Ayo Alonge, [email protected]
The Chief Executive Officer (CEO), of Islander Barbeque and Asun Limited, a fast growing startup, Suraj Akeeb, has bemoaned the prolonged border closure, saying it remained a setback to his business, which depends largely on imported poultry products. With a business experience spanning 20 years in barbecue chicken production and sales, Akeeb talks about the numerous prospects in his line of business, while also discussing patronage, competitive edge and the attendant challenges.
Disallowing his humble background from being disadvantageous to him, Akeeb, who ventured into business with a meagre sum of N5,000 told Daily Sun how he now empowers others, including employing dispatch riders who aid door-to-door services, as well as owning buses for large deliveries.
After secondary school, I tried to further my education, but my parents were not buoyant so I tried to make things work by helping myself. There was no one to help me and you know how the Nigerian system is. So, I started hustling on the streets. At a time, I was a sales representative in Balogun market, on Lagos Island, helping my aunty sell clothes. I didn’t just jump into making barbeque. In the process, I met one lady called Sherifat, who is actually from Porto Novo. She would come with textiles from there on Mondays and Thursdays. Most times, she would come with barbequed fish which we shared together every time she brought them. So, we suddenly became friends. Then, I was always everywhere in business.
As I was selling clothes for my aunty, I was also working with one of my uncles that runs a hotel business. One day, I woke up in the morning and started talking to myself. I was growing older and I wondered how I would make it in life. That was on a Sunday morning as I can still remember vividly. At a time, the clothes business was no longer attractive because it involved huge capital. So, it was a no-go area for me and I could not just imagine myself toeing such line of business for survival. I had to think about the concept I once got from Sherifat. I thought of it that there was only one man, Mr. John in Surulere area making barbeque. I thought of not going close to him because I wouldn’t want to spoil his business for him. I even thought it won’t be ideal if I went to him and say I wanted to learn from him.
I started the business with something close to N5,000. When I started, I called a guy to train me to start it. I asked him to give me the idea and he just gave me some tips. When I made mine for the first time, I compared the taste with the one I was always getting from Sherifat and I decided to combine the two concepts and that was it. I told you I never went to any training school. I only adopted both ideas. I would go to the market and buy like six to seven pieces of chicken, and ensure that I got very big ones just to entice people, you know. Nigerians love big things, especially when it is very cheap. I thought they would patronise me also because my recipe alone is just very okay. Since then, I came to get this space here and started expanding from there.
Meanwhile, my clothes business was still there for me to always fall back on. I had a friend by the name Ismail Balogun, who would help me stay here and run my business when I would have finished preparing it in the morning because I would still go and fetch something from the clothes business. I opened shop on September 19, 1999 and I can recall that sooner enough, I picked a stand at a carnival in Surulere and that December, people started noticing my business and shortly after, I made a hell of money from that carnival. The biggest was from the old Econet Telecommunication Company, and as you know, that was many years ago. They paid me close to N1.6million. I was so shocked to see such amount of money. They gave us that contract and that was a boom for us.
The opportunities in the business are huge. You meet people in the corridor of power that you never believe you could meet. You work for notable Nigerians. Really, I didn’t know people would want to take such business seriously, but I take it so seriously and I always feel I can make something out of it. I just have that love for it.
Mind you, I never went to any training school for it. I just decided one day to go into this barbeque business. The new trends in the business. Our recipe and the spirit of consistency make us stand out among competitors. We have been able to build the trust in our clients. I don’t see myself competing with eateries because, for me, I don’t want to sell rice, amala or so. Mine is strictly barbeque and small chops.
Marketing and sales
I think and act like an Igbo man. When people even see me, they think I am Igbo because of the way I have taken my business. I go the way things are moving in the society. You have some big companies with their own dispatch riders, especially those of them into courier services. I looked at myself and said I should be able to tell people that I can also serve them better in that regard. I must not limit myself and say it’s because I am into a small scale business. That was how I came up with the idea of having dispatch riders delivering barbeque to people in their homes and offices.
Patronage and prospect
I have had a lot of opportunities in the business. Some clients have had to call us to work for them in the US and some other parts of the world. We have been to New Jersey on an all-expense-paid trip. We have added more clients too. We thank God for that. We have also introduced a lot of things into the business. We just introduced small chops.
It has been amazing. I receive calls from people everywhere and I must say that it has really been working. I deal with corporate clients too, especially during the festive periods, like in December when they have end of the year parties. Like in Zenith Bank, every time they want to do their Christmas lighting, I am always their main barbeque man. I hang rams all over for them. I also get jobs from Lagos State.
The challenges range from poor power supply to the recent border closure. We always have to buy diesel. Of course I need electricity to run my deep freezers for my bars. We are also greatly affected by the closure of the border. We now get frozen foods locally. Getting from the border is cheaper but it is expensive to source locally. We now have people complaining about the sizes of frozen foods. We try explain to them but it can be so difficult to do.
Training and business expansion
I have trained a lot of people and I am proud of that. I have boys that have worked for me and now established on their own. Some of them still come to me to get advice on how to run the business effectively, especially when they have to travel. I have trained people and I am proud of it. For new outlets, we are looking at Lekki, Okota and Ikeja.
These are the places we are looking to expand to. We hope that in January, we will be able to make at least two of these choice places ready for business operations. I also wish to have branches in every state in Nigeria.