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CEO grows dried fruit company from idea to modern factory

Business

Employees at ReelFruit's new factory.

Employees at ReelFruit’s new factory.

Last month, Nigerian dried fruit snacks company ReelFruit commissioned its new 800-tonne-per-annum processing facility in Abeokuta, Ogun State.

“This factory isn’t just a structure of bricks and mortar. It embodies my long-term unwavering belief in Nigeria’s agricultural and manufacturing opportunity. We are going to process our range [of] dried fruits at scale, to serve customers across the country, as well as sell ‘Made in Nigeria’ to the rest of the world, creating several hundred jobs, and positively impacting farmers at scale. It is my hope that our factory stands as a positive symbol in the business landscape of Nigeria for generations to come,” commented the company’s founder and CEO, Affiong Williams.

Launching in uncharted waters

In 2012, after returning to Nigeria from South Africa where she had lived for over a decade, Williams began exploring the Nigerian market to assess the viability of dried fruit snacks. She imported fruit from South Africa, packaged it, and distributed samples to potential customers. At that time, this snack type was relatively unknown in Nigeria, with no other local producers doing it at scale.

“I was working for an organisation in South Africa, called Endeavor, providing entrepreneurial support. That is where the bug for entrepreneurship bit. I started researching my business idea while still employed in this job,” said Williams.

Initially, Williams planned to produce fruit juices but lacked the capital for the necessary machinery. Through a process of elimination, dried fruit emerged as a promising opportunity.

“It was tough to launch a product that nobody really knew. People would ask why they would want to eat dried mango rather than fresh mango, for example. We had an uphill battle.”

Acknowledging the difficulties of market acceptance, Williams shelved her plan to start the business on all fronts simultaneously – opening a factory, processing, creating a brand, and working with farmers.

“I realised we would need to focus on the market first. So, we designed our brand and imported dried mango from Ghana in our second year, in 2013. We packaged and distributed to as many retail shops as we could. Even though it was challenging getting into stores and securing import supply, it was by far the better strategy to gain market acceptance before integrating backwards,” explained Williams.

Today, ReelFruit’s products – including dried mango, dried pineapple, fruit and nut mix, and coconut flakes – are available in hundreds of stores nationwide. The company has also exported to several countries.

Read more: ‘An uphill battle’: Entrepreneur explains how she built a dried fruit snacks brand in Nigeria 

Navigating the fundraising journey

In 2021, ReelFruit raised $3 million in Series A funding from investors Alitheia IDF, Samata Capital and Flying Doctor Healthcare Investment Company. The capital was earmarked for its new processing facilities and to expand sales into the US and other international markets.

According to Williams, fundraising requires time and tenacity. “When I look at other founders that have successfully raised, one common thread is persistence. Most of those who have raised successfully have a minimum five years’ track record in their line of business.

Affiong Williams, CEO of Nigeria-based dried fruit snacks producer ReelFruit

“When you look at the agribusiness start-up space in Africa, there is not a huge amount of capital available. Ideas are not enough to raise money on, particularly when you are raising money towards physical assets.

“I started ReelFruit nine years ago and worked towards this funding round for the past five years. At times, I was spending three to four full days a week focused on fundraising for months at a time, supported by a full-time team. Just building the data room (all of the necessary financial, operational, and other data investors need for their due diligence) took months of work. This all has to be balanced with keeping the day-to-day operations going. I’ve seen a number of entrepreneurs having to retreat from fundraising because they are spending too much time away from running the business.

“That said, I am glad we fundraised when we did. If we had raised money in the first year or two we would have likely misallocated the funds and wouldn’t be a company today. We have a much better understanding of the business now.”

Read more: Agribusiness CEO shares fundraising lessons after securing $3m

Eyeing the American market

The US is the world’s biggest consumer market, estimated at $16 trillion. On the other hand, Nigeria, despite being home to over 220 million people and one of Africa’s largest consumer hubs, is projected to achieve a market value of only $3 trillion by 2030. This disparity highlights why, for many businesses in Nigeria’s food and agriculture sector, the US could be an enticing target.

Williams sees the substantial Nigerian diaspora in America as a golden opportunity for companies like hers to establish a presence in the US. “There is no better market, or no lower hanging fruit, than your people in another country,” she said. “I see a growing opportunity for products such as mine and other food products that are becoming more global in their standards, to sell to the Nigerian market in the US.”

It is estimated that as many as 5 million Nigerians live abroad, with a significant chunk of these people residing in the US.

While the Nigerian diaspora in the US might feel a connection to their homeland, it doesn’t guarantee they’ll choose a ReelFruit packet out of nostalgia. Williams understands that to succeed, her product must also appeal to the broader US audience, not just those with Nigerian roots. “Many foods exported from Nigeria to the US are for Nigerians in the diaspora, however, if people could produce food and snacks with wider appeal it could be a big opportunity,” she noted.

Read more: Feeding the Nigerian diaspora in America – a prime agribusiness opportunity

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