Segun Olaye: The brain behind Ayoola Poundo Yam

If you haven’t consumed any of his products, the probability is high that you have seen it on the shelves of supermarkets in your neighborhood. If you haven’t seen or heard of any other product from his stable, Ayoola Foods Limited,  it is quite possible you have seen or heard about Poundo Yam flour, the food that is quite popular in families where pounded yam is a staple food, especially in the south western part of Nigeria.

Such is the popularity of Poundo Yam, the flagship product of Ayoola Foods, that many of its consumers would have difficulty linking the product to the company. They know the product, but may not know much about the company. The product has become the brand name that has totally eclipsed the company. Worse still, consumers of Poundo Yam have no idea who the man behind the company that makes the product is.

Segun Olaye is the man that revolutionized the way pounded yam is prepared, ensuring the food that is consumed in many homes around the country and in Nigerian homes outside the country, does not miss from the family menu simply on account of the traditionally difficult and long process of preparing it.

The traditional method of preparing pounded yam begins with peeling yam, boiling it to reach the required degree of softness and pounding it in locally made mortars, and served with any choice of soup.

In the 1970s and up to the late 80s, National Electric (now Panasonic) modernized the way pounded yam was prepared by designing a machine that could boil and pound yam, thereby taking away the stress of physical pounding from anybody that wished to eat the food. The machine was embraced by the married and unmarried, male and female, especially the working class who could eat their favourite meal with little effort going into preparation.

For reasons that are still unclear till date, that machine went into extinction, forcing many families to remove pounded yam from their menu, or rely only on occasional outings to eat it at restaurants.

Olaye changed all that. The structural engineer with no formal training in any food related course has made it possible for individuals and families to eat pounded yam through a process that is as simple as preparing eba, Nigeria’s most popular staple food, within a time frame of about 10 minutes.  This has proved to be quite convenient for housewives, spinsters and bachelors who can have their favourite pounded yam meal in the shortest possible time after getting home from work.

“The era now is that ladies are all working and very busy professionals, such that they don’t have the time to go and buy yam, cook and pound for their husbands”, Olaye says of his decision to go into production of Poundo Yam. “This made us to come out with the idea of processing the yam in form of flour that will take five minutes and you will get the same result”.

The cemetery is commonly described as the richest place on the planet, because in it is buried bright ideas that could have helped humanity in one way or the other – ideas the owners took to the grave without implementing.

Olaye did not want to be one of those that took bright ideas to the grave. He turned his idea into reality and today, not only is he the better for it, society has him to thank.

As a Master’s Degree student at Odessa Engineering Institute in Russia, he craved for garri, the food he had been used to eating while in Nigeria. But he could not get it where he was. He could eat garri only if he saw somebody visiting Nigeria, in which case he could request it to be brought on the return trip. Such occasions, which were quite rare, were his best moments and actually elicited celebrations.

After his course and upon return to the country, Olaye thought about the possibility of exporting Nigerian food abroad to satisfy the yearnings of people like him whose stay outside the country does nothing to erase their hunger for Nigerian food. He set up Ayoola Foods Limited, “to process indigenous high quality food products that meet national and international standards both in production and packaging methods for the satisfaction of our highly esteemed customers within the nation and in the Diaspora”.

Strictly for export

Interestingly, when Olaye set up Ayoola Foods in September, 1991, he thought nothing about producing for local consumption. His focus was on satisfaction of the Nigerian Diaspora, partly because he felt that was where demand lay, and also because he thought Nigerians in the country would not be favourably disposed to buying packaged local food they could easily produce at home.

He produced essentially for export, not for local consumption, with his products adorning the shelves of big stores in the United Kingdom, the United States, Canada and other parts of the world. And for 10 years, he was satisfied with the returns. Business was quite good. That was before a Nigerian woman who was resident in Houston, Texas, visited the country and had reason to look for the packaged fufu from the stable of Ayoola Foods that she ate in the U. S. The unique thing about Ayoola Foods’ fufu is that it does not have the smell that is associated with the locally produced one.

She demanded for Ayoola fufu from her hosts, but those ones had no idea what she was talking about, because they were unaware the food was packaged and could be sold in stores. The one they knew about was the local fufu that can be found in any market, or even on some streets in the country. She was surprised that a product that was made in Nigeria and bought with ease in the U.S. was not even known at home.

Chance encounter that changed focus to local market

The woman got her people in Houston to send her the wrappers of Ayoola fufu, which she showed her hosts in Nigeria to go search for, with no luck. In frustration, she took a cab to the headquarters of Ayoola Foods armed with the fufu wrappers and demanded to know why a product that was manufactured there and found easily in faraway Texas was not available in Nigeria. She found it quite astonishing when told that the product was not meant for the Nigerian market. But that encounter also gave Olaye another idea – to produce for the local market. It was the second time the engineer-turned food manufacturer would demonstrate ability to capitalize on ideas to record giant strides. 

His experience since the company began production for the Nigerian market in 2004 showed him that there was a yawning gap that begged to be filled. Thankfully, he has been able to fill that gap, eternally grateful to the Houston-based Nigerian woman who literally challenged him to think outside the box. Ironically, the woman’s visit and her challenge came at time Olaye was considering retiring from the food export business and probably living on what the business had fetched him over a decade. He is thrilled by the huge demand for his products that include Ayoola Plantain Flour; Ayoola Rice Flour: Ayoola Beans Flour: Ayoola Cassava Flour; Ayoola Yam Flour and Ayoola Brown Beans.

