Operating at a factory installed capacity utilization, Sona Agro Allied Foods Limited, a leading biscuits manufacturing company and subsidiary of Sona Group of Industries has commenced the exportation of its quality and premium biscuits to Ghana and other West African countries.
The company which sources over 90 per cent of its raw materials locally has become a leading player in the Nigerian manufacturing sector.
Shortly after the inauguration of its export order by Ogun State Governor Ibikunle Amosun represented by his Commissioner for Commerce and Industry, Otunba Bimbola Ashiru, at an event which held on its premises, the company’s chairman, Mr. Arjan Mirchandani, spoke with select journalists including JOSEPH EKENG. Excerpts:
What is the significance of the recent inauguration of Sona Agro Allied Foods export order?
We want to manufacture using local materials. This is also to support the Nigerian farmers. It is important for us to help the farmers. We believe they are the future of this country. We also believe that apart from farmers, Nigerians themselves can decide their future. It is not the business of any foreigner to come and decide the future for Nigerians. Foreigners could bring investments, technology and all the talents to make sure goods produced here are comparable to those from Europe and the United States of America, so that at the end of the day one can take the products to other markets not only within Africa but also abroad. It is necessary for us to look at these opportunities.
This is one of the reasons we have for starting this journey based on the use of local raw materials and based on encouraging ourselves towards export. We have started with just two containers for export which in our eyes are equal to 200 containers because when one has faith and takes a step at a time, one will reach one’s goal. But it must begin with one step. God said, “Take one step, and I will help you and make sure that you walk 10 further steps”. Thus, with each container that we export, God will create opportunities for us to do more. I am a believer in nature and a believer in God. I believe that everything is possible, but we need determination and commitment. Of course, hard work and commitment are involved in whatever we do, and that is part of life. Nigeria has an opportunity to grow. Nigeria has an opportunity to replace all imports with locally manufactured goods and save foreign exchange. We cannot rely only on oil money. When you have too much of oil money, people get spoilt; when you have little, you start looking at what you have at home. Thus, taking one step is better than not starting at all. I am encouraged and I believe this is just the beginning.
How will you describe the potential in the biscuit sector and others in the Nigerian market?
We feel very confident. We have been here for some time and we have learnt how to survive. We have learnt to survive in the good times when there is a lot of money and also in the bad times when money is scarce. Hence, we learn new things on a daily basis. Also, Nigeria is a great country; the people are very nice and absolutely hard working. And as long as we are united, we can work together and make this country prosper.
You have a finger in many pies in the Nigerian business environment; what are the things that drive you as a businessman?
It is God. We are all guided by God. Every step we have taken has been guided by God. We have the faith that you can achieve anything you set out to do through God’s help. It is also our belief that you don’t ask your country what your country will do for you. You ask yourself what you can do for your country. We make sure that we do our part. We belong to the country and it is important that we play our part.
Many companies are now downsizing and not producing at their installed capacity; how would you describe your own approach to this crisis?
People are downsizing. Maybe, they are unable to get their acts together. Of course, the banks are more difficult because their interest rates are between 20 to 30 per cent. With an interest rate of that nature, no business can survive. In India and other countries, interest rates are two or three per cent or four per cent maximum. In Switzerland, you will get money at one per cent rate. When you have cheap money, you are more encouraged to invest more. We are still expanding. I don’t believe that there is reason to downsize and deny Nigerian workers of their livelihood. There is nothing wrong with Nigerian workers, they are very good. This is a time to develop. Nigerians are my brothers and sisters and I will say very boldly that I will do whatever it takes to keep our staff. In our companies, we have a very good system and certification from the International Organisation for Standardisation. We have complied with all the regulations from the Standards Organisation of Nigeria (SON), National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control (NAFDAC) and other government agencies. We are a responsible company and we are encouraged despite the situation which makes us to be bringing in newer technologies. We are working with the Bank of Industries and the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture to achieve this. We are grateful to some of these government agencies because they encourage growth in investments. If the cost of funds is not made cheaper more industries will die in Nigeria. I don’t believe that should mortgage the future of the country. We should encourage local industries that source raw material locally. Nigeria got her independence in 1960, but we are not free until we are free by being self-sufficient. We need to start immediately.
In what ways would you like the Federal Government of Nigeria to come to the aid of investment-friendly individuals like you?
