For most people, getting started often starts with find a business idea and then pursue it as a side job until it clicks. Only a few brave ones launch themselves to test the waters of entrepreneurship. Affiong Williams is one of the few who did it all. And in the last decade, the ‘selling fruit’ business she founded has not only prospered but also raised funds to fuel her global expansion.
His childhood and early career
Affiong Williams was born on March 9, 1986. She completed a first degree in Physiology and Psychology with plans to enter Medical School to further her dream of becoming a doctor.
But by the time he graduated from school, he was already losing interest in medicine and wanted the chance to explore other careers. She obtained a Postgraduate Diploma in Business Administration from Wits Business School, Johannesburg, South Africa in 2006, hoping that this would open her up to other career opportunities.
Williams landed her first job with an entrepreneurship support organization that supports SMEs in developing markets, Endeavor South Africa, and began interacting frequently with entrepreneurs. After four years of working with and secretly admiring entrepreneurs and all they stood for, Affiong was ready to make the leap.
How Reel Fruits Started
When Affiong Williams decided to become an entrepreneur, she knew that the business had to be focused in value-added agribusiness and began to consider different ideas. The first plan was to produce fruit juice as a means of reducing post-harvest losses for fruit growers. However, Affiong knew that he could not afford to build a fruit juice factory in the early stages of the business. So dried fruit processing came up as an alternative business idea that could also help achieve the same goal. As a nut snack, the product also did not require energy to preserve, and this meant that the Nigerian sector issue would not be an issue.
- “I was living in South Africa at the time, and dried fruits were very popular there. I thought I could be the first to bring it to Nigeria and make it big. Yes, he was bold, but he didn’t know much. If he had done a little more research, he probably would have dropped the idea. He was just convinced that Nigerians were much more open to different tastes, judging by the variety of things being imported at the time. He believed that all he had to do was raise awareness and demand.” she said.
She was encouraged and came to Nigeria to start the fruit business in 2012. One of the spurs to return was a ₦10 million UN grant she had applied for and was selected for the first round. Unfortunately, shortly after arriving in Nigeria, she received a rejection email that shattered her hopes of receiving any grants.
- “It was an extremely challenging time because not only was I doing something new, but I also had a lot of self-doubt. I thought I had made the biggest mistake of my life, but of course I couldn’t give up so soon.” I would say later.
As a market research, Affiong started selling some dried fruits that he brought from South Africa. Although the products didn’t have the best packaging, feedback was encouraging, and Affiong began producing more in his apartment. It was only a matter of time before Reel Fruit ran into the kind of problem every entrepreneur craves. Products were selling fast and demand was increasing even faster, so much so that it was impossible to meet the demand from his small apartment.
He landed the first angel investor and funneled the funds into getting office space, a small van, and getting more hands on the business. It took about five years of operation before Reel Fruit obtained the funds to set up a proper factory with the proper machinery. Until then, the company had external producers as far as Ghana and only processed a little.
A different kind of fundraising
Like most start-up businesses, Williams tried to raise funds for the business, but things didn’t seem to add up. The dried fruit business was an uncharted space in Nigeria, and investors were unsure how it would turn out, especially given the percentage of businesses that fail in the first five years.
When it became clear that a large round of funding was going to be difficult to raise, the CEO of Reel fruit took a different approach and began raising small capital from investors to test his concept.
- “Because we weren’t successful in raising a big round, it became clear that people didn’t believe in the big picture. So when we said we were going to expand by x amount, it was easier for them to believe that we could, for example, double our sales, hire more people, open new locations, or launch more products. That story was much more relatable with investors.” Williams recounted in an interview.
In this way, the company gained the trust of investors and was able to pursue one milestone at a time, depending on the fund raised for that purpose. This way, when it came time to raise more funds, investors trusted to put their money into a business that had proven itself in smaller milestones. It would take 9 years of operation before the company would finally raise its Series A.
- “Because we pioneered the dried fruit market in Nigeria, it took the first five years of our business to prove that this was not an instant product. When you combine that with all the other fundraising challenges in Nigeria, it’s easy to see why it took so long. But I’m delighted with the result.” Williams said.
Reel Fruits retails a variety of dried fruit and nut snack foods through a variety of channels including more than 700 stores, airlines, schools, hotels, and export sales through Amazon.com. Affiong manages a team of over 80 employees in 3 regional offices in Nigeria and has created employment for 50 trained rural women to grow high-quality export mangoes in Kaduna.
In September 2021, ReelFruit closed its $3 million Series A funding round to expand production capacity 5-fold to meet growing demand. The company is now focused on expanding its customer base outside of Nigeria, collaborating with more farmers to eliminate excess fruit and reduce waste in different parts of Nigeria, and earn its right to its position as the market leader in this space.
“Over the next decade, we will work to diversify our customer base. So, although people know us as a consumer brand, which we will continue to be, we want to process many more inputs for the big manufacturers, such as the baking industry, and we also want to focus on exporting. These two segments are where we see a lot of our growth coming from, and that’s where we’re going to focus on building the capability to do it.”
Awards and honours
You don’t need to be a serial entrepreneur before the accolades come your way. Starting and building an international brand from a one-bedroom space in Yaba requires guts and capabilities beyond the norm.
She has been invited to various forums on agribusiness, investment and trade, including the Inaugural Intra-African Trade Fair, Cairo 2018, where she was a panelist. She was a Finalist in the Strive Masiyiwa Go Gettaz Accra Initiative, 2019; the AFDB Africa Investment Forum Market Days entrepreneurial business showcase. Johannesburg, 2019; and AFDB African Youth Agripreneur and Agripitch forum, Cape Town, 2019.
She won the Village Capital Agriculture Accelerator, Kenya, 2020. In 2022, Affiong Williams was named the first recipient of the esteemed Veuve Clicquot Bold Woman Award.
Affiong is passionate about entrepreneurship, agriculture and politics and is an avid runner, completing more than 15 marathons and raising money for charity in the process. His number one tip for future entrepreneurs is to seek knowledge.
- “Mistakes are costly in terms of time and money, looking for more experienced people to help you avoid mistakes is sometimes worth more than money.”