Image: Canva AI

In 2014, Omolola Akintola left the US for Nigeria with a dream. She’d spent the last seven to eight years getting her degrees — a BSc in Economics, an MBA and an MSc in Marketing — and knew she didn’t want a long-term banking or consulting career.

“I wanted to do something different, something that didn’t already exist,” Lola tells me. “I wanted my own startup so I could solve a problem and impact Nigeria.”

She decided on greenhouse farming. Nigeria’s fine dining scene was on the rise and with it, the need for fresh produce. Lola predicted that it’d be difficult to keep up with importing produce like fresh strawberries and herbs, necessitating a need for all-year-round cultivation — the perfect market for a greenhouse farm.

But setting it up isn’t a small investment. The cost of a small 250 square meter-sized greenhouse averages ₦3m now, and Lola had big plans. Bigger than just one greenhouse. 

“I knew what I wanted to do would involve a lot of money,” Lola says. “I planned to stay and work in the US for a few more years to raise capital for the farm and then return. But I fell in love with my partner and returned to Nigeria much earlier — let’s hope my dad doesn’t read this. Greenhouse farming was still the plan  — specifically, a 10-year plan. I just needed to work for some years in Nigeria before that could happen.”

Soon after returning to Nigeria, Lola found a job at Access Bank, one of the country’s big four banks.

“I enjoyed my time at Access. I worked in the strategy department, and I felt useful. I loved the fast-paced, exciting environment. I was going to stay at the bank for years so I’d have saved enough for my greenhouse farm.”

However, Lola only spent a few months before she resigned to pursue another business idea.

A “breakfast for the skilled middle-class” business opportunity 

Working at the Access Bank head office in Victoria Island opened Lola’s eyes to two things. 

First, the 9-5 life for young professionals in Lagos is hard. She had to leave her home in VGC before 6 a.m. if she hoped to beat traffic and get to work by 8 a.m. Returning home wasn’t easier as long hours at work meant she often had to leave the office at 10 p.m.

Secondly, her new lifestyle meant she never had time to grab breakfast or prep food. This wasn’t a problem peculiar to her.

“My colleagues had the same problem. The higher-ups could afford to get in-house chefs or maids to bring them food. Married guys didn’t have to worry about food because they had someone else doing that labour for them. But the single men and women — mostly millennials — didn’t have time to cook their own food.”

Lola also noticed something interesting. The skilled middle-class wasn’t willing to rely only on roadside food.

“It was 2015 in Lagos, and people had disposable income. There was always a concert or show happening during the weekend, and people could afford to go. I had 9-5 friends in different industries too, and I knew that the average millennial Lagosian liked going to cafés on the Island to treat themselves to brunch on weekends. What if they didn’t have to wait for the weekend to treat themselves? What if they could have nice, fancy breakfasts delivered to them daily?”

And Milk and Honey Gourmet Services was born.

Building a tech-enabled food business

“In business school, we discussed how businesses are gradually going online,” Lola says. “Buildings are disappearing, and people are exploring new ways of doing business. When I got the idea for a breakfast business, I knew I didn’t need to invest resources in a physical restaurant.”

It made economic sense to run her new idea as a subscription-based service, where customers could subscribe to a meal plan, pay and get their food delivered daily. This way, Lola didn’t have to worry about buying ingredients in bulk and hoping that the power supply was regular enough to store them.

She did a trial run with her sister and some friends first. “I’d close from work and prep the meals I wanted to send to them the next day. My menu included local and international (mostly American) cuisine. Most of what I did was self-taught and by reading recipe books. I already had a passion for cooking and wanted to attend culinary school to get professional skills, but that would’ve meant sponsoring myself and an additional two years of study. So, I decided to just start.

I’d wake up really early to cook and send the meals through my sister’s driver to save costs. Interest grew when other colleagues at work noticed my sister and friends having meals like tortilla wraps and quesadillas for breakfast.”