We want the Federal Government to make cheaper loans available for the industries. We also believe that government officials should visit industries more often and encourage them, especially during moments of difficulties. It is the duty of every one of us to join hands together to grow Nigeria. You can’t clap with one hand, you need two hands. That is why we think the Federal Government needs to directly engage manufacturers and ask them what their problems are. We have written so many letters but we don’t get response from the government and this is very unfortunate. At Sona Group of Companies, we are producing with 100 per cent local raw materials, yet the Federal Government allows people to import commodities that can be sourced locally and they are charged only 5 per cent duties. For instance, some people are importing sorghum when we have enough sorghum in the country. We need to make policies to support local companies.
What are your other investment plans and projections for some of your subsidiaries, especially Sona Agro Allied Foods?
At Sona Agro Allied Foods, we’ll like to see 100 per cent capacity utilisation. In the next 15 months, we are hoping to grow by 200 per cent. We feel that import reduction and government’s policies are helping to grow the industries and so automatically, employment will grow and the ordinary Nigerian will be proud that he is contributing to the growth of the economy. We have thousands of vibrant Nigerians in our work force and they are doing well.
What efforts are being made to ensure proper branding of some of your products to make them more reputable in the market?
Great products are made of great quality. If you don’t do quality but you have great packaging, you won’t sell. The customer must get value for his money. Our belief is that people must get value for their money. That is important for us and we have obligation to our customers. We are also not relenting in our efforts to promote the products by building awareness.
In this current period of recession, consumers are buying less because of the rising prices of commodities thereby forcing companies to lower production. In your case, however, you are increasing production. What are you doing differently from the others?
We are not doing anything extraordinary. I am not a magician. I will say God is guiding us to go on the right direction. But one thing I know is that, when you produce quality goods, you don’t have to show off. Consumers themselves will determine what the market of the products should be. If I give you my products and you enjoy using them, then I think you will become my customer. If you buy a product and you are not able to use it, will you buy it a second time? Answer is no!
Which of your subsidiary companies do you regard as the premium or flagship brand and what are the different market shares of your firms?
There is no discrimination in our organisation. Our industry is viable based on availability of local raw materials. I am all for it and I will do whatever it takes to replace imported products. On a daily, basis we put millions of products into the market and we make sure that no problem or complaint comes to us because of our products. And we also pay close attention to our customers because we believe that the customer is always right. The customers are king, we give them value for their money.
What inspired you to come to Nigeria? How did this dream start?
I am a human being like you and everybody. I am just a servant of God and I will remain a servant of God. Encouragement only comes from God. Look onto Him and ask anything; He will give you in abundance. God is giving us more than enough; we can’t even show enough gratitude to what He has given us. All we need do is to ask our Merciful Father to guide us to do the right thing. I came to Nigeria because I believe in the growth and development of the country. I believe very strongly in the Nigerian project, its people and its potentialities. Nigeria is a great country and with what we are doing at Sona Group, my belief in this country is not wrong placed.
Digital Agencies May Cease to Exist in a Decade, Says Nn’emeka Maduegbuna, C&F Porter Novelli Boss
Emeka Maduegbuna is one of the leading communications advisers in Nigeria and the Managing Director of C & F Porter Novelli, an affiliate of Omnicom Group. His organization has mentored many PR practitioners, that have helped upscale the PR practice in the country. In this interview, Maduegbuna speaks to Azeez Disu, Anietie Udoh, and Ogechi Odigbo about his PR journey, industry challenges, PR trends and lots more. Excerpts:
How would you trace your journey into the PR world and what has your career trajectory been like?
I have to make one confession, I did not set out to be a public relations practitioner, I started in broadcasting and when I got in, I developed a love for documentary films. Have always had the love to write from the early stage. Have always wanted to be a communicator, who is an entrepreneur of himself.
It was clear to me that I would not stay much as a broadcaster, working for the NTA. My sight was set on becoming a documentary film maker. It was not as if I set out to be a public relations person per se. Although, you will say that is communication, but when I left the NTA, because of rationalization, my effort at post graduate film production programme through NTA scholarship programme, at the University of California, rated as the world’s best film school as at that time was halted. That was how I started public relations.
Incidentally, my first job in public relations was given to me by Chief Chris Ogunbanjo, who I have met in the course of my work at NTA. I used to produce a series in NTA, a documentary series called ‘Personality Profile’ where I profiled him. He thus took me as a son. One week after I lost my job, I went to him, can I have a job with you? And he said of course you can have the job. I will give you a job, as my public affairs manager, and that was how I started public relations in 1986.
While I was in NTA, I was the first business correspondent of the NTA Network, a situation that exposed me to the vast and huge business environment in the country. With Chief Ogunbanjo’s employing me in his investment company, I began to establish and have more contacts in the business, commerce, industry sectors, and all of that.
