Sulaiman Umar is the General Manager of Nochem Industry Bida, Niger State, a company which was the first to have a mechanised shea butter factory in Nigeria. In this interview with TMG, he explains his future ambitions around his business and politics.
TMG> Tell us about yourself and what you do:
Umar> I come from a family of Public Servants, entrepreneurs and politicians.
I am into so many things but my main business is agriculture related. We have a family business in Bida which is an oil mill that was set up by my father to industrialise our community. After acquiring formal education to a certain level, my dad asked me to join the family trade.
TMG> After I joined the business, I went into Shea Butter processing which is mostly used in the pharmaceutical and cosmetics industries, both in Nigeria and abroad. We use the mechanised way of processing the butter to extract the oil, filter, and package according to the specification of our buyers.
TMG> What kind of formal training does one need to become a Shea Butter producer?
Sulaiman> When I joined the family business, I didn’t actually start with Shea processing. A friend and brother of mine (Yahaya Musa) was the one who told me about Shea nuts business. He had an order to supply Shea nuts for a factory at Port Hacourt and asked me to join him in the business. And since we have a factory and warehouse in Bida, I told my dad about it. He said, “what are you going to do with Shea nuts in Bida”? I told him our plan of buying Shea nuts and supplying them to PH so he suggested, since we have a factory, we can process and sell to industries instead. I was free behind the ears about producing but with my dad’s production manager’s assistance we were able to get it done from procurememt to how to plan production, then marketing and sales.
TMG> How do you procure the raw materials and get it to the finished product?
Sulaiman> The raw materials is mostly shea nuts and Niger State has the largest concentration of shea trees and the best quality shea nuts in the whole world. So sourcing for raw materials is very easy. We buy locally in Niger state and we are always careful with what we buy. Our reliable local agents help us source for good and quality shea nuts for production. Therefore, we look for raw materials locally and the kind of mechanised equipment we use isn’t really imported for production. Apart from diesel, packaging materials and every other thing is locally sourced.
TMG> Have you thought of farming shea nuts yourselves?
Sulaiman> Yes but we cannot at the moment. Research is going on by Institute of Tropical trees, because shea trees grow on their own that’s why they call it God’s Gift To Mankind. However, the research that’s going is to see if they can bring species that will grow within three (3) years and produce seeds. It takes a shea tree six (6) years before it can start producing the nuts.
TMG> How many employees report to you and how efficient are they?
Sulaiman> So many workers were employed directly and indirectly. When we started production, we had two shifts and about 50 people were employed for direct employment, while about 100 were not direct workers and they were very efficent to the industry. The chain is long to do shea butter business. It’s just like networking.
TMG> Tell us about people who you have groomed and mentored in this business?
Sulaiman> There are so many of them and they all started with me as local agents. The first time they came in contact with me, they had no idea what a factory was all about, they were only markets boys and right now about 4 of them have small oil mills in Bida to process groundnut oil and shea butter oil to sell. Two of them have soap making factories. They are all successful, creating employment and still working. They still keep in touch with me and always seek for advice on some issues.
TMG> How far have you gone with the business and what more can you say?
Sulaiman> I have vast knowledge of the business and thank God for the experience I have and exposure. I have gone for seminars, conferences, and attend meetings with professionals and personalities both in Nigeria and abroad in this business. We are among the first people that started the association of shea butter in Nigeria. I have reprensented Niger state at the council meeting at Federal Ministry of Commerce when Dr. Moddibo was the minister during Obasanjo’s administration. We were invited to Japan, America and other countries to showcase our products. Unfortunately, we couldn’t meet up with some but have successfully exported shea butter through our agents to some industries in India and Europe for like 4 seasons and we also sell a lot locally to industries that are into soap, cosmetics in Ibadan, Kano, Jos and Adamawa.
TMG> What is your management style like?
Sulaiman> It’s not easy at all; because of paucity of funds, I have to do the work of 4 people. I was doing the procurement, supervising production, marketing/accounting and sales all alone. I really have to monitor every aspect of the business to achieve success. And in that process, every worker won’t relent not to work hard. I organise the work force very well for every one to be focused and intract with everyone, so that they will be comfortable working with me.
TMG> Being a very busy person saddled with so many responsibilities, how do you cope with your personal life?
Sulaiman> If you raelly want to go into shea butter business, you can not socialise. Sometimes you work even in the night and end up not having time for yourself. Some days I sleep in the office or end up in the factory at night. I have to be around to take charge of the resposibilities.
TMG> What do you consider to be your strength in the business?
Sulaiman> 1st is the knowledge; 2nd deriving pleasure of creating jobs and 3rd when the profit is good.
TMG> How do you manage risk in terms of damages?
Sulaiman> Risks are enormous; when you are dealing with machines and steam boilers in the factory, you know they are very sensitive. Therefore, you need to hire experts that can handle such equipments to work. In order to avoid risks and lose anything, you need experienced hands. So I hire people who have many years of experience in handling machines from Lagos and Kaduna.
TMG> How do you manage costs, if your labour is going high with low profit?
Sulaiman> In Shea butter processing, no part is wasted. Everything about shea butter is useful for sale. You can sell every particle you process to to cover up and meet up your expensense.
TMG> What sort of feed back do you expect from customers?
Sulaiman> The moment you meet the specification and time frame of any customer that orders some products from you, you know definitely that customer will appreciate you and will always want to do business with you. So my customers and their feedback means a lot.
TMG> What ways do you stay educated on new trends to develop your business?
Sulaiman> I do research, attend seminars, workshops and confernces on agriculture especially. I also stay in touch with people and organisations that are into similar businesses with me.
TMG> What makes your company unique and stand out from others?
