Juliet Aigbe: Guilt-free Happiness One Cake At A Time
Not everyone looks at a cake and sees a revolution, but not everyone thinks like Juliet Aigbe.
“I see light where others don’t see it and try to birth something workable. I don’t accept old standards that limit what is possible.”
Winner of the Eko Chocolate Chef Challenge; and a 2- time selected semi-final Judge at the Enactus World Cup events, Aigbe was listed as one of Nigeria SME 100 Female Entrepreneurs making a difference in their sector by Bank and Entrepreneur Africa. A member of Premium Breadmakers Association of Nigeria, a 10,000 women Goldman Sachs scholar and beneficiary of the Cherie Blair Foundation road to growth program. She is efficient, pedantic, focused and can’t stand waste, in her bakery or her country. The Guardian Life speaks to this cerebral baker and entrepreneurial reformer about “big man” bread, cakes, wholesome food advocacy and backward integration.
What’s the first thing about being a baker you think people should know?
I always say that a baker is a genius. I don’t understand how people say oh you’re not very brilliant so go and learn baking. You need to be able to articulate recipe formulation, invent your own recipes, figure out substitution methods, portioning, geometry and much more.
Did you go to culinary school?
I went to the French Pastry School in Chicago. The first day I entered the class I wept. I saw the setup, I saw how systemic they were in operations and the culture of professionalism. You’re one of the few bakeries in Lagos that offers gluten and lactose-free options. Is health important to you? Absolutely. Wholesomeness should be the goal of a healthy lifestyle.
What sparked your interest in tapping into this oppressed market?
I was thinking what can I do to make a difference? Every business venture starts off wanting to make profits but for me, this is beyond that, it’s about making a significant difference in the lives of those who cannot afford to be reckless with what they eat. I’m not pursuing making profits actively, instead, I’m looking at how we make food available for people with special needs. Nigeria hasn’t been good at that. Most of the time, I’m forced to import baked goods items and things like coconut sugar for diabetics although Nigeria is the 18th world producer of coconut! We don’t have sapping technology to convert the nectar from coconut florals to coconut sugar.
So I and a group of 10 friends of mine said let’s tap into that and we founded our SapTech Think tank group in partnership with Flair for Life Foundation. A foundation I set up to encourage entrepreneurial action, local food production especially for women. We’ve been in touch with Lagos State Coconut Oil Authority and they’ve been phenomenal in assisting. It’s time we started investing in backwards integration and stop importing everything.
You’re a self-described food advocate. What issues are you targeting?
To create more local content in what I call the Fantastic Four: flour, sugar, butter and eggs. Nigerian flour is a mix of imported barley and rye, so it’s a composite flour, it’s not 100% wheat grown in Nigeria. Table sugar is made up of 60% sugarcane and 40% sugar beets. We don’t grow sugar beets in Nigeria because it grows in temperate regions but we should try and investigate how to grow it in Jos. Healthy alternative sugar, like coconut sugar, isn’t produced anywhere in this country but if you go to countries like Indonesia, Malaysia or The Philippines it’s a well established cultural practice. We don’t have that in Nigeria, although we have a culture of oil and palm wine tapping, we don’t have for coconut. We can actually get over 150 different derivatives from coconut trees but we’re barely scratching 1%.
We also need to look at healthy alternatives for butter. The shelf life of milk is 30 minutes, with no adequate power supply at collection centres (and the producers are nomads) and with so much downtime you can’t get the milk on time. So there’s a lot of milk wastage up North. With eggs, the chickens are injected with imported antibiotics. I’m not just pointing out systems that fail, but to make a change and improve the system, it’s a collective effort all over Nigeria.
Does your advocacy ever shift into charity?
Let’s just say I believe in empowerment. I once had a lady who came in once who was heavily pregnant and said she wanted to learn how to bake and she couldn’t pay for my training class but I could see that she was willing to learn so I taught her for free. Being able to help young women is great. And that’s why Flair for Life foundation exists to help bridge the gap. I always say there are points in a woman’s life when she will need financial power to do something on her own. If women are silenced 50% of what the world needs is silenced.
How do you maintain morale in the face of slow progress?
They say the nail that sticks out the most is the one that gets knocked the hardest. I’ve had some hard knocks for speaking up but I say if you don’t stand for something you fall for anything.
What do you think makes people keep coming back to your business?
Attention to detail and we’re highly knowledgeable in what we do, so you can trust us.
What’s your favourite dish?