When Saudat Salami, a certified Microsoft trainer with background in web programming, started her online grocery shopping business "EasyShop EasyCook" 11 years ago, she had no one to look up to and learn from in the industry. Today, her business has continued to wax in strength, defying all odds, including the rough time the eCommerce industry is currently going through in Nigeria.
In this interview, Saudat spoke extensively about her passion of making life easy for the working woman.
Oyinkansola Sadiq-Mabeko from Techpoint.ng: Tell us a bit about your educational background
Saudat Salami from EasyShop EasyCook: When I finished my secondary school, I went into IT and computer related courses. I have a diploma in desktop publishing, a Microsoft certification and most of my education was in that line. I did website development for a few years and, only recently about ten years ago, I started doing courses in business relations, entrepreneurship, courses from the Lagos Business School as well as some international courses. Basically, my background is in IT and business development.
OSM: How did you make the shift from IT to business?
SS: Like I said I was a website developer for a few years. I’m also a certified Microsoft trainer so IT has always been a core aspect of me. A few years ago -- about 10 – 12 years ago -- I wanted to change my line of business, settle down, get married and I was thinking of challenges in the home front that normal working women face every day.
I was brainstorming with a friend about the challenges of the working women and with my IT background, I just thought to set up an online shop where working women could access shopping services and still pursue their career. So everything we do in EasyShop EasyCook is about the working woman; all our services and how we run our business is about trying to make it easy for you to be a working woman, to pursue your career, to travel, go for conferences, and still have food at home.
OSM: How do you source for your produce?
SS: We concentrate on fresh produce from the farm because we know you can easily get provisions from ShopRite. But even ShopRite and all those supermarkets are like an event where you take your children to play -- you do not go there to get a full basket of tomatoes or ten tubers of yam. We wanted to do something where we can bring the farm to table.
Bringing fresh produce to our women, we would have cleaned it. We do not cook it but we just make cooking easier for them, that is the concept behind EasyShop. So my IT background made it easier for me to shift from that. Though I am still in IT, I’m more into agric now.
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OSM: How did you collect payments in the earlier days?
SS:Initially customers ordered online, via email, SMS or phone, with payment made via only bank transfer before delivery (no Cash on Delivery). Then over 6 yrs ago we activated our GTPay.
OSM: Considering the current challenges with eCommerce industry, has your business been affected?
SS: When I started by business about 11 years ago it wasn’t easy. It took a lot of effort to keep it on before people started getting into the business. When I started, I don’t think there was anybody doing it and there was nobody in Nigeria for me to go and understudy. So what I did was to go online to the businesses in the UK and the US, I stored them on Google alert and I was always following their story; what they’re doing, how they set up their business, that was what I used to set up mine.
So when the other companies started springing up about four, five years ago, marketing was easier for me, because now we had people with a lot of money, marketing on television, I wasn’t marketing on television; I didn’t have that kind of money. But now they have made it easier for people to accept eCommerce. There is still a lot of work to be done because infrastructure is not there to support the business, but compared to when I started, a lot has been done in the industry for our acceptance.
OSM: What do you think about eCommerce giants downsizing their workforce?
SS: Downsizing is all over the world. They are re-strategizing. You can wake up tomorrow and find out that they are employing 200 people again. It is all about their change in strategy, they are probably trying to put money somewhere else, maybe trying to close a particular department, and they want to focus on something else and expand. Even abroad, people are downsizing and also recruiting.
OSM: How did you fund EasyShop EasyCook?
SS: Personal funding and then some angel investment. I had mentors that after a few years trusted what I was doing with my own money, saw that I was accountable, I had all my accounts, I had cooperate governance and so they decided to invest in my business.
I have not had that big equity investment, the kind of investment I have is angel investment from close family, friends, my own savings, my husband and all that.
OSM: Has EasyShop EasyCook made substantial profit yet?
