Nigeria: Taking local foods global, starting with African breadfruit (ukwa)

Dried ukwa produced by Phronesis Foods.

Dried ukwa produced by Phronesis Foods.

The African breadfruit – locally known as ukwa in the Igbo language – is an edible fruit grown and eaten mainly in southeastern Nigeria. The seeds of the fruit are consumed for their high nutritional value.

Chichi Eriobu, founder and CEO of Phronesis Foods, saw a gap in the market to sell processed and packaged ukwa products to consumers in Nigeria and beyond. She told How we made it in Africa about starting the business and shared the strategies that contributed to the company’s growth so far. Here are highlights from the conversion.

The product range

Phronesis Foods currently sells four ukwa products: dried ukwa, roasted ukwa snacks, ukwa poundo and ukwa flour.

Starting the company

Eriobu began the food processing company in 2016. Prior to that, she tried her hand at several business ventures – including trading with clothes, airtime sales, event planning and marketing – none of which performed according to expectations.

The inspiration to process and package ukwa came from her mother, who had retailed fresh ukwa seeds for more than three decades. Ukwa is not farmed on a large scale like conventional crops; instead, many families in southeastern Nigeria keep a handful of trees on their land. Eriobu’s mother bought the seeds and sold ready-to-cook ukwa to individual consumers.

Ukwa is a seasonal fruit and during certain times of the year, it is difficult to source. Eriobu planned to develop a storage system to ensure year-round availability. She also wanted to add value to the seeds – such as roasting and milling – and market the product in attractive packaging.

Chichi Eriobu, founder and CEO of Phronesis Foods

The first two years were tough and Eriobu’s inexperience led to many errors. Initially, the company lost a lot of product because of incorrect storage. She was also overstretched as she was responsible for all aspects of the business, including the procurement of raw material, processing, packaging and delivery.

In early 2018, she stepped back and analysed her mistakes. One of the things Eriobu needed help with was accounting and she reached out to a finance expert she met through Facebook. Eriobu promised him equity in the business and offered to pay him once the company made money. He agreed to come on board and became Eriobu’s first full-time staff member.

In the third quarter of 2018, Eriobu kickstarted the company again with a new strategy. She applied for a business grant offered by a local non-profit organisation. Eriobu and her new finance manager pitched the business and received a grant of 100,000 naira that put the company on its current growth trajectory.

Sourcing and processing

Phronesis Foods no longer buys ukwa from middlemen; it employs people to procure the fruit directly from growers in southeastern Nigeria. Once the fruit is harvested, the seeds are removed, washed and processed at a rented factory in Lagos, where they are parboiled and dehydrated. The seeds are milled for flour, while the snack food product goes through a roasting process.

Over the medium term, Eriobu wants multiple smaller processing plants in the communities where the fruit is harvested. “This is cheaper than having one production plant as the cost of moving raw materials to a central facility is high.”

Where are products sold?

Within Nigeria, Phronesis’ major markets are the cities of Lagos, Abuja and Port Harcourt as well as Anambra and Imo states.

The company also exports to Australia, the UK and the US. “There is not a country in the world where you won’t find a Nigerian Igbo person. However, the market is not only Nigerians living in those countries; it is also people from other nationalities who like to explore new foods,” Eriobu explains, adding that high international shipping costs is one of the key challenges in terms of exports.

Ukwa is an edible fruit grown and consumed mainly in southeastern Nigeria.

Profitable strategies

Eriobu credits the company’s social media strategy for much of the traction it has received. “Every single distributor we have, every single retailer we have, heard about us through social media.”

The company makes a point of publicising new sales on social media. “When we have a new customer, we celebrate the person and mention that someone new bought from us. It validates that there is a market for what we are selling. We do not have the financial capacity to use traditional advertising such as TV, radio and billboards. Social media is free for every small business to leverage, to blow their own trumpet.”

The strategy of not diversifying too quickly has also served the company well, according to Eriobu. While the plan is to eventually expand the product range, it is a deliberate tactic to first focus on one raw material. “It was easier for us to stick with a product that is not market saturated, build it up for five years, and grow our brand equity and customer base. By the time we introduce a new product, we would already have a loyal customer base who trust us.”

Phronesis Foods CEO Chichi Eriobu’s contact information

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