Those Who Dare, Still Win


For someone who publicly expressed aversion for, and cynicism about, social media ( and for years refused to join any of the platforms, it is remarkable that I am now almost hooked on Twitter. Since the four things I look for in a story are education, inspiration, entertainment and humour, there is no better place to be than on Twitter, although that is also where you find some crazy people who fight over inanities, including elections that were lost and won before their fathers were born!

I have in recent days been moved by two particular stories posted on Twitter. The first is about one ‘Iya Yellow’ who used to live in Manchester, United Kingdom but is now an ‘alabaru’ (load carrier) in Mile 12, Lagos. Even in the most advanced of societies, life happens but when it knocks you down, you have a choice to either stay down or pick yourself up. “I don’t put all my problem on my children. They don’t know I’m here. I just told them I’m not around for the time being. I am satisfied with what I am today. It is part of life. I cannot be begging. I cannot go and be meeting family and they say you should have come yesterday. It is better you live on what your hand can do,” said ‘Iya Yellow’ who struggles to repay a loan so as not to lose her property. The second story is about another woman who sells ‘akara’ (bean cake) and effectively used the proceeds of a N50,000 loan to build a house which she rents out.

Notwithstanding the subtext to the two stories, they speak to resilience and the never-say-die spirit which still abound in our country today. You find it in both the low and high places as I did on 30th April, a day before my ‘Platform Nigeria’ session when I visited Mr Obi Ezeude, the man behind Beloxxi biscuit at Agbara industrial estate in Ogun State. After listening to his inspiring story as he took me round the expansive factory and the odds he had to confront along the journey, I felt encouraged that even in our climes there is no limit to what those who dare can achieve if they stay true to cherished values and are ready to do the hard work. Incidentally, I was meeting Ezeude for the first time, despite the fact that we had established a friendship on WhatsApp.

The story started at age 27 in 1994 when Ezeude incorporated Beloxxi & Company Limited (BCL) as an importer and distributor of Hwa Tai and Luxury cracker biscuit brands from Malaysia and Dean’s shortbread from Scotland. By the turn of the century, Ezeude had prospered so much that he began to nurture the idea of going into manufacturing of the same products so that he could add value to the society by creating enduring wealth. But he could not convince his foreign partners that the investment climate in Nigeria was ripe for the manufacturing of cracker biscuits of the highest standard. “I was importing no fewer than a thousand containers to the country on an annual basis which showed that the market was huge. But every time I broached the idea of them (the Malaysian partners) setting up a factory in Nigeria, there were always a thousand excuses about why it would not work”, said Ezeude as he reflected on his first disappointment as a businessman.

The turning point for Ezeude came with democracy in 1999 and the ascension to power of President Olusegun Obasanjo who kept pushing many of the young entrepreneurs who were trading in commodities to venture into manufacturing. When in 2003, the federal government banned the importation of biscuits, Ezeude felt he had finally won the argument with his Malaysian partners. He was wrong. His partners still didn’t buy the idea of manufacturing in Nigeria. Determined to make the transition from trading to manufacturing, Ezeude approached his Nigerian bankers. That was when he encountered disappointment number two: His bankers made it clear to him that they would not risk their money on manufacturing. But Ezeude would not be deterred.

Having schooled in the United States, Ezeude decided to approach the US Export and Import Bank (US-EXIM). The process was long and tedious but in December 2003, a $2.2 Million loan facility was approved for him to build a fully integrated and automated biscuit factory in Nigeria. “I had series of meetings with their management and even when I did not have all that they requested, the management and officials were more interested in my ideas and how it would work whereas my Nigerian bankers were only interested in collateral”, said Ezeude who contrasted his US-Exim Bank experience with that of Nigerian banks.

