Dedicated to the memory of sixteen young Nigerians who lost their lives at the National Immigration Service recruitment exercise.
Arouse the average unemployed graduate from sleep and ask for his dream place of work. In a flash, he would tell you a bank, or the oil sector, or a federal institution or a telecommunication company. He would never tell you he prays to work in the unregulated and scorned informal sector. Who could blame him? All the years he sacrificed to get an education was to get a ‘befitting’ job. So when you find a graduate who obtained a bank job but voluntarily turns in his resignation to embrace a blue-collar job, you want to know what went wrong. When you find that the job he willingly embraced is frying and selling akara (bean-cakes), you want to know what really really went wrong!
|Front and side views of mobile shed|
His name is Ayowale Fatoki, a graduate of Mathematics from the University of Agriculture, Abeokuta. He was once a Client Officer in a micro-finance bank with a take-home pay of N40,000 per month, besides the commission on every loan-portfolio he sold. One day, he just stopped ‘feeling’ his job and decided to go out on his own. He could have tried clothes-retail, like he did while in school, but he needed a lot of capital if he was going to operate at a decently competitive level. He kept thinking of what to do until a lady lawyer mentioned to him that she sold akara, chips and the like to tide herself over in school. That was his eureka moment. He went home and informed his parents about the idea of running a business of frying and selling akara and as expected, they were not excited about it. It wasn’t that they didn’t understand the value of self-employment but they just wished he had picked a classier job. What they didn’t know was that he was going to employ his creativity to dignify an otherwise undignified job.
He didn’t draw up any business plan and all the market surveys he conducted were rather rudimentary and included a truckload of assumptions. He so believed in the idea that, as much as they liked akara, the working-class had no time to prepare it and that most were scared to buy from unhygienic roadside stands. He was going to get a location very accessible to them and make his akara in a shed as clean as an operating room. Straightaway, he took his small capital of N25,000 and bought a used gas cylinder, gas cooker, ingredients for preparing akara and a generator (for illumination in the evenings when he opens shop). He didn’t need any cuisine training, being a wonderful cook himself, and then he set out looking for the perfect location to sell his akara.
|Ayowale frying akara|
He was favoured to find the right spot in a busy intersection of an upscale neighbourhood. He set up shop under a small canopy and got ready to sell the akara without running any advertising campaign. His kid sister, who was on mid-term breaks, joined him for the first weekend. They peeled one congo of beans (10 cups), grinded it, added all the condiments, started frying their thing and waited for customers to come and buy. That was the 31st of October 2013 and mine, all it did that evening and the next two evenings was rain and rain! But the two siblings had put their hands to the plough and weren’t going to look back. Somehow, they sold every ball of akara they fried. Ayowale told me that although the rain beat them mercilessly, it was a blessing at the same time. This is because the mere sight of an overcast sky is enough to get people scampering home and as most wish to buy supper on their way, his hot akara was always waiting for them.
His business is called Akara Ayo and he credits it to Rev. and Mrs. Dahunsi who continue to provide him with much-needed mentorship.
|Ayowale and an employee|
Don’t reinvent the wheel
By the end of the first month, Ayowale was frying up to 4 congos of beans and had learnt that home-cooking is different from commercial-cooking, if you will. On the job, he learnt tricks like shelling his beans and pouring it inside water for the seed-coat to float instead of wasting time, soaking and peeling it off with his palms, as he was earlier doing. He even told me another trick he learnt the hard way, after losing customers to sour-tasting akara. His akara often became sour after two hours and he was told to put a piece of charcoal in the beans-paste to make it keep longer. However, the perfectionist in him argued that without a scientific backing he wouldn’t employ what he called a ‘crude’ age-old trick. He kept losing customers until he got a microbiologist who explained the anti-oxidation process of the charcoal. With the improved taste, customers returned; now he averages about 150 customers each day and is still growing.
You can’t be creative and not be re-inventive
Using a gas cooker is a rarity in Ayowale’s business, but he spends N2,700 every week on gas as against spending N4,000 to N5,000 if he had chosen the firewood option. Also, many people who care about what goes into their mouth don’t buy roadside akara because they get stained with the ink of newspapers they are wrapped in. To prevent this, Ayowale packages his akara in a stylishly-wrapped brown paper bag, places it in a polythene bag and hands it to every customer with a smile. Another work of genius is the mobile shed from which he makes and sells his akara. It was born out of the need to shelter from the rain and the strain of moving the cooking implements every day to and from his store (the neighbourhood doesn’t allow any permanent roadside structures). He approached a fabricator with his never-seen-before concept and was asked to return in a few days so the fabricator could consult! Although it cost him over N45,000 he can now easily move all his implements. The mobile shed is fitted with flexible shutters so that, come rain or shine, his frying pan keeps churning out hot akara.
Ayowale’s manners and professionalism, his fresh approach and good command of English quickly betray his academic achievements. When you find out that he is a graduate, it is impossible not to have a reaction. For this reason, his entrepreneurial path has been littered with praise, pity and a few times, outright condemnation. Many people have approached him to say they salute his courage but that they can easily get him a befitting job if he wants one. He smiles and tells them, “No, thank you”. Others passing by have taken time to pray that God will lift him out of the pit of penury and place him where graduates like himself belong and he gladly replies, “Amen”. He told me that he is too busy frying his akara to explain that he is in a goldmine and not a penury pit. A number of friends and relatives have often walked briskly past his shed without greeting him, so as not to be identified with him.
He gets encouraged when ‘praisers’ tell him how they inspire their children or student with his story but he maintained that it can be a lonely path and that he cannot be overly encouraged by praise nor discouraged by sympathizers. He is grateful that today his parents have become some of his most ardent supporters.
This is for real
The mathematician in Ayowale bubbles up when you ask questions like this next one. I asked him, “How profitable is this business?” And then he begins. “A cup of white beans roughly costs N20 and you can make at least N80 worth of akara from it. Up to sixty per-cent of that can go to your cost of raw materials and another ten per-cent to the cost of labour. So, on a very slow business-day you make at least N24 profit on a cup of N20”. I was impressed.
Under five months he has increased his daily quota to 8 congos, giving him a minimum monthly profit that is twice his take-home pay when he was in the micro-finance bank. And that’s not all, he has two employees which he pays a total of N15,000 per month.
But, he is quick to tell you that it is not all a bed of roses; there are a few days he hardly breaks even. The major culprit is the rain. Before he made his shed, the rainwater and boiling oil was an exploding mixture that often forced him to shut down operations. There have also been a few days of leftovers which he couldn’t sell. But, by and large, his successes have enormously outweighed his losses and he is optimistic of further growth.
Ayowale acknowledges that this business is just a stepping stone for him as he will not fry akara forever. Currently he fries and sells it only in the evenings and engages in other money-making ventures during the daytime. He is a repository of business ideas; from the food grinding business, to having more Akara Ayo outlets, to owning mobile restaurants; the list is endless. However, he hopes and prays to find investors to help fund the ideas.
He also has plans to continue with his education and obtain a Masters’ degree in Financial Mathematics. His advice to graduates, employed and otherwise is this: “Success in any chosen career is a journey and we must keep moving. Some of us will fly, others will run and still some will walk but if all you can do for now is crawl, don’t stop, just keep moving. You will get there”.
For contact purposes, Ayowale’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org