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Building West Africa’s fastest growing fitness chain

The African fitness sector is constantly evolving, and the continent is seeing an increase in fitness enthusiasts. Africans are becoming more health-conscious and serious about their fitness.

As a result, the fitness business in Africa is expanding rapidly and is likely to expand more in the future. Traditional African lifestyles have long revolved around physical activities but with the arrival of technology and modernization, this has been altered.

People have become more sedentary, which has increased health problems such as obesity, heart disease and diabetes among others.

However, the narrative has shifted in recent years, and Africans are becoming more interested in living healthy lives.

According to Statista, the total revenue in the health and fitness market in Africa is projected to have reached US$20.25m in 2022.

The total revenue is expected to show an annual growth rate of 7.17%, resulting in a projected market volume of US$29.79m by 2027.

In the ever-evolving landscape of fitness and wellness, one name stands out as a pioneer and trailblazer in West Africa: i-Fitness.

Founded by the visionary entrepreneur, Mr. Foluso Ogunwale, the i-Fitness has grown to become West Africa’s fastest-growing fitness chain, boasting an impressive 21 branches across Nigeria.

As i-Fitness celebrated its 8th anniversary in May this year, we sat down with Mr. Ogunwale and delved into the challenges, triumphs and vision that is shaping i-Fitness into the fitness empire it is becoming.

As with any ambitious endeavour, the early stages of i-Fitness were met with substantial hurdles. With the virtually non-existent nature of the fitness industry in Nigeria a decade ago, i-Fitness was left to forge its path in uncharted territory.

The weight of creating industry standards and overcoming the enormity of the task can be described as revolutionary.

According to the CEO,

  • “Building the brand while running another business simultaneously required me to ask the tough questions such as: Were people going to embrace fitness if we start off our fitness chain?
  • Was the market deep enough for the investment we were making? Where would we get skilled human capital? How easy would it be to raise funds with a young business in an untested industry?
  • Where do we learn the operations to support the scale we want to grow? What if we failed all together?”

Mr. Ogunwale reminisced about the early days when some investors dismissed their vision, only to return ten months later, witnessing the traction and growth that took i-Fitness from its first branch to an impressive network of four.

  • “Acquiring external funding proved to be a major obstacle due to market skepticism, leaving financiers and banks uncertain about the fitness industry’s potential.
  • The requirement to make upfront payments for long lease agreements on properties and gym equipment added to one of these hurdles,” Mr. Ogunwale candidly disclosed.

He mentioned that the realities of doing business in Nigeria involve entrepreneurs often providing their own essential utilities, such as generators and transformers to ensure a steady power supply.

  • “In February 2017, we received our first external funding after self-funding for the first two years. Although it was expensive as the interest rate was approximately 3.8% per month, we agreed on the short-term arrangement.
  • By Dec 2019, i-Fitness had its first private equity fund investment which gave us an opportunity for more growth,” stated Mr Ogunwale.

A paramount factor that has contributed significantly to his triumphant journey as an entrepreneur is his insatiable thirst for knowledge and unyielding commitment to learning from accomplished business leaders.

He noted that he immerses himself in the wealth of wisdom found within the pages of business, leadership and entrepreneurial literature, drawing boundless inspiration from seasoned professionals.

Another pivotal practice that has played a significant role in fostering the remarkable growth of the fitness chain is his steadfast dedication to ensuring seamless alignment among the leadership team across all branches of i-Fitness.

  • “Given the rapid and exponential growth of i-Fitness, where we are doubling in size within short periods, maintaining a focus on our objectives and priorities is absolutely crucial.
  • It is essential to avoid losing sight of our core goals amidst the demands of administrative matters,” says Ogunwale.

As i-Fitness expanded its reach to 21 branches nationwide, the initial challenge of staffing a high-capital-intensive business became greater.

The fitness industry’s specialized demands require access to skilled human capital, which Mr. Ogunwale is addressing by establishing a partnership between the i-Fitness Academy and the National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM) USA.

This initiative empowers i-Fitness to groom and train talent, thus enhancing human capital development in the fitness industry through professional training.

It is in line with the brand’s values and standards. This training also creates a progressive career path for fitness professionals, enabling the advancement of their careers in the chosen area of their profession.

More importantly, fitness professionals and enthusiasts, and all other participants who attend the programmes receive internally recognised certification on completion.

At the recent i-Fitness Academy and NASM partnership launch event, the serial entrepreneur emphasized this by stating,

  • “The goal of the partnership is to bring value to the community of fitness enthusiasts who wish to upscale and standardize their knowledge.
  • We are also bridging the gap by providing the skills, knowledge and capacity for Africans to operate amongst their international peers.”

The fitness chain distinguishes itself by mirroring best practices that other organizations in the industry may overlook.

This innovative approach to maintaining global standards sets them apart from competitors and contributes to a positive work environment that employees find rewarding and fulfilling.

The future holds exciting prospects for i-Fitness as it looks at cross-border expansion into other West African countries marking a historic milestone as they venture beyond Nigeria.

In addition, the partnership with the National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM) elevates i-Fitness services and their communities to even greater heights through the i-Fitness Academy.

  • “We understand the current realities and this partnership aims to make collaboration easier, which is why fitness enthusiasts or aspiring nutrition specialists can learn virtually and practice physically, and at the same time engage with other students to offer better services,” Ogunwale affirmed.

Beyond the confines of its fitness centres, i-Fitness seeks to impact communities positively. The 2022 collaboration with the Nigerian Heart Foundation, which birthed the “Bike-a-Heart-Shape-Route” campaign exemplifies their commitment to promoting health and fitness.

By raising awareness about cardiovascular diseases and physical inactivity, i-Fitness advocates for healthier lifestyles in the society it serves.

In the riveting tale of i-Fitness, we witness the transformation of a vision into reality, fuelled by unwavering faith, innovation and a commitment to creating a healthier world.

Mr. Foluso Ogunwale’s journey stands as a testament to the power of resilience and the potential of those who dare to pursue their dreams.

As i-Fitness continues to bridge the gap in fitness and wellness, it leaves an inspiring legacy for generations to come.

About i-Fitness

i-Fitness is West Africa’s leading and fastest-growing fitness chain. With 21 branches across Nigeria, over 200 professionally certified personal trainers, state-of-the-art gym facilities, over 20,000 members and a wide range of diverse fitness programs, i-Fitness is a gym and wellness centre committed to nurturing a community of fitness enthusiasts, whilst promoting a fitness lifestyle for a healthier and happier life.

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