Move Back to Nigeria is a series on BellaNaija which aims to encourage young and not-so-young professionals in the diaspora who are trying to make the decision of whether to move back to Nigeria. In collaboration with the brilliant team at MoveBackToNigeria.com, we hope to bring you a weekly interview with individuals who have successfully made the leap, considering the leap, as well as those who have tried it and realized it is not for them. The idea is to share their successes and their challenges as they made the decisions they did. A lot of Nigerians in the diaspora have questions about making a change at home in Nigeria. Many suggest really good ideas on how to make things better; others would like to contribute to making a difference back home but are just not sure where to begin.
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Debo Adebayo is our feature for the week! She discusses in detail her educational & professional background, as well as her recent experiences as an entrepreneur in Nigeria. Read on for some career perspective in the engineering sector and her fascinating business venture.
Thanks for speaking with us. Could you please tell us who you are and what you do?
My name is Debo Adebayo and I’m a wife, mother, trained Chemical Engineer (with 10yrs Oil and Gas work experience) and also an aspiring entrepreneur. I moved back to Nigeria about 6 months ago from the UK, as I felt it was the right time to follow my passion and create my own business, Tomi’s Treats – An Organic Baby Food Company.
Did you always live in the UK?
No. I was actually born in Sweden and moved back to Nigeria swiftly afterwards (weather was too cold!) and lived in Lagos until 1996. I was then sent off to school in Dublin, Ireland and then spent my university and working years in the UK.
Right! So, why chemical engineering?
I was always passionate about science and mathematics from a young age. My father is an engineer and my mother is a doctor, so I come from a scientific background. Growing up, it always was a choice between medicine or engineering. At age 14, I completed a 2 week placement in a hospital in Dublin. It was at that point that I realized that the sight of blood made me queasy, so medicine was out! Chemical engineering was ideal because I was able to combine my love for mathematics and science and to be honest, I had no patience for essay writing subjects. I thoroughly enjoyed my course, it taught me to be analytical and about structure which is still beneficial to me today. It is a predominantly male-dominated industry though so I definitely encourage more women to explore it. We don’t have enough female engineers.
Interesting! So what did you do after graduating from University?
I went straight into work after graduating with my first degree, which was a 4.5 year course that included a Masters programme along with an internship year. In my final year I got the opportunity to work on an Oil & Gas project designing a Gas Oil Hydrofiner facility for ExxonMobil. I enjoyed it so much that I realized I wanted to work in Oil & Gas and for a design house. So my career started as a Process Engineer with a company called Foster Wheeler working on the design of a refinery in Saudi Arabia for Saudi Aramco. After a year with Foster Wheeler, I moved onto KBR a subsidiary of Halliburton. My first project was the design of offshore platforms in Azerbaijan for BP. I was able to get a transfer to Azerbaijan for about 6 months, which was a great eye opener into a different culture.
When I returned to the UK, I was transferred to KBRs sister company MWKL. I worked on a Nigerian project called Olokola LNG for NNPC, which was a great introduction into the Nigerian Oil and Gas industry. I then was head hunted to join AMEC Oil & Gas and luckily got the opportunity to work on another Nigerian project but this time back in Nigeria. After 1.5yrs in Nigeria, I moved back to the UK again to get married and start a family. I still continued my career with AMEC becoming a qualified Chartered Chemical Engineer, moving into Project Management and completing a part – time MBA.
When and why did you decide to move back to Nigeria?
It was a combination of things. On a personal level, my husband and I wanted to raise our children in Nigeria. We feel that it is important for them to understand their cultural heritage and to be raised close to our extended family. On a professional level, I felt that there were numerous opportunities in Nigeria. I always wanted to go down the entrepreneurial route and I felt that Nigeria was the ideal place to do so. On a patriotic level, my husband and I felt that we had gained all this experience and amassed all these skills and we wanted to use these skills in our own country.
How has the experience been for you since the move back?
The move back has been everything I expected it to be. I had been coming back for work and holidays so I was not entirely unaware of what we were coming to face. It can be frustrating sometimes but these are frustrations that you expect. I think you have to come back with an open mind. Admittedly, having a good support system around made it quite a smooth transition for me.
Alright. So what do you do in Nigeria?
