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How Valentine Okoli turned an overnight hunger into an innovative fuel

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In each crowded Lagos suburb, there’s a high chance you meet a hawker selling African salad, locally known as Abacha. It’s a popular dish from the Igbo tribe in the Nigerian South East, and to many, it’s a taste of home. But there’s a problem with this meal: it’s highly perishable. This, combined with the tedious food processing of its base ingredient —cassava— repels many of its lovers in the middle class. It takes about two days to make it from scratch.

Valentine Okoli decided to solve this problem by creating an ‘instant’ Abacha —a processed form which consumers can prepare in three minutes. This innovation won him the grand prize at Channels TV’s Fund It Forward show in 2023. In this interview, Ventures Africa speaks to Okoli on his journey to entrepreneurship.

VA: Please tell us about yourself.
My name is Valentine Okoli, CEO of Bach and Moen Ltd. My company transforms local foods into globally acceptable, easy-to-consume products. Our dream is to make it easier for people to access healthy and convenient Nigerian food anywhere in the world. I’m a biochemist by discipline and a music enthusiast.

VA: Interesting. So, how did you get into entrepreneurship? What inspired you?

Right from secondary school, I’ve always felt like there’s not much impact you can make in the world as an employee. I’ve always seen being an employee as a medium to learn by contributing. So, that has always guided my approach to life. I was glad to study biochemistry because it allows you to become a producer. If you study all ancient dynasties and revolutions, you will find that food has always been what drove nations out of being third-world countries.

It’s because I knew these things I wanted to become an entrepreneur. Besides, I realised that I’m a self-starter and prefer figuring out uncertainties by doing the actual work.

Where did the idea for Bach and Moen come from?

To be honest, I didn’t always know what business I would commit myself to. The idea for Bach and Moen came indirectly from my grandma. I’m from the East and used to visit my grandma a lot as a student. On one of my visits, she gave me a lot of Abacha.

Then one day, I came back from lectures very hungry and tired. That Abacha was the only food I had left. But when I brought out the sack in which I stored it, everything had gone bad. My bunkmate had unintentionally kept his bucket of water close to the bag and water had gotten into it. Now there was fungal growth all over the only food I had left. I slept hungry that night. But I immediately knew it was a problem I wanted to solve. I was a first-class biochemistry student, so it wasn’t hard to jump into research on it. The conclusion was to create something like instant noodles but for Abacha. I had this idea in 2015 and then registered it in 2018. It took another two years for us to launch, but I didn’t want to wait till the idea was perfect.

Valentine Okoli, founder of Bach and Moen

What were your biggest challenges in building this brand?

My first big challenge was knowing what to do in the first place. I practically leapt into action with very little knowledge. I didn’t know how companies worked or even how to create my product. So, I had do to tons of research and made a lot of errors. There wasn’t very much data or even past research, I could rely on. In fact, there’s no preexisting data anywhere that somebody has tried something like this. The only thing I was certain about was the safety standards. So it was hard to create a good product at the beginning.

Also, financing this venture was tough. I started by working as a music teacher to fund it. When I started my first product, the packaging materials I used were so funny in retrospect. But I needed some sort of proof of work: something that would convince investors that I knew what I was doing. Fortunately, the brand has grown past these stages today.

Interesting. So, what has been the most rewarding part of building your business?

For me, the most rewarding part of building this business is that we made a product that people actually like. Feedback has been surprisingly positive since we started. Knowing that this rough idea I had in my hostel room some years ago was not crazy after all, is fulfilling. Like I said before, I haven’t seen any pre-existing work like this. So, it feels good to be a pioneer.

Creating food products is not the same as building software, where you can easily iterate and course-correct on the way. It’s more sensitive. Aside from safety concerns, people hold you to high standards from first contact. They want the original taste of Abacha even though they’re preparing this one like instant noodles. And I’m happy that we’ve been able to give them what they want. I remember the feedback from, Bola, one of the people I gave free samples. Many times, I go back to her encouraging messages on WhatsApp. Nothing excites me as much as knowing that I have an actual market for my product.

So what lessons have you learnt about entrepreneurship by building Bach and Moen?

The first lesson is to always listen. Listen to the market and everyone else whose voice matters. We’ve changed many things since we started in 2021 by simply listening to the spoken and unspoken responses. It’s based on these responses that we changed our packaging and added free palm oil and seasoning to our product. It’s also because we listened that we realised we could make our value chain more efficient by selling out our cassava remains as feeds for animals. I also gave myself a five-year timeline to measure how feedback would evolve. I believe that people’s perception of your brand is the best way to affirm your business’ sustainability.

It’s the same notion I took into Fund It Forward. My goal was to learn and unlearn. I knew I still had a lot of unrefined ideas about my business that needed refining.

I’ve also understood more about unit economics in food production. There’s a reason you see companies reduce the quantity of biscuits or chocolates per pack when inflation hits them. They would rather do that than maintain quantity and increase prices. It’s easier to do this when you listen to and understand your market.

Also, your first product might not be the one to bring you the millions. It doesn’t mean you’re on the wrong track. Just evolve continuously and have a budget, target and timeline for your goals. But you should know when to stop.

You recently won the inaugural Fund It Forward show. How do you think that gives you an edge? 

Those nine weeks changed my life. Besides funding, the biggest edge the show gave me was knowledge. I learnt many things I would have needed to pay millions for elsewhere. Was publicity an advantage? Absolutely. But my scope is wider now, and that’s more important to me. Many businesses fade out over a short period, mostly because Nigeria is challenging to build in. However, I have learnt to build with a more long-term perspective. My priorities have also now moved towards seeking partnerships because that will become another strong leverage. I feel like I could even be a great business coach by simply teaching the things I learned on the show.

What should people expect from you and Bach and Moen in the next few years?

The first thing we’re focusing on now is publicity and distribution. We need to make sure people know about what we’re doing and make it accessible to them. Our next priority would be collecting real-time data on our markets. This data would not only help our business but also serve whoever wants to build a similar venture. We didn’t have public data when we started, and I want others to have it. I want to capture how my customers’ behaviour evolves in real time and grow with them.

I think the absence of data is one of the reasons Nigerians don’t invent new things. There isn’t enough resource material to predict what people would like or dislike. So, everyone just looks for what others are already doing and mimics them. My company will be different.

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