Innovation in the Nigerian food industry has helped not only to promote some of our local delicacies, but in promoting them, it has equally helped in keeping culinary legacies alive such that present generations do not lose invaluable knowledge of some of the most important tastes, and stories of our cuisine. One of the leading startups in this regard is Phronesis Foods which sits on the niche market to project Ukwa to the world.

Led by the ebullient Chichi Eriobu whom I chose to call its Chief Inspiration Officer, Phronesis brings back sweet memories of the lovely delicacy we grew up with. From my interactions with her, Chichi dreamt a dream bigger than her initial capacity which forced her to up her game in order to keep the vision alive.

Dealing in food products in our business environment is beyond tasking, especially when a company is driven by the passion not to compromise on health, quality and also commensurate quantity. In this interview, Kelechi Deca sat with Chichi to listen to the Ukwa story. Excerpts.

What inspired you to establish Phronesis Foods? 

The idea of Phronesis Food was borne out of two different needs which came to fruition in 2016. Before then, I have done one-man business a few times. I basically tried different things which didn’t fly. I had always wanted to do things beyond me. This particular one came as a result of my conversation with God. I asked God what other business I go into and He said to me – “your mother’s business!” He said I knew the business like the back of my hand. 

After that conversation, I called my mother; this was around May and June when Ukwa, as a seasonal food, was going out of circulation. Between July and September, Ukwa market prices would go up and if you don’t have storage, it’s going to be hard to sell. So, I had a conversation with my Mom on the prices and other things concerning the business. 

I didn’t start selling immediately. Rather, what I did was tell people that I sell Ukwa even when I didn’t have one seed because I wanted to be sure that someone was willing to bet on me to even yield one customer to buy.

So, when I was sure that people would buy, we set out for business, and we had to work on storage because without it we won’t be able to be in business the way we want it. To build the kind of storage process that will enable us to have just dried Ukwa at that time yearly; that is, throughout the entire year, whether season or no season. And to achieve that, we will have to onboard existing suppliers; negotiate with them – whatever it was. But we found out at the beginning that it was not easy, at the end of the day, the only supplier we could onboard was my mother.

Phronesis Food was conceptualized to help me actualize something far bigger than me, and having the capacity to employ and impact many other people. To create some sort of generational business because it is not something that I gave birth to by myself, it already existed in the family. I basically took it and magnified it. That was how we started. 

So at what point did you say to yourself, I am going to do this fulltime?

I remember attending an event which I moderated. While holding the microphone, I told the audience about myself. I said that whenever I wasn’t holding a microphone, I was selling Ukwa. Two days after the event, one woman got in touch with me. She said that she knows about Ukwa because it is her husband’s favourite food. She is Yoruba but married to an Igbo man who loves Ukwa so much but that sourcing for it is hard because there is no reliable vendor in Lagos that was how she became our first customer and our stepping stone in establishing an organized Ukwa business.

I used her to fix prices; I used her to practically do everything. She paid after assuring her when we will supply. I used her money to pay my mom who made more supplies than what the woman paid for. Everything we did at that stage was via Facebook.

That brings me to the next question, how has your online activities, say on Facebook impacted your business?

We started with one customer and I remembered that after the customer called, she gave me a review on Facebook and that was all we needed. The review gave us more customers.

It has helped a lot, from people placing orders to helping me with referrals, and also other aspects of the business. For example, I remember making a Facebook post asking for nylons and someone referred me to someone selling bread nylons. It was too big for the pack sizes I wanted. So, I bought a manual hand sealer. I would use the hand sealer to cut the nylon into four pieces. So, it automatically seals it while it is cutting it and I used to package it. 

So, I would buy from my mom and do the selection process by myself because we are promising people convenience that they don’t have to select before they cook soup. I had to do the packaging myself. I was doing the doorstep delivery anywhere in Lagos, bearing the cost by myself.

Your vision is to stand out in the food processing industry. To what extent has that pushed you to try to stand out?

First, we niched and set a five-year vision and the mission of the business. The five-year vision was to be Africa’s go-to for everything Ukwa in five years time. We wanted to get into the food processing industry with a food product that the market is not saturated with. And what better product would that be if not Ukwa?

