APOLLOS IKPOBE, banker and financial expert with over three decades experience in the banking and finance industry, including stints as executive director, Zenith Bank Plc; deputy managing director, United Bank for Africa Plc, as well as many non- executive directorships, is currently the chairman of Just Food Limited. West
Africa’s leading supplier of quality consumables and global food equipment brands, and renowned as the first company to locally produce non-dairy ice cream in Nigeria.
In this interview captured by Business A.M.’s ONOME AMUGE, the accomplished finance expert with over three decades of valuable experience in the banking and finance industry, discusses how he has been able to bring his wealth of experience to transforming the company from selling imported products to now producing locally. He also shares the valuable contribution of the company to the development of Nigeria’s foods manufacturing sector. Enjoy reading the excerpts:
Can you tell us about the company and its transformation from being a company selling imported products to one that is now producing locally, especially since your emergence as chairman over eight years ago?
First of all, as you know, we are a player in the food space. We focus more on B2B (business-to-business). Just Food Limited is a 33-year old business founded by Peter Mason in 1989. I came into the business in 2012 but took over as chairman of the company in 2015. Tunde Ogunrinde came in 2015 as the MD/CEO. Since then, we have been building on the original vision of the founder and found ways to diversify and create new businesses because the only thing you are sure of in every dynamic environment is change and we are trying to adapt in many ways to keep us relevant to our markets. Being in a country with a population of over 200 million people with 70 percent below 30 years, one thing we are sure of is that we can create products that will excite the market. It is a growing market for us and we are trying to influence the consumption pattern in our own way with our customers / partners and that you can see, because part of the businesses we have are the Quick Service Restaurants (QSRs) and most of the top names in Nigeria do business with us.
Comelle ice cream. Our focus is to compete with international brands. We asked ourselves why people should have to import ready to eat ice cream when we can produce it here in Nigeria. Our dairy ice cream products can compete favourably with any quality brand globally. Also note that we are the first company in Nigeria to produce a non-dairy ice cream product (Just Delight). This product caters for consumers that are lactose intolerant. We got this agro based ice cream, primarily from soybean and that is something that is already making its impact in the major markets. We also began producing ice cream cones in our factories rather than importing. We are into supporting the value chain around ice cream itself though provision of equipment, support products.
Just Food has been around for 33 years, playing a major role in a sector that is very important, but you have been conservative in your business strategy. What informed that?
The shareholders and the board believe in ‘making haste slowly’ hence it is our philosophy to be conservative. If you look at the ownership of the company and the management style that we adopt, we can be very effective but not very loud people. This runs from the board and to the management. We are privileged to have on a board as a director, Mr. Ayo Oni, former ICAN president and former chairman of Access Bank. We just want to perform and let our products speak for us. Most
businesses in the ice cream industry know us. Our brand name is strong and the idea is that any product that comes from Just Food will be easily accepted in the market. We are tapping into our strong brand equity to deliver quality products.
Your brand name is stronger than your products. Is it part of your philosophy?
Yes. So that anything that comes from that brand name will be easily accepted. That is why you can see Just Good, Just Delight, Just Cones. First of all, we established that brand, Just Food as a brand across Nigeria and other countries in West Africa. It is now time to tap into the value of the Just Food brand by creating products on the back of our brand equity.
Talking about FX challenges, the government recently abolished the various FX markets to multiple exchange rates. How do you think this is going to affect your company’s operation going forward?
Most businesses have been disadvantaged due to sourcing forex at a more expensive rate than competition. Floating the naira will lead to a level playing field for all. If we are producing locally, it put us in a better position to compete with importers. Many businesses will start looking at local alternatives which will be more affordable. The policy will promote more local production which has a beneficial multiplier effect on the economy.
As a manufacturer what policy direction do you see from the current administration?
