.
“From a business perspective, it made sense, because we are then not exporting raw materials but actually finishing the products here. And if markets can be found for them locally or overseas, then, that’s a win. I found a partner in Ghana to produce on my behalf. They provide the finished product. Now, we get bulk products and are responsible for the packaging. In March 2013, we started selling finished products,” she says.
William’s business has also garnered recognition. She won the BiD Network Women in Business Challenge award in the Netherlands in 2013, and also the top prize for Creative Focus Africa. What inspires her?
“The can-do attitude of Nigerians. There are so many norms and misconceptions about the African woman. As an entrepreneur, despite all these, if you are passionate enough, you will always find a way around it. Having a vision and purpose is what pushed me the most to start a business,” she says.