‘Women need to work together and support one another’
Ebun Feludu is the brain behind JAM The Coconut Food Company, a family legacy business that creates food and beauty solutions from coconuts. At the center of her operations is an army of coconut amazons who live in the rural coastal communities where her factories are located. The women make up 80 per cent of Feludu’s workforce and their work accounts for 80 per cent of household income. With the money they earn, they are able to support their families and educate their children, thereby breaking the cycle of poverty.
Committed to the growth of women at her factory and her women community at large, she is channeling enterprise to build the Africa of her dreams, starting with Nigeria. In 2017, she was made Nigeria rep for Women Economic Forum (WEF) and in 2019, led the largest delegation of women to the annual WEF conference in New Delhi. In June 2020, she was announced as president of the Nigeria-India Bilateral Business Council, creating a bridge connecting women in business in Nigeria and India. She has shared the knowledge gained from India with the Lagos State Coconut Development Authority where she served on the planning committee at the first Lagos Coconut Festival.
Furthering her commitment to developing the coconut value chain and the women who form the backbone of this industry, in 2016, she founded Igrow Agri Invest, an all women board who invest in female farmers and agropreneurs.
Enjoying a thriving career in media before venturing into agriculture and agro processing, she tells TOBI AWODIPE about leaving the media world to focus on agropreneurship, investing in women to give them financial stability, creating export-worthy products and thriving in the face of difficulties.
Could you take us through your journey in starting your business, how has it been for you so far?
I established this company in 2016 and have since become the leading coconut brand in Nigeria, with the widest number of certified products and the widest national reach. JAM The Coconut Food Company is an integrated coconut processing company; we process coconuts into premium snacks and personal care products for the conscious African and to do this, we train and employ women from our community who make up 80 percent of our workforce.
My origin story began when I, a lactose intolerant woman, sought a plant based milk alternative to dairy. I have been lactose intolerant my whole life, but as one gets older, that tolerance level goes south. I went online to learn how to make coconut milk and it turned out to be very delicious indeed. We then sampled family and friends who had the same reaction as I did. It turned out there were many others like me who are lactose intolerant and wanted plant based milk alternatives to dairy.
I remember our first partner was Neo Café. We approached them about supplying coconut milk to their lactose intolerant clients and they said yes. We started by supplying coconut milk to all their branches. Soon after we started supplying them, I went off to the South of India to immerse myself in the entire coconut value chain. The vision changed completely and got bigger after my India experience.
You serve the food, cosmetic and pharmaceutical markets in Nigeria and across Africa, how are you doing this?
There is value in every part of the coconut. Coconut husk is used for coco peats, which helps farmers with strong root formation for their seedlings. The shells are recycled into sustainable bowls and activated coconut charcoal. Activated charcoal is used for poison control, air purification, water purification and also used in the cosmetic industry for soap and scrubs. Then obviously, the white flesh makes edible and topical coconut oil and coconut cinnamon balls and coconut flakes.
Funding is usually a major challenge for startups, how did you get funds to start out?
Like most startups, I started with personal funds, savings, family and friends and then when we were ready for it, loans. We have also been blessed to be awarded several grants from LSETF, NEPC, Unusual Entrepreneurs and more recently, the inaugural ECOWAS SME pitch. I believe that a good product or service with a proven track record will always attract the capital it needs, the challenge will then become, is this funder the right fit for me at this time?
The global beauty industry is a multibillion-dollar sector, which experts have said Nigeria is yet to fully tap into. How do you think we can achieve that?
Our products are evenly split between food products and personal care products. For our beauty or personal care products, the sky is the limit. One of our most beloved products is our coconut lemon oil; also our silk coconut body butter and coconut charcoal soap is also a favorite.
The good news is that Nigerian women are becoming far more savvy, they understand that one of the causes of breast cancer and fibroids amongst women is directly connected to chemically laced soaps and creams. Our beauty products are natural without a trace of chemicals and are very effective indeed. This is the niche space we choose to work in and it is working for us.
How best do you think the government, banks and private bodies can support SMEs such as yours to thrive better?
Nigeria desperately needs to export non-oil products. Thankfully, the Nigeria Export Promotion Council is set up to drive just that by supporting manufacturers in their efforts towards export. We were one of the beneficiaries of the EEFP grant, which is aimed at export, and we are deeply grateful for this support.