I launched my organic baby Food Company called “Tomi’s Treats” when I moved back. Tomi’s Treats are organic fruit purees that can be eaten from 6 months+. Organic foods are foods that are produced using organic methods of farming. So, there are no modern synthetic inputs added into the raw materials e.g. pesticides or fertilizers. Our products have no chemicals or sugars added to them. They are completely healthy and serve as part of one’s essential fruit/veg 5 a day allowance. There are currently two flavours namely mango & banana and apple & pear with different flavours and products in the pipeline. Tomi’s Treats is ideal for weaning babies (even my brother, a baby himself eats it with his son). It also serve as healthy snacks for children. My son takes them in his lunchpack to school, and we also get a lot parents who use them in their party packs.
Children’s nurseries are becoming very health conscious and so we currently stock our products in a number of nurseries. It works very well in Lagos traffic when my son gets hungry and cranky; it also works well when travelling on the plane (easy to carry and keeps them quiet). Our products are packed in travel friendly colourful pouches and are quite unique with child friendly baby caps. We are stocked in the supermarkets across Lagos, Abuja and Ghana and have plans to expand to other outlets across Africa.
What prompted you to explore organic baby food as a business idea?
After I had my first child, I visited Nigeria but could not find any indigenous organic food to buy for my baby. So when I went back to the UK for my MBA, I decided to explore this idea and write up Tomi’s Treats for my business plan module.
That was certainly strategic. Moving on to logistics, how do you source for your raw materials and get the finished product to the consumer?
My products are all organically produced in the EU. Working with my suppliers has been a real learning curve into the organic baby food market. I have been able to leverage their years of experience in this area to get a quality product into the African market. From sourcing the fruit, agreeing pricing to shipping the product, this has really shown me the complexities of business. Long-term, our vision is to source and produce our product in the African region. Currently we are speaking to a number of suppliers/producers who we believe will be able to give the quality we are looking for. The responses we have received on the product over the last 6 months have been really positive. The real challenge has been raising awareness because a lot of people still don’t know what our product is and the health benefits of organic baby food. However, from the feedback that we are getting, a lot of children love the product and we are steadily increasing our loyal band of customers. We supply to specific markets/supermarkets and also have some customers who come to us directly because the price is more competitive.
Taking into consideration the standard of living in Nigeria, how do you strike a balance between pricing and profit?
It is a tricky situation as not all families will be able to afford our product. We are working on ways to reduce our price without compromising our quality. We feel that not enough babies and children are eating healthy foods. Getting fruit and vegetables into their diets early on in life is the best way to help children understand that health is wealth. Our aim is to make Tomi’s Treats affordable to everyone but with cost and quality issues this can never be a simple solution. However, we are prepared to give it a go.
Have you encountered any other challenges as an entrepreneur in Nigeria and if yes, how have you been able to overcome such challenges?
Traffic is the number one challenge; you, sometimes, spend the whole day in traffic. It can be a colossal waste of man-hours. As we have global suppliers, we rely on the internet so electricity has also been a challenge. In Nigeria you have to learn good time management, so for instance if I know that I’m going to be in traffic for a long time, I usually take my laptop and work from my car.
And the positives, moving back and working in Nigeria?
In Nigeria there is a pulse, everyone is trying to be the best they can be. In the UK, I worked my regular 9-5 and I would look up and a year would go by and I wondered what I did with my year. It’s nice to know that I am trying different things, there are a lot of opportunities in Nigeria, and a lot of international companies are coming out to Africa because things are happening here. I think it is definitely a good place to be.
That’s quite true. On a different note, have you had to make any personal adjustments since your move?
I have been very lucky to be surrounded by a very supportive family especially my husband. The most important thing was for me to get my kids settled as quickly as possible. Once they were settled, everything else fell into place. But my lifestyle hasn’t really changed. It is basically work and family as it has always been.
Finally, what advice from your personal experience would you offer to others considering making the move back to Nigeria?
I think it’s better to try and fail than to keep playing it safe. It’s also important to create as soft a landing as possible for yourself. You must have a plan of action, so make sure you have a job or a business idea or you’ll end up being frustrated. Remain focused and think long-term, plant your seeds and you will reap your rewards in the end.
Many thanks for your time and best wishes moving forward.
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