For most people, going into entrepreneurship often starts with finding a business idea, and then pursuing it as a side gig until it clicks. Only a few brave ones go all in to test the waters of entrepreneurship. Affiong Williams is one of these few who went all in. And in the last decade, the ‘fruit selling’ business she founded has not only thrived but has also successfully raised funds to drive its global expansion.
Her childhood and early career
Affiong Williams was born on March, 9th, 1986. She completed a first degree in Physiology and Psychology with plans to get into Medical School afterwards to further her dream of becoming a medical doctor.
But by the time she graduated from school, she was already losing interest in Medicine and wanted an opportunity to explore other career paths. She went for a post-graduate diploma in Business Administration from Wits Business School, Johannesburg, South Africa in 2006, in hopes that this would open her to other career opportunities.
Williams got her first job at an entrepreneurship support organisation that supports SMEs in developing markets – Endeavour South Africa – and started interacting frequently with entrepreneurs. After four years of working with and secretly admiring Entrepreneurs and all that they represented, Affiong was ready to leap herself.
How she started Reel Fruits
When Affiong Williams decided to become an entrepreneur, she knew the business has to be focused on value-added agribusiness and started considering different ideas. The first plan was to produce fruit juice as a means to cut down on post-harvest losses for fruit farmers. However, Affiong knew that she could not afford to build a fruit juice factory at the early stages of the business. So, processing dried fruits came as an alternative business idea which could also help achieve the same goal. As a dried fruit snack, the product also did not require power to preserve it, and this meant that the Nigerian sector issue would not be a problem.
- “I was living in South Africa at the time, and dried fruit was very popular there. I figured I could be the first to bring it to Nigeria and make it big. Yes, it was bold, but I didn’t know much. If I had done just a bit more research, I probably would have shelved the idea. I was simply convinced that Nigerians were a lot more open to different tastes, judging by the variety of things that were being imported at the time. I believed all I needed to do was create awareness and demand,” she said.
She upped and came to Nigeria to start the fruit business in 2012. One of the encouragements for returning was a ₦10 million UN grant which she had applied for and been selected for the first round. Unfortunately, a short while after arriving in Nigeria, she received a rejection mail shattering her hopes of receiving any grant.
- “It was an extremely challenging time because not only was I doing something new, but I was also filled with a lot of self-doubts. I thought I had made the biggest mistake of my life, but, of course, I couldn’t quit so early” she’d later say.
As market research, Affiong started hawking some dried fruits she brought back from South Africa. Even though the products did not have the nicest packaging, the feedback was encouraging and Affiong started producing more out of her apartment. It was only a matter of time before Reel Fruit ran into the kind of problem every entrepreneur longs for. The products were selling fast, and demand was rising even faster, so much that it was impossible to meet demand from her small apartment.
She got the first Angel investor, and channelled the funds towards getting an office space, a small van and getting more hands into the business. It took about five years of operation before Reel Fruit got the funds to set up a proper factory with the right machinery. Until that point, the company was counting on third-party producers as far as Ghana, and only doing a bit of processing.
A different kind of fundraising
Like most businesses starting, Williams tried raising funds for the business but things did not seem to be adding up. The dried fruits business was an unexplored space in Nigeria, and investors were not certain how it would pan out, especially given the percentage of businesses that fail within the first five years.
When it became obvious that a large fund round was going to be difficult to raise, Reel fruit CEO took a different approach and started raising small capital from investors to prove their concept.
- “Because we were so unsuccessful at raising a large round, it became apparent that people didn’t believe the big picture. So when we claimed we were going to expand by x amount, they found it easier to believe that we could, say, double our sales, hire more people, open new locations, or launch more products. That story was a lot more relatable with investors,” Williams recounted in an interview.
In this way, the company built investors’ trust and was able to pursue one milestone at a time, based on the fund raised for the purpose. In this way, when the time came to raise more funds, the investors were confident to put their money into a business that had proven itself in smaller milestones. It would take 9 years of operation before the company eventually raised its Series A.
- “Because we pioneered the dried fruits market in Nigeria, it took the first five years of our business to prove that this was not a flash-in-the-pan product. When you couple that with all the other challenges of raising funding in Nigeria, it’s easy to see why it took so long. But I’m delighted with the outcome” Williams said.
Reel Fruits retails a range of dried fruit and nut snacks through a variety of channels including over 700 stores, airlines, schools, hotels, and export sales via Amazon.com. Affiong manages a team of 80+ employees across 3 regional offices in Nigeria and has created employment for 50 rural women trained to grow high-quality, export-grade mangoes in Kaduna.
In September 2021, ReelFruit closed its $3M Series A fund round to expand production capacity 5x to meet growing demand. The company is now focused on expanding its customer base outside Nigeria, collaborating with more farmers to mop up excess fruits and reduce wastage in different parts of Nigeria, and earning its right to its position as a Market leader in this space.
“For the next decade, we’re working on diversifying our customer base. So, while people know us as a consumer brand, which we will continue to be, we want to process a lot more inputs for large manufacturers, like the baking industry, and we also want to focus on exporting. These two segments are where we see a lot of our growth will come from, and that’s where we’re going to focus on building the capacity to do so”.
Awards and recognitions
One needs not to be a serial entrepreneur before the recognitions come. Starting and building an international brand from a one-bedroom space in Yaba requires guts and capabilities that go beyond the regular.
She has been invited to several fora on Agribusiness, investment, and trade including the Inaugural Intra African Trade Fair, Cairo 2018 where she was a panellist. She was a Finalist in the Strive Masiyiwa Go Gettaz Initiative Accra, 2019; the AFDB Africa Investment Forum Market Days Entrepreneurial Venture Showcase. Johannesburg, 2019; and the AFDB African Youth Agripreneur forum and Agripitch, CapeTown, 2019.
She won the Village Capital Agriculture Accelerator, Kenya, 2020. In 2022, Affiong Williams was named the first winner of the esteemed Veuve Clicquot Bold Woman Award.
Affiong is passionate about entrepreneurship, agriculture, and politics and is an avid runner, completing over 15 marathons, and raising funds for charity in the process. Her number one piece of advice to upcoming entrepreneurs is to seek knowledge.
- “Mistakes are costly in terms of time and money, seeking out more experienced people to help you avoid mistakes is sometimes worth more than money.”
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