In addition, NEPC and SMEDAN have supported us to attend many international trade shows, which gave us consumer insight in those countries for our export strategy. However, areas where government can support include good roads for easy movement of goods. Sadly, business owners are being forced to produce their own power, but we can’t very well build roads too.
How can we improve and help local manufacturers so they create export-worthy products?
First is design. Nigerian products need to compete against well-designed international brands on supermarket shelves. Many Nigerian entrepreneurs have great products but they are losing market share because packaging is unappealing. Private sector and or government could help by setting up Design labs to help manufacturers across the country develop strong branding. Consumption or adoption of a product first starts with what the eyes see in the packaging, before the product is ever sampled. Great packaging helps with that initial buy in.
Second is power. If the government is serious about earning forex via export of made in Nigeria products, then we need to invest urgently in 24hour powered industrial hubs in every local government. This will immediately create jobs and support for manufacturers.
Finally, distribution and infrastructure. Once our products are made, how do we tap into the huge Nigeria market? A good road and rail network to facilitate free flow of goods across the country? I am presently sitting on the train heading to Ibadan from Lagos to attend a meeting. Imagine if we had functional cargo trains that crisscross the country so goods made in the South can go up North and vice versa. The opportunities are truly limitless.
With so many players in this sector, real and fake, how are you looking to stand out?
We have one focus- the coconut, so our attention is undivided. We invest heavily in research and development and every year we work directly with scientists and research consultants to help us improve our processes. We also work directly with smallholder farmers to develop soil care for premium yield. So, across the value chain, we spare no expense to develop our raw material and processes to international standard.
What keeps you passionate about doing what you do?
I always say to people that the coconut is a hard nut to crack, but there is no better person to crack it than a woman. When I started this journey, it was clear that I was embarking on a long legacy journey. So, at the very beginning, I went off to the South of India to immerse myself in the entire coconut value chain. I learnt everything from coconut seedlings to various factories in the value chain and that training gave me enough fuel to last me a decade. The more I learn about it, the more excited I become.
Sourcing materials can be a huge challenge, how do you source your coconuts all year round?
Coconuts fruit all year round, but demand from other sectors fluctuates at various times of the year. So, apart from farming coconuts ourselves, we also have relationships with various smallholder farmers and marketers to ensure we have enough backward integration to support our growth.
Tell us something you did/do recently that has turned your business around positively for you?
I am lifelong learner and this year, I attended two programmes that changed the trajectory of my business. One was the Cascador Fellowship, a US based intense programme for entrepreneurs who are scaling their business and the GOPA Scale Programme and Impact Amplifier Programme. These programmes supported us to create a four-year growth plan down to granular details.
Finally, we got into the Changing Narratives Programme, a six-month fellowship starting in January 2022 to help us get into US retail giant stores like Wal-Mart.
What is your dream and goal for your brand in the next couple of years?
My dream is to see our products across Africa and in the US and UK markets. Beyond the brand footprint I want to multiply our workforce of women who form the backbone of our operations.
How best can women-owned businesses thrive in these difficult times?
Business owners need to keep training. The world of business keeps changing and the best way to stay abreast of changes is to continue taking courses and programmes that will keep us at the cutting edge. Women also need to work together by forming masterminds and support one another in their growth journey. I belong to a number of such masterminds and they are very valuable. We support one another in areas of HR; funding, branding, accounting; when we pool our resources together, we are all richer for it.
What three things would you advise a woman looking to innovate in this space to do and avoid for success?
First, get training; there is a lot of information online. Understand the value chain and decide where you want to play. Get your distribution right and ensure your branding stands out.
In what way have you empowered women in your business?
We are deliberate about training and employing women. As I said before, 80 percent of our staff is women and we have trained over 120 women and employed 30. It is important to me that women have enough agency to make the best choices for themselves through their livelihood.
Now, many of our women are able to contribute to household income and have a voice in the affairs of their homes, their children and their lives. This is a very big deal to me and we are constantly working to increase the number of women who are impacted through our company.
How have you empowered women over the years?
I often say to our women, we are not just coconut processors; we are ambassadors of the Nigeria of our dreams. Most of our staff are women who are trained by and employed by us. Our factories are located in Okun Ajah and Badagry and many of the women in these communities are sort of left behind whilst their husbands go out in search of work. In our current economy, a double income household is desperately critical to meeting the basic needs of the household. Many of our women are now able to contribute up to 50 percent of household income.
Does the nation have capacity to export coconut and its derivatives to generate revenue for us?
