The first time I met Ada Osakwe; I had just stepped into the Nuli Juice store and there she was sat easily with a welcoming smile on her face and none of the looming self importance of a successful business owner. I started hesitantly, “Hi, please may I take a photo in your space for my blog please?” She smiled back and replied, “Of course! Please go ahead, let me know what else you need”. That was the beginning of a really pleasant day at the Nuli Juice store. During my photo op, I offered my team a refreshing Nuli drink experience to which the very lovely Ada chirped in to her staff, “please give them a free bottle on the house as first time guests”! It worked like a charm!
I was intrigued and set off to research and read up more on Ada Osakwe; First Class honours graduate from the University of Hull in Economics with two masters degrees in Economics & Finance and Business Administration from University of Warwick and Northwestern University-Kellogg School of Management respectively. As well as extensive work experience in investment banking right through to her last job in the Ministry of Agriculture which spearheaded her into her current role as a Creative Food Entrepreneur and the founder of Nuli Juice. She has accomplished so much in such a short time span and bounced right back when the business suffered some major set-backs. She is the perfect Friday Column candidate!
Hers is such a packed piece. Please read.
I met up with Ada Osakwe once again at her office in Ikoyi, Lagos. This time, I wasn’t an eager photo-shoot location seeker or accidental customer. I was there to interview her on her entrepreneurial journey. I was quite eager to hear how it all started, her journey from dreaming her business to reality. She broke it down to me very succinctly. “The journey is typically what most people go through.You have a passion for something or just realise you are really good at it and you wake up one day and say I wish I could do this for a living. To me that’s the perfect kind of job. I realised that I had become very passionate about the Agricultural industry in Nigeria and it was not only a way to make money by using what what we grow naturally but also truly making a difference. We could also change a lot of lives by investing in small holder farmers,which is about 7% of our labour force, farmers that have 1 hectare of land. They are typically poor, being able to touch their lives by creating markets for them was really what I was about. As a result, I decided to start a company rooted in local agriculture but creating food products that have world class standards. That’s really what made me leave the kind of path I was on, investment banking and working with the government to say I was going to roll up my own sleeves and basically build a business from scratch that I could be proud of and Nigerians could be proud of”.
She continues in measured articulate tones: “I worked with the government, that’s what really exposed me to the opportunity we have in Agriculture in Nigeria.The fact that we were spending over five billion dollars equivalent importing food,that we can otherwise produce here.When I realised this, I got very passionate about this space.I had become over the few years before I started the company,passionate about health and wellness and well being. I am not a big believer in medicated drugs and things made by pharmaceutical companies. I believe God put us on this earth and gave us the food and natural things to take care of ourselves.We all know that fresh produce, your lettuce and your vegetables are good for us. It was a great way for me to marry issues around health and wellness with issues around the lack of agricultural productivity to create a company called Nuli”.
“While working in the government, and meeting a lot of young people that were excited about the prospects of agriculture, What broke my heart was seeing different young people get passionate about agriculture but not knowing how to move their business forward and not being able to get any help or funding.I got really passionate about trying to figure out ways to help young people struggling to move forward with their business in the food sector.While we were in government, we set up a youth in agriculture programme to support them. We gave grants and funds. It was not enough and I knew that I wanted to do this in my lifetime. I realised I had to put my money where my mouth was and start something to show other people that it’s possible and it can be done and that’s what we’ve done with the company Nuli today”.
Ada’s experience whilst working as the Senior Investment Adviser to Dr. Akinwumi Adesina, Nigeria’s former Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development between 2012 and 2015 exposed her to the Agricultural industry, the challenges facing it and also the massive prospects. Impassioned and inspired by the plight around her, she moved forward and created a four in one company with Nuli Juice as one of the subsidiaries.I was eager to learn about Ada’s start up strategy and the very first decisive move she made when she decided to start Nuli. “The first decisive move I made, was to clearly articulate what I wanted to achieve at the end of the day.From Day 1 , I had already said, Nuli is going to be a a world class company and I am going to take Nuli Global starting from today. Having that vision and clarity of purpose from Day 1, helped me work backwards to ask myself what do I need to do from Day 1 to ensure I become a world class company.The first thing was the brand, designing a logo, what colours, what’s the name of the company. I spent a lot of time on that, some people discount this process but one needs to take their time because it’s what’s going to be with you for the rest of, it’s the foundation. I knew I wanted something proudly Nigerian and there’s a story behind the name and the symbolism in our logos and our name that was everything the company stood for.
