By Christy Anyanwu
Sandra Okoye is one focused lady that knows her onions. When she was studying as an undergraduate in Ghana, financial difficulties made her take up a job as a bartender, to enable her pay her tuition fees and meet other needs.
With her head held high, she dug her feet into the ground and excelled in the job. Her no-nonsense mien quickly made her male admirers kept a respectable distance, realising that she had a purpose and was not in the place for jokes or for them collect ‘free current’ from touching her inappropriately. And one person that attempted to get out of line regretted doing so.
Today, she’s back in Nigeria as a successful entrepreneur. In this interview, she relives the inspiring story of her four-year stint working as a bartender and waitress.
Could you give us a snapshot of yourself?
I am the founder and Chief Executive Officer of Viandra Poultry and Farms Limited, located in Lagos. I studied at Bluecrest College in Accra, Ghana, where I got a Bachelor’s degree in Information Technology and after my studies I returned to Nigeria for the mandatory one year national youth service. It has been an interesting experience seeing my company thrive in the midst of a challenging business environment.
Why did you school in Ghana?
After completing studies at Yaba College of Technology (YabaTech) for the National Diploma, I wanted to further my education to obtain bachelor’s degree. My parents saw a publication in the dailies about the study opportunities in Ghana. They asked me if I would be interested. Of course I said. We did not factor, at the time, how it was going to be funded. My mom travelled to Ghana to make enquiries about the school and cost of living in Ghana. The feedback upon her return was not very pleasant considering the family’s financial status. I have younger siblings whose studies had to be funded as well.
I told my parents that I would not like to miss the opportunity. I would work while schooling to offset some of the financial burden associated with my stay in Ghana. My parents asked for some time to think about it. Two days later, they accepted to allow me go to Ghana. I was excited about the opportunity.
What was your experience on the first day in university? Any comparison with Nigerian universities – given what your friends schooling here must have told you?
My first day at school was a mixed feeling. I was excited to be a student in a foreign university and at the same time worried about how I would be able to find a job. There were other nationals in the class, most of whom looked like they were from rich homes. The class was a mix of Nigerians, Ghanaians, Sierra Leonians and so on. I would not say there was much difference because everyone was in a new environment. However, the course schedule, at the time, was very flexible compared to Nigeria. That was why I was able to work while schooling. I really do not know how it works in private universities in Nigeria, though.
What inspired you to forge ahead in spite of the challenges?
I had to make a conscious decision to seek another institution in the city that would align with my vision of schooling and working. That was how I learnt about Bluecrest. I applied and got the admission to study Information Technology. The currency exchange rate at the time was not that bad compared to what we have now. Though I could not get a job in the first year, I was able to pull through by God’s grace, relying on the financial support from my parents. I finally got a job in a medical laboratory in Accra. It was stressful with a poor salary, which was not paid for three months. I had to leave the employer and I got a job as a bartender.
Why did you take up a job as bartender?
The bartender’s job was the only one available at the time. Though I felt skeptical about it because of the general perception people have about bartenders, I never got distracted. It was a job with flexible schedule that perfectly aligned with my study. Apart from the fact that I had to run shifts, the salary was manageable. I soon realized that I could also get tips from customers. The tips actually went a long way in funding my studies.
Please recall your first day at work as a bar attendant.
My oh my! I was very nervous and naive. Being a very shy teenager, I spent more time observing the older experienced employees. Over time I got used to working in the environment. My supervisor was very instrumental in guiding me through the pros and cons of the work place. Case in point I will never forget: I had a tray of drinks and glasses I was supposed to serve a group of customers. I just could not hold my balance and before I realized it, the bottles and glasses went crashing down and broke in pieces. I felt very sad and embarrassed, thinking I was going to be asked to pay for the loss.
What were the odds you faced?
Working in the lab was the darkest experience for me. I worked for three months and never got paid. My employer did not show any remorse, not even after I left. I had to cope with some unwelcome comments from customers who came to the bar where I was working, after I left the medical laboratory.
After my second year, I traveled to Nigeria on holiday. Upon return to Accra, I took up a job at a restaurant as a waitress. My supervisor at the bar had moved to the same restaurant while I was on vacation and she insisted that I come work with her at the restaurant. The chef, for whatever reason never liked me. She did all she could to frustrate me at work. There were several times I starved while others were served meals during break. I endured because I had a vision and nothing was going to stand on my way of achieving my goal. My supervisor encouraged me during this period. Being a pretty, young lady working as a waitress, I had a lot of friends, most of whom gave me good tips whenever they came to eat at the restaurant. I think this sort of got under the skin of the chef, I may be wrong. I would often get back to my hostel exhausted at night, and yet I had no option but to study for my exams. Sometimes I cried at night before going to bed when I considered the hardship I was going through.
As a pretty and very attractive lady, how did you handle male attention (toasters), as I believe most of them must have desired to date you?
Men have eyes for good looking ladies. I had more friends than anyone else at the restaurant. Somehow, I was able to handle my toasters without alienating most of them. They tried until they got tired. Most of them became my friends, till this day. Some stopped talking to me, altogether, but I did not care. My vision was the ultimate thing I cared about. I set the boundaries and always defined my relationship with people. This has remained my guiding principle.
What are you doing now? What motivated you to go into poultry farming as an entrepreneur?
It all started with my younger brother. I watched him raise some birds for egg production. I saw the need to have him raise some broilers for me towards the Easter sales to raise extra cash. We got the birds and one month later, the pandemic lockdown came into effect. The pandemic was an eye opener after seeing so many people lose their jobs. One cannot fully rely on income from a secular or salaried job. A side hustle is important. Considering that I always wanted to own a business which would be unique and in high demand, I decided to go into poultry farming for a start. I did some self-studies online to learn about poultry farming and came to the conclusion that raising birds for egg production would be more profitable, and has been. I am happy I made the right investment.
Why didn’t you pick up a secular job like most of your age mates after youth service?
Working for any organization means you are making the shareholders richer. Nobody becomes a billionaire by working for someone else. I have a vision to own my own company and be in a state of financial freedom. I also have the vision of contributing to the agricultural value chain in Nigeria. I will not be able to achieve my dream if I do a secular job. Looking at the progress I have made since inception, I have no doubt that God’s hands is in this company.
Are you proud being called a poultry farmer?
I am absolutely proud of being a poultry farmer. I have a steady stream of income, manage my spare time and investigate investment in other ventures related to agriculture. My journey as an entrepreneur has been an eventful and fascinating one with many highs and lows but I am better off for it. The future is very bright. Everything else may suffer recession, but hunger has no respect for the economy. People must eat and that is where entrepreneurs like us come in.
What future plans have you made for the business?
First and foremost, I want to grow my poultry business to a fully automated industry where our egg output will be in excess of more than 1000 crates per day. Secondly, my team and I are currently studying the food processing industry. We see that as the next ground-breaking investment we are really excited about.
What advice do you have for young people, especially undergraduates, hoping to further their education but have no sponsor?
Be innovative. Get a job that would suit your study schedule. Pursue your goal and refuse to be distracted. Challenges will come, stand firm and do not give up.