We do most definitely. Nigeria is the 19th largest producer of coconuts in the world and we are moving up in the ranks. 24 states of the federation can plant coconuts successfully and many states have begun investing in coconut plantations, which is what we need to meet local demand and export. The work is well underway and we have a very exciting future for the coconut industry in Nigeria. Lagos State has the smallest landmass in Nigeria, yet 70 per cent of coconuts produced in Nigeria come from Lagos.
The very first coconut plantation in Nigeria was in Badagry, so this is why it is critical that Lagos takes this expertise and partners with other states that have the much needed land mass required for coconut plantation like Osun, Akwa Ibom, Delta to name a few.
Did the pandemic affect your business in any way? How did you manage to overcome the challenge?
Yes it did. We work closely with the health and hospitality industries many of which were either closed or had no client footprint. This affected us but like many other businesses, we kept pushing through and thankfully we are bouncing back from a tough year.
How have you managed to keep the business on track in an unstable economy?
We have had our ups and downs, but we keep our focus on what the customer is saying. Also, I was resolute to build a legacy as opposed to a lifestyle business. This meant that whenever the obstacles came (and trust me we have had many road blocks) the bigger vision kept me going. One of the roadblocks we had was during lockdown when we lost a truckload of supply of our raw materials to security officials in Badagry. There was nothing we could do because many marketers and processors were affected. The Lagos State Government, through the Ministry of Agric, the state commissioner for agriculture, Bisola Olusanya, Commissioner and the GM, Lagos State Coconut Development Authority, Dapo Olakulehin, had to call an emergency stakeholders meeting to address the issues and prevent such from happening again. The experience was an unfortunate hard knock that we learnt from and developed new strategy for the future.
In 2016, you founded an all women board that invest in female farmers and agropreneurs, tell us more about this?
My career had been in media, writing stories of women for women’s magazines and in addition. I grew up in Ibadan; my paternal grandfather was a famous cocoa merchant, my mother studied agriculture and my sister, agric Extension. With my background interviewing women, and my exposure to agriculture, I found that many women in business had a hard time getting capital for their business whether as loans or equity.
In 2014, I began to explore investments in agriculture, but I knew I didn’t want to be a lone ranger. So, I sought out a few other women of like minds and presented to them my idea of an all women board investing in women in agric. They bought into it and we started out first investment in the exportation of vegetables to the UK and then into a woman led agro processing company that yielded great result for the investment company.
You shared the knowledge gained from India with the Lagos State Coconut Development Authority where you served on the planning committee of the first Lagos Coconut Festival, tell us about this?
I shared from the platform given to me by the Lagos Coconut Festival. I have also done so more recently at the just concluded Agunkefest, annual coconut festival in Badagry. I was a speaker at the event and I was honoured with the Award of Coconut ambassador as well. The theme at the Agunkefest this year was Coconut Sufficiency for Economic Diversification and Tourism in Lagos State. Stakeholders in the value chain from across Nigeria attended the event. Many of these stakeholders are new entrants into the industry and I shared insights that would help them avoid the costly mistakes that I made in the start of this journey.
What are the challenges you have faced so far in running this business?
Challenges we have faced in the past are access to raw material, because of the huge demand for coconuts and its derivatives. To mitigate this, we have signed off-taker agreements with farmers and begun work towards our own coconut plantations towards our backward integration strategy.
Other challenges would be hiring skilled hands, power and distribution. However, having said that, our job as entrepreneurs is to solve problems not celebrate them. I firmly believe that we have evolved as a Nigerian race to thrive even in the face of grueling challenges, much like the West evolved to create solutions to their extreme weather conditions. My approach is, there is no challenge we cannot overcome and thankfully, I have been able to infect my team with the same spirit.
The industry you are in is becoming quite competitive, how have you managed to carve a niche for yourself?
Because our attention is not divided, we have been able to commit to excellence. We started by creating excellent products from Nigeria with a global market in view. When we pitched to Shoprite through the AWP Platform, we were chosen and now, we supply all Shoprite outlets across Nigeria. Also, we pitched for the Changing Narratives Fellowship that trains and aids manufacturers like myself to get our product into Walmart and other retail giants in the US, we were one of eight manufacturers in Nigeria who were accepted into that highly sought after fellowship.
Also recently, we were chosen to represent Nigeria at the Inaugural ECOWAS SME Summit and Pitch Competition and we again emerged as one of the winners. I believe it is our commitment to excellence, packaging and our people that makes us stand out in the industry. We are excited about all the amazing new products that we will be launching in 2022.