Affiong Williams, a business entrepreneur from Nigeria, wanted to contribute to her country’s economic growth by creating jobs and opportunities. This goal drove Ms. Williams to start a company that produces high-quality, well-branded and packaged fruit. She believed it was time to change the narrative and create jobs and opportunities for Nigerians.
In 2012, Ms. Williams started by taking the bold step of starting ReelFruit — a fruit and nut processing, packaging, and distribution company — with her own savings and some help from her family. Between 2014 and 2018, the company’s revenues increased by 750 percent, and it now employs 40 full-time workers, more than half of whom are women. In 2016, with the support of IDH Sustainable Trade, ReelFruit began a pilot mango farm on 14 Acres that employs and trains 55 women on high-value mango farming.
In 2015, Ms. Williams was included in Forbes list of the Africa’s 30 Under 30 Most Promising Young Entrepreneurs. Now, just three years later, she won the Feed the Future Accelerating Women Entrepreneurs Prize. The Prize includes a package of acceleration services for two women-owned, Africa-based companies to expand their businesses so that they can continue contributing to job creation and economic growth in their countries and region. Supporting entrepreneurs like Ms. Williams also helps boost gender equality across society, which is key to driving sustainable and inclusive growth.
Ms. Williams is excited to be one of the two Prize winners, and she sat down with us to share her story.
Inspiration and Impact
Tell us a bit about yourself. What is your background?
I’m originally from Nigeria, but I left the country when I was 11 years old and eventually settled with my mom in South Africa for about 14 years. In that time, I finished college and got a job working with Endeavor — a U.S.-based, entrepreneurship catalyst and support organization. The organization supports high-impact entrepreneurs who they consider the “missing middle”. Supporting them really catalyzes job creation, especially in developing countries. Working with the entrepreneurs honed my passion for entrepreneurship.
And that’s when you got your idea for ReelFruit?
After four years of working [at Endeavor], I started to pursue the idea of starting a business. I knew that I wanted to come back to Nigeria to do that. I looked at a couple of criteria to decide which industry I wanted to enter. Job creation was my number one criteria, so I really wanted to build a business in an industry that had huge job creation potential. So, I picked agriculture and agribusiness.
Your experience working with entrepreneurs really shaped where you are today. Do you have any anecdotes from working with an entrepreneur that helped you land where you are today?
We worked with so many people, and there were one or two entrepreneurs who really inspired me. One was an entrepreneur who started a company, Scratch Mobile, that fixed scratches and dents in people’s cars when they parked at the airport to travel. This guy was from rural South Africa, was the first of his family to graduate, and got a really cushy job in a consulting firm after college. He decided to quit all of that and sold his house, his car, and decided to plow it all into his business.
His story was so moving to me because given the historical nuances of South Africa, most successful black Africans stay in paid employment because they already had to climb up. Such employment provides a steady income that many people want to have, and their families want them to have it. He left all of that and sold his property, and started this very risky, very innovative business, and went on to become a successful man.
I looked at my own life and I thought, “I don’t even need to sell my car, I have a mom who’s supporting me, I’m not supporting anybody, and I can take that risk as well.” This story resonates with me because I remember gauging the amount of risk and knowing early on that I was fortunate enough to take that risk.
What inspires you to keep doing the work?
I’m very internally motivated, so I’m quite a driven person. It’s in my nature to finish the things I start, and it’s in my nature to do hard things. So I think I’ve drawn from my inner strength to keep going and say, “I can finish what I started,” and see it through. But, to be honest, when all that fails, because obviously it’s a finite resource, I look at people’s lives I’ve changed.
I employ 40 people now, and some of them I see their growth; I see that their lives have changed because they can now afford their own accommodation and they put themselves through school, all because of ReelFruit. That reminds me why I’m doing what I am doing: it’s all about giving people a bigger say in their destiny through jobs. I think that someone having a job is an extremely noble thing, especially in a country where there are not a lot of jobs. It’s really a life changer, and giving people the opportunity to do that is really what pushes me — because I can do that at scale.
Finally, I also want to be an example. We don’t have many companies exporting finished products out of Nigeria, so I want to show that it can be done. We now list our products on Amazon.com, which shows that for Nigeria a new model can be forged because no other agriculture companies are listing there.
How does the social impact play a role in your business?
I’m always very wary of the term social impact because sometimes I feel like there’s a bit of a blur about the connotations attached to the term. I’m always careful not to pitch ReelFruit as a social business because I want to build a business on the tenets of enterprise. We want to be a commercially successful business because we will be able to achieve a lot more social goals the better off we are commercially and financially.
