People mock me for selling akara – Abuja graduate

Ayobami Ogunmoroti, a BSc holder who sells akara in Abuja, tells ABDULLATEEF FOWEWE what inspired him to start the business and people’s reaction to him

What motivated you to sell akara (bean cakes)?

I’m Ayobami Ogunmoroti; I am from the Ido-Osi Local Government Area of Ekiti State, and I am 33 years old. I am the youngest and the only one in my family to graduate from a university. I completed secondary school in 2008, but it took me eight years to gain admission into the university as I was determined to study Law. Despite my efforts to secure admission to my desired course, I ended up going for Political Science Education at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, in 2014, and graduated in 2018. Although I initially had no interest or experience in the business of frying bean cakes, I found myself in a position where I needed to generate income and avoid idleness.

However, the reason I decided to invest in the business was due to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. During my National Youth Service Corps programme in Bayelsa State, I utilised my skills as a beautician, specialising in head-ties, hair styling, and makeup. This proved to be advantageous for me in Bayelsa, as I started training fellow corps members in these skills. I was able to generate income through training sessions with churches and other organisations. Unfortunately, the pandemic severely restricted my ability to earn money and I had already taken a loan to purchase makeup kits. While I was able to repay the loan with my NYSC allowance, I found myself in need of additional sources of income.

I was tired and broke, barely able to afford food. One day, I saw an old woman selling bean cakes by the roadside and I was inspired to start my own business. I stopped paying the loan for a month, and I used that month’s NYSC allowance to start a bean cake business and began selling in front of the corpers’ lodge in the Opolo community of Yenagoa.

How did you learn to fry bean cakes?

I initially had no idea. However, my determination to succeed and my mindset that I could accomplish anything I set my mind on gave me the courage to move forward. During that time, I was eager to learn how to fry bean cakes so that I could start my business quickly. I turned to YouTube to watch videos on the process and practiced what I learned until I got it right. Through continuous practice, I mastered the art of frying bean cakes without any formal training. Starting the business posed challenges, as the utensils I had were too small for commercial production. However, with advice from people on how to improve the appearance of the bean cakes, I was able to overcome those obstacles and establish myself as a professional in the field.

Where did you establish your base?

I relocated from Bayelsa State to Abuja after completing my NYSC programme. Upon arriving in Abuja, I had to start my business from scratch. Instead of searching for a job as a fresh graduate, I focused on my bean cake business, as I knew it could generate a good daily income. I am grateful for the progress I have made thus far. However, I had never been to Abuja. Therefore, 2020 was my first time visiting the city. Initially, I lived with my brother for a year, and later I was fortunate to be accommodated by the former Ekiti State governor, Segun Oni, at his Abuja residence for another year. Eventually, I rented my apartment.

How did you find time to fry akara and fulfil your responsibilities at your place of primary assignment as a corps member?

Frying akara in the evening did not interfere with my primary assignment as a corps member. I managed my time effectively, ensuring that I fulfilled my duties during the day, while operating my bean cake business in the evenings. However, during my time as a corps member, I was assigned to a primary school. After completing my responsibilities in the school in the afternoon, I would go to the market to purchase the necessary ingredients and start preparing for the evening sale of my bean cakes. These activities did not affect each other, as I was able to fulfil my duties as a corps member during the day and run my bean cake business in the evening.

What prompted you to leave Bayelsa and relocate to Abuja?

I decided to leave Bayelsa due to safety concerns. The community became unsafe for me as I was repeatedly attacked by hoodlums and cultists who would come to my residence and rob me. This prompted me to search for a safer environment, and I eventually chose to relocate to Abuja.

How was your experience selling akara in Abuja for the first time?

It was great. I had a market space and friends helped attract customers by playing music; some even mistook it for a joint venture. Individuals who purchased my delectable bean cakes that day were the ones who enthusiastically spread the word among their colleagues in the bustling marketplace, urging them to partake in the delightful experience of sampling my bean cakes. When individuals truly appreciate and derive immense pleasure from the products or services you offer, they naturally become passionate advocates, enthusiastically sharing their positive experiences with others and inadvertently becoming brand ambassadors for your business. This organic and powerful form of word-of-mouth marketing became significant.