The referrals flew in, and Milk and Honey became a full-fledged business in 2015. Lola offered different meal plans, from the Bronze subscription plan (breakfast-only) at ₦7,500 weekly to the Platinum plan (including lunch) at ₦20k/weekly, with customised recipes designed to replicate the fine dining experience.

She did that for a few weeks before deciding she could no longer juggle it with her 9-5 at the bank.

“But I was wary about leaving because I had senior colleagues who loved me. Fortunately, I had to report to the NYSC orientation camp soon after, and I used the opportunity to resign. I couldn’t bring myself to do it face-to-face.”

Without the distractions from her 9-5, Lola could now give her full attention to building her business. And she did exactly that, but there was a lot to figure out.

“I was new in the country with a lot of theoretical knowledge. But I didn’t know how to get the right people to bring my vision to life. I was building a tech-enabled startup, so I needed to know where to find experienced website developers. Also, I knew the kind of packaging I wanted, but I needed someone who knew how and where to get materials to make it happen. My lawyer-sister helped with filling me in on legal registrations and regulations, but I needed someone who knew how to run a business specific to Nigeria — a partner.”

Olumide Akinsola became that person. Introduced through mutual friends, Olumide was the key to connecting Lola to everything she needed for her new startup.

“Olumide had a guy for everything,” Lola says. “We discussed the brand image, website and operations. It was like a meeting of the minds. He immediately saw the vision and ran with it. We created a system and knew it would work. We were creating the next big thing.”

Slow and steady [and expensive] growth

Naturally, running a business involves spending money. While Lola didn’t have to invest in a physical restaurant, she had to spend on chefs and kitchen assistants, branding, digital marketing and delivery bikes.

“I didn’t get external funding, and my parents’ support only extended to them allowing me to cook out of the home kitchen and using my dad’s car for delivery initially,” Lola explains. “I get it, though. My dad didn’t understand why I left my US degrees to come and cook.” 

However, as Milk and Honey’s clientele expanded to over 300 subscribers, running the business out of her parents’ kitchen became impossible, so she had to rent a ₦1.1m/year kitchen space and office. 

“I’d saved about $20k over 7-8 years working summer jobs in the US, and most of it went into keeping the business running between 2015 and 2018. It shouldn’t have cost that much, but like Temple Run, Nigeria kept bringing us new hurdles to jump over.”

Inflation and the adverse effects of government policies

In 2017, the Lagos State government announced a ban on commercial motorcycle (okada) and tricycle (keke) movements on major highways, bridges and roads. This wasn’t the first time the state would restrict bike activities — the last ban was in 2012 — but the new ban affected hundreds of routes, including Yaba, Surulere, Ikeja and the entire Lagos Island. These areas were the major hotspots for Milk and Honey’s activities.

Image: Tribune Online

“We initially bought two bikes for delivery,” Lola says. “But when the government impounds one, you have to go and beg, which affects delivery time. At one point, it was like we had to buy proper motorcycles that didn’t look like okada. 

We did that, but we still ran into problems. When it became too much, we partnered with Gokada — the government allowed their bikes on the road. That cost us an extra ₦5k/day for each bike.”

With Nigeria’s age-long power supply problem and the need to keep generators running to preserve ingredients, Lola also had fuel price increases and scarcity to worry about. In 2016, fuel prices rose from ₦87 to ₦145 and maintained the same price between 2017 and 2018. However, frequent scarcity increased the price slightly at several points in the same period.

“It was just hard. I had to maintain relationships with several fuel station managers because no one knew when fuel would suddenly become scarce again.”

On top of all that, the naira kept falling against the dollar. By 2017, it had fallen to ₦300/dollar as against ₦197 to the dollar in the previous year. For an importation-heavy country like Nigeria, this led to a steep rise in the cost of packaging material Lola needed to keep her business going.

“We tried multiple things to keep our costs low. We started a recycling drive and encouraged our customers to return their plates for a discount, but it didn’t do much to minimise expenses,” Lola explains. “I also never paid myself a salary — even though I made sure my eight regular staff were never owed, but it was a lot of money. We had no choice but to increase the prices of some of our plans.”