SS: 'Substantial profit' being the keyword. We are always ploughing our money back into the business, because we’ve not had those huge million dollar investments, so everything we make, we put it back into the company. Initially when we started, we were making profit year in year out, but for the past two years, we have been breaking even. But I think it is the economy so it is not unique to us. We will just continue to do what we are doing and everything will stabilise eventually.
OSM: What is the biggest challenge you are facing?
SS: Infrastructure is the biggest challenge. I’m basically in three industries -- Agriculture, Logistics and eCommerce, the dominant one being Agriculture. We are in the agric value chain and there are no infrastructure to support all lines of grocery delivery. If you notice, there are not so many online grocery delivery stores because transporting fresh produce is more challenging.
We need storage, there are so many things we need because we are dependent on the farmers, we don’t have food safety standard in Nigeria, Mile 12 is not exactly a fantastic place to buy stuff and expect it to last for a long period of time. A lot of investment is required from private sector and the government for the agric value chain sector which would in turn benefit us. So the challenge we are facing is purely lack of infrastructure in the agricultural value chain in Nigeria.
OSM: What initiatives can be developed concerning food safety?
We have a social enterprise called IFOODS. It is called initiative for food safety. The idea behind it is to promote food safety standard in the agricultural value chain and to also call attention to the lack of infrastructure in that area. So that private sector and government will build food hubs, to help farmers, small farm holders. That way, we can help move food around, especially to reduce waste in the value chain.
There is a lot of waste, which is why food is expensive. Food should not be expensive in Nigeria. If you look at the amount of waste we have in the farm and in the market, you will know why food is expensive. That is what we want to do with that social enterprise; call attention to it and raise funding to develop that area so that farmers can get good value for their produce to increase the shelf life of our produce.
So when you buy 5kg of tomato, you know you are going to use everything, not that half of it will be thrown away. The way things are now, even if there is power round the clock, you are still not sure you are going to use all your fresh produce you have put in the fridge, because of the way it is transported before it gets to you. ISOODS is going to be focused on addressing that.
OSM : Where do you see EasyShop EasyCook in the immediate future?
Business wise, our goals have always been to to expand our delivery. We currently deliver in Lagos but not all over Lagos. So our goal is to increase our reach in Lagos as we still want to remain in Lagos. For our customer size, we have over 3 million prospective customers in Lagos, and we have not even scratched the surface on attracting those customers.
OSM: Do you plan to expand to other states?
Moving out of Lagos is not in our plan. We will remain in Lagos but we want to provide good quality, low price, fresh produce to our customers.
OSM: Do you have any personal goals?
Well I just want to be better at what I do, to be a better leader, to pay forward, to help other people rise up the ladder. Basically EasyShop started because we want to help working women balance work and home life. There is nothing like work-life balance really, you just do what you can everyday.
Personally what I would love is just to find a way to help women to purse their careers without feeling neglected. Feeling that if I leave home to become a doctor or a lawyer, I will not be able to do stuff at home. So whatever I can do to help a woman still feel whole I am going to do that. Then of course, be a better leader, be a better person in the community and then take it forward in however way I can.
OSM: What do you have to say to young people who want to start their own business?
Just focus. Especially if it is a disruptive idea, or if it is a new idea. There are naysayers every day, they are going to tell you a thousand reasons why it cannot work. You just need one reason why it would work. People will talk, the moment you are convinced about what you want to do, you just go for it.
Till today I still have people send me messages on Facebook saying "what kind of business are you running?" If I listened to them, I would not do anything.
Another thing people need to know is that there is dignity in labour. People should stop downgrading services thinking oh I am too big to do this, you can make money from anything so far you do it well. Just seek out the problems in the society.
I saw the challenges women were facing and I worked towards it. Once there is a challenge or a problem, there is an opportunity for people to make money. You can commercialize that solution you are offering. You have to focus, you have to believe in yourself and go and do whatever you want to do. Do not worry about what people say. The day you strike it, they will be the same people calling your praises.