With the money, Ezeude leased an abandoned warehouse in Agidingbi, Ikeja where he started his factory. Before he ventured out, Ezeude had met Obasanjo and promised to deliver a first class biscuit manufacturing company in Nigeria to which he got a response: “If you can do that and with it employ many of our people, I will give you whatever support you need.” At that period, duty on equipment was 35 percent so Ezeude went back to Obasanjo to tell him that a government that sought to promote industrialization could not be asking for 35 percent duty on importation of machine. “President Obasanjo asked me, ‘what do you want me to do that will help your business?’ I said the best way to go was for manufacturers to pay zero duty on machine. Despite the resistance from Customs, that was exactly what President Obasanjo did. He enacted the policy and enforced it.”

By 2005, Ezeude delivered. But in a market dominated by Lebanese and Indians, he had to embark on an aggressive marketing by using personal networks to get distributors. “Wives of my friends were the first set of people I recruited before I got others to buy in. The Indians and Lebanese responded by trying to squeeze me out of the market. I fought back. I was producing 6,000 cartons a day but by then the customer base had become huge. People were paying and waiting for as long as between three to six months to get their consignments. At that point, I started looking for land. Then I thought of Agbara where many of the multinational companies had set up shop. I wanted to compete with the Big Boys.”

Moving from trading to manufacturing is never easy, more especially in an environment like ours where there is never policy consistency aside the fact that the infrastructure is not there. But it can also be very rewarding for those who dare as we have seen with the example of Dangote who made the transition and in the process turned a Nigerian name into a global brand. That exactly is what Ezeude is replicating in the confectionary industry where, having conquered the cracker biscuit market, he has now set his sight on the production of sweet biscuit.

In a strategic move to further consolidate its grip on the biscuits market, Ezeude’s Beloxxi in August 2016 offered minority stake of $80 million to a consortium of international private equity firms made up of German Development Bank (KWF-DEG), ACA of Nigeria and 8Miles of the UK. With that fund, Ezeude commenced its latest expansion to nine production lines, from an existing six production lines, with a packaging factory in Ikeja from where the company started. When I visited Beloxxi about three weeks ago, the fully-automated third phase expansion project which commenced in February 2018, was almost completed and it gladdened my heart when he told me the critical role my late boss, President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua also played, following an encounter he had with him. With the oven section alone measuring 60 meters, “it will be the best, latest, integrated and ICT compliant sweet biscuits production line in Nigeria and Sub Saharan Africa”, said Ezeude. Apart from Kellogs, the Anglo American cereals giant, Beloxxi is the second company in Nigeria to deploy the Racking System which underscores its strategic vision in terms of quality, infrastructure and human capital.

My interaction with Ezeude was quite revealing but it is also a story that speaks to the challenge of business ownership in our country. He generates his own electricity with gas supplied by Shell and the Badagry express road which links Agbara Industrial estate is a disgrace. I hope President Muhammadu Buhari, whose administration has done a lot in transport infrastructure, will make the expressway a priority in his second term. But for us to grow the economy, we may need to take lessons from Ghana that focuses more on production than taxation. With a population of 28 million people, Ghana is embarking on a massive industrialization drive called One District, One Factory, essentially targeted at putting its people to work. There are 216 districts in Ghana. We need such idea to create jobs for our teeming young population.

Meanwhile, Ezeude, who only employs fresh graduates and trains them so that they could imbibe the ethos of Beloxxi, has adopted a unique model. “If you are in school, we pay your school fees. If you are on holidays, you come back here to work,” he told me. That perhaps explains why despite having thousands of people working for him, Ezeude knows many of them by name as I found out in the course of walking with him within the premises. “The idea is for anybody who works in Beloxxi to feel that they are here to add value to the company and to themselves by enjoying what they do” said Ezeude.

At a period members of the Nigerian elite seem fixated with, and fighting over, a fast depleting asset, we need a new attitude. In all strata of our society, we need entrepreneurs, whether they sell biscuits in a big factory like Beloxxi or ‘akara’ by the roadside and we also need workers with the unique mentality of ‘Iya Yellow’—citizens who see problems as opportunities to learn, improve or adjust and would handle challenges in a most dignifying manner. And if Nigeria must develop, we need more entrepreneurs like Obi Ezeude, the biscuit man!