Ononye Chioma is the Managing Director, Ranks West Africa Limited, a food processing company she established 10 years ago in her one-room apartment. Today, the company has grown in leaps and bounds with over seven products to its credit and large staff strength. The brand is gradually but steadily creating a niche for itself in the highly competitive sector.
In this chat with CHRISTINE ONWACHUMBA, the graduate of applied micro-biology, shares how her ride into the world of food processing began, her dreams, aspirations and challenges in running the business.
How did you start your company?
I started searching for jobs like most graduate in Nigeria, after I graduated in 2002 and completed my youth service in Kogi State. I applied to several places but nothing was forthcoming. Later, I was employed in a food processing company as the quality control manager, or so I thought. Unknown to me that the company in question needed me to be part of their organisation because of my qualification to enable them to obtain their National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control (NAFDAC) registration number. After which, they started acting funny, I had no choice but to move on. I continued my search in the labour market till God inspired me to go into food production and processing business which I started from one of my rooms. Officially, we took off in 2004. We started with the production and processing of whole wheat flour and rice flour. By the end of 2005, we moved the company to a bigger apartment and then invited NAFDAC for inspection and registration. After NAFDAC registration, we started producing more products like the unripe plantain flour which was also registered.
How many products have you added since the company was established in 2005 and how are they doing in the market?
Presently, we have added six products since we started and these products are borne out of quality research. Most of our products are borne out of the desire to meet specific needs, which was why we began to research on grains to meet particular health needs. Some of these products are beans flour, plantain flour, soya meal, ofada rice, breadfruit and local wheat. The local wheat is no longer in the market because the price used in manufacturing it is very high compared to the imported one, so its production and processing could not strive competitively in the market. Most of our products are tailored to meet the needs of different people in the society, for instance our bean flour is convenient for women, especially working class women. In a moment, you can prepare beans cake or moi-moi. It also serves as a soup thickener; as they don’t have to go through the process of washing and removing the peels and we are NAFDAC certified.
What are the challenges of running the business?
We have lots of challenges, one of them is the lack of adequate funds to expand, and the situation of the country is not helping matters. We go into research but after research, we can’t turn the research into products because of lack of funds and machinery. Another major challenge is finding technicians to fix our production machines when they break down. The larger brand can afford to have resident technicians but for now, we can’t.
Most times, when in need of a technician, we have to wait for four weeks to get one. This happens because of its relative scarcity. The government needs to team up with our technical schools and train more youths in machine repairs. Getting competent hands is also part of the challenges because most Nigerians want to make it fast.
How would you describe the growth curve of the company?
In spite of the numerous challenges, we have grown in leaps and bounds, we have more consumers who depend on our products especially the plantain, soya and beans flour. These growths came with experiences and expansion. Presently, we have presence in the eastern states, western states, some part of the North and in Lagos which is the commercial hub of activities. We have not been able to cover some parts of the North because of security challenges in some north eastern states. We have got some good market share. We have grown both in product line, market segmentation and value added service. In terms of market representation, we have grown, with quality products which are present in most Nigerian markets. And we have continued to add so much value to the lives of consumers. And because of the nature of the business, we invest a lot in research and development.
Do you have intentions to export your products to other African countries?
It is part of our developmental expansion plan to export our products to other parts of the world but we want to cover Nigeria very well so that the Deluxe brand would be a household name in Nigeria, then we can export the spillover to other African countries. They say charity begins at home, we want to saturate Nigeria with our products and then we will begin to export. Besides, lots of fund is required for exportation. Government should create special funds for manufacturers with low interest rate and also make it accessible, because before we export, we equally need funds.
This is part of the reason we have begun processing getting International Standard Organization ISO certification.
How has it been competing with major brand in the sector?
The competition is huge because every business in Nigeria is being run like a citadel or a mafia. Big brands want to get 100 per cent of the market share, they don’t want other brands to survive, whether their product has quality or not, they force it down the throat of consumers because they don’t have any choice. The big companies have the funds to do public relations, place billboards at strategic places. Right now, we don’t have the financial muscle that they have but we believe that the quality of our products speaks volumes and by the grace of God, we will get there.
As a wife, mother and entrepreneur, how do you balance family life and career?
Like every other woman who runs a business, I find a way to balance my family and work time in order not to sacrifice the family front on the altar of business. As a married woman with children, I understand that I have a lot of responsibility and roles to play, as a woman in business I know I must succeed. So, in order to do that, I plan my schedule ahead of time, the time I should be in the office and the time I should be at home. I also try to delegate duties in the office. We have invested in capacity building of workers which is why most of them can work with little supervision. The truth is that, it has not been easy; I don’t have public holidays because those are days that I have to attend to other issues. It is difficult but there and then, it joggles itself. Thank God for my husband who understands the nature of my business, he has been very supportive. And when emergency arises, for instance, having a sick child on a day with a busy schedule, every other thing is put on hold while I attend to my sick child. I pick it up after my child recovers.
What have been your low and high moments running the business?
The low moments have been unnecessary rivalry from larger brands which try to suppress us out of business. Our high moment was when we got the first product registered by NAFDAC, I was very excited also from time to time we have received calls from consumers who call to say thank you for a particular product. Once in a while, when I walk into a super store and find someone attempting to purchase one of our products is always a high moment.
In your opinion would you suggest that the government invest in the food processing sector?
The government needs to invest in this sector because without the in growth of the economy, the economy will never grow.