There’s something for everybody

In these days of general awareness on the need for healthy living, when people are increasingly paying greater attention to what they eat, all Ayoola Foods products address the needs of all segments of the population, including their health needs. Apart from the burden they lift off the shoulders of working class housewives who must rush home at the end of a long and tiring day at work to prepare the family meal, they provide part of the balanced diet the young and old need to stay healthy.

For diabetics, Ayoola Plantain Flour is a great companion, because it falls in line with what they are medically expected to eat. The same goes for Ayoola Beans Flour, since beans is food that should not be missing from the menu of diabetics. These foods contain higher portion of protein (and iron, in the case of unripe plantain) and less of carbohydrate, which is what diabetics require.

Findings have shown that these foods do not appeal to only diabetics, but even those that are not managing the ailment. This has to do with the fact that more and more people are embracing consumption of foods that contribute to good health.

For instance, the health benefits of unripe plantain, which is essentially what is packaged as Ayoola Plantain, has been confirmed to be good for all age groups, demography, gender and body size. The plantain is 100 per cent unripe, and is rich in vitamins B6, C and A. It helps to strengthen the bones because of its high calcium content, and also helps to enhance vision, boost immune system and enhance sexual performance by boosting the libido. It is also the ideal food for those watching their weight, by reducing the tummy size.

The busy working class families that still cherish fufu can easily turn to Ayoola Cassava Flour for easy and quick preparation of their favourite meal. And in the parts of Nigeria where tuwo shinkafa is a traditional meal, Ayoola Rice Flour provides an easy alternative to the tedious and time consuming method of cooking and pounding rice to obtain the meal.

Looking back over the past 28 years, Olaye is satisfied that his dream of making life easy for families and individuals alike, and contributing to provision of food that enhances good health has come to pass. This is in line with is vision of playing a prominent role in the collective effort to build strong and healthy families and, by extension, a strong and healthy nation.

Not an easy start

Like many successful entrepreneurs, Olaye’s entry into the food business wasn’t an easy one. His decision to go into the business in the first place was one that many around him did not welcome. Many wondered why a structural engineer would abandon a promising career abroad to return to Nigeria to produce food, especially the line of food that uneducated locals had been involved in for decades. This wasn’t made any better by the fact that he knew nothing about food production.

While some, especially his friends, took a cynical view of the decision and scoffed at it, others chose to go sentimental, feeling pity for him and, in fact, wondering if his thinking faculties had failed him. Some even thought he was sick. But he was undeterred because he knew where he was going and therefore could neither be distracted nor discouraged. He has learnt, over the years, that the same people that abuse and mock a starter would be the ones to praise him when he succeeds, asking how he made it. That has been his experience.

Olaye says, from experience, that every venture involves risks, and asserts that anybody that is not willing to take risks should not expect to succeed. This is in line with the axiom that says nothing ventured, nothing gained. He demonstrated capacity to take risks by going into an area nobody had ventured into in Nigeria, and the risk paid off not only in terms of commercial success, but also by way of the important and invaluable contributions he is making to promotion of healthy living in the country.

He emphasizes need for patience, an important ingredient that is lacking in many youth of today who have the mistaken notion that success could be achieved overnight. “Before you make profit in business it will take a number of years, and before that time you will see your mates doing better than you and you may want to deviate”, he says. “If you just follow up the path you want to pursue, you will discover that by the end of the day, you will be better than those your mates who were better than you when you started the investment”.

Agriculture, the only way out

Olaye believes agriculture is the only way out of Nigeria’s economic problems. Apart from the fact that it is the sector that has capacity to lift a substantial number of jobless youths out of unemployment, it is what would guarantee availability of food for the country’s rapidly increasing population.

He says the country is blessed with all the natural factors it needs to make agriculture the mainstay of its economy – arable land, good weather, conducive climate, enough rainfall, enough sunshine, etc, – some of which many countries around the world do not have, yet excel in agriculture. He mentions Israel as a country that lacks the natural resources that Nigeria has in abundance, but is a world power in agriculture.

Olaye recommends establishment of agricultural settlements that were common decades ago, but which were abandoned when attention was turned from agriculture to oil. “Imagine if every local government area had one farm settlement each; there would be jobs for the youth and there would also be abundance of food”, he said. “Food prices would be cheaper because there would be availability”.

He advises the youth to come to terms with the fact that their destiny is in their hands, and they should not wait for the government to provide for them. “If everybody kept waiting for government or white collar jobs that aren’t there, they would be wasting their time, and time is money”, he says.

Olaye wants the country’s youths to embrace agriculture, rather than wait for white collar jobs. But he also understands that the present generation cannot practice the agriculture the way their parents did, with hoes and cutlasses. They must have access to mechanized agriculture which, in any case, does not come cheap. This is where the government must come.

He believes the government can encourage mass participation in mechanized farming by simplifying access to credit, because of the bottlenecks entrepreneurs face obtaining credit from banks.

Finding time for relaxation

For Olaye, it’s not all about work and the chase for money. He creates time to relax by listening to jazz music, a favourite pastime he shares with his Russian wife who has been with him in Nigeria since 1987. They attend jazz spots together. He also watches football and tennis, and makes it a ritual to travel out of the country every six to eight weeks on holidays to different resorts around the world. His favourite holiday resort is Coastal Del Sol, also known as Coastal Del Golf, because it has over 30 golf courses, in the south coast of Spain.

Olaye runs Ayoola Foods as its managing director and chief executive, while his wife, a food technologist, is his deputy. Nearly four decades of living in Nigeria has made the wife more Nigerian than Russian, because of her ability to cook virtually all Nigerian foods, including those from other parts of the country, like edikang ikong, besides amala and ewedu, which are traditional to the husband’s part of the country.