Aiyegbusi: From N7, 500 In Wife’s Kitchen To N700m Turnover In Food Processing Business
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Sells Palm Wine, Moi-Moi, Ogi, Plantain Chips In UK
IN the 1980s the media named Olumuyiwa Oluwole Aiyegbusi as one of the young Nigerian industrialists of the future. The US-trained engineer, who also had a stint with the Federal Institute of Industrial Research (FIIRO), Oshodi,Lagos, sells palm wine in cans; and this he does profitably in London, USA, Latin America and Nigeria using his company — Olu Olu Food Processing Company — as a platform. Now a conglomerate, Olu Olu has offshoots in different parts of the world?
Having set out from his wife’s kitchen in London after leaving school in the US, Aiyegbusi’s success story is an interesting one. According to him, one of his American friends had foretold of his success during his school days some 30 years ago when he was doing a research for the NASA programme.
The friend had tapped him and he said” “Olu, the way you are carrying on, may be one day you will be involved in moon project.” NASA, at the time was going to the Moon on regular basis since the first man landed there in 1970.
But Olu’s response was surprising: he was going back to Africa, because, according to him, “the fortune of Africans will not depend on exploring the Moon, but feeding ourselves.”
After completing his Masters’ programme in the US, Aiyegbusi did his Youth Corps programme at the FIIRO in Oshodi, where he first experimented with projects relatd to “development of foods” and their conversion to commercial scale. They tried to make ogi (corn paste) into Ogi powder, which they christened Soy Ogi. Aiyegbusi and his coleagues at the FIIRO also bottled palm wine and made egg powder for the production of biscuits, among others.
That was where divine providence, as it were, threw him back to what he talked about eight years back in America. He quickly got interested in food processing. At that time, he was using solar energy to dry yam and to make pounded yam flower.
Encouragement, according to him, came from one Dr. Kehinde, his then supervisor at the FIIRO. Though his Masters’ Degree was in Chemical Engineering with emphasis on Petrochemicals, it was during his National Youth Corps programme that he got introduced into actual
practice of food processing. Because of his background, people wanted him to serve at the Nigerian National Petroleum Company (NNPC).
“I went to NNPC and when I got to their office in Falomo, I just saw a row of desks; engineers, sat down reading newspapers and were just chatting. I said; No, this is not for me. Don’t forget that when you are trained in America, you have this “I can do attitude,” said Aiyegbusi, during an interview.
He later went to the FIIRO where, according to him, he was given “the chance to practice what he learnt as an engineer.”
His supervisor wanted to employ him after his NYSC but Aiyegbusi did not see how he could fit into the bureaucracy of the
civil service, which restricted his aspiration having been an engineer
earning so much in Boston, USA. Then something happened; he discovered he had saved some N10, 000, which encouraged hi tm to reflect on palm wine making , which he had practised at FIIRO.
“Why don’t you go and start your own palm wine bottling? A thought ran through him in July 1984.
He then made his own design and equipment.
“So, with that N10, 000 savings, I just challenged myself that I should start it. So I fabricated locally, put it together. Then, I called my cousin, who just returned from London and urged him to join me. So, we rented one small apartment at Mushin, one small room … we bought palm wine, bottled it, and people started buying. Before long, we had one small Volkswagen pick-up. We would go to restaurants and sell the palm wine,” said Aiyegbusi.
Although he was also doing Borehole prospecting, that was his entry into food processing through the bottling of palm wine.
Thirty years after, Aiyegbusi’s is known as the man who makes canned palm wine. Though considered expensive, his “poundo yam” also sells globally.
He told The Guardian: “When I first came up with “Poundo yam”, I remember a British/Nigerian multinational company wanted to also introduce their “Poundo Yam” in 1988 in England. The company had to retreat. I made them to retreat, because, theirs was flakes, and when you prepare it, you will find lumps there. Mine was genuine and it was
through innovation, research, and we are always aiming for the best.”
“When I sold Palm wine abroad in our beer bottles, some people used to make fun of me. They would ask; is this shampoo? How can you say something is wine and it’s in a beer bottle. It looked funny to them. If you say palm wine, it should be in a wine-looking bottle, not beer bottle and because it foams, and when you shake it, it foams and it’s white. They would say this must be shampoo. I kept saying to myself, I must do something differently and in one of the meetings with one of my managers, and I said, ‘this Palm wine, I am sure there’s something we
can do with it.’ The gentle man said: “You know if we can palm wine,
it will be a great innovation and Nigerians will go after it.
“It sunk into me and I am glad I followed that advice and today, we cannot meet the demand. We can’t meet the demand of the market. And beyond that, we’ve turned Fufu into Fufu flour, which is now used in making bread; likewise, we’ve done the black-eyed-peas, which people call white beans.
“We take off the back, remove the black eyes. You can make “Akara,” bean cake in five minutes. We’ve done the flower, don’t forget. Maybe you are not aware.
I used to do canned moi-moi, canned Egusi in 1999, 2000-2005. But we are
trying to resuscitate it in another form.”
On the demand for canned palm wine, Aiyegbusi said: “I can tell you one thing right now, some of my customers want 1000 cartons. They brought a cheque of N2 million and I advised my General Manager to take it back. Palm wine is not just like you plant corn, you harvest corn. It is not like that. Some of our palm trees are limited and where they are can be far from the production centre.’
