The desire to work on a business that would showcase her creativity led 2015 SLA-Entrepreneur Showcase winner Kasope Ladipo-Ajai to starting her food processing company Omo Alata.
The Nigeria-based food service brand, launched in 2012, is focused on the production and sale of hygienically processed and packaged Nigerian soups, spices and peppers. It aims to promote healthy eating and to make cooking easier for busy people.
Kasope, with a degree in Computer Science, resigned from a full-time job to pursue her entrepreneurial ambitions. She worked for 4 years at Virgin Nigeria in various roles including IT Service Engineer, Project Coordinator and Business Process Analyst. She also handled core IT project implementation for Taytom Group. I caught up with the food production entrepreneur to talk about her startup journey.
Inspiration from travel
Travel, particularly to advanced countries, exposed Kasope to the possibilities of quick and convenient meal preparation. While on her trips, she went to various African stores and realized that many of the ingredients for cooking Nigerian meals were not produced or packaged in Nigeria. This is largely due to packaging issues in the country which rules out the exporting of some its food products.
Kasope: “We have all these products but why can’t we package it properly? If we package it properly then we can export it.” It was with this realization that the idea for a food service brand was birthed. Kasope decided to start by packaging pepper. “It is a produce that is basic to us in Nigeria.”
Once she had the concept for Omo Alata in mind, she solidified her decision to venture into entrepreneurship by registering the business. Kasope then carried out research on the product she was trying to launch. She looked into sourcing fresh produce, and best practices for cleaning, processing and packaging it.
She also solicited advice about brand development from knowledgeable people in her network. A lot of work was put into the graphic and package design aspect of it. Kasope knew that she had to come up with something that would both look right and catch people’s attention. The package itself, too, had to be functional.
Kasope and her partner leveraged their personal income to get the business off the ground. “We had limited funds to play with. We asked ourselves, ‘What do we need to do?’ and ‘What’s the best way to do it?’” There were essentials for their company that they couldn’t avoid spending money on.
These included securing a factory space as well as the necessary equipment for production. They had to get creative when it came to spending money on professional services that they really needed.
“We leverage on our family and friends expertise for such,” Kasope said. “We told them our vision and asked them to work with us, and we pay them in kind or later.”
The produce that is used in making the pepper mix —Omo Alata’s flagship product— is sourced from local markets. “We have relationships with suppliers who already know that we want the freshest products,” said Kasope.
The company organizes delivery of the tomatoes, onions and peppers from the suppliers to the factory. Contract workers at the factory sort the produce and remove any unsuitable ones. The remaining products are then thoroughly cleaned and all the stalks taken out.
The next step in the process is to blend the produce to the finest mix. This is then boiled to preserve the mix better and reduce customers’ cooking time. The company’s quality control specialist checks to make sure that the mix is being boiled at the right temperature and to the appropriate consistency.
It is then left to cool and packaged using the company’s special sealing technology. Each resealable bag is then labelled and frozen until the product is shipped to retail store partners for sale.
The pepper mix is purely organic. It doesn’t contain any food coloring or artificial preservatives. A testament to the startup’s commitment to providing its customers with the freshest products that have a natural taste.
Throughout the process, Omo Alata adheres to a strict quality assurance policy and hygienic processing methods that have been certified by Nigeria’s National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control (NAFDAC).
Kasope has had to tackle several challenges that come with running a business in the food industry. For starters the raw materials that are used for making Omo Alata products are seasonal. “The produce gets expensive when it is out of season,” she said. “The suppliers will try to exploit you.”
“You have to be on your toes checking to make sure suppliers are not taking advantage of the fact that you have a relationship with them,” she added. Farm produce does not have a fixed price. Kasope constantly checks the market to make sure that she is being charged the correct seasonal price.
The company also has to deal with the lack of constant electricity supply. This affects the business from processing to product sale. “The only way to cool the mix fast is in a cold room which requires electricity,” said Kasope.
Once the mix cools, it is packed and frozen. Again, electricity is required for this. Having an unsteady supply of electricity significantly slows down the process. It creates a lag time between cooling and packing and freezing. The startup has invested in generators in order to overcome this.
Some of the retail stores that they have partnered with don’t pay for the products until they have all been sold. “Others have policies like ‘We won’t pay until 60 days after delivery,’” she said. “This ties up our cash all the time.” As such, Kasope and her partner end up having to take money from their own pockets in order to keep the business going.
Kasope pushes through all these, thanks to support from family, friends, fellow entrepreneurs and clients. She is also driven by her ultimate vision which is to grow Omo Alata into a brand that will not only be a household name but also make a difference in society. “Getting calls from clients expressing their gratitude and praise is encouraging,” she said.
“It’s reassurance that we are on the right track.” Kasope and her partner knew from the get-go that it would take a while for their business to grow and they prepared themselves mentally for that. “The plan was to build a brand that will outlive our generation,” she said. “When we feel discouraged we remind ourselves of that dream and plan.” She then adds: “We know that building a brand like this doesn’t happen in one day.”
And the winner is…
Kasope won first prize in SLA’s 2015 Entrepreneur Showcase. She won a $10,000 cash prize, a mobile device from Etisalat, international media coverage and a host of other prizes.
Focusing on the future
The startup intends to have more product lines as it grows. Kasope plans on having tryout stands in stores to give potential customers the opportunity to taste the company’s products.
This will also give Omo Alata a chance to get in person feedback and ideas on the product line that the market wants to see launched next. As an entrepreneur she knows that her business has to meet its customers at their point of need.
Kasope’s advice to aspiring entrepreneurs: “It’s going to be tough but don’t let that stop you from starting. Join a support group of other entrepreneurs. It helps to speak to people who are going through similar experiences because they understand you in ways others may not. These are the people who will keep you going.”