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‘Running business in Nigeria is very draining due to lack of government support’

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Mojisola Ogunsanya is the founder and CEO of Belefull Variety, a chain of restaurants based in Lagos. A lifelong businesswoman, she has founded many businesses in the past that went under due to what she describes as inexperience and lack of passion. Learning from these past mistakes, she turned her love of cooking and good food into a mission and opened Belefull-The Rice Place, which has now become Belefull Variety. Recently marking five years in the business, she tells TOBI AWODIPE how she tried to stay afloat during the lockdown and post-pandemic recovery, dealing with the rising cost of food prices, remaining successful in business in these trying times and how she’s using her foundation to feed the homeless.

Quick Service Restaurants (QSRs) were greatly affected during the lockdown. How did you manage to survive during and after the period?
Quick Service Restaurants (QSRs) under which we fall was very much affected during the lockdown last year; some are still struggling to recover to date. This year, we are dealing with inflation, the rising cost of food every day and customer’s reduced purchasing power.

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We adjusted by doing bulk orders and delivering to people at home since people were not allowed to go out. The restaurant itself was closed and we were working strictly from the kitchen to deliver to customers just so that we can stay alive. After the lockdown was lifted, things started to pick up slowly and it has been our high standard and consistency that has kept us so far.

You mentioned the rising cost of food, how much has this affected you?
The impact cannot be adequately expressed because it is beyond shocking. Please help us beg the president to do something because we QSRs are not making a profit; the situation is really bad and customers don’t want to understand. The price of food is increasing daily, not even weekly. You buy a carton of chicken for N20, 000 today and by tomorrow, it has gone up to N22, 000. We are simply surviving by God’s grace.

When I woke up this morning and started reminiscing, I realised that it has been a journey of struggle, hard work and perseverance. If you don’t have passion for what you do, you would give up. A lot of people think QSRs make a 100 per cent profit margin and this is very false. In fact, I think we make one of the lowest profit margins in business and it is simply the turnover that works for us.

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I spoke about the lockdown last year and how it affected us. To put it simply, running a business in Nigeria is very draining; the government doesn’t support us in any way and doesn’t acknowledge the fact that SMEs create around 60 per cent of the jobs in Nigeria today. I have about 25 staff and I always think to myself that even if I haven’t achieved much, the knowledge that I created jobs for these people in the last five years is enough to comfort for me.

Do you think this industry is lucrative enough to pull people out of poverty?
I don’t think it should be this business per se, I believe it should be any business you do passionately. A lot of people think this industry is lucrative, but I will tell you that the profit margin in this industry is usually about 10 per cent, because there are lots of overhead costs. Right now, the cost of production is about 70 per cent and this is because of the crazy increase in food prices. Then, you factor in the light bills, salaries, diesel for generators and so on.

I keep telling people it is the turnover and consistency that works for us, but many people may not believe this; they see it from the outside and think it is glamorous, but when they get in, they quickly realise it is harder than what I even told them. I used to have a salon I set up with plenty of money, but because that wasn’t where my interest lay, the salon packed up. You would struggle if you’re not passionate about something and would eventually give up, but because this is what I enjoy doing, I am able to soldier on.

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How do you measure success?

I would say if you have a restaurant that has been running consistently and successfully for some years, I believe that is successful in this industry. Success is also when people tell you that despite everything and the passage of time, your quality and standards are still the same, which to me is a success. In life generally, I would say the fact that I have people depending on me in the last five years in this industry and I have never disappointed them for one day, which to me is a success.

Also, the fact that we have reached five years gives me immense joy. I didn’t want to do anything initially, but then again, I thought that in Nigeria today, the fact that you are able to survive this environment successfully for five years is worth celebrating.

What has been the greatest challenge for you in the last five years and how did you manage?
In business, I don’t think you can get a point and say you have arrived; you are learning every day because new things will always happen to shock you afresh. We fail, learn from it and get better from that experience. Staffing is still the biggest challenge; getting people to buy into your vision and align with it is very difficult. People today work because they either want to steal from you or just simply get by while doing the barest minimum. The second challenge for me is the continuous rise in the cost of foodstuff.

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What would you tell someone that wants to remain successful in business?
Stay true to yourself, what you believe in; your goals and vision for the business are very important. Your work is what will speak for you anywhere and anytime and as long as you are consistent in what you do, you will be able to compete and thrive. Keep pushing and don’t limit yourself. Leave your comfort zone.

Personally, I am a risk-taker especially business-wise and nothing scares me; I always tell myself only two things can happen- I either succeed or fail. But I don’t even see failure as a big deal; I always see it as a learning curve. For everything I have failed at, I took it as an opportunity to learn from it and get better.

In what ways are you giving back and assisting?
My foundation, the Bellefull Foundation helps to feed the less privileged as often as we can. We will be going to Agege and the beggar’s village to feed them because we strongly believe that everyone deserves to eat a good meal even if it’s just once a week. Our goal is to put a smile on their face and reassure them that no matter what their situation is, they deserve to eat well too and we hope to scale this up to feed as many people as we can because we know times are hard right now.

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What do you do when you are not working?
Most of the time, I am working because this is a full-time business. However, I try to relax once in a while by watching Netflix. I told myself last year that I would take one day off every month away from this environment, go somewhere alone to cool my head down. This is a very gruelling and tasking industry and we are at it from morning till night; if you are not careful, you will break down.

What has been your least favourite customer experience?
There are many because when you are dealing with people, you get all sorts of individuals. You get patient ones, impatient ones, demanding ones and so on but no matter what, I always try to remember that I am here to please them. Running a QSR is a lot of work but we try to manage everyone as best as we can. I think the most significant one I have had recently was when a man came in and wasn’t satisfied with how he was attended to and threw the plate of food at the chiller beside him. We tried to calm him down and manage the situation before it degenerated.

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Have you ever felt like giving up?
No, not for this particular business. What drives me is that I know this is something I want to do for a long time and hopefully pass it on to my children if they are interested. I get frustrated with our system like every Nigerian but no; the thought of giving up has never crossed my mind.

Where do you see yourself in the next couple of years?
As I have said in the past, any restaurant you see still doing well today, don’t have many outlets; this boils down to management. It takes a lot to manage a restaurant considering quality control and the likes. Even with staff, it would be difficult to be on top of all of them.

I think five is the most if you want to be able to maintain the highest standard of quality. Five years from now, we want to still be very relevant, even more than we are now. We want to have a few more outlets as well by God’s grace. We are celebrating this anniversary by giving back to our customers with plenty of freebies and we hope to be able to give out a car in the next five years.

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