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Governments should protect, not stiffle SMEs out of business, says YouWiN recipient

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Olokodana

Olokodana

Mrs. Ganiya Sulaimon-Olokodana, a 2012 winner of the Federal Government’s Youth Enterprise With Innovation in Nigeria (YouWiN) speaks on how Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs) can be encouraged to thrive despite the recession in the economy. TOPE TEMPLER OLAIYA reports

It’s been four years since Mrs. Ganiya Sulaimon-Olokodana took the plunge into the murky world of entrepreneurship when she emerged as one of the 1,200 beneficiaries of the Federal Government’s Youth Enterprise With Innovation in Nigeria (YouWiN) initiative in 2012.

After scaling the hurdles to win the N10 million YouWiN grant, it was time to turn her pastime into serious business. From just making Zobo drinks, Olokodana has nurtured Spicedge Foods Ltd into a fast-growing foods and events management business, producing a wholly natural juice, several yoghurts flavours, Zobo drinks and bottled water.

Her journey to a business owner started from childhood. “I have been an entrepreneur since my growing up years. What YouWiN did was to make it possible for me to have a larger platform,” she began.

“I had started buying and selling since I was young. I started by growing stuff in our garden and my dad would encourage us to sell the tomatoes and vegetables to my mum and neighbours.

“That spirit followed me into secondary school where I would go to the staff quarters of the Federal Government Girls College to buy stuff and sell to students in the hostel. That was how I nurtured my entrepreneurship spirit.

“During my service year in 1997 with a bank in Lagos, I noticed that some of the drivers were buying Zobo drinks for senior members of staff from a woman at N10. There was a place I usually attend every Sunday for religious meeting in Victoria Island where Zobo drinks were sold for N50. I discovered I could actually buy at a very cheap rate and resell during the weekend programme.

“That was how I started selling. By the time I finished my youth service, I was still trading in Zobo drinks. Gradually, I learnt how to prepare the drink and started making it myself at home and selling. Later, those who enjoyed the drink were asking for snacks. So, I learnt baking and started doing cakes and meat pies.

“Sooner than I expected, I went into catering, when some people who were fascinated by the quality of our products started asking for food. That was how the hobby became a full-blown business.

“I took the Zobo with me everywhere I went, even when I went for my Masters programme at the University of Lagos. On completion of my studies, I still went back to the school to drop the drinks and return in the evening to collect my bottles and money.

“Then I introduced yoghurts. I started making my yoghurts without preservatives. It took a while before I got a recipe that worked. People were fascinated by our products, but in Nigeria, you can’t go commercial if you don’t have your National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control (NAFDAC) certification and I didn’t have the funds to do that.

“You know how difficult it is setting up a business in Nigeria. I couldn’t muster enough courage to obtain a bank loan. So, I was just content distributing my products to my immediate group of friends. But I was consistent and got encouraged as the patronage increased mildly. I wasn’t ready to take that plunge until 2012 when I heard about the YouWiN initiative.

“I entered for the N10 million grant, submitted at the last minute and luckily, I succeeded at the first round, went for training and scaled through the second process. Out of the 66,000 women that applied, only 1,200 people were chosen for the grant and I was one of them. The grant gave me the opportunity to expand full time. What started as a passion later became a full-fledged business.”

So much has changed for the princess who hails from the Alaafin royal family of Oyo State. In a moment of rare truth, she told The Guardian that “sometimes I look back and wished I had never gotten that award, because it was much easier operating from my kitchen. I could sell my products whenever I wanted, I could spend my money as I wished and when I want to renew my stock, I could borrow money from my husband.

“Now I can’t do that since I got the award. The main reason why the YouWiN was introduced was to boost the Small and Medium-scale Enterprises (SMEs) to stimulate employment generation. So, the onus was on recipients to employ people, which put a bit of pressure on many of us.

“Some recipients didn’t get all their grants, which came in tranches, because they didn’t meet their milestones. For instance, before I got my last tranche, I needed to have a minimum of five people on my payroll and I needed to have gotten my NAFDAC certification so I could start selling commercially.

“So, it was a tight race to meet my set targets as you had experts and consultants doing regular inspection before each tranche of payment was made. I just imagined how people managed to survive setting up businesses because with the benefit of hindsight, the grant money is not even enough to start a small business.”

Why would a N10 million grant be insufficient to keep a modest SME afloat and her response was barely predictable – the cost of infrastructure. “Infrastructure in this part of the world cost more than what any businessman or investor can anticipate.

Generating our own power gulped a huge chunk of the grant money, excluding other items like we needed like freezers and a bus for delivery. Also, it is not easy setting up a business in Nigeria, except if it has to do with service-delivery, because people are used to brand names.

“When we were on a small scale, I got a lot of compliment that our products were good and in high demand, now that we mass produce, we had to supply to retail outlets, malls and stores. But because we are unknown, it slowed things down as patronage was very low.

With big manufacturing firms struggling to stay afloat and a few others relocating as the country’s economy slips deeper into a biting recession, Olokodana said it is trying times for entrepreneurs as the state of the economy is really biting hard on businesses.

“We were recently forced to increase our prices because of the skyrocketing price of our raw materials, which to a large extent are sourced from abroad. We were absorbing it for a long while until we could no longer cope with producing at a loss.

“We had been on the same price since 2010 long before I got the NAFDAC certification. At the time, since the bulk of the funding came from the YouWiN, I could still absorb the increasing cost of production. But today, it’s not about me anymore because I have to pay staff and think like a businessperson to survive the hard times.

“When you have eight staff you have to pay their salaries every month, you have to adopt survival mechanisms not to go under. Otherwise, what is the point of going into this in the first instance? The economy hasn’t helped at all. Government of the day really needs to put in places policies and structures to safeguard the SMEs and encourage small businesses to thrive.

“The situation is so worse that once you are registered, government just comes at you with all sorts of taxes and levies. That’s is the reason why so many businesses are being strangulated at their teething stage.”

What advice does she have for women who want to brave the odds and launch themselves into entrepreneurship? She listed three qualities – being a goal-getter, resilience and patience.

“Studies have shown that women are better at running businesses, they are more resilient and goal getters. What most women need is to now be equipped with the business skills to take their businesses from passion to profit-making ventures.

“But before you get to that stage, you need a huge dose of patience and perseverance because that road is usually very tough. I have been in this business for over 15 years and if I say I am yet to earn an income, people will find it hard to believe.”

If I have to borrow money to pay my staff, it doesn’t make sense for me to borrow money to pay myself yet.

“However, I have the belief that I am going to take this business to a stage where I can afford to pay myself N2 million every month. I know that at that point, I really deserve it but until then I am willing to keep working and slaving to make it happen.”


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