Made in Nigeria: Agribusiness entrepreneurs expanding into US market

Affiong Williams, CEO of Nigeria-based dried fruit snacks producer ReelFruit

Amid ongoing discussions about the future of the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) – which allows qualifying African countries to export certain products duty-free to the US – several food and agriculture companies with operations in Nigeria are already tapping into the massive American market.

Lanre Awojoodu, CEO of Sourcing and Produce, initially focused on exporting cocoa from Nigeria to Europe before expanding to commodities like cashew nuts and ginger. In 2021, the company introduced its own brand, So Pure, and opened a storefront on Amazon. Aimed at the Nigerian diaspora in the US, So Pure offers products such as the ancient grain fonio, fufu flour (made from starchy vegetables like cassava and yam), ofada rice (an unpolished, parboiled rice native to Nigeria), pepper soup spice, blended crayfish, and suya mix (a robust blend of West African spices). These processed goods are sourced and packaged in Nigeria and then shipped to the US, where Sourcing and Produce has also established an office in Wyoming. (Read more: How this Nigerian trader built an agricultural exports business)

Another Nigerian entrepreneur tapping the American market is Shalom Bako Dangombe. When he was 14 years old, his father relocated their family of five from Bauchi state in northern Nigeria to Orange County, California. There, Bako finished high school and attended college, and at one point it looked like he would commit to a future as a professional soccer player. He played first at his college, where he earned a communications degree, and later the Los Angeles Galaxy.

Yet now, in his mid-thirties, Bako spends his days engaging with smallholder farmers in northern Nigeria, persuading them to grow hibiscus flowers for Afrivana, the company he established in 2019. Afrivana specialises in marketing and distributing African superfoods, particularly dried hibiscus flowers. The company sells its products in bulk or under private label to clients in the US, UK, and beyond.

When he noticed hibiscus tea on American shelves, it brought back childhood memories of selling the beverage to classmates after school. Known as zobo in northern Nigeria, the drink is popular among Mexican and Caribbean communities in the US. Bako recognised a ready market for the flower, which was used to fence crops in his home village.

However, his early attempts to engage American buyers were met with reluctance. To many companies, the prospect of doing business with a Nigerian entity seemed fraught with risk. “We overcame those hurdles by importing larger volumes and storing them in the US. Then we distributed from these warehouses,” explains Bako. This tactic proved successful as clients were more comfortable with the product being readily available in their vicinity and promptly delivered. (Read more: Supplying the American market with Nigerian superfoods)

Shine Bridge Global, a US-based food science and agribusiness company, was established in 2018 by Dr Tony Bello, a native of Nigeria. The company specialises in creating products from cassava sourced in Nigeria.

In recent years, Shine Bridge Global has been focusing on converting high-quality cassava flour into instant tapioca flakes. Tapioca is derived from the cassava root and the resulting flakes, according to Bello, have similar applications to potato flakes. Potato flakes are utilised as a food ingredient in the production of various commercially available items, such as pasta and snacks, and also serve as a thickener in gravies and desserts. The company is also in the process of developing a few other cassava-derived food products such as crackers, pizza crusts, ready-mix fufu, fried snacks and flatbreads – all using its tapioca flakes.

Shine Bridge Global has set its sights on launching both the tapioca flakes and the end-consumer packaged goods in the US and UK for a trial phase. Following this, it plans to gradually scale up production, selling to consumer packaged goods companies and marketers. (Read more: Nigerian cassava – The next big thing in US food market?)

Affiong Williams, CEO of ReelFruit – a producer of dried fruit snacks based in Nigeria – views the substantial Nigerian diaspora in America as an opportunity for businesses like hers to gain a foothold in the US market. “There is no better market, or no lower hanging fruit, than your people in another country,” she says. “I see a growing opportunity for products such as mine and other food products that are becoming more global in their standards, to sell to the Nigerian market in the US.”

An estimated 5 million Nigerians live overseas, with a notable portion residing in the US. While the Nigerian diaspora in the US might feel a connection to their homeland, it doesn’t guarantee they’ll choose a ReelFruit packet out of nostalgia. Williams acknowledges that for her product to be successful, it must also resonate with a broader American consumer base, not just those with Nigerian heritage. “Many foods exported from Nigeria to the US are for Nigerians in the diaspora, however, if people could produce food and snacks with wider appeal it could be a big opportunity,” she notes. (Read more: Feeding the Nigerian diaspora in America – A prime agribusiness opportunity)