So, what we did was that after we niched down, we set our vision. We are literally what you will call a one-customer business. We started with one customer who happens to be that Yoruba woman. She bought our product, enjoyed it and gave a public review on her Facebook timeline in which I was tagged. That review gave me four new customers: three people from her timeline and one New York customer. The New York customer bought and gave a review and that review gave us two more customers. But as business was gradually growing, and then we flopped!

Would you say that was a learning curve for you?

It gave us an opportunity at introspection. We had a poor storage process and we lost both money and product. Now, someone may wonder that my mother had been in the business for more than three to five years, so, why would I make such a mistake? But even though my mom wasn’t too exposed, I didn’t factor her years of experience running the business. What I had in my head that was going to be the scientific storage process was not working. After we failed, losing money as well as product.

Did you get any negative review from the failure?

The failure had nothing to do with reviews. It had everything to do with our handling products and the business, not with the customers.

Have you had negative reviews before? How did you handle it?

Yes, we’ve had negative reviews, and it was a learning curve for us, and even more recently, in March, we launched a Takeout Kitchen which is aimed at helping people who have not tasted Ukwa before to have a feel of Ukwa porridge because there’s no such restaurant like that in Lagos. So, we launched a Takeout Kitchen.

There was this customer that ordered about five or six plates of cooked Ukwa. We have different recipes of Ukwa porridge which we give to customers. There was an order for about 25 plates on that day. So we cooked and added corn and the food was delivered to her. According to the customer, she had not eaten Ukwa for a very long time and was therefore expecting. So, seeing corn in her Ukwa didn’t cut it with her, she blew the top. She raged that she didn’t order corn and we insisted that she did go through the menu before she made her choice. She said she didn’t see corn on the menu.

So how did you handle that apparently tough situation?

Interestingly, I was coming into the office and there was the head of customer service battling it out with her on the phone and I said, you know what, no need to continue arguing over this, just hang up, and tell her that we will return two plates to her. She (my staff) was still talking and the customer called and started shouting on the phone and took the phone. It became a teaching moment. I asked my staff to call everyone in the office, there were seven of them. I asked them to stand in front of me while I spoke with the customer. 

I began speaking with the customer and apparently she knew me. I promised to give her the number of plates she ordered and she won’t pay, not for delivery and not for the plates of Ukwa. She was surprised but I told her that we are working to satisfy her because we knew that if was satisfied, she would tell a million people that she was satisfied. So, I told my head of marketing to consider the loss as a cost of marketing because there’s a 60% chance that she was going to talk about this experience somewhere and it would surely attract customers to us. And even if it doesn’t bring us customers, we will consider it as a cost of marketing. Everyone was surprised but I assured them that we had to do it.

It appears as if Ukwa has become an elitist food, relatively expensive maybe because of scarcity which increases value, or because of its tedious preparation process. How does this affect your market?

This is one of the things we are trying to do – to make Ukwa not to be an elitist food which is why all our pack sizes are big and small. This is also why we are launching the Takeout Kitchen where you can walk in and have a plate of Ukwa, well cooked. It’s an experience avenue.

When you talk about Ukwa being an elitist food, it is because of the processes it goes through. That is being curtailed now. There is locally fabricated equipment needed to prepare Ukwa. Those days, people used Schnapps bottles to shell Ukwa but that’s gone. Nobody does that any more except for a few families. There are now milling machines for that purpose which can be locally fabricated strictly for Ukwa dehusking.

Ukwa, is gradually going extinct. What is responsible for that, have you thought about farming Ukwa for the sake of sustainability?

I would say that unbridled deforestation is a major challenge facing the Ukwa tree. This is because it takes an average of four to five years for Ukwa to fruit and harvest from plantation. The challenge therefore is how to convince an intending investor to wait for four to five years before reaping from his investment in Ukwa. Alternatively, the other way is to have research institutes take over research and planting of these trees in order to drive growth. Recently, I got an invite from an institution in Abuja which calls itself the association of breadfruit exporters of Nigeria. I began to ask myself if any of them had ever exported breadfruit out of the country before. I guess it’s just an association to control those doing the actual work.