What sets your bean cakes apart from others?

Upon arriving in Abuja, I realised the importance of rebranding my bean cake to make it stand out. Previously, in Bayelsa State, my bean cake was known as ‘Akara corper’ as I was still undergoing my NYSC programme. However, since I relocated to Abuja and was no longer a corps member, I felt the need to give my brand a unique name. That was when I came up with the name, ‘Akara Ayo’. This rebranding helps differentiate my bean cakes from others in the market.

Following that, I was determined to outshine my competitors so I began brainstorming on strategies to differentiate my bean cakes. This led me to the idea of a unique branded packaging that included the name of my business and the attributes that kept the bean cake warm for an hour. While others used basic materials like paper and nylon, I chose to introduce a special feature that sets my product apart.

Moreover, my bean cake is not an ordinary one; it combines beans and coconut, giving it a distinct and delicious flavour that earns it the nickname, ‘coconut akara’. I made this choice to stand out from the crowd, ensuring that my offerings are unique and appealing to customers. Furthermore, I revolutionised the business by introducing a delivery service, allowing customers to place orders for my bean cakes via the phone from anywhere in Abuja. With just their address, they could have their bean cakes delivered right to their doorsteps.

The bean cakes are tightly sealed in the packaging, so unless the content is read, nobody will know that there are bean cakes inside, and they are delivered while still hot. When people see how well I package my bean cakes, some even assume that I have a big restaurant, when in reality I am not at that level yet. However, I still manage to give it an attractive package that appeals to customers, setting my bean cakes apart from others.

What are the challenges you face as a bean cake seller?

The challenges I face as a bean cake seller are numerous, especially with the recent increase in the prices of ingredients. Managing the business to meet customers’ demands becomes even more difficult. Additionally, the task of waking up early to wash and blend the beans is a challenge, as finding an available grinder to grind beans for me at 3am is not easy.

Another challenge is that customers prefer seeing me frying bean cakes because they believe that the taste will be different if someone else does it. If I’m not present when many customers come to buy bean cakes, they won’t make a purchase. Additionally, staff members sometimes try to take more money than is fair, without considering the costs involved in the process. Sometimes they leave without notice if they find another job offer, making it difficult to find reliable workers. Due to the nature of the roadside business, it’s often me working alone most of the time.

How do you source your ingredients?

I have specific suppliers for each ingredient I use, right down to the oil. Whenever I need anything, I simply call them and they deliver what I need. Some of them even offer credit if I don’t have the funds at that moment, allowing me to return the money once I’ve sold their products.

Can you explain how you make your bean cakes?

The difference in my process is that I include coconut, adding a generous amount for a unique flavour. It’s important to taste the coconut before using it because a spoiled one can ruin the taste of the bean cake. After blending the beans with the coconut, I also slice some coconuts into the pepper for added flavour.

How has your education influenced your approach to entrepreneurship?

Now, allow me to delve into the profound impact that education has had on my entrepreneurial journey. Contrary to the opinions of a few vocal detractors who dismiss education as a mere charade, I acknowledge that education has the potential to equip individuals with the knowledge, skills, and acumen necessary to chart their unique paths in life. Education, when embraced wholeheartedly, offers a platform upon which one can distinguish themselves from the masses and carve out an extraordinary future.

It is important to recognise that education is not solely intended to serve as a means for obtaining traditional jobs. Instead, it is a transformative process that empowers individuals to become employers themselves, fostering a mindset of innovation, ingenuity, and independent thinking. Education provides a bountiful source of inspiration, nurturing the fertile ground from which groundbreaking ideas can sprout and flourish. It facilitates the development of critical thinking abilities.

