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Mojisola Ogunsanya: ‘Most good restaurants still alive do not have a lot of branches scattered everywhere’

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Mojisola Ogunsanya aka “CEO of everything making money” is the founder and CEO of Belefull Variety, a chain of restaurants based in Lagos. A self-acclaimed businesswoman, she started off selling clothes from when she was in school at the Ogun State University where she studied Business Administration. Upon graduation, Ogunsanya started a cocktail business, Lamooj Cocktails, before eventually branching into the beauty business, running a big salon in the heart of Yaba, Lagos. This she did for two years before delving into souvenir business in Iponri Market, Lagos. After these businesses went under, Mojisola got some training at Zapphaire Training School and then went on to create her event management company, Bow and Veil, and ran this for about two years as well. In 2015, Moji decided to stay true and embrace her love of cooking and good food, turning her passion into mission and opened Belefull-The Rice Place, which has now become Belefull Variety. In this interview with GuardianWoman, she talks about how she started her chain of restaurants, rising from the ashes of failed businesses and how she didn’t allow that deter her, challenges of running a business in Nigeria amongst other issues.

Give us a little peep into your background?
I attended Ogun State Univeristy (OSU) Ago-Iwoye where I would say I started buying and selling in earnest before proceeding to train at Red Dish Culinary School as a chef. While I was in school, I tried my hands at different businesses and this did not change after leaving school, as I have run several businesses before my love and passion for cooking led me into setting up my restaurants.

Tell us about your journey coming into this business in detail; did you ever think this was what you would finally settle into?
As I said, I’ve always been doing business right from my university days; I have never worked for anybody. This I would say is deliberate, as I have always told my friends and family that I never want to do the normal 9-5 jobs people do. I’m a restless person by nature and sitting down in one place is not for me. I have always loved business, too, a gift I inherited from my mother. She is late now but I would describe her as a serial entrepreneur, she would sell anything as long as it was legal. She used to go to China and other places to buy and sell and we were always begging her to slow down. I didn’t even start with food when I started doing business, food started about three years ago when I opened my first restaurant. I have done many businesses that I didn’t succeed at; I used to have a salon, a cocktail business, a boutique and so on. I didn’t really succeed at those businesses because I didn’t have the passion for them. When I started the salon, I just wanted to have a business. I’m not a stylist, know next to nothing about hair but used a lot of money setting it up and it all went down the drain at the end of the day. My stylists would refuse to come to work and I would get stuck, as I couldn’t make hair myself.

After this business failed, I then told myself to go into something I actually enjoy doing, which was cooking. I can cook for 24 hours non-stop. All my friends and family know me for this but still, I didn’t know how I could turn my passion into profit. I attend Daystar Church and my pastor, Sam Adeyemi was ministering one day in church about the economy; this was about four years ago. He mentioned how a lot of people were complaining about how bad the economy is and told us that despite the failing economy, a lot of people were still comfortably making money in the same economy. He told us to focus on things that people cannot do without and we are passionate about and stick with it. The message got to me, I took it and ran with it and I opened my first restaurant, three months after listening to that message; it was almost as the message was personally for me. People love to eat, people have to eat, give them good food and they will keep coming back for more.

A lot of people are into the restaurant business today because they feel it’s a fast money-spinner, what is your opinion on this?
If you come into the restaurant business with the mindset of making money alone and you lack passion, it wouldn’t spin anything for you and you will fail. Personally, I prefer to think about the best interest of my customers first and foremost; and it is evident in what we do. For rice meals for instance, we use basmati even though this wasn’t primarily because of the health issues of our customers. We did this mainly because of the restrictions on rice in the country. We used to serve local rice before, however, some of our customers complained about the quality of the rice as it used to have sands and stones. Most of the rice were also re-bagged by devious dealers and we lost customers to this. We had to keep explaining that it wasn’t our fault and we were working with instructions from the government, so we decided to go with basmati, which is also far healthier.

