How Affiong Williams made a wild adventure back to Nigeria to start selling fruit

For most people, getting into entrepreneurship often begins with Find a business idea, then pursue it as a sideways motion until it clicks. Only a brave few go out to test the entrepreneurial waters. Affiong Williams is one of those few who entered. And in the past decade, not only has the “fruit vending” business she founded has thrived, but it has also successfully raised funds to drive its global expansion.

her childhood and career

Affiong Williams was born on March 9, 1986. She completed a first degree in Physiology and Psychology with plans to attend medical school afterward to pursue her dream of becoming a doctor.

But by the time she graduated from school, she had already lost interest in medicine and wanted an opportunity to explore other career paths. She obtained a Postgraduate Diploma in Business Administration from Wits Business School, Johannesburg, South Africa in 2006, with the hope that this would open her up to other career opportunities.

Williams landed her first job at an entrepreneurial support organization that supports small and medium businesses in developing markets – Endeavor South Africa – and began interacting frequently with entrepreneurs. After four years of working with and secretly admiring entrepreneurs and everything they stand for, Affiong was ready to jump in on her own.

How did Real Fruits start?

When Affiong Williams decided to become an entrepreneur, she knew the business had to focus On value-added agribusiness and began to think of different ideas. The first plan was to produce fruit juice as a way to reduce post-harvest losses for fruit growers. However, Affiong knew that they could not build a fruit juice factory in the early stages of the business. Therefore, dried fruit processing came as an alternative business idea that can also help achieve the same goal. As a dried fruit snack, the product also does not require energy to sustain, which means that the problem for the Nigerian sector will 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, it was bold, but I didn’t know much. If you had done a little research, you might have left the idea on the shelf. I was simply convinced that Nigerians were more open to different tastes, based on the variety of things that were being imported at the time. I thought all I needed to do was create awareness and demand,” She said.

She went up and came to Nigeria to start a fruit business in 2012. One encouragement to return was the 10 million yen UN scholarship for which she applied and was selected for the first round. Unfortunately, shortly after arriving in Nigeria, she received a rejection mail which shattered her hopes of getting any scholarship.

  • “It was a very difficult time because not only was I doing something new, but I was also filled with a lot of self-doubt. I thought I had made the biggest mistake of my life, but, of course, I couldn’t quit so early.” she said later.

As market research, Affiong started selling some dried fruits that she had brought from South Africa. Although the products don’t have the best packaging, feedback has been encouraging and Affiong has started producing more of its flat. It was only a matter of time before Real Fruit had the kind of problem every entrepreneur craves. The products were selling out quickly, and the demand was rising even faster, to the point where it was impossible to meet the demand from her tiny apartment.

I got my first angel investor, and put the money toward getting an office space, a pickup truck, and getting more hands on the business. It took about five years of operation before Reel Fruit got the funds to set up a proper plant with the right machinery. Up until that point, the company had been as dependent on outside producers as Ghana was, doing only some processing.

A different kind of fundraiser

Like most startups, Williams has tried to raise money for the business but things just don’t seem to be going anywhere. The dried fruit business was an unexplored area in Nigeria, and investors weren’t sure how to make it happen, especially considering the percentage of businesses that fail within the first five years.

When it became clear that it would be difficult to raise a large funding round, the CEO of Reel Fruit took a different approach and began raising small capital from investors for their proof-of-concept.

  • “Because we didn’t raise a big round, it became clear that people didn’t believe the big picture. So when we claimed we were going to expand by x, they found it easier to believe that we could, for example, double our sales, or hire more people, or Opening new locations, or launching more products. That story had more to do with investors,” Williams recounted in an interview.

In this way, the company has built investor confidence and has been able to pursue one achievement at a time, based on the funds raised for this purpose. That way, when it came time to raise more money, investors were confident of investing their money in businesses that had proven themselves in smaller stages. It would take 9 years of operation before the company finally raised its Series A.

  • “Because we were the market leader in dried fruits in Nigeria, it took our first five years in business to prove that this wasn’t a flash product. When you couple that with all the other challenges of fundraising in Nigeria, it’s easy to see why it took so long. But I’m happy with the result.” said Williams.

Reel Fruits sells a range of dried fruits and snacks through a variety of channels including more than 700 stores, airlines, schools, hotels and export sales via Affiong operates a team of over 80 staff in 3 regional offices in Nigeria and has created employment opportunities for 50 rural women trained to grow high quality, export quality mangoes in Kaduna.

In September 2021, ReelFruit closed a $3 million Series A funding round to expand production capacity 5x to meet growing demand. The company is now focused on expanding its customer base outside Nigeria, collaborating with more farmers to get rid of excess fruit and reduce waste in different parts of Nigeria, and rightfully earning its position as the market leader in this field.

“Over the next decade, we’re working to diversify our customer base. So while people know us as a consumer brand, and we’ll continue to do so, we want to process a lot of the inputs for the big manufacturers, like baking, and we also want to focus on export. Those two segments are where we see that A lot of our growth will come from it, and that’s where we’ll focus on building the ability to do that.”

Awards and certificates of appreciation

One need not be a serial entrepreneur before the honors come. Starting and building an international brand from a one-bedroom space in Yaba takes guts and abilities beyond the ordinary.

She has been invited to many forums on agribusiness, investment and trade including the inaugural Africa Trade Fair, Cairo 2018 where she was one of the speakers. Finalist in the Strive Masiyiwa Go Gettaz Initiative in Accra, 2019; AFDB Entrepreneurship Market Days Exhibition. Johannesburg, 2019; and AFDB African Youth Agripreneur and Agripitch Forum, CapeTown, 2019.

Winner of Village Capital Agriculture Accelerator, Kenya, 2020. In 2022, Affiong Williams was named the first winner of the prestigious Veuve Clicquot Bold Woman Award.

Affiong is passionate about entrepreneurship, agriculture, and politics and is an avid runner, having completed more than 15 marathons and raising money for charity in the process. Her number one tip for incoming entrepreneurs is to seek knowledge.

  • “Mistakes are costly in terms of time and money, and looking for more experienced people to help you avoid mistakes is sometimes worth more than money.”

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