The Chief Executive Officer, Friska Farms Limited, manufacturers of herbal tea, Mr. Usman Imanah, in this interview speaks about his passion for entrepreneurship, the opportunities and challenges in business and also appealed to the federal government to intervene in the tea value chain. Maduabuchi Ubani brings the excerpts:
You used to work with an investment bank and later moved into commercial banking, and finally you decided to venture into entrepreneurship, what is that driving force for you?
I was working in an investment banking and later a commercial banking organisation, but actually more as a corporate communications person, not a financial person. But right from when I was in the university, I’ve always had passion for entrepreneurship. So, in all the places that I was working, I’ve always had a side hustle. I’ve always had this mindset that the organisation that you work for, the only thing that you can take from it is the knowledge that you get and the salary that you earn; your children cannot inherit your job. So, that has always been at the back of my mind. Maybe that is because my dad served in the army for years, and when he retired, it was just the fact that you could put ‘Major’ to his name and his pension; apart from that, there was nothing for us to inherit. But I’ve seen people that started businesses and there was always something to leave back for their family members to inherit. So for me, it’s always about building something that will outlive me. So, if I’m going to put my time, my energy and all my resources into making something work, at least, the sacrifices that I’ve made to do that work, for the time I’ve not been able to spend with my children and all, then it should be something that I’d leave behind for generations to come. So, that has always been at the back of my mind. I’ve never felt secured or comfortable with a paid job, because I’ve seen where people lose their jobs overnight. Anything can happen and you can be asked to leave. So, it has always been at the back of my mind that I need something that I can call my own. I need to have something that I can build. When I put in all my efforts, there will be something to leave for those that will come after me. A lot of developed countries that we know today, everybody talks about them because of the brands that come out from them. We have brands such as Coca-cola, Disney, Samsung, LG, Kia and Honda, among others. So, it has always been my dream to build a brand that people will look at and be proud of. So, I’ve always been somebody that wants to do something different, something phenomenal, and something that people would see and be proud of. So, that is the reason why I am putting all my efforts in building something that people can relate with over time. That has been the driving force. I want to build something that is original, something that is Nigerian, something that is international and something that people would see and be proud of, beyond even the money.
You chose to play in the tea sector. What are the opportunities in that sector?
When we started the farm in 2014, tea was not in the picture. What we wanted to do at that time was to grow Moringa and export. But, there were so many challenges. Firstly, we weren’t able to scale to be able to export. Secondly, the interest in Moringa shifted when we started. So, for you to be able to do commodity business and export, you need to be able to do it at huge scale and for you to be able to do it at huge scale, you need to have deep pocket and then you need to be present .
You cannot do large scale agriculture by proxy. So, the scale I was doing wasn’t going to allow me export. At some point, I was even frustrated.
I had to look for more money to invest to start processing the leaves, so that it will not perish after three days of harvest because of lack of buyer. So, when we started processing the leaves, we were drying and grinding it to powder, and then started looking for buyers to come and buy. Back then, in a month, I could put in N300, 000 to run the whole activities and then when somebody wants to buy it, they would be pricing it for a N100, 000.
So, the economics was not adding up and I had to take a step further to know what the people buying the leaves were using it for. So I noticed that they were using it to produce tea.
That was when I decided to take it a step further to create my own brand of tea. I don’t think there’s any sector that there’s no opportunity. I think it’s just for people to dig deeper to find the opportunities. A lot of industries that people enter and leave, saying there are no opportunities that is simply because they are yet to dig deep. When you look at successful businesses in Nigeria, even in the entertainment industries, the artists that have been successful, you will see the number of years they put in. So, it’s the same with any industry and any business. That’s the same thing with entrepreneurship- the staying power.
It’s not about doing the same thing for hundreds years and expect it’d be successful. Some industries might actually not be viable, but if you stay in that sector and you keep fine-tuning what you’re doing, observing the environment, observing the market, fine-tuning your offerings so that it serves the purpose of the market and all, at some point, you will be successful. So, when we started tea, it wasn’t selling. The first tea that we did, nobody bought. We were doing Moringa tea then. We changed packaging and did some other things, but still it wasn’t selling and at some point, I was so frustrated that I wanted to burn everything. Then, it was Moringa tea and it was in a box like Lipton.
And when we take it to the supermarket then, people would be comparing it to Lipton. So, we had a lot of challenges. But we kept on doing the tea and we were giving them out for free. We were trying to sell, but we were not making money.
