by Francesca Uriri
Having a sweet tooth is not always a bad thing; it can provide the inspiration to set up a thriving, multi-million naira business. In this interview, Benedicta Elechi, CEO Ditachi Foods, opens up on her journey of running a processed food company and catering business. She is the Leading Lady Africa for the week. Be inspired!
- You are a graduate of analytical chemistry and wrote your thesis on yoghurt production. How did your fascination with food begin?
It started when I was 7 or 8. I was born with a sweet tooth and the fact that my mother was a caterer did not help. I watched her make homemade cookies and cakes with much fascination. I also had a great love for Nico sweets, Malta sweets, malted milk biscuits, Nasco wafers and all the sweet things of that era. However when I found myself reading through the ingredients and the small print on the wrappers of the sweets and biscuits I realized my love transcended just the eating of the sweets to actually producing my own thus leading to the birth of the entrepreneur in me.
- How did you transition from catering to owning a bakery and a factory that produces yoghurt?
I put in all the money I made from my home catering business, sold all my shares and loaned some money from family and friends. I was driven by the fact that processed food produced in commercial quantities has always been my dream. After researching for my thesis, I realized that most of the yoghurt available today is low in quality, many production companies use 70% modified cassava flour and 30% milk while laying claim to nutritional values that do not exist. Also a lot of thickening agents unauthorized by the WHO and other regulatory bodies are used to improve the appearance and taste of yoghurt products. These substances have been known to have adverse effects on the human body. My intention has always been to produce good quality yoghurt in commercial quantities. The bread industry on the other hand was plagued with bromate and other ingredients that have been linked with cancer. After the war the late Dora Akunyili fought against the use of bromate, I decided to explore the opportunity of producing good quality bread without any unapproved ingredients the result is the Dicta bread you have today
- You’ve never worked for anyone before, what informed your decision to be an entrepreneur?
Some of us are not cut out for the 9 to 5 hustle. I love to dictate my own hours. My driving force has always been creating wealth by empowering others financially through job creation and also leaving a mark through top quality products. I have over 100 people under my employ, excluding distributors and independent marketers who also employ drivers and sales representatives to enable easy distribution of my products. So it’s more or less a chain reaction of job creation.
- How did you raise funding to start your business?
I pooled all my available resources together, sold my shares, took all the money I had made from other businesses and got loans from my friends and family to raise the initial capital.
- Why did you choose to focus on yoghurt and bread; are there plans to branch out to other products in the future?
The Dictachi dream is infinite, as long as there is a demand for good quality processed foods, we will be ready to produce. We are very dynamic because we study what the market needs before we embark upon production. We can, and will produce on the long run anything from confectionery to soft drinks in commercial quantities.
- Where do you see Dictachi foods in the next 5 years, and what are your expansion plans?
I see diversification and I see Dictachi as a formidable force when it comes to job creation. Dictachi‘s expansion would mean creating more factories, depots etc in line with our vision to becoming a globally recognized food company of African origin.
- Name 3 women you admire and why?
Princess Diana for her compassionate and fearless nature, Wendy Applebum for her energetic and determined disposition to life, for her philanthropic activities and enterpreneurship lastly, late Prof. Dora Nkemdilim Akunyili for setting the standard for how a food and drug administration and control agency should be run.
- In your university days, you were often referred to as “Female Dangote” and “Female Bill Gates” did that in anyway impact you?
With or without what people were calling me, I had a clear perspective of what I wanted to be, and I pursued my dream with diligence and determination.
- How do you market and advertise your products and services?
Basically employing the print and electronic media
- What are the challenges you face running your business and are there times when you feel like quitting?
There are many challenges including bad government policies, lack of proper societal infrastructure, lack of skilled and disciplined personnel, multiple government taxation, unavailability of funds etc. I am not a quitter in limitations I see the infinite.
- Who are your mentors?
Bill Gates, Aliko Dangote and Hilary Clinton.
- How do you stay current and up-to-date with the latest business and commerce trends?
Going for courses, trainings and seminars always help to keep you abreast. Also you’ll be amazed what you can find on the Internet on television, in magazines and journals.
- In your opinion, is it true that women have to work harder than men to achieve the same results in business? Why do you think this is so?
I totally agree, I think women have to work harder as they face a lot more opposition; the Nigerian business environment is friendlier towards the male gender. Women experience a lot of sexual harassment that men aren’t exposed to. I was categorically told that owning a yoghurt factory was not for women. The fact that I was less than 30 at the time even made it worse. I think the blame lies hugely on our orientation and mind-set.
- How do you think the Federal Government can help the growth and development of small-medium scale enterprises?
First of all putting an end to multiple taxation, providing basic amenities, and making loans available to entrepreneurs.
- How do you relax and unwind?Spending quality time with family and friends. I love to swim, watch movies and spend time in the gym.
- A lot of organizations are going the organic route in food production – eradicating sugar and preservatives from products, how is Ditachi foods matching up to this trend?We have always been very health conscious at Dictachi Foods since inception; therefore we have low calorie, low fat and low sodium options in all our products to satisfy dietary and specific needs of our esteemed customers.
- Do you think it is important to have a lot more female participation in business?Yes, empowering women can only add to the productive capability of a nation and it will boost the economy in many ways.
- What is your advice for upcoming female entrepreneurs?
Don’t ever give up, hold on to your dreams.
- What is your personal mantra?I have two actually: “What the caterpillar calls the end of the world the master calls a butterfly” and “If you give your fear legs, it will run away with your dreams.”
The Leading Ladies Africa Series is a weekly interview series that focuses on women of African descent, showcases their experiences across all socio-economic sectors, highlights their personal and professional achievements and offers useful advice on how to make life more satisfying for women.
It is an off-shoot of Leading Ladies Africa; an initiative that seeks to effectively mentor and inspire women, with particular emphasis on the African continent.
Do you know any woman of African descent doing phenomenal things? Send an email to [email protected] and we just might feature her.