Gender parity is an important social goal; I am very much pro-women. My management team is all women, my staff are 64% women, and it matters that these female employees get the opportunity not just to work but also to lead. I want to create a space that even if they became mothers, they would not be threatened, their jobs would be secure because our [company] culture cares about women. So these are some of the social aspects I think an enterprise can achieve. It matters because there is something about the independence and agency you have when you earn your own income. This is really important in developing countries.
People often exclude jobs as social impact — people want to see environmental impact, etc. I feel like there is nothing that displaces the predictability of getting a monthly salary and what that does for people’s lives and their outlook. The way you live when you don’t have to worry about where your money is coming from is really important, especially in Nigeria, especially for women. Our farm project is all about providing that job security; we are less concerned with women being farmers and we’re more concerned that they can get a steady income every month.
Challenges Facing Women
What challenges have you faced as a women starting and leading your own company?
I never considered myself a woman in business versus a person in business. I think that some of the challenges I faced that may be gender-specific were more around my level of confidence in the beginning — I was very nervous and worried and unsure about my potential. I also found that when I talked about my business, it took a lot to pitch it as the opportunity I see it as today. To a certain extent people taking me seriously about what I’m doing was a challenge. I used to get, “Oh is this what you’re doing full time?” or “Are you sure this is what you want to do?” I think there is something about women that the businesses we run are usually seen to be lifestyle and are seen to be a hobby versus “No, this is what I actually want to do the rest of my life.” I think that has changed as I’ve matured and come across a lot of men who aren’t doing as well as me and seeing how well they talk up themselves.
How did you overcome that lack of confidence? How were you able to find that confidence in yourself and change other people’s perspective?
Two things helped. One, my husband was very cognizant of how I spoke about the business — sometimes he talked it up more than I did! And I thought, “I need some of that male confidence that my husband shows.” He was very cognizant and would tell me that I was underselling, and he coached me.
Second, as the business was growing and we saw more success, it gave me confidence. If it’s growing and doing well, it gives you the air of “it’s not so hypothetical.” I owe a lot of that to my husband helping me, and to seeing what we’ve achieved in the last five years.
What are the two or three recommendations you have for other women-owned SME’s who want to operate and manage profitable businesses in emerging markets?
I would say, one, a lot of African companies and entrepreneurs in developing markets should try to look at building businesses that can exist outside of their current market. I believe that emerging markets should be plugged into the global economy as much as possible.
Entrepreneurship is something that takes a lot of time — whether it’s a small shop or a 100 or even 1,000-man business — it still takes the same amount of time and effort. So I also think that entrepreneurs should aspire to build large and institutional businesses. Whenever a female entrepreneur is concerned, I often see this as lacking in terms of entrepreneurs who are really ambitious, who are looking to build businesses, and who are looking to be global.
I think the last one is probably just having a strong support system. It’s something that entrepreneurs should focus on, women especially. Because sometimes women do need a lot of support around negotiations, around asking for our due. I think that there should be a strong support mechanism and women should not be afraid to network or to be transactional.
I find that I’m not good at meeting people and saying “this is what I want.” But often when you do you get a response, and you usually do get somebody willing to help. It’s all around general boldness because it does take boldness to be an entrepreneur, and to be an ambitious one. I think that women need to embrace boldness.
Plans for Growth
How are you growing and what are your strategies to get you to where you want to go?
We’ve seen some rapid growth in the last two years of the business and that’s been really exciting. We’re now thinking that, in retrospect, if we want to grow into a huge business, we need our strategy to demonstrate the potential for growth and scale. We are in a situation where we find investors see us as still small, but for a country like Nigeria, or even for the amount of investment we’ve had, we’ve done a lot with a little. So we’re in this chicken and egg situation — if we want to scale then we need to find investment, but people who are looking to give funding want to see a larger, more mature business.
Now we are doing a few things about this “chicken and egg” situation. One was to demonstrate that we’ve covered distribution in Nigeria. Secondly, we’re now trying to focus on pioneering new distribution points like schools, and airlines. Lastly, exports. When we were trying to sell the entire story of “invest in increased processing capacity, invest in our farm, invest in everything” there was so much confusion about “well, what are you good at now, what can you do now?” We know our strongest point right now is distribution. Therefore we decided to double down on that and show investors that we have better distribution, we can scale, we have our processes right, and we have a strong team. We’re trying to almost show a microcosm of what we would look like if we could scale.
For us to get this award now is so timely because we can culminate a year’s planning and strategic goals into an investor-ready document that really is coherent and speaks the language that we’re not as well versed in.