A lot of restaurants open and fold up within a short period, as someone established in the business, why do you think this happens?
The first thing I would say again is passion; a lot of people open restaurants and they don’t enjoy cooking so much and when they see the amount of work involved, it becomes a problem. Sometimes ago, I had an issue with my three cooks. The first one said his sister passed away and he was traveling to bury her, the second just didn’t show up while the third was very sick and had to go home. I was in the kitchen myself for two days, cooking nonstop. Situations like this would always arise and if you’re not a cook or enjoy cooking, your business would run into problem. Secondly, management is another issue a lot of owners overlook; you have to be on top of your business at all times. You cannot sit at home and say someone is overseeing things for you, your business will fail. Because of the kind of business it is, which is open everyday throughout the year, I have to give myself a day off every week to relax, recharge and rejuvenate. There are no rules in ensuring a business stays afloat but there are some certain things you must do whilst avoiding other things. Don’t sit down and be praying alone, prayers alone will not help you or your business. You need God’s grace, lots of hard work, dedication and focus to sustain businesses in this country. Also, you need to be in touch with your customers always, get feedback from them regularly, reward them when you can and other small, meaningful things like that. These are what I believe keeps a business like this afloat and profitable.

What would you say differentiates you from your other competitors?
When we started out as the rice place, we were the only ones doing strictly rice in Ikeja. With our expansion now, we have variety, everything is in one place including the ambience. I had to go to Ibadan to get trained on how to make the original abula: amala and gbegiri that is very different from what you get in Lagos. The abula tower we created here is in memory of my mother, and our ewagoyin ‘oleku’ combo is certainly different. One thing people know me for is that I hate cutting corners; everything I do has to be of good quality, as I don’t compromise. Our elubo and ewedu comes from Ibadan because I found out that the ewedu we have in Lagos has been compromised with plenty fertilizer and it doesn’t draw very well. The elubo in Lagos is sadly mixed with all sorts of strange things and we are compelled to get it directly from Ibadan, which is more expensive but of better quality. What differentiate us from others I’ll say, is our environment, location, ambience, variety and most of all, our originality and quality.

Running a business in Nigeria cannot be easy, how do you tackle problems that arise?
For you to run a business in Nigeria, your shock absorber has to be very strong because running a business here is extremely demanding. My first and major challenge is staffing, it is very difficult to manage Nigerians. Despite constant training, staff would always do the opposite of what you ask them to do. I don’t know if people are just absent-minded, if they are doing it deliberately or are simply unwilling to learn. Electricity is another huge problem we face. Running diesel everyday isn’t cheap and costs us about N15, 000 to power the generators daily because we have to power the freezers, A.C and so on. Imagine we had 24 hours supply of light and this cost is eliminated, it would definitely reflect in our reduced pricing. For my own business, sourcing quality foodstuff is a huge issue. We keep complaining about the government but what about the wickedness we do to ourselves? We are our own problems. Go to the market and buy a bag of rice and weigh it, it is never 50kg as the sellers have removed a couple of dericas. If you buy vegetable, palm oil or elubo, it is sometimes mixed with something else. We have to be careful where we buy our foodstuff these days to prevent food poisoning and things like that.

As a female entrepreneur, do you think you have it harder than your male counterparts?
I don’t think so because I have male friends that run restaurants and other businesses too and when I ask them about the challenges they face, they always mention staffing and managing people as their greatest problem. I’m not sure how the government can come in but something needs to be done. I’m not saying everyone is bad but good staff are hard to get and are few and far between.

When you are not in the kitchen, what do you spend your time doing?
To be honest, I am a workaholic, I work morning to night and I enjoy it. When I am not working, which is not often, I watch TV. I have managers and supervisors that supervise things but I still watch over the business personally.

What are your plans for expansion? Is that in the future?
Very much so. We started off as the rice place and the plan then was to have small cubicles in different locations. But I quickly realised over time that it is not easy to have loads of outlets and personally supervise all of them. Most good restaurants that are still alive do not have a lot of branches scattered everywhere. People have approached us to buy franchise but I refused, as we don’t have the same vision because it is only good vision that can drive a business. I feel when you franchise, you should still have a stake in the business as that is the only way to maintain quality across board.

Do you enjoy dealing with the public or you’re happier in the kitchen?
(Laughing) I don’t like dealing with people at all; I’m very laid-back and prefer being behind the scene. At our first restaurant, a lot of our customers till date don’t know I’m the owner; they thought I was the manager and they send me to get them water or something and I do that without any airs. I don’t like my face to be out there so much to be honest.

Where do you see yourself in the next 10 years?
I hope to have expanded beyond this location. I want to have my own building that can accommodate very many people as well as opening a few more branches. I don’t know how many it would be but whatever God wants it to be, I’m happy to go along with God’s plans for my life and business.

What last words do you want to leave for women reading this?
You can do whatever you set your mind to do, don’t allow anyone tell you that you cannot do something. If you are passionate about entrepreneurship, pursue it with single-mindedness; be dedicated, focused, hardworking while remaining honest and steadfast. Your hard work will always speak for you where all else fails.


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