By Ebele Orakpo
Lady Ebele Nwankwo is the Managing Director and Chief Executive Officer of Ultimate Catering Services based in Port Harcourt.
The graduate of Physics and Astronomy of the University of Nigeria Nsukka said she ventured into catering because of her love for cooking and encouragement from her mother who loved to cook and bake. Recently, the former marketing executive in Zerox Nigeria, spoke to Financial Vanguard on various issues relating to her hobby turned money-making venture. Excerpts.
My mother loved to cook and bake and so we grew up baking and cooking. All her children were brought up virtually knowing how to do most chores in the kitchen. As I grew older, I found out that I have a flair for cake decoration, pastry-making, events management so even though I did not do any work after school related to my course of study, I still tried to keep my hobby i.e catering,â€ she said.
According to Lady Nwankwo, â€œI worked as a marketing executive in Zerox Nigeria for about eleven years. While in Zerox, I still kept my catering hobby. I made snacks, wedding cakes and party cakes for friends. I didnâ€™t really do it as a full-time job, I was just doing it as a hobby until sometime in the mid-nineties (1994/95), I just had something I refer to as a brain wave to produce chin-chin. So I started in a small way. I started making it in my kitchen. I make the chin-chin and send to some shops around me and before I knew what was happening, I was making a lot of pocket money out of it.â€
Nwankwo stated that she had to relocate to Port Harcourt from Lagos when she got married but that did not deter her from continuing with her hobby. â€œWhile in Port Harcourt, I looked around most of the shops there and I discovered that there was no shop packaging chin-chin. There and then, I decided to package my own chin-chin in a special way.
This was in 1999 when I started packaging chin-chin in containers. I was the very first entrepreneur to package chin-chin in containers in Port Harcourt which I distributed to several supermarkets. Gradually, awareness was created. I had monopoly of that market for three, four years before so many other people started producing it in 2002/03.
But because I was doing this exclusively as a hobby, I didnâ€™t really expand the business. I was just dealing with 2, 3, 4 shops. It was an exclusive kind of chin-chin and then people were ordering directly from me until sometime in 2005, the Lord gave me a vision of a bigger outfit. That was when I decided to register a small business enterprise – Ultimate Catering Services. We specialise mainly in baking of wedding cakes, production of chin-chin and small chops (buns, puff-puff, samosa, spring rolls, cocktail meats) for parties and entertainment,â€ she stated.
Speaking further, she said: â€œWhen I got this vision of expansion, I said ok, let me see how I would start. I was able to raise a little capital, not much, I started with just N15,000 and I began production. I would produce and move out, people would come and buy directly from me in the house. I was operating from the house until after two years, the business was yielding and grew. I had a capital base of almost N50,000, then up to N100,000 in a space of three years.
Mark you, I was doing this as a hobby as I was still doing my secular job as an administrator with an oil servicing company in Port Harcourt, but all the while I was working at all the places I worked, I was still doing this business as a part-time/hobby.â€
The Ultimate Catering Services boss who quit secular job in 2008 to face her catering business squarely, noted that once she did that, the business began to expand and she has six boys in her employ. This expansion, she attributed to the grace of God and hard work. â€œWe have been getting more and more shops. I have about six boys working on a daily basis, producing chin-chin which we move out to more shops in Port Harcourt.â€ Nwankwo said apart from the chin-chin business, the outfit is also into events management. â€œWe cook for parties, childrenâ€™s parties, we arrange conferences, we cook for conferences, private dinner parties and all that. These are a few of the services we offer and by the grace of God, God being faithful as He is, has made sure that the business has stayed above board up till now, she said.
Speaking on her yearly turnover, she said: â€œLet me start with the monthly turnover. In a month, on the average, we could produce about N180,000 – N200,000 worth of chin-chin. Itâ€™s still a small scale business but with the expansion, we are now looking at about N300,000 – N350,000 per month. But again, when we get events management to do, sometimes we could make up to N500,000 because events management involves so many other things not just production of chin-chin.â€
On the challenges she faces, Nwankwo said â€œthe challenge actually is mostly that of equipment. A lot of things are done manually because the cost of equipment is very high like the chin-chin cutters, the already fabricated ones which are imported are so expensive for small scale businesses to afford. We are talking of something above N1 million.
These make the job easier and faster but the cost is too high for small scale business people like us so we end up kneading and cutting manually and these take time although we all arrive at the same end point but it takes more time. This is the major challenge we are facing now.
The cost of bringing these equipment into the country is high, even though local manufacturers have been trying to fabricate them but then, the prices of the locally fabricated ones are still on the high side because of the technology involved, they have to do so many things to arrive at the end product.
So the difference in price is not much. But if there is a way that all these equipment can be made easily affordable then we can access them and work faster because so many times, we donâ€™t fully meet demand. Food is something that everybody eats and there is no way that you produce food that it is not eaten unless the food is not tasty but if you are producing tasty food, people must eat and snack is one thing that most people eat when you can just use N50 or N100 to buy something and eat as opposed to using N300 or N400 to eat a major meal.
Some people would just say â€˜let me take this until when I can eat good food. Again, because we are not working with light right now , whether there is light or no light, we are not really affected. May be if we are working with machines, we would be faced with the challenge of power supply. â€œ
She stated that with the level of expansion she is envisaging, the company would need partners at a point because â€œI would like to bring in equipment, it will make it faster for me to work, production would be faster and easier and for me to do all that, I need investors so as to raise the kind of funds to be able to go into that scale of production.â€