In every crowded suburb of Lagos, there is a good chance that you will come across a street vendor of African salad, known locally as Abacha. It is a popular dish of the Igbo tribe of southeastern Nigeria and, for many, it is a taste of home. But there’s one problem with this meal: it’s highly perishable. This, combined with the tedious food processing of its base ingredient, cassava, repels many of its middle-class fans. It takes about two days to make it from scratch.
Valentine Okoli decided to solve this problem by creating a “moment” Abacha — a transformed form that consumers can prepare in three minutes. This innovation won him the grand prize on Channels TV’s Fund It Forward in 2023. In this interview, Ventures Africa speaks to Okoli about his journey to entrepreneurship.
VA: Tell us about yourself.
My name is Valentine Okoli, CEO of Bach and Moen Ltd. My business transforms local foods into globally acceptable and easy-to-consume products. Our dream is to make it easier for people to access healthy and convenient Nigerian food all over the world. I am a biochemist by training and passionate about music.
VA: Interesting. So how did you get into entrepreneurship? What inspired you?
From high school on, I always thought that as an employee, you couldn’t have much impact in the world. I have always viewed being employed as a way to learn while contributing. So that has always guided my approach to life. I was happy to study biochemistry because it allows you to become a producer. If you study all the ancient dynasties and revolutions, you will find that food has always been what pushed nations out of being third world countries.
It was because I knew these things that I wanted to become an entrepreneur. Additionally, I realized that I was a self-starter and preferred to understand uncertainties by doing the work itself.
Where did the idea of Bach and Moen come from?
To be honest, I didn’t always know what business I would get into. The idea for Bach and Moen came indirectly from my grandmother. I’m from the East and often visited my grandmother when I was a student. During one of my visits, she gave me a lot of Abacha.
Then one day I came back from class very hungry and tired. That Abacha was the only food I had left. But when I took out the bag I had stored it in, everything had deteriorated. My bunkmate had unintentionally kept his water bucket near the bag and water had gotten into it. Now there was fungal growth all over the only food I had left. I slept hungry that night. But I immediately knew it was a problem I wanted to solve. I was a top biochemistry student, so it wasn’t difficult to get into research in that field. The conclusion was to create something like instant noodles but for Abacha. I had this idea in 2015, then recorded it in 2018. It took us another two years to get going, but I didn’t want to wait until the idea was perfect.
What have been your biggest challenges in building this brand?
My first big challenge was knowing what to do in the first place. I pretty much jumped into action with very little knowledge. I didn’t know how businesses worked or even how to create my product. So I had to do tons of research and make a lot of mistakes. There wasn’t a lot of data or even previous research that I could draw on. In fact, there is no pre-existing data indicating that anyone has tried anything like this. The only thing I was certain of was the safety standards. So it was difficult to create a good product at first.
Additionally, financing this venture was difficult. I started by working as a music teacher to finance it. When I launched my first product, the packaging materials I used were so funny in retrospect. But I needed some sort of proof of work: something that would convince investors that I knew what I was doing. Fortunately, the brand has now moved beyond these stages.
Interesting. So what has been the most rewarding part of starting your business?
For me, the most rewarding part of building this company is that we created a product that people actually love. The feedback has been surprisingly positive since we started. Knowing that this rough idea I had in my hostel room a few years ago wasn’t crazy after all is rewarding. As I said before, I haven’t seen any pre-existing work of this type. So, it feels good to be a pioneer.
Creating food products is not the same as creating software, where you can easily iterate and course-correct along the way. It’s more sensitive. Besides security concerns, people hold high standards to you from the first contact. They want the original taste of Abacha even if they prepare it like instant noodles. And I’m glad we were able to give them what they want. I remember comments from Bola, one of the people I gave free samples to. Several times I return to his messages of encouragement on WhatsApp. Nothing excites me more than knowing I have a real market for my product.
So what lessons did you learn about entrepreneurship from creating Bach and Moen?
The first lesson is to always listen. Listen to the market and everyone whose voice matters. We’ve changed a lot since we started in 2021 by simply listening to the spoken and unspoken responses. Based on these responses, we changed our packaging and added free palm oil and seasonings to our product. It was also because we listened that we realized that we could make our value chain more efficient by selling our cassava scraps as animal feed. I also gave myself a period of five years to measure the evolution of returns. I believe that people’s perception of your brand is the best way to affirm the sustainability of your business.
This is the same idea I adopted for Fund It Forward. My goal was to learn and unlearn. I knew I still had a lot of unrefined ideas about my business that needed to be refined.
I also better understood unit economics in food production. There’s a reason you see companies reducing the amount of cookies or chocolates per pack when inflation hits them. They prefer to do this rather than maintain quantity and increase prices. It’s easier to do this when you listen and understand your market.
Plus, your first product may not be the one that will make you millions. This doesn’t mean you’re on the wrong path. Just continually evolve and have a budget, a goal, and a timeline for your goals. But you have to know when to stop.
You recently won the first Fund It Forward show. How do you think this gives you an advantage?
These nine weeks changed my life. Besides funding, the biggest benefit the show gave me was knowledge. I learned a lot of things that I would have had to pay millions for elsewhere. Was the publicity an advantage? Absolutely. But my scope is now broader, and it’s more important to me. Many companies disappear over a short period of time, mainly because Nigeria finds it difficult to establish itself. However, I learned to build with a longer term perspective. My priorities are now also moving towards finding partnerships because this will become another strong lever. I feel like I could even be a great business coach just by teaching the things I learned on the show.
What should people expect from you, Bach and Moen in the coming years?
The first thing we focus on now is advertising and distribution. We need to make sure people know what we do and make it accessible to them. Our next priority would be to collect real-time data from our markets. This data would not only help our business but also be of use to anyone who wants to start a similar business. We didn’t have public data when we started, and I wish others had it. I want to capture the evolution of my customers’ behavior in real time and grow with them.
I think lack of data is one of the reasons why Nigerians don’t invent new things. There aren’t enough resources to predict what people would or wouldn’t like. So everyone just looks for what others are already doing and imitates them. My business will be different.