Managing Director of the Rite Foods Limited, Mr. Seleem Adegunwa, in a recent engagement with journalists spoke about the ability of the company to stand competition. Dike Onwuamaeze brings the excerpts:
What is the background of Rite Foods’ success in the sausage and beverage market?
You cannot talk about the Rite Foods Limited (RFL) without going back to ESS-AY Holdings Limited (EHL), which is our parent company. I said this because a lot of people think that we just stepped into the market because they do not know much about our past. If you have ever taken photographs in the past four decades you would probably know about the Fototek Industries Limited, the Photo Palace Limited, Photo Production Division and the Prints Specialty Limited. And if you have checked the back of those pictures you might have seen this name: AGFA. So, that is where it all started. We were also known to be the largest photographic establishment in the country and the entire West Africa as well. We actually had no competition. The EHL were responsible for the distribution of AGFA Films and photo materials. The worldwide number one film maker at a time was Kodak. It was followed by Fuji. It was only in Nigeria that AGFA was number one not so much because of the brand but because of the distributor. So, you can see that for us beating the multinationals is not a big deal. It is in our heritage. Part of what we did then was that we had 60 outlets throughout the country with photo labs.
This is important because in terms of our heritage covering the country is not an issue. When people say how come Rite Foods are all over the country, they forget that we are already used to it through the EHL. The success of the EHL in those days gave us the edge to cover eight West African countries. I was the general manager for sales in those days. I will get into a car with the driver and we will drive from Lagos to Cotonou, cross the border into Togo and drove to Kumasi in Ghana; then we will drive down to Burkina Faso selling photographic materials. Those were the good days of security and safety. And also to cover West Africa, we acquired a property that helped us to take care of the West African market. Most at times I do not think that Nigerians appreciate enough the country we have as in God given resources. My experience travelling around the West African countries showed that if Nigerians would put in Nigeria the amount of efforts we were doing in these West African countries the success will be great because there are some states in Nigeria that are bigger than these countries.
What made you think that Nigerians do not appreciate what we have in this country?
Nigerians need to understand that we are extremely blessed and we just need to take hold of our own economy ourselves and stop leaving the whole space for the multinationals. One thing that is common most of the times that I had meetings with foreign businessmen is that they keep talking about the opportunities in Nigeria but when I talk with Nigerians it is always complaints. Yet, we are all in the same country. So, it is all about mindset. How we see things will change everything.
How did the Rite Foods get the courage to challenge the multinationals?
Yes, Rite Foods Limited is relatively young but it is coming from the pedigree of business that is actually 58 years old. Our destination is to join the Club 100 years’ old businesses of the CNN by the grace of God. What happened was that as time goes on, the EHL decided to diversify into food and beverages, which are the ones I am heading. I have a lot of passion for food. I see a lot of opportunities there. So, in 2007, we decided to start the Rite Foods Limited, an organisation with the mentality and spirit of lions. So, to be part of the Rite Foods you must have a lion mentality, which is nothing but a fearless spirit. This is important because we were coming into a space that was dominated by the conglomerates and multinationals. I remembered that when we started the first thing we wanted to do was sausage. At that time the biggest competitor was the UAC Foods, which was probably 42 years old. And people were asking us why do we want to compete with an institutionalised brand? Not a single person gave us a chance. They just thought that it was the most stupid thing to do because we cannot beat this brand. Apart from the UAC, there were the Leventis and the UTC that were large conglomerates in their businesses. So, you need to have a fearless spirit to be in that space. We are of the fearless mindset not because they were not doing a good job but we believed strongly that there is nothing that cannot be improved. You can always get into a space and improve it by giving a good offering. That exactly was what we did. We went into the space where there was a particular type of sausage roll and we introduced more variants and that automatically changed the entire game. Those of you that toured the bakery have seen that our facilities are 21 century technology. We have introduced the chicken, the beef and the spicy sausage rolls. We are extremely innovative to improve the offerings for the benefit of the consumers. That is what that really keeps us alive. We know that when we come into a space, we end up giving consumers much more and at the end of the day it is better for us as well. At the time we launched our sausage Nigeria had a docile market and believe that things cannot change. At a time it was like what is this? Nobody wanted it and nobody was taking it? I remembered that if I send a truck to Onitsha for example and include some cartons of our new innovative sausage variants, the distributor could return the entire truck back to us because of these new ones. That was how hostile the market used to be. But today guess what the reverse is? When we send that truck today the new variants will be 700 cartons while the traditional sausage will be 300 cartons. It is all about having the mindset that a thing can be changed. And it does not matter how hard or difficult or impossible they will tell us it is going to be, we believed in one thing: If the product is good and we keep being persistent and have strong tenacity we will always succeed. That has always been our story and the story of our sausage line. Today we are the number one sausage in the entire industry. Let me explain this to you. We are 100 per cent indigenous. You see, one of the things that is extremely important, and I think that we need to learn this within our society, is for us to be behind our own because every Nigerian success is all Nigerians success. One success translates into millions of successes. When I said that we are now the number one in the industry Nigerians have to take it as their own success.