We have thought of the Ukwa plantation. Presently, we still deal directly with individual family owners of Ukwa trees which they didn’t plant by themselves. This is because most Ukwa trees germinate by themselves. We have also asked ourselves why the Ukwa product is seasonal. Could it be because of rain or water? If it is rain or water, is there any way we could make water regularly available throughout the year so that Ukwa will continue to produce without ceasing. All these can’t be done on an individual basis.

So how are you protecting your supply chains from disruptions as a result of Ukwa being seasonal?

The same way we categorize farmers into cooperatives, that is how we are doing with Ukwa tree owners in the communities. If you own one or more Ukwa trees, we will onboard you. What that does for us is that we offtake directly from you, we process. We are not just paying you for offtaking from you; we are also giving you the end product for your consumption because this is also food for your family. So, apart from paying them, we also have plans to give back to the immediate community proceeds from the processing and the people in the community are direct beneficiaries. We have what we call every 10 communities a production plant, instead of having one big plant in one community. This was a model I learnt from a Chinese company. They have what is called a modular plant structured in the community.

Each modular plant has a milling machine, a dehusking machine, maybe has a de-stoner machine; has a table where the women that do the contract work do the selection, the parboiling process and all of that. Each production plant employs about 70 to 80 women and youths. So, we do every 10 communities, one production plant. Each production plant offtakes from 50 to 100 Ukwa trees from the communities that surround it. So, we have Anambra and Imo states. That is basically where you have most Ukwa trees in as at now, Imo State is our number one source of supply. Ofcourse, there is also Ukwa in Abia State, Enugu and the rest of that.

How would you describe the acceptability of packaged Ukwa in the market?

What I have discovered in the journey in building an Ukwa-based business is the fact that the people who supposedly are at the market, who are the Igbos who we think can immediately help you, do not consider it a worthy business.

What could be responsible for that?

I think many people are yet to come to terms with the fact that the Ukwa they have known all their lives is now being packaged like some instant food products. For instance, if you are an owner of Ukwa tree, or you live in Lagos and you know that your grandmother has five Ukwa trees that are wasting in the village. Then, you suddenly find an ukwa packaged for you to buy. You’re going to rebel first and ask why is it N5,500 for 1.5kg? That “my grandmother has five Ukwa trees in our backyard in the village, who is processing it?” That’s the question! It’s not until you break it down for them that they will begin to see reason. But initially, there’s the rebel.

Speaking of innovation, what other Ukwa products do you have in the market?

We introduced Ukwa poundo. We are not trying to have another poundo. We are trying to exploit the nutritional benefits contained in Ukwa and make it accessible for more people in different varieties. Nigerians love their swallow, so we were of the opinion that giving them something far more nutritious in the poundo form would make more sense than allowing people to eat some over processed unhealthy products in the market.  

The beautiful thing with Ukwa poundo is that Ukwa contains a lot of fiber. So, if you are looking for something that can hold you for a longer time, here it is. We did a lot of samples before we brought it into the market. When we brought it into the market, some people rebelled against it, some were saying that Ukwa which was not enough for us to eat is what you have turned into poundo, who sent you?

Have you explored the international market especially with the growing number of Nigerians in the diaspora?

Yes we have. For example, we are making plans to do our first shipment into the United States. In one of our recent management meetings, I told them that you know what, not enough poundo from the east. I said the Nigerian market is rebelling and there’s no guarantee that Nigerians in the US will buy. It’s not about the Nigerian benefits now. The Diaspora market takes a cue from how the local market is responding to products. So, we have to get the local market to respond to it first.

Do you know the funny thing? While Nigeria was rebelling, Australia was buying our products. We have a distributor in Boston that is buying 100kg every month. He’s not supplying to retail stores, he’s selling from the booth of his car just like selling used clothes. He’s selling ukwa from the booth of his car. Every single of these distributors or retailers came via referrals. Maybe they were reading a review or referral someone wrote.

We said in our five-year vision to be Africa’s go-to company for everything Ukwa. We are getting into retail stores and e-commerce stores. This year alone, we are in 21 retail stores in Lagos just this year. We signed up, we are on Jumia this year; we are at least, on four international e-commerce stores. We are about to be signed up on Walmart e-commerce and that is a big deal!

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