How does he identify the best palm wine in the forest? Aiyegbusi said: “We have one or two equipment that we use when we meet the suppliers. We would go and track him when he’s coming back from the farm. We would tell him; “we need to buy this keg of palm wine. So, before he does anything, we would take it over. Then we throw that test equipment into it and say; “baba, you see where this mark dey, we want to buy palm wine from you; any time it’s not on this mark, we go reject am.” The man would say; “this Oyinbo people self!”
on the other products, he said: “Do you know that my biggest selling product right now is plantain chips, “ipekere”, ordinary “ipekere?” They eat it in Russia, Scotland, Taiwan, USA, South Africa, because it’s a snack, just the “ipekere” and people worry me and say oh; “when we go back, can we eat your plantain chip, because we cannot get it here;” and I said, ‘well, because the money to set up the production or operation was sourced from overseas, so that’s when I am going to pay my loan back.”
“First of all, the interest rate here will kill any business. I don’t know how people can do business here at even 30 per cent not to talk of 21 per cent interest rate, what business do you want to do, and you have to pay salaries and you’re doing 21 per cent, when I can source loan in London for 6 -7 per cent? So, I have to sell my product first to where I sourced the money from, and repay my loan back.”
Aiyegbusi was one of the brains behind former Governor Segun Oni’s yam
and tuberous crops preservation project at Ilasa-Ekiti, Ekiti State. He recalled that when Oni was in power, “we brought the idea that, instead of our yams getting spoilt, we should set up a preservation area.
“This was because; ‘If you can set up a storage silo for grains like wheat and corn, who says you cannot set up another preservation area for yam or cassava? And I am glad that former Governor Segun Oni saw it, maybe because he’s an engineer. He reasoned along with us and we were building the place… and you know because of the economic situation and political issues, we’ve not been able to complete the place.”
Aiyegbusi and his partner in the project, Abegunde, had traveled to Malaysia, to India, and borrowed technology there. According to him, “you can set up the same thing for tomato, for banana and for even pepper.
“Do you know Uganda exports ‘Atarodo’ pepper? “They fly it almost twice a week to London, Germany and landing in New York.”
On the early experiences he gained from his grandmother, Aiyegbusi said: “God who knows your destination, will set up the curriculum for you and as a child I didn’t like selling things on the street. So, when I was becoming rascally, my grandmother was angry and my father said bring him back to Lagos to me, I need people to work with me. So, I ended up in Lagos at St. John’s School, Aloya.”
He later attended Igbobi College, up to A-level before going to France where he spent one year. From France, he moved to the United States. His parents wanted him to be a medical doctor; so, he began Pre-Med course at Central State University Ohio.
He was to realise later that, although he would pass the medical school, career wise, he would not be able to adjust.
“I hate things that are not clean, things that are dirty. So I switched from Chemistry pre-med to Chemical Engineering. I finished my first degree in Chemistry and I finished it in two years, what normally takes four years. I was brilliant, and then I switched over to Chemical Engineering for my Masters. After my Masters’ degree, I
got employed in Water Vocation Associate in Cambridge Massachusetts. I worked with them for four years,” he said.
At the formative years of the business in Nigeria, things were rough and he decided to relocate to London with his wife, Oluyemisi Olutoyin. In London, he started all over by driving a mini cab at the age of 34. It was there he exported his
first container of palm wine, having hawked it on the streets of London earlier.
“I will wake up 5 am to go and do mini cab and hawk palm wine, until one day I entered a shop. I saw this guy selling pounded yam and I was happy that I was tired of eating Hamburger. I took the pounded yam home. I remembered I did a research at Oshodi on pounded yam.”
Aiyegbusi said; “I just pulled my books out, turned my wife’s kitchen into a research laboratory. Every time she would come home and say; “my kitchen is dirty!” I would say, ‘don’t worry, I was trying to prepare amala.’
“When I finished with the development of the product, I was not even sure it would sell. I had to lie to my mini cab driver in the office. I said; “this is the sample of the product that my friend brought from Nigeria, that he wants me to sell.” I said; “it’s pounded yam, take it home and let me know tomorrow.”
He recalled: “When they got back the following day, they said, “we want to be your distributor.” They said this is good. It was after then I went home and gave a sample to my wife, I didn’t have confidence. When problem overwhelms you, you can lose your self-esteem; unless God is with you, you can lose yourself esteem. I started losing my confidence at the age of 34, when people said this guy was brilliant, top of my class, whether here or overseas, but the Nigeria situation just overwhelmed me; austerity measure. I had to run.
“I gave a sample to my wife and told her the same lie and she said my husband this will sell. Tell your friend to give it to more. We will market it.
Aiyegbusi confessed to his wife: “All those four months that you met rubbish in your kitchen that was what I was developing.”
He told her: “All I needed was 1400 pounds to start. From my mini cabin, I have only saved 800 pounds.”
His wife said: “Don’t worry, my total savings is 630 pounds, I will give you 600, you join with your 800 pounds. Let’s go and start, God will bless you.”
Aiyegbusi told her; “I am now 34 plus, by October, I will be 35, and that was May 1st 1988. If after three months this also collapses like other businesses, then I will know God has told me, forget about business, I will go and seek employment.” Within three months, Aiyegbusi had a turnover of 10,000 pounds (Ten thousand Pounds)! Then he thought he was on top of the world. Today, his food business worldwide now has a turn over close to about 0.7 Billion Naira from 1400 pounds.
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