By the turn of the 21st century, Nigeria was yet to have an outlet that provided a conducive atmosphere to shop for fresh fruits and vegetables. It still mostly took the form of the open market and the farmers. Thanks to a brave move by Olagoke Balogun, this is now a trend. In 2010, Balogun took the bold step of pioneering Healthy Food shopping and replicating something he had experienced in South Africa.
Within 13 years, the business has established industry leadership and paved the way for other entrants. With several stores across Nigeria and billions of naira in turnover, one can say that Balogun’s bet paid off. More fascinating is the fact that it started as a side hustle for Olagoke and his wife, Abimbola. Keep reading to get the full story.
Olagoke Balogun is a native of Ilorin, Kwara State, and this is where he was born too. He attended Chapel Nursery and Primary School, GRA, Ilorin. He attended the University of Ilorin Secondary School, Ilorin for his secondary education.
In 1999, He proceeded to the University of Ilorin, Kwara state Nigeria where he graduated as the Best Graduating Student, Biochemistry Department in 2002. He also received the Temidayo Pharmacy Award in Biochemistry in 2002.
He completed the compulsory National Youth Service Corps (NYSC) year in Jigawa state, as a science teacher, teaching Chemistry, Biology and Integrated Science at Dutse Model International Secondary School.
Balogun is also an alumnus of the Stanford SEED, and the Enterprise Development Centre, Pan-Atlantic University.
Olagoke started his full-time career with UAC Nigeria Plc as a Restaurant Supervisor in Ibadan, in March 2004. It was only his first full-time role, but he handled the critical responsibility of overseeing Customer Management, Facilities, Production, Front office Operations, Cash Management, Sales, Quality Assurance, Stock Control and Record keeping.
After about half a year there, Olagoke joined Nigerian Bottling Company PLC as Business Development Executive, generating leads and activating new markets for the brand. He was also charged with effective distribution of Products and developing and implementing promotional activities within assigned territories. He spent a little over two years with the NBC.
Next career stop was an internship with Sasol Synfuels International (Pty) Ltd Johannesburg Area, South Africa, as Process Controller in 2006. In the same year, the opportunity came to join Chevron.
In April 2008, Olagoke Balogun resumed Chevron as a Process Operator charged majorly with product quality assurance and monitoring Equipment and instrumentation health. He was a key part of the team that commissioned and started the 34,000 barrel per day (bpd) Escravos Gas-to-Liquids (EGTL) plant in Escravos in 2014.
While with Chevron, he was selected to go on Accelerated Training Program (ATP) at the El Segundo Refinery in California as part of Technical and Leadership Development in 2011. He was also part of the team that produced and shipped the first GTL Diesel in Africa. He spent about a decade with Chevron,
Starting SoFresh Neighborhood Market
Olagoke had always had the idea of starting a retail business for fresh fruits and vegetables, but his paid job kept the ideas on hold until 2010. The idea only reactivated when on a trip to South Africa where he discovered that fresh fruits and vegetables were packaged and sold in supermarkets. Though, he had not seen it in Nigeria, it gave form to the idea he always had. Upon his return, he registered Fruitivegies as a business but remained with his job while his wife managed it.
Growing up, he had access to gardens where they sourced fresh vegetables, but as times evolved, things had to be sourced from the markets. However, he was still particular about getting fresh fruits and vegetables, and most times these things could only be sourced from the farmers markets, and that did not make for the best shopping experience.
- “While growing up, I used to go to the market with my mum very often. When I got older and moved to Lagos with my wife, I usually went to the market with her too. Sadly, I didn’t enjoy the experiences at the markets. What I disliked the most was the filthy state of the markets. They smelt very badly, and one had to walk under the sun or rain to purchase things in there. Then I liaised with my wife one day and brought up the idea to change the scheme to regular food shopping” he recounted in an interview.
The vision of the business was to recreate the experience of shopping for fresh fruits and vegetables for people living in Lagos.
- “It was very important to me to set up a supermarket where people could shop for all their natural fruits, vegetables and other foodstuffs. Growing up, we had huge gardens and I used to eat fresh fruits and vegetables. It became a dream and goal to recreate that experience for people living in Lagos” he said.
For the first six years of the business, he left the running of the business to his wife, who had resigned her law practice to give the business the attention it required. By 2016, Olagoke left Chevron and came full time on board as the Chief Executive Officer.
The decision to leave paid employment came after the business had hit the set milestones. “Before I left the job, I was running my business on the side. There was a clear growth path for the business, and we had done our plans and projections. Based on the figures, we knew that the business was going in the right direction. We also had some milestones in place that we wanted to achieve before we left paid employment. This was to serve as a cushion in case our business didn’t work out as planned” Balogun said.
Pivoting the business to stay in business
Within the first year of operation in Ogba, Balogun realised that a significant portion of their customers were interested in already prepared foods such as smoothies, shakes and salads. In a typical case of “the customer gets what the customer wants”, he went ahead to get a juicer and start meeting that need.
However, it came with a lot of challenges that almost sent the business under.
- “We struggled for a long time because the location wasn’t too great. We actually considered closing down the business a couple of years in because we had put in a lot of money and effort, and it wasn’t yielding [results] and we were supporting the business with my salary and my wife’s money from her private law practice. In fact, at some point, I started giving up because of the numerous challenges we faced but my wife encouraged me to stay in the business. We then started doing our research and from what we gathered, our client base constituted of people who worked on Victoria Island and its environs.”
Armed with this knowledge, they went ahead to open a location in Ikoyi and rebranded the business to So Fresh. This was a capital-intensive decision that practically required them to double the investments they had already made. But this was the singular decision that marked the turnaround in fortunes. Within 6 months, the revenues started growing geometrically, and they soon decided to close the Ogba location and focus on the new location for profitability.
In 13 years of operations, SoFreshNg has scaled to over 15 outlets across Lagos, Ogun, Ibadan, Port Harcourt and Abuja. It also boasts of providing employment to almost 200 staffs. In 2018, the company reached a major milestone raising over €360,000 ($424,000) of external finance from Inclusive Impact Investment by. that helped it scale from one to 10 stores.
The business has also engaged a lot of middlemen and some farmers from where it sources its fresh food supplies. Most impressive is that since it broke the profitability glass, So Fresh has consistently grown its revenues in billions for the last 7 years.