I often find myself perplexed by those who denounce education as a fraud, attributing it to their inability to secure gainful employment. Nevertheless, the true essence of education lies in its power to ignite a spark of creativity, foster a thirst for knowledge, and impart invaluable life lessons that transcend the realm of employment. Therefore, rather than disparaging education as a fallacious concept, I implore individuals to explore the vast realms of learning, embracing education as a catalyst for personal growth and professional success. Let us not be disheartened by the occasional setbacks or perceived failures, but instead, let us view education as a lifelong pursuit aimed at sharpening our intellect, broadening our horizons, and unlocking the endless possibilities that lie within every one of us.

I take great pride in acknowledging the significant influence that education has had on the thriving success of my esteemed bean cake enterprise. In a bustling marketplace teeming with numerous individuals engaged in the same culinary pursuit, my bean cakes manage to stand out as a result of the knowledge and skills I acquired through my educational journey. It is worth noting that my innovative approach to packaging bean cakes distinguishes me from the rest, and this unique selling point is made possible solely through the educational foundation upon which I built my business.

Has anyone ever mocked you for doing such a business?

Yes, some chose to belittle my chosen profession, subjecting me to ridicule and mockery. However, I staunchly maintained my focus, realising that the opinions of others held little consequence in comparison to the ultimate objective; the acquisition of monetary compensation. Astonishingly enough, numerous individuals who initially taunted and mocked me eventually became customers purchasing my bean cakes. Hence, I found comfort in the fact that their mockery was insignificant, as long as they were contributing to the growth and prosperity of my business.

Furthermore, some individuals expressed qualms about forming intimate relationships due to the nature of my occupation. They asserted that they could not envision themselves marrying an individual involved in the bean cake trade. However, I rebutted such objections by asserting that I, too, was at capacity in the marital realm, having already embarked upon the journey of matrimony with another. The profession I chose did not dictate my eligibility for marriage, and I refused to compromise on my commitment to monogamy.

However, the critics who attempted to undermine my entrepreneurial endeavours through mockery failed to prevent me from my chosen path. The satisfaction derived from financial gains eclipsed their negative remarks. Furthermore, I confidently countered objections regarding my suitability for marriage by simply affirming that my marital status prevented me from entertaining the idea of polygamy.

There was a particular incident where a woman approached me seeking advice on how to prepare bean cakes for her family. I politely declined, suggesting instead that if her family desired bean cakes, they should purchase them from me. Surprisingly, this led to her verbally attacking me, accusing me of arrogance for selling bean cakes despite being a university graduate. To my surprise, it was my customers who defended me that day, even going as far as to want to beat her. I had to intervene to prevent that. Despite this experience, I firmly believe that no matter what profession one chooses, there will always be those who criticise. It seems that mockery is simply a part of human nature.

What was your wife’s response when you decided to start the bean cake business?

Her response was incredibly supportive. At the time, she was caring for our first child, and I felt that starting this business was the best way to provide for them. If I hadn’t started the business back then, my family might have faced hardship. Without my wife’s support, I would have been left without a partner. She has been instrumental in the success of our business, and I am grateful for her dedication.

What are some common misconceptions about operating a food business?

One prevalent misconception is the belief that the food business is primarily for women. However, if you look at major kitchens across the country, you’ll find that many are run by men. Cooking, often seen as a talent when done by men, is a skill that anyone can master. Additionally, maintaining a professional appearance is crucial, even when selling food by the roadside, as it helps attract customers.

How do you manage the demands of your business alongside other responsibilities?

I maintain a clear distinction between business and personal commitments. For instance, I prioritise my religious obligations and refrain from selling bean cakes on Sundays. This helps me strike a balance between work and personal life, ensuring that both aspects receive the attention they deserve.

Have you encountered any competition within your locality?

Certainly, there is competition, but my approach sets me apart, particularly as a young entrepreneur. I differentiate myself through unique packaging, delivery services, and active promotion on social media. Despite having higher prices compared to my competitors, my offerings justify the cost. This ensures that my business doesn’t directly impact theirs, as customers who prioritise affordability can opt for competitors, while those seeking higher quality and premium features choose my products.