Seyi Abolaji’ is the founder of Wilson’s Lemonade, a leading Nigerian beverage brand. He started the business after returning to Nigeria from the United States in 2007.
His first venture, however, was a palm kernel oil business with a family member, but it did not go as planned.
How it all started
Abolaji announced his return to his home country, Nigeria, after earning a degree from Stanford University.
“Everyone was taken aback, it was never part of the plan”, he said.
This come on the back of his career as a professional football player, and his time at McMaster-Carr, a provider of industrial materials and equipment.
Abolaji worked hard to establish and develop the palm kernel company. When he came, it was mostly empty.
However, the machinery did not meet the required standards, and the storage in Ota, north of Lagos, was not built to support the vibrating equipment used to process the oil.
Abolaji remained unfazed. Not wishing to leave the building and equipment unattended, he built a wood hut at the facility and used plywood to separate his office from his sleeping quarters.
“It was a mess but, at the time, I thought I was doing what I had to do to make this work. About a year in, I conceded it would not succeed. I had to start over. By then, I had used all my money but I did have land and a generator,” he said.
He approached the Covenant University campus kiosk and persuaded them to let him sell freshly squeezed orange juice in cups. He gradually added smoothies and, eventually, lemonade.
They switched from cups to bottles in 2010. Abolaji and his brother Seun who had since joined the business, would scavenge for used plastic bottles, sanitise them, and fill them with liquid for sale.
It was a differentiator to go from orange juice, which everyone else was doing, to lemonade. With the switch to bottling, the possibility of the product becoming a brand was hatching.
The business grew in small steps. Wilson’s Juice Company gained National Agency for Food and Drug Administration (NAFDAC) clearance for its lemonade product in October 2012, after the brothers registered the company in 2010. Abolaji believed the stage had been set, and expected sales to rise.
But a fantastic product is just as good as its awareness. “This is where I learnt there is value in marketing,” said Abolaji. “I thought the NAFDAC accreditation would have people hammering at the gates … nobody hammered.”
The brothers decided to publicise the brand name. They claimed space at festivals and celebrations to market their product.
“We convinced the organisers the lemonade was a great mixer and they would agree to let us stay, as long as we didn’t bother anyone.”
Wilson’s Lemonade grew popularity over time, and other stores began offering the product. The larger chain stores, such as Shoprite, were, on the other hand, far more difficult to penetrate.
Wilson recalls how it took them a year and a half; 18 months of checking in every two to three months, chewing the humble pie, and hearing how horrible our product looks and how we should modify everything.
Once the product was on the shelves, it needed to be promoted and branded in order to be purchased. The pricy amount of the product due to its natural ingredients was a big deciding factor, followed by the square bottle with a complete label. They were insistent about not modifying anything, though, since they wanted to stand out.
The company realised it needed to segment the market and concentrate on customers that were less price sensitive. They discovered that their market in Nigeria was quite specialised, and they needed to find and target the people who would inquire about natural ingredients first, followed by pricing.
They also did not rely on traditional advertising. It used an ambassador program to find and use niche and up-and-coming personalities; followers and fans were encouraged to participate and vote on who they believed would make a good Wilson’s ambassador.
“Instead of the guys with 5,000 to 100,000 followers, we built relationships of mutual respect with rising stars with 500 to 2,000 followers. We asked if they were cool and bold enough to be different and if they had a certain amount of swag.”
Overcoming obstacles in distribution
Wilson’s first believed it could save money by handling its own logistics and distribution. However, Abolaji revealed that they squandered money for four to five years. Unreliable drivers plagued the company, and vehicle failures hampered delivery. They attempted to find distributors but were unsuccessful.
“The distributors kept returning with unsold products, saying their clients weren’t interested. We asked them to put in extra effort to tell our brand stories to the customers, but they did not want to.”
“Formal logistics companies were only willing to take us on if they could do 100 cartons to 10 stores and call it a day. Our product is more like three cartons to 100 stores.”
The answer arrived two and a half years ago in the form of what the company refers to as “logistics partners”: people who have recently lost or are in between jobs and are looking for work. Wilson’s delivers in bulk to a few locations throughout Lagos, where these partners pick up the product for local last-mile deliveries.
“We have incentives to keep them to a 48-hour turnaround time and disincentives if they hit below 85% of their deliveries,” says Abolaji. “We make it worth their while to work for us five to six days a week and they are earning more money now than they have before.”
The company intends to expand on this approach by adding up to ten times the number of partners it now has.
Diversification and expansion
One of the new variants of the brans – Fifun Todos, is a low-sugar, low-cost lemonade drink at around N100 or $0.24. It is made up of the words fifu – to give, and todos which means ‘for us’.
“We are saying: this is for all of us. Wilson’s is a little more exclusive and premium, whereas Fifun Todos is for everybody.”
They want to dominate the lemonade business to the point that rival brands can’t separate the drink from the brand name.
“La Casera had a fizzy apple drink. A year or two later, Fanta Apple was introduced but everyone called it Coke’s La Casera. We want the same … we want to own lemonade in Nigeria,” he says.
Wilson’s Juice Company has a few additional teas and flavoured waters in the works. “However, the team values concentration. They seek to expand their reach beyond Lagos. They also intend to determine if they will grow organically or aggressively this year.