Affiong Williams: ‘Being a bold woman means standing firm in your purpose despite challenges’
Affiong Williams is the Chief Executive Officer/Founder of ReelFruit, a processing, packaging and marketing company in Nigeria. The 2012-founded business is a prestigious brand that triumphed in a global competition for women entrepreneurs in the Netherlands. A successful agro entrepreneur who values innovation, she is passionate about agribusiness and looking at innovative, market-driven solutions to add value to local produce given the nation’s unique agricultural landscape.
Armed with a postgraduate diploma in Business Administration from Wits Business School, Johannesburg, South Africa, in 2018, Williams also participated in the Stanford SEED Transformation Program – Stanford Institute for Innovation in Developing Economies. Prior to entrepreneurship, she worked for four years at Endeavor Global, a global non-profit organisation which catalyses economic development by supporting small to medium enterprises in developing markets. The firm believer in unearthing the job and wealth creation potential of agribusiness and global trade is also keen on entrepreneurship, agriculture, politics and she is an avid runner.
In this interview with TOBI AWODIPE, she talks about being the maiden winner of the prestigious Bold Woman Award and what it means to her, building a business without any pre-existing prototype from the ground up and her dream to build a proudly Nigerian company that would retail around the world.
You are the winner of the first-ever Bold Woman Award in Nigeria. How gratifying and reassuring is this acknowledgement for you?
I am honoured to be the first winner of this award. It is a testament to what it has taken me to build a business for over a decade, especially launching products into the market that didn’t exist prior. It is a recognition of my persistence, boldness and audaciousness; traits, which define me and have made me successful so far
As this year’s Bold Woman Award winner, you will travel to Reims, France, the home of Veuve Clicquot for an immersion in the history, tradition and luxury of the Maison. What are you looking forward to during this trip? Do you have any expectations?
I am really excited to be getting this experience. I look forward to learning more about the history of Veuve Clicquout as well as meeting other amazing entrepreneurs from across the world. I look forward to the connections to be made. I also look forward to the champagne.
Did you ever believe you’d make it all the way when you were announced as a finalist?
Yes, I did think my chances were good, especially because I think my entrepreneurial journey and story mirrors that of Veuve Clicquot quite closely. I thought there was a good fit and I am glad I won it all.
What does being a Bold Woman mean to you personally?
It means being determined and undeterred in all that you want to achieve. It means standing firm in your purpose and being a ‘doer’ who goes after one’s dreams, despite the challenges ahead.
When you first launched your company, ReelFruit, approximately a decade ago, packaged dried fruits were not prevalent. What made you think the market was ready for this?
I would say that the market wasn’t exactly ready for the product when I launched, but I took a bet that Nigerians are quite open to trying and adopting new foods and that people would appreciate healthy convenient snacks. It took about five to six years of pushing it for us to see the adoption. Now, we’re in over 700 stores, retailing in about 12 states and have launched nine unique products with more to come.
Building a business such as this from the ground up cannot be without its challenges. What are some obstacles you have had to surmount over the years?
Raising finance and surviving macro-economic challenges that are beyond my control have been the toughest obstacles. I have been fortunate to have the network and support system to be able to guide me through the challenges, and I’ve also become much tougher and resilient.
Many young businesses are put off by the high cost of start up funding. How did you eventually raise funds and expand?
I started the business with my savings and then started receiving funding from friends and family, boot strapping and growing as best as I could. It took nine years of track record to raise institutional funding.
What are some of the hardest lessons you have had to learn/unlearn as a CEO?
The hardest lessons would be, taking tough decisions quickly and decisively (I still struggle with this), and focusing on the long-term goals, despite temptation to chase growth that can throw you off course.
What critical lessons would you offer aspiring entrepreneurs, especially since the expense of running a company continues to rise daily?
The best advice I can give in this climate is for people to seek the knowledge that would help them avoid making mistakes. Mistakes are costly in terms of time and money, seeking out more experienced people to help you avoid mistakes is sometimes worth more than money.
What major business setbacks have you had that have prompted you to consider shutting down your business?
Funding was a key one; luckily the tide turned for me and here we are today.
How can entrepreneurs effectively safeguard themselves and their businesses against financial loss in the face of growing inflation and a recession?
There are no magic answers here but I would say, at this point, focusing on key customers, watching costs and offering as much value as possible are a few things business owners can do right now to keep their heads above water.
Despite an increase in the number of women-owned businesses, female entrepreneurs have greater challenges in raising capital than their male counterparts. Why is this the case and how can it be addressed?
Raising capital is very difficult for everyone, especially because Nigeria is not the most attractive market for raising funds. It is also a formula as funds have certain requirements. People who want to raise funding must prepare their businesses to be funded from the get go, understand what investors are looking for and begin networking with them even before they are seeking funding. That helps a lot to bridge the gaps.
You wear many hats; how do you ensure that everything runs smoothly both professionally and at home?
I have a supportive family and great help. My work is very tasking and challenging. I do have to make sacrifices in terms of the amount of time I get to spend with my kids and husband, but I also accept that this is the price I must pay to build a big business.
You are on a path to leave a lasting legacy for your business. How do you think some of Madame Clicquot’s characteristics can help you reach your aims for ReelFruit?
Her boldness, resourcefulness, persistence to resolve business challenges and her global ambition. Mme Clicquot said, “I want my brand to rank first, from New York to Saint Petersburg” and I resonate with that. I want to build a proudly Nigerian company that sells its products across the world.
You were selected from a pool of 250 visionary Nigerian businesswomen. What do you think set your entry apart from all the rest?
Mainly, I would say, my track record. It speaks for itself.
Do you have any advice for future Bold Woman Award entrants?
Keep being audacious and pursuing your dreams.