Ikenna Okongwu: The medical doctor raising the bar as a “Foodpreneur”
Dr. Ikenna Okongwu believes that one of many ways to stop the Western brain drain of Nigerian youths who are bent onleaving the country is by mentorship, collaboration and family empowerment. This, he said, will make the Nigerian economy stronger one and improve the quality of their fellow countrymen in a global pandemic era.
Okongwu is a divisional managing director- Operations with Food Concept PLC. He currently manages over 100 business teams and closes to 3,000 employees, providing leadership support, best guidance, and audit solutions, creating bespoke action plans for growth and development per outlet.
A medical doctor turned food entrepreneur, Okongwu speaks on his journey of his purpose, vision snd adventure into the food business in Nigeria.
What drives you to get up in the morning and go every day?
I wake up every morning with an innate need to be happy and make the day a successful one. My definition of happiness and success is centered around building lasting structures via which the people and families around me can thrive and not just survive. Being at the forefront of a swiftly expanding industry such as mine, the goal is to identify the traits and skillsets of the members of my team, groom and nurture them till they become self-sustainable individuals. To be gifted with the opportunity to constantly impact, find new ways to access performance, and share standard knowledge to the next generation on any platform on the daily gives me the push I need to get up and go every day.
What is your motivating factor as a ‘foodprenuer?’
People. I’ve got such deep love for the community. Growing up, my academic parents tried their best to instill in I and my siblings a sense of social responsibility. My physicist Father always believed that the only true measure of a man was not just earning a healthy paycheck but in deliberately investing in the community, that we invest in developing the people around us as he strongly felt that it was only by helping others rise that we, in turn, create a stronger, economically stable community.
I have found this to be true not just in my sojourn in my home state of Anambra, in Jos in the early 90s where I cupped my medical degree, and even after almost 20 years helping to operate & set up operations for global food companies such as KFC in the United Kingdom and The Republic of Ireland. We rise by lifting the families and individuals around us.
I recognize that while I was a little fortunate to have a family who took active interest in making my career path a little easier? That is not the case for a lot of youngsters. Helping them setup and grow in the foodservice industry despite the tumultuous economy is one sure path to setting up a stable society; get the people right, the customers and the community at large will be happy.
What were the challenges in getting from where you started to where you are at today in the business?
On the professional side, “foodpreneurship” has come a long way from when Mr Biggs started off in 1994. Now it’s not just “Iya Amala”, “Mama Put” outlets but a full blooming culinary industry. With the pandemic shutting down the food supply chain globally we dealt with an unprecedented 45% inflation in food/ food items supplied to Food and Beverage industries. My team at Chicken Republic had to come up with a humane solution that would not only cater to pockets of our customers but also ensure the business bottom line wasn’t compromised. We were able to stick to our entry point of 500 naira for a meal on all our outlets nationwide by working closely with all our vendors – especially the farms who supply our chickens et al locally.
The hardest challenge so far in this fast-paced age has been finding the balance in hands-on parenting while steering a career path away from medicine into Corporate Food management. Having a father who walked the path helped in giving me the quiet assurance needed that this was achievable. Thankfully we find ways to make the family moments count now with a more flexible schedule. I consider weekends sacrosanct, bedtime stories, school runs and homework periods are just a few of the highpoints of my kids’ activities that I find most enriching.
In a period where most Nigerians are running from the country why do you choose to stay?
I returned back to Nigeria from the UK in 2012 to be closer to my parents (my father who had just been diagnosed with prostate cancer). Although he fought bravely and lost the battle in 2019, I do not regret this decision, as a matter of fact I wish I had returned earlier. As a father of three adorable kids, I’d love to carry the baton from where my dad left off and ensure I play my part by working hard to create a society where folks can work and set up best they can because it’s simple- this is the only true home we have as Nigerians. Reduce society’s rubble and the kids and their generation have less negativity to contend with as they come up.
There is still something about Naija, despite the prevalent dissonance, it’s still the only place you do not get to feel like a second-class citizen. It’s still home. I want to see the nation progress and it breaks my heart when I see folks who aren’t self-sufficient. There are so many opportunities available despite the lack but from “The Abroad” you don’t get to really feel the desperate nature of poverty and the level of urgency needed to get all hands on deck to secure our children’s future.
I believe this poverty can be combated via informal mentorships, a thorough, steady talk on career options where at the very center is formal/ informal education as the key to upscale/ upskill.
If we don’t stay back to hold up our nation by building up the families in our community, who will?
Where do you see Nigeria’s corporate foodservice industry in the future?
Despite a pandemic, lockdown stricken 2020, Food and Beverage platforms such as UBER Eats, KFC, Chicken Republic etc have not only incorporated technology, contactless delivery among other new adaptations to accommodate the new whims of their clientele. At the core of these new changes to the F and B industry, affordable dining/meals. Therefore, restaurants are likely to continue diversifying their services, experiment with food bundles and DIY meal kits, or even luxurious in-home chef visit experiences as an alternative to high-end restaurant dining. The prolonged nature of this pandemic may also cause these newly adopted habits to become further solidified—and many processes will adapt to match them. For example, while contactless deliveries were accelerated in the past months, businesses are working hard to make them as efficient as convenient as possible, making it unlikely that such investments would be erased overnight, once COVID-19 is no longer a threat. As Divisional Manager Director-Operations of Chicken Republic Nigeria, I can say this matter of factly, the main driver for my team and I is to ensure that our customers are always assured of affordable, quality meals.
In times such as these, if we can help feed Nigerians without them breaking the bank to be assured of a full stomach? We will consider it a most successful day well spent.
The food business is here to stay, those who weather the storm will reap the benefits and the only way to do that is to look after your people, customers, shareholders, your family. Build people, build the economy, building society.
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