I wondered about her thoughts with regards starting small or sourcing for funding. A really big dilemma for most start-ups. She had this to say , “I believe you should just get started. I believe it’s important to even if you start small, start with a view of putting the right structures in place in your business that would allow you to be big. Whether you are small or big there are certain things that are always the same. You need to build very quickly.I am in a country where you start something and it’s new and innovative, people will look at it like, oh she’s doing that, oh I want to do it and people come very quickly. I embrace that, I embrace competition, but if you want to be ahead of your game, you need to be ten steps ahead of people.That means you have to move quicly, so yes in one word you may say start small with what you have but think Big, that you want to grow very quickly.In terms of financing, it’s always a very interesting one.I was able to become an entrepreneur when I did because I had some money saved, I had worked for a number of years. It’s a balance and one has to really think about their situation in life. Some people are able to raise funds from friends and family which I encourage. Get someone who believes in you and sell your idea and ask them to support you. Banks hardly give money, they are not in the business to invest in start up funding, it’s tough and risky. Initially, try to prove your model, start small and try to demonstrate to people that you can do it and you are the person to back.Be bold, be audacious, just do it!. If you can’t do it, get people to work with you,to do it with you, people who can, think about teams.My company is only growing now because I am bringing people who are smarter than me on board to support me to execute this vision”.
I can’t help but think Ada will make a spectacular mentor for the upcoming entrepreneurs.She totally is all for sourcing out mentors and sponsors for your business, “I have many mentors and I have sponsors. Mentors can be your age mates or people younger than you, people you admire over time and you share ideas with and their point of view is imporatnat to you.Those are my mentors and I have many of them. They have been very critical in guiding me to today. It is very important to seek people out. Find somebody that has something of value that can be added to you. Nurture that relationship.Sponsors are those who typically are in positions to pull you up along with them. A sponsor will go out of their way to put their reputation on the line on your behalf. A sponsor will say, Ada is the one you should make, Chief Executive of this company because I have worked with her, because she has borrowed money from me and she returned it.They always have your interest at heart, with regards to your progress and where you want to grow. I think we should also seek out sponsors, but it’s a relationship that builds overtime.
Business plans are always edited as the business grows to adapt to the particular market the company is geared towards. Ada agrees wholeheartedly with this, “Oh yes, you always have to. We started as a juice company just selling juice bottles from the kitchen, delivering to people. Very quickly I realised it was not going to be a sustainable business,that it was a fad and people were doing this just for cleansing or detox. A year later we opened our first store and it wasn’t just a juice bar, it was a store for food. For fast, fresh, made in Nigeria, locally done food, presented in a way that people had not seen it before. That for us was a great way to pivot, because once we started that side of the business there was such a need for it. Customers do not always know what they need, you give them and let them know they need your product. Definitely, we keep pivoting , we keep changing, but we still have that focus in mind of where we want to be; a world class company and that’s truly what we are implementing and executing very single day.
Super smart, articulate and with a wealth of corporate experience, Ada seems to have gone into the entrepreneurial journey well prepared. I sought out her views on working first before striking out on your own. “ Some people are the Mark Zuckerbergs of the world, who learnt as they go, but many of those people still had to hire their team members who had the discipline of work. If you look at the numbers, most people who are entrepreneurs successfully are usually over 45.That’s when they actually started a business and did it well. Many people need the structure and discipline of what it takes to be in a corporate environment. Even the young people working with me today, we are effectively yes a start up but the structures that are put in place, shouldn’t be haphazard. Learn the discipline of working in a corporate environment, even if it’s an internship. That to me I believe has made me a better entrepreneur today”
Last year September, there was a public outcry at the demolition of the Nuli Juice facilities by the Lagos state government. It was a subject I couldn’t do without broaching. Her response was super insightful. “I have had many tough moments. The most public one that people saw,which I have moved on from was when due to whatever issues the government had with the landlord we were occupying demolished our store. I think it was the process, the way it had happened.We had only been open for five weeks, it was the talk of town, I was so excited about the potential for growth. I had put so much into that store. We had taken the property at the start of the year, January, rent had been put down but I didn’t have enough money to do up the space, and every month rent was going at a cost to me. It was only at the beginning of August we were able to open. Imagine, 5 weeks of just opening and you are still trying to get the money back you’ve lost from the rest of the year and then you lose all of that. We were employing about 10 people, young people between 25&30 years old in a country that has a high rate of youth un-employment, there we were trying to provide these opportunities, provide hope for young people and we are being crushed in that way. It was disheartening, it was more that just losing assests, it was losing a lot of hope in the system. It took time to rebuild that trust in the system. It seemed like whats’s the use, I was in a sector that the government had said they were focusing on; Agriculture. I was creating jobs for young people since the government had said they were looking at all sorts of programmes to create jobs for our youths. I am a woman, they talk about focusing on women and empowering women. I was an entrepreneur, they talk about new businesses. For that to have happened, what does it say to others looking in that direction? If that could have happened to her and to the business what’s the hope for many of us? Giving the vision I had started with from the start, I wasn’t going to let it get me down. People were watching, there were expectations and so it was important to just keep going.Everything from my staff moving into my home to just keep the business going. Imagine if I had stopped, I may have just wallowed in self pity, but we never stopped. Deliveries continued, we just had to, I never fired one person”.