What led the Rite Foods into the beverage segment?
At a time we saw that people get thirsty as they consume sausage and we said let us look at the beverage sector and we saw gaps in the sense that there were just very narrow offerings, extremely narrow offerings. And we thought that we can certainly do it better. But then, we also noticed that we have outgrown our Opebi location in Ikeja where we started the sausage rolls at the Adebola House. We then decided that we should do it more properly by acquiring a bigger space. That is how we came to our present site. We have just developed about 20 per cent of the land. So, in terms of growth there are still a lot of opportunities available. It is about thinking 100 years ahead and believing that we can do it. It is about having that mindset and knowing that by the grace of God when we put in the hard work success will follow as we continue to give good offerings. At the time we are doing this new place it was the same old skepticism. Because it was at a time people do not invest. Look around our country and ask yourself who is investing? The answer is mostly foreigners. Nigerians do everything except investing in Nigeria. I knew a number of people that had houses in the United States of America during the era of President Donald Trump that were refused visa. And the lesson from that is that Nigerians should invest their money in Nigeria. The thing is that if we do not improve our own economy, nobody is going to do it for us. We can continue complaining and complaining, which is just whining. What we have to is to take action and stop complaining. I do not also believe that we should support the Nigerian brand for Nigerian brand sake. The Nigerians must step up and give absolutely world class offering and when we see people that have done that then we owe it to them to support them. We have to. It is one of the things that we have to learn from foreigners. You will not get an American buying a British product over an American product. Donald Trump’s slogan was “Americans first.” So, what are we waiting for to turn it around to “Nigerians first.” We met the soft drink beverage market from where it was just kola, orange and one more flavour and said no that they were not enough. Our people deserved more flavours like ginger, cherry, tropical and the tamarind, etc. because we are thinking about the consumers. I am going to tell you something: profit follows when you fix a problem. Our goal is to give to the consumer offerings that are available elsewhere in the world without shortchanging or compromising them. I can tell you with absolute certainty and confidence today that we are not using artificial sweetness or anything else that will compromise our products. So, I know that we do this extremely well.
What were the initial challenges the Rite Foods had in the beverage market?
We are extremely a world class organisation, which didn’t happen by accident. We were intentional about it. But we knew when we went into this space that we were coming with a big disadvantage, which, sadly, is the Nigeria’s flag we placed on our bottles. Everyone and all of them Nigerians, told me don’t do it because buyers will think it is an inferior brand. This attitude left me both insulted and challenged at the same time. I accepted the challenge to change the mindset because the philosophy was wrong. I knew at that moment that we need to start changing the philosophy about how we perceive ourselves because if we can change the philosophy, we can change the mindset. And once we start changing the mindset, attitude will change and immediately the behaviour will also change and that will lead to positive action. So, five years ago I went against every advice and said no we are going to do it. We put the flag on our bottles to the misery of most of my team. Initially, the first six months we could not sell and the naysayers chorused “we told you.” It was difficult. But guess what happened four, five years later? Not only has it been extremely successful and we give glory to God, today our multinational competitors are putting the Nigerian flag on their products. We are talking about giving pride to ourselves. Now, we have a situation where we have forced them to start putting it the national flag on their bottles. It is quite an achievement. We come to the table with absolute world class products so that we are not going to let the people down and if for anything they will get more value.
What philosophy drives your success?
Integrity is our watch word and those dealing with us do not need to bribe or know anybody to get things done. It is one of the things we must get right. The West did not get to the point they have attained by chance so there are certain disciplines that we must have and these principles are our philosophy. Excellence is the second thing that we take very seriously. We will continue to innovative in what we do to ensure that we keep leading the pack and see that our consumers keep having products that they are absolutely satisfied with. We are also endeavouring to leave a worthwhile legacy because this is not all about today. People have told me that the problem with Nigerian businesses is that they do not live beyond their founders. But we have already done that. We are in our second generation and are already planning beyond that. Moreover, the impact of our businesses within the society is unbelievable. Without mincing words, I do not care who the company is, they cannot do it in Nigeria as a Nigerian would.