Sulaiman> We are the first to have a mechanised shea butter factory in Nigeria with the best equipment that was built since 90s by our father, when IBB was Head of state. IBB was there in person to commission the factory. The place was used for Peugeot automobile workshop in the 80s by our father. It was later turned into a vegetable processing plant from groundnut oil to shea butter.
TMG> Tell us about a memorable deal you have worked on and you are happy with it?
Sulaiman> After every production, I usually go to Lagos with my samples to look for clients but there was this time, in the middle of production, someone just walked into my office and said he’s looking for a full container load of shea butter. I was so surprised and told him I hadn’t even finished my production. The person said he was ready to pay before I finish the production. We negotiated and he paid me in cash. The owner of that factory is the present governor of Adamawa state, Bindow. We first met when he was declaring for the senate at his constituency in Adamawa.
TMG> What are the challenges you face and how do you over come them?
Sulaiman> Mostly there is no support from government and electricity became a serious problem that we had to close down the factory temporarily. It was because we were running on generator and the cost was too high to maintain, also paying salaries and other issues. We tried to use other ways and even tried Bank of Industry to see what they can come up with for us to expand and sort out even powering the factory but the conditions they gave us were too steep to meet up with.
TMG> Why haven’t you partnered with Niger State government that knows the state has largest concentrated shea nuts trees than other states and can also use your industry to Create more jobs?
Sulaiman> To be fair, the previous government of Babangida Aliyu tried in some ways to encourage a lot of people in the shea nuts business. They supported the creation of association of shea butter, opened a desk for shea nuts business in Niger state and even created a department of Export and Promotion Council, appointing one of our own in the business as the pioneer DG.
And to be honest, I have no contact with the new government. During the previous administration when the present governor was commissioner of commerce, the DG of Export Promotion Council of Niger state had close ties with him and then we all had series of meetings. Therefore, I know the DG who knows so much about the shea nuts business will advise him on steps to take, how to improve shea butter business in Niger state.
TMG> What steps are you taking to see your company growing again?
Sulaiman> In fact, my older brother and I are planing to reorganise the business and bring in new equipment to see how we can improve on what we have been doing before. However, since everyone is going into agriculture now, and shea butter is one of the cash commodities of agriculture that sells fast in international markert, we have to revive the factory and modernise it to international standard. It will also be a success for our commnunity, the state and Nigeria.
TMG> Apart from shea business, what is your next business plan?
Sulaiman> There are so many things we do as a family. Even if the shea butter factory is closed down temporarily, we have other factory business we are into as entreprenuersn in Kaduna and Bida, Niger state. Everyone is busy working and still craeting job opportunitues for our communities and others. We always have good plans to achieve greatness.
TMG> What is your next plan for the future?
Sulaiman> I always think of the community I come from. So I want to do something special to uplift my people to create an avenue where I can help people on how they can generate income. I come from a community where there’s less creativity. People are docile and always waiting for government and I think that’s not right. I want something great for my people that will add value to them.
TMG> Are you looking at politics to carry out these future plans?
Sulaiman> Yes, I have an interest in politics and when I was growing up, I found our father in active politics with his friends back in the days of NPN. So I grew up in a society of politicians with my friends’ parents and associates. You could say that I have been in politics since I was a child.
However, I became very active in politics when my immediate older brother, Hon. Sadiq contested for the State House of Assembly and won. And by association and political engagement we met a lot of people who are in important in political arena and since then it changed my way of seeing things politically and in the business aspect of it.
Being active in politics taught me how take charge of the resposibities and trust given to you by your people and how to handle people for better development.
It was later I understood why our dad had been doing his best to be productive by bringing in so many businesses to create employment in our communities. So I got the knowledge that politics can actaully move you to help people by developing, empowering and defending your people even with your personal resources. Not neccessasilry when you have a big position.
Therefore, I don’t know what tommorow will bring. I have not closed my doors to the idea.
TMG> How do you encourage youths to be self- reliant as an entreprneur?
Sulaiman> Youths should be creative, they shouldnt just go to school and come back doing nothing. They should learn a trade by being creative: create empolyment for other generations too. Government can’t do it all without the support of the younger generation that are productive. Most impotantly, they also need guidance. Some of them need people who can get them organised, they don’t have any idea till you show them things they can do to be useful for themselves and the society. So they should remain focused and grab any oppurtunity they have from people who are willing to help and guide them.
TMG> Tell us about your mentors and how you were groomed?
Sulaiman> My mother, late Hajiya Aisha Masasto of blessed memory- she was there for all of us from childhood, guiding us for the resposiblities ahead of us in the fururr because she knew what life was all about when she was growing up. She grew up in an enviroment where women don’t go to school and she was opportuned to be the first woman that aqcuired western education up to university level from that society. So from childhood, I had seen what she used the knowledge she acquired to do and encouraged others to go to school. I know some of the people she helped and assisted in Federal Government Colleges all over Nigeria as an educationist, before she past away few years ago. The teachings and lessons we got from her is that hard work pays. If you work hard, protect your name and your family, also do what is right, the sky will be the limit. She taught us not to depend on anyone but God.
And my loving brother, late Yusuf who made a great impact on me. He always used to say to everyone close to him that we should have great dreams, because nothing is impossible in this world. He had so many great dreams for a better future but life was too short for him to achieve all these dreams. He left a very huge vacuum behind but I give all praises to God. I learnt a lot from him, even though he was my younger brother.
May Allah bless their souls, grant them peace in Aljannah (Paradise). Ameen
TMG> What do you do when you are free?
Sulaiman> I hang out with my friends or visit them. And most of my friends are my childhood friends till today. Therefore, I can’t call them friends but brothers. I also play with my kids at home.