Even as Milk and Honey was fighting for its life, the customers were fighting for theirs, too. 

“People could no longer afford to pay ₦7,500 weekly (without delivery) for breakfast. It wasn’t like they were moving to different brands. There were just more important things they had to pay for or prioritise. When I started the business, I argued that people would always eat. Now it became clear that, yes, people would always eat. But what they ate was a different question. Bread and eggs could fill them just as much as a BLT sandwich.

For most of my bronze plan subscribers, the service was initially a small price to pay for luxury. But when the economy took a nosedive, it became a luxury they couldn’t afford. There just wasn’t as much disposable income to work with. We lost 70% of our bronze subscribers in 2017”. 

Trying to stay ahead of the curve

In a quest to stay afloat and reinvent the wheel to continue serving her customers, Lola started offering health-based meal plans in 2017.

“I got a dietician, and we started offering nutrition consultations to create meal plans for people with dietary restrictions who wanted to stay healthy.”

Of course, this service was mostly used by the richer middle and upper-class who could afford to care about what they put in their mouths. The problem? This target audience was a tiny portion of Milk and Honey Gourmet’s initial customer base. 

“I had to gradually abandon the idea that our service would be for the global millennial. I had to focus on older rich people, and this category isn’t necessarily online. I needed to re-invent Milk and Honey if we wanted to make enough to keep running. That would involve a new form of branding, marketing and the whole works.”

Making the difficult decision to exit the business

By 2018, it became clear that the economy was deteriorating faster than it was trying to improve, and everyone was struggling. Even Lola’s husband, who’d initially refused to leave Nigeria, had decided it was time to leave.

“At the end of the day, I didn’t really leave Milk and Honey. I left Nigeria,” Lola says. “I’d already calculated that the pivot to an older market was what we needed, and we could turn profitable in the next two to three years so I could take a step back and let the business run on its own. 

But Nigeria just wasn’t working. Did I want to stay because of all the time and money I invested or because I thought Nigeria would get better? What if the upper class also have to make tough decisions and decide our services are an unnecessary luxury?”

Lola left Nigeria for the UK in December 2018 after giving her customers a month’s notice to shut down operations. She sold the remaining bikes and donated most of her cooking equipment. 

“I rarely talk about Milk and Honey because giving it up was so sad. I’d invested everything into it; my finances and my mental and physical health, and for a while after it ended, I lost my confidence. I did everything by the books, and while that always resulted in success, I was suddenly introduced to the possibility of failure. That fear followed me into the other dreams I tried to pursue.”

As our conversation ended, I asked Lola what the experience has taught her about doing business in Nigeria and what other prospective business owners might benefit from knowing.

“Nigeria discards economic principles. I have a degree in marketing and knew all the fun things to do to make a business work, but one plus one was no longer equalling two. The government can announce a new policy, and you may think it’ll have a positive effect. But it doesn’t because they don’t follow through with all the other things that should make the policy work. 

For instance, the government can announce it wants to tackle inflation by releasing funding. That should work, right? At the same time, the same government can decide to stop importation and allow only one person to produce an item. Or they sell forex cheaper to that person. It causes chaos. The word for the Nigerian economic market is just chaos. Some businesses are still making it work regardless, but it’s exhausting. All your permutations and projections can mean nothing at the end of the day.”

On what she thinks might help, Lola says, “So many businesses would do much better if the electricity and transportation problems were solved. If someone comes and solves just those two problems, I’d say they did a wonderful job.”

Ten years later, Lola isn’t the same person who stepped into the country with big dreams.

“I don’t think I’ll return to Nigeria. Many people are doing greenhouse farming now too, so no one needs me. I might consider returning for a vision that has to do with the girl child. If I’ll be helping save a million lives, then I can come back. Otherwise, I’m fine where I am.” 

NEXT READ: The Nigerian Dream Is Dead. Why Did I Move Back Here?



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