Abimbola Alawode is a change agent who has passion for creating value. She is the CEO of Rhabe Ventures Limited, a food processing and packaging company with vision to preserve Nigeria’s food culture through product innovation. Abimbola won the hearts of Journalists who inspected her food processing company in Lagos during the just concluded 3-day European Union funded UNIDO- NQIP capacity building for the Media. They were impressed with her brilliant presentation and excellently processed and well packaged made in Nigeria foods.
Abimbola in an exclusive interview with Green Savannah Diplomatic Cable speaks on her journey into a venture many Nigerians fear to undertake
What was the motivation, why did you leave your career for manufacturing?
I am motivated by the job I create and the joy on the face of people when they look at our brands. I left my career for manufacturing because I wanted to create value, I evaluated my contribution compared to my capability and I saw a clear imbalance. I had far more to give than my job role could allow me, so I sought for challenge. Nigeria had huge trade deficit with trillions of Naira spent yearly on food importation. We needed to do something about it. I challenged myself to come out and join the organised private sector to add my effort to the capacity currently available. Nigeria needs to produce what it eats to achieve food security. Rhabe was founded to support our country achieve this goal.
Would you say your products are unique, why should the world buy Rhabe products?
Rhabe processing techniques maintain our food in their original taste. For example our Rhabe Quik Egusi, when you open the sachet, the rich Egusi aroma is very distinct, just like your mother frying the melon. The taste and aroma when you cook it reminds you of grandma cooking. Our products take you to your roots and culture delivering our mission to conserve the African culture. Rhabe Beans Flour for example when you use it to cook Moi-Moi or Akara delivers same taste and ball as when you peel the beans, with added value of convenience and hygiene in one pack. The Rhabe Rho Ogbono is another interesting example of how unique our products are, we remove the scales to reduce the fat content of the Ogbono. In addition, we source our products from farmers who have knowledge of good agricultural best practices. They understand the ethical use of chemicals for weeding and fighting pests and we are participating in the UNIDO conduit of excellence which is delivering food traceability, so we know the source of our products from the farm to the shelf which is an assurance to our customers on the quality of product they are buying.
What were the initial challenges and are those challenges still there?
Initially funding was a major challenge. To put in place a processing plant requires huge sum of money which was not possible to get from a bank as a start-up. I started with personal savings, eventual friends invested. As Rhabe grew, additional investment was required. It was also very difficult to buy machinery in Nigeria because most local machine fabricators are not using food grade materials such as stainless steel which means we have to buy imported equipment. In cases where they are able to use stainless steel, they lack support service and most of the equipment do not come with operational manuals and warranty. This creates skill challenges when we have a break down. We also lack skilled machine operators who can do minor repairs and maintenance in the factory, you rely on the machine importer to do trouble shooting of electromechanical faults and repair. Finally Power is a crisis issue, I believe we all know that now, so it is sad that one has to rely on generator 90% to process and produce which makes cost of production very high. The challenges are still here, banks have low risk appetite for SMEs therefore, all the funds which CBN release to support Agro processing are not accessible because the banks are not willing to make mistakes with SMEs. Who will take the risk for the Start UP loan repayment guarantee? Africa will not rise if the leadership does not have an economic plan on how to manage this risk. Government needs to help support people fabricating agro processing machineries, we need metal forming machines to make better equipment. We also need vocational training for machine operators and maintenance engineers to ensure we have skilled labour to support manufacturing.
Do you need any intervention from the government?
To run my operation, each machine requires a minimum of two people, as we increases our processing volume adding more product lines, we employ more people, if the government is serious about creating jobs, they need to be serious about intervention in funding start-up. That is the only way to create jobs, if 10 out of every 100 business funded survive then we have a huge chance of creating more jobs and earning tax revenue, therefore it is a win/win for everyone. Government needs to step up its game in creating a light manufacturing facility where people can come in with their raw materials and commence production. The cost of a filling machine for 1-3kg for example is about N3million, so if you have to buy more than one machine including your generator, it is not possible to start with less than N10million . Who has that amount as a start-up?, we must think outside the box. I will recommend we ban food importation and force Nigerians to eat what we grow for the next 3-5 years to build local capacity. This could be done through a huge media campaign ( if you need a job, eat made in Nigeria, if you need strong naira eat made in Nigeria), Look at the new jollof rice sauce coming from China, how can NAFDAC approve that? Are we unaware, we just took market share away from our local processors and also shipped job out of Nigeria . As a nation, we need to put more policies in place to protect local industries and reduce the pressure on the Naira. This is a free for all market where importation get better service, The CBN single window, check that platform, it is easier to register a form m than to raise an export NXP form. Why do you require people to pay a percentage of their proceed to raise NXP, who came up with this idea. Policy direction must be changed to support people producing for local use and export. If anything, you must open the door and ask everyone to send what they can out and bring in forex considering our deficit in USD on trade.
Many young ladies out there are afraid to go into manufacturing what will you say to them?
The fear for manufacturing is not just for ladies, I understand why anyone will be afraid because we work in a very difficult environment, infrastructure challenge and then you have no funding to execute the business plan and receive no real help. However I will repeat what Diane Von Furstenberg told me when I went for the United States IVLP Program in 2012, “Fear is not an option”. I plan to be in the game for decades therefore I am building a brick a time and it will come together, I am aware that I will make mistakes and also know it will not be easy, so let us see what Rhabe will be two decades from now. Rhabe is coming into your home to delight your family on the dining table through new products innovation. Check our site www.rhabe.com for sneak peek. Rhabe will hygienically produce your indigenous food products so you can buy them from supermarkets anywhere in the world . Rhabe will make cooking a convenient and beautiful experience with the amazing ingredients from tribes such as Efik, Urhobo, Ibibio, Tiv, Ijaw, our team of product developers are working on how to conserve your food culture and make sure no national identity is lost. Your generations will not forget their food identity because Rhabe will partner with you to hand your history and culture back to your children. As we evolve as a nation, we will not forget our roots and Rhabe will be on that journey with your family.