Interview with Affiong Williams
FOUNDER AND CEO, REELFRUIT
Lives in: Lagos, Nigeria
Jeanette Clark interviews Affiong Williams, CEO of ReelFruit, on the prospects of Nigerian food companies exploiting the Nigerian diaspora living in the United States.
The United States is the largest consumer market in the world, estimated at 16 trillion dollars. On the other hand, Nigeriaalthough it is home to more than 220 million inhabitants and constitutes one of the largest consumption centers in Africa, is expected to reach a market value of only $3 trillion by 2030. This disparity shows why, for many companies in the Nigerian agribusiness sector, the United States could be an attractive target.
Affiong Williams, CEO of ReelFruit – a Nigeria-based producer of dried fruit snacks – sees the large Nigerian diaspora in America as a golden opportunity for companies like his to establish a presence in the United States. “There is no better market, or low-hanging fruit, than your people in another country,” she says. “I see a growing opportunity for products such as mine, and other food products with increasingly global standards, to sell into the Nigerian market in the United States. »
It is estimated that at least 5 million Nigerians live abroada significant portion of these people reside in the United States.
Even if the Nigerian diaspora in the United States feels a connection to their home country, that doesn’t guarantee they’ll choose a ReelFruit package out of nostalgia. Williams understands that to be successful, his product must also appeal to the broader American audience, not just those of Nigerian descent. “Many foods exported from Nigeria to the United States are intended for Nigerians in the diaspora. However, if people could produce more appealing foods and snacks, this could be a big opportunity,” she notes.
ReelFruit previously sold its products in the United States through its online store and on Amazon, but Affiong notes that the company has since stepped back to rethink the most cost-effective approach to reaching American consumers. It is, however, working with a US-based distributor to place its dried fruits, flakes and mixed nuts on the shelves of traditional African stores in various US cities. Recently, he also recruited a broker who has successfully closed new deals, one of which includes a partnership with an American e-commerce platform.
The company benefits from African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), which allows duty-free access to the United States for eligible sub-Saharan countries. This gives the Nigerian manufacturerslike ReelFruit, a valuable advantage for entering the American market.
Going global in the face of local economic challenges
According to Williams, this is the perfect time for the Nigerian food and agriculture businesses must globalize, given Nigeria’s current economic challenges
Nigeria is grappling with several economic challenges due to the strong US dollar, global inflation and domestic policy changes. Recently, the naira reached a record level of 1,000 per dollar on the black market. Consumer concerns further intensify and Nigeria’s annual inflation rate jumped to 26.72% in Septemberits highest level in 18 years.
“Many Nigerian companies charge their inputs in dollars, directly or indirectly. So the inflationary impact of naira devaluation is covered when you (export and) earn dollars,” says Williams. She also mentions that a weak naira makes ReelFruit products more competitive on U.S. shelves.
Given the pressure of domestic inflation on the purchasing power of Nigerians, Williams highlights the importance of targeting markets with higher disposable incomes. Even capturing a modest share of a dollar-paying market can help businesses adapt to Nigeria’s challenging economic climate.
The importance of local partnerships in the United States
For food products, there is a common belief that exporting to the United States requires numerous certifications. Williams opposes this view, however, explaining that the need for certifications depends on the buyer. If the buyer does not request them, they are not necessary, simplifying the export process.
ReelFruit does not yet have a dedicated U.S. office or distribution center, which poses last-mile delivery challenges for products purchased from its online store and shipped from Nigeria. Managing merchandising and advertising becomes more complex when it is not physically present in the target market. Williams emphasizes that these operational aspects, more than certifications, constitute the main challenges in navigating the competitive U.S. market.
For example, U.S. buyers prefer immediate access and local availability, and are often reluctant to buy directly from international markets. To accommodate this preference, businesses can establish local partnerships, such as partnering with distributors or finding warehousing and logistics partners.
Williams recognizes the challenge of identifying the right partners and recommends casting a wide net when building networks and relationships. “It’s hard to know where you’re going to find gold. I have attended several shows and never found a buyer (these). Connections are helpful because people who know buyers will introduce them to you. This is generally where the strike rate is highest.
Co-packing: an alternative strategy for entering the United States
Currently, ReelFruit is not seeking to place its products on the shelves of major U.S. retailers. Securing shelf space is a challenge, but a substantial investment is also essential to ensure consumers actually pick them up and buy them.
“It’s very expensive. Once you’re trying to compete on a brand level, we’re talking about at least 25% of your revenue (that has to be spent) on advertising,” says Williams.
Going down this route could mean operating at a loss for about two years before potentially turning a profit, and that depends on how successful and well-received the product is. Williams suggests alternative strategies, in which the company does not bear the marketing risk but can achieve significant sales, such as co-packing, where a company produces and packages products on behalf of its customers.
ReelFruit’s current goal, Williams says, is to become a reputable co-packing partner with U.S. brands. It is currently negotiating such an agreement. The goal is to be recognized as the go-to company for various types of tropical dried foods, customized to meet the preferences of American customers.
In pursuit of this vision, ReelFruit has improved its production capabilities, reinforced by a successful Series A funding round in 2021 that raised $3 million. If this strategy proves successful, the company could consider bringing packaging in-house, a process it currently outsources. To achieve this, the processing of the fruits as well as their packaging would be carried out entirely in Nigeria before the products are transported to the United States.