Sunday, 1 December 2013

Rotting tomatoes

Bola went to one of the villages surrounding the city of Ibadan and was shocked to find that the cost of baskets of tomatoes and pepper was very cheap. It was less than half the cost of the cheapest baskets in Ibadan’s popular Bodija market. The distance between the village and Ibadan was a mere 8 miles and by the time she drove to and fro, there was no noticeable movement in the needle of the fuel gauge. She came back to Ibadan and set out to conduct a survey of what other women desired or loathed about shopping for these cooking ingredients. She designed a questionnaire and began administering it; but it was not long before she found that most shoppers hated going to the markets because of its filthy and noisy environment. Armed with the information, she decided to open a grocery store not far from Aleshinloye, another major commodity market in Ibadan. Her store was located on a fairly quiet street; it was neat and had a parking lot. She made contact with the farmers in the surrounding villages and entered a first refusal agreement to buy their tomatoes and pepper.

On the day she opened her store, the main selling points were the sane ambience of her store and the rock-bottom prices available there. She made flyers distributed them in the neighbourhood and informed friends and family too. Then the wait began. On the first day, there were no expectant shoppers queuing up in front of her store to get cheap tomatoes. The next day was even longer and still no customers came. Unlike non-perishables that have no expiry date, her wares were expiring and rotting away right
under her nose and this brought so much apprehension into her mind. She started wondering how to get the word out there about her excellent grocery services. She lost appetite as her dismal sales kept gnawing at her. Then after a week of packing decomposing tomatoes and giving them to local food-sellers as give-away, an idea struck her: If a drinker won’t go to the bar, somehow the bottle will come to him.

She decided to hit the streets and start selling her wares in branded polythene bags by the roadside. She jumped through hoops before getting a hand who would help her peddle them. When she finally got one, they went out test the novel approach on one of the city’s busiest routes. They went during the rush-hour traffic and after two hours succeeded in selling only one bag. They returned to the store dejected. On the following day, the hand absconded; who could blame her for bailing out on an untested idea that existed only in Bola’s head. This was the end of the second week of no sales and plenty rotting tomatoes. Her appetite waned again. Then her friend, Wale came around to buy some pepper and noticed her drawn countenance. When he asked what was wrong, she poured out her heart to him. He helped by pointing out the fault in her premise for setting up the business: It is true that people don’t want to go to the market. But because of the lack of regular power supply, they can't power their refrigerators and so they buy the ingredients in only small quantities. Therefore her emphasis on ‘cheap’ meant nothing because price difference was only noticeable when shoppers buy in bulk. No one will leave the markets in their neighbourhoods and drive for kilometers to go and buy only 300 grams tomatoes no matter how cheaply it sold for.

Bola, started thinking again and then decided to look elsewhere for her market. She approached supermarkets in the city and proposed to supply fresh pepper, tomatoes and onions every day. One manager was kind to give her a tryout. She washed the grocery, air-dried it, packaged it in perforated cellophane bags and supplied them. The supermarket was air-conditioned therefore her wares kept longer but more interestingly they sold like hot cakes. On Thursday to Sunday, patronage was so high she could not keep up. The middle and high class customers who shopped in the supermarket truly hated the market, they bought in small quantities but above all the grocery was brought close to them; they didn't have to go out of the way to get them in her store.

Bola is stronger today. She has learnt a lot in business and says what kills many entrepreneurial dreams is discarding the drawing board. “If something fails, it is good to try and try again”, she says, “but if it doesn't succeed it is insane to keep at it. What most people do, which is even senseless, is to pack up and leave. Shouldn't they have gone back to the drawing board?” she asked. Bola saw a great opportunity but had a bad justification for the business plan. She went to the drawing board and fine-tuned her justification but she still had a faulty business model. She went yet again to her drawing board and tweaked the model and started selling. A business plan is only draft, it is not etched in stone. Even the Ten Commandments which is carved in a rock is broken every so often by all of us, so why can’t we break our business plans and redraft another. We should never be afraid to admit that our brilliantly drawn strategy is just not so brilliant after all. We should be able to take as many second-chances as we need to make our businesses work and not just stick it.

We make fun of people who quit but I personally find people who persistently try things that have never worked even funnier. I find a fewer sights more pitiful than people who are the same after ten years or more. If something is not working, try another approach; and if things are working look for ways to improve them. Thanks for reading, have a great December and remember to share on your facebook and twitter.


  1. Nice piece,I'm inspired

  2. It's as though a bright light shined on me after reading this. Every entrepreneur needs to read this.
    Segun, you are gifted!