One day, a lady from Uyo asked for the tea and promised to sell them for us. We sent her products worth almost N1 million and she returned only N16, 000 and did not pick my calls for almost three months. So, because I was still working in the bank, I couldn’t chase her. So, it was that frustrating. At that point, I had almost given up, but my wife kept on encouraging me. So, one day, I was on a popular blog when I saw an advert about flat tummy tea with Moringa, and I saw the comment on the product by people who had used the product. So, everything just made sense for me. Before that day, I was selling Moringa for blood pressure, wellness and everything. But nobody bought it.
People wanted to buy herbal tea that would solve a particular problem. So, we had to rebrand to blood pressure tea, weight loss tea, diabetic tea and wellness tea.
That was when we started selling. So, imagine if out of frustration, I had given up at that point, we wouldn’t have gotten to this stage. And if I had continued doing what was doing, it wouldn’t have yielded any result. So, we had to keep looking at what people wanted to position our products. Now, it’s not just Moringa tea anymore, we’ve had to fortify it with other herbs that would help the different ailment that we are targeting. That’s just to tell you that you don’t go into an industry and it becomes profitable immediately. So, we keep looking for new ways that we can connect with customers so that they would appreciate and value our products. So, on our social media page, we are putting out contents, educating people, so that they can connect with us. We are doing different things to get people interested in the product: We are educating people, getting them to be more health conscious, among others.
So it’s not like there is a tea market; instead, we are the ones creating our own markets to get people interested and get people to buy in.
So, tell us about the Friska brand; what are your unique selling points and why should consumers place your brand above others in the market?
We are positioning ourselves as a Nigerian brand that is local in production, but global in outlook. We are trying to build a brand that Nigerians would be proud of. If you look at the product from the packaging to even the communication and everything, you’ll see that a lot has been put in. And I’m not just saying this because I’m the promoter; that is the feedback and it’s deliberate. Now, why should you leave other brands and come to Friska? First of all, we need to start promoting our own businesses here in Nigeria. And I’m not saying that people should not patronise foreign products.
Here’s the thing: when you patronise a product that is foreign, what you’ve done is that you’ve taken jobs and opportunities that would have made this country more stable out. Our farm is in Edo State and as small as our company is, we have 37 people working directly with us. This number does not include the people that print the packaging, logistics, pharmacists that retail the product and all. When people buy from us, this is an ecosystem they support.
Another thing is that our product is organic; it’s natural. We do not use fertilizers, herbicides or pesticides on our farm. On our Moringa farm, weeding is manual; we use rice shaft for weed control, water retention and organic manure. So, there’s nothing chemical about our products.
And we have tons of testimonials from people who have used our products. So, if you want something natural and organic that would not harm you, and something that you can consume and know that you are supporting the Nigerian economy, then Frisca is the tea for you. The truth is that we need to start promoting our own brands; we need to start promoting Nigerian brands that can be international.
We need to have brands that people can use to identify us with and not just yahoo-yahoo or other negative things that people tend to associate Nigerians with internationally these days. Nobody would have known countries like Finland if not for Nokia. It’s the citizens who created Nokia, not the government. So, citizens in Nigeria can create brands that can put the country on the map. The more we start thinking in this direction, the better it will be for us.
Is there any form of intervention or support that you want from the government at this point in time?
This is my own personal opinion, and I speak not just for myself: I think that the government should create grants, not loans for companies in the agric-business value chain. The truth is that our basic problem in Nigeria is food security and the lowest hanging fruit is agriculture. Nigeria is so fertile and we have the manpower to farm. So, primary agriculture is not a problem; the problem is being able to process and package so that we are not just farming and exporting like what we are suffering with oil.
We cannot continue exporting commodities and importing finished goods, and expect that we will not be a poor country. So, I think there should be grants at that value-adding stage of agriculture, so that we are not importing packaged cashew nuts from the United States.
If we can feed ourselves, we can then start to export our products to Ghana and other francophone countries, then our foreign exchange earnings would start rising. I have been in this for six years, and I’ve not gotten any form of support or grant from any government agency. I’ve applied for them, but I’ve never gotten any. But to God the glory, we’ve done a lot, we’ve grown from just a farm to having our own brand of products; we’ve grown to about 900 outlets in Nigeria, and looking at exporting to Namibia and Ghana. We are on Amazon and some others, buy it has been sweat equity and hustle.