The list of approved dairy importers should be enlarged. This is because there are so many businesses that are involved with dairy products conversion and processing such as infant formula, cheese, pizza, biscuits & Ice cream companies that are not on the list. The end users / consumers ultimately suffer by paying higher for products due to the difficulties arising from this and other challenging policies. The indigenous manufacturers should be encouraged with enabling policies, grants, subventions and targeted funding to boost their capacity to produce, their comparative advantage and position them to effectively compete internationally. This will result in more employment of our youths and greater contribution to our GDP. The benefits of ACFTA, with this level of support will allow Nigeria companies export more to the continent and generate more forex for the country.
Can you talk about the growth of the company since you assumed the position of chairman in 2015 and the transformation that has taken place in the last eight years?
Before 2015, our business was primarily focused on importing and selling products with little value addition. From 2015, we decided to move into light manufacturing at our Ota factory with the production of Ice cream cones (JUST Cones) and premium and value ice cream products (Comelle Premium Ice cream & JUST Good Ice cream). Now we are engaged in contract manufacturing for other companies locally. We also have our own locally produced ice cream powder mix (Just Food Ice Cream Mix) that is currently making waves in the market especially amongst QSRs. We subsequently expanded our warehousing / production facilities to Asaba, Kaduna, Lekki & Accra – Ghana. We also decided to focus on specific OEM’s (Original Equipment Manufacturers) suppliers such as Taylor USA equipment manufacturing for ice cream. For cooking and oven businesses we chose Rational ovens. It is worthy of note that our technicians are internationally trained and certified to maintain the equipment of partners we represent.
In West Africa we opened offices in Ghana, Cote D’Ivoire and Senegal, and the standard and culture of global premium quality is the same. We have also established a presence in Sierra Leone, Cameroon and Guinea, however Nigeria remains our biggest market.
Where do we expect to see Just Food in the next five to ten years in terms of expansion?
In the last 8 years we have structured new relationships with our partners and we have been able to triple our turnover in Nigeria in spite of macroeconomic and environmental limitations. Over the next five years, we plan to grow three times our current levels. We will continue to strengthen our relationships with our customers as a trusted partner of choice as they continue to expand. We will continue to create more products to meet the ever changing needs of our markets. We expect more expansion into other African countries. We currently have several QSRs businesses we are supporting, and our equipment supply business and consumables sales to the hospitality sector will continue to grow to meet our projections.
What are the conditions within the economy that inspires this confidence and what is your strategy towards achieving that?
We have a youthful and growing population. They are following new global taste trends and accompanying products. We keep developing different ice cream offerings and other products in partnership with our customers and suppliers. We will also continue to diversify our product range to reach as many more customers as possible and go further down the value chain.
There have been questions around this notion about non-dairy ice cream, which you need to re-emphasise, especially because of its health implications and the benefits it is bringing to the Nigerian people and the economy generally.
After a year of R&D we came up with a non-dairy product (Just Delight Ice cream).
Just Delight brings Nigeria its very first non-dairy ice cream. Designed specifically for those seeking a delightful frozen treat without challenges they experience when eating dairy products. Just Delight is a delicious, creamy and satisfying plant-based ice cream that serves as an excellent alternative to traditional dairy ice cream.
Just Delight offers a delectable selection of flavors, including Vanilla, Strawberry, and Chocolate, ensuring there’s something to suit every palate. With its creamy texture and enticing taste, this non-dairy ice cream is bound to please even the most discerning dessert connoisseurs.
One additional standout feature of Just Delight is its suitability for vegans, vegans can now savor the joys of ice cream without compromising their dietary choices.
Tell us about the contract manufacturing that you do for your customers and its economic impact on the sector?
We have several ice cream companies in Nigeria that have contract manufacturing agreements with us. The way we are set up, it is more economical to produce locally with Just Food due to our existing economies of scale and scope.
Can you tell us about your expansion across Africa and its impact on your business operations?
Currently, we have two hubs. One in Nigeria and the other in Accra, Ghana. Our partners are already asking us to move to all ECOWAS countries and Cameroon. We want Ghana to support Nigeria as the base to take care of other African countries.