Surely, there must be a positive spin off from this story! Please share, “The experience made me realise the generosity and the heart that Nigerians had, there was such an outpouring of support for our cause, people spoke up for us.They said why, they asked questions, the government was embarrassed. Seeing that national and global outcry was amazing. People set up a fund on our behalf, people donated, there was a whole movement. That kept me going. It is something I look back on and I am so thankful to God and thankful to people who stood up and today we are standing and people remember. That outcry took us to a level that people were aware of the company. In spite of the setback, today we have six stores”
What an amazing tale of grit and sheer determination. I questioned Ada on what kept her consistently inspired. In her answers she attributed some of it to her goals. “I really want to leave something behind of lasting significance. I live a life where I am aware that it could be tomorrow and I am not here again.I want to look back and go like, Did I leave something behind that I would be proud of, did I leave something behind that could help people? Did I leave things, better than how I found it? Doing things to the best that I can, so I look back with no regrets. I know I am not there yet with Nuli but I have this big vision and that’s what keeps me going.I feel so blessed everyday.
How blessed and lucky you are! Surely, there must be something, the one thing you think your business can never survive without. Every company has that one thing! Nodding contemplatively, Ada responded, I think it’s more than just one thing.I will throw out issues around Quality and consistency. I tell my colleagues everyday at work, those who are Nuli champs working in the stores, those who are mini pressers, cutting the fruits and vegetables,putting it into the juice pressers, making our juices everyday that go out to hundreds of people, I tell them from day one, we need to be all about “quality and consistency”. Even our label, we fix manually, because it’s fresh produce and it’s not like we have a production line. From day one I show them the importance of why that label has to be straight. Imbibing such a sense of high qquality and the high quality should be there every single time, consistently. I think it was one thing that without we would not today be standing”.
…..and of course fantastic Customer Service, “It is everything. We just had our all hands meeting for the staff in every corner of Nuli. We are 36 strong today.It’s a big team and we all sat down and re-inforced this again. Customer satisfaction is the biggest thing. We do something every month where our Nuli champs are recognised. The three things we look out for; Customer satisfaction, Solutions driven and the third thing is that they are Happy. Customer satisfaction is key. They are constantly made to understand that they wouldn’t be there if people were not coming everyday to spend and willing to give us money to be able to buy what we have because that’s what keeps our company growing. Having put that in their DNA and constantly reinforcing, a lot of training needs to be done.My staff are empowered if they are at the front desk to give small discounts. They are empowered to say to customers to choose something else on the menu complimentary when the customer says they didn’t enjoy the juice. It’s all about customer satisfaction, customer service is everything.
Ada ended our chat with a quick interlude into what next to expect from Nuli: Nuli is no longer just a store for juices. We are now catering in very interesting tapa style ways.We had our first event at Eko hotel last week. We had everything from little cups, to pumpkin soup, to Cous Cous and chicken on skewers. We had our juices served in little glass bottles mixed with champagne, Mimosas if you want to kind of have a healthy guilt free cocktail. I will love people to start reaching out to us for small office meetings, or board meetings or hosting a brunch, or a cocktail and they want classy good for you food, that’s fresh, innovative, creative and that is affordable.
Instagram: Nulijuice Website: www.nulilounge.com
Nuli Lounge: 2 OlawaleDaudu Street Ikoyi, Lagos. Tel: +234 909 944 9566