In those days, the old man was quite active. Today, people talk about domiciliary account. He was the first fellow that mooted the idea that domiciliary account should be created.
So, after working for Ogunbanjo for a couple of years I then went to the Technical Committee on Privatisation and Commercialisation, Office of Bureau of Public Enterprises (BPE), I spent quite some time there, I spent over eight years there and it was after that I left to establish C & F (Corporate and Finance).
In establishing C&F, I was influenced by the way public relations was being practised in England. Working with Ogunbanjo, who focused on the capital market, the industry and working with BPE, working on privatisation, sale of shares and others, gave me exposure to some of the international best practices. When I left BPE and I set up a PR company, our focus was on corporate and finance: that is what C & F means; Corporate and Financial Communications company.
The industry has grown. It has moved from the days public relations practitioners were seen as errand boys or media boys. Today, reputation is everything. For PR practitioners of today to succeed, they must invest much more on information and communications technology (ICT). They must have a better understanding of what they are communicating.
As a practitioner, your skill set should be broad and varied. Your knowledge base must not be narrow if you must succeed. The environment is constantly changing considerably. Today, new innovations are happening everyday because we live in a digital world. When, I started communications, it used to be one to many, now it is many to many. There is a whole paradigm shift; it is not just people who have the background in pure communications, you now have to hire people who have experience in tech and all of that. Now we have staff members whose background are basically computer and IT. That was not happening before. It is the situation now.
Did mentorship play any significant role in your professional evolution and do we have much of that in the industry as we speak?
Mentorship is important because no matter how bright one is, if he or she does not get guidance, he/she, though may succeed, one could succeed better if he or she has people to seeks out for guidance. So, mentorship is important. The actual practice is different from theory. People, who have worked a path, always tell you what the path looks like. So, when you are going on that path even though you bring your own perspective, you can benefit from the knowledge of others. If I go back to my days, even in broadcasting, there were people who saw some promise in me, people like the Joe Ebuwa, people like Victor Folivi, John Chiahemen. As a young reporter, they saw the potential in me and they encouraged and guided me.
So, mentorship is important and we are also trying to do that here. This is the reason C&F runs a mentorship programme. If you look at our website, you will see it. We have what we call the ‘PR fundamental programme.’ In it, we bring in young people, who have completed youth service and we select some of them and over one-year period, to expose them to the basics. Some of them have moved on to do some other things, but, we still have played our part to the society. I am a firm believer in mentorship. It is important, as I have said, no matter how bright the kid is, he or she can grow with guidance and what mentorship does is guidance. I remember that after my youth service (NYSC), which I had at NTA Kaduna, I said to myself the pay here is not attractive, and I decided to look for something else. The natural thing was to go to one of this communication companies, we have the advertising agencies, but they would want you have some experience and I had just finished my youth service. Then it was easy to get a job not like now. After one week of pounding the street of Lagos and I did not have a job, I walked into the NTA and I got the job because I knew I could get it, but I was looking for something else, some other kinds of communications job.
Not quite six months that I got the NTA job, I was getting offers from a mentor, who was not in NTA. So, mentorship is important. In PR, people like Mike Okereke is a mentor, I will mention Mike Okereke particularly because as at the time I joined PR, he was president of NIPR and he had put in place some institutional arrangements that provided mentorship. The Peter Onono, people like him, we looked up to all of them.
What would say drives you to achieve your professional goals?
What drives me is the desire to succeed, the desire to make an impact, you want it to be said at the end of the day that you have made your own contribution, it is left for others to judge how good, how well you were.
They are quite a number of ex-staff members of C & F Porter Novelli, who grew their wings here. Some of them are clients, they have gone to the other side, I see them, when I see those kinds of people I feel happy because some of them I remember when they were still with us. At the end of the day, what matters is our contribution to the growth of the industry and country.
Gold and silver is important. Do not get me wrong, because without it you cannot pay your bills. That is important, but beyond that, what is the impact you have made. What have you done to make your professional environment better, your personal circumstances better? This is important without concentrating on material wealth. For me, this is what drives me. To be able to say that this is my contribution, this is what we have done.
Today, when I look back and I see PRCAN, God bless late Toye Ogunnorin, because they were the one who started PRCAN and they told me “young men like you need to take over”. It is a job that you have to spend your resources, for some time. The PRCAN held its meetings in my office and I am glad the association is growing stronger.
PR has not quite become a profession with a capital ‘P’ but it is headed in that direction. Twenty years ago, it was not the way it is now. PR practitioners, today can stand their grounds.
A highpoint for me was an occasion when we were making a presentation to a client, who had one of this financial services consultants in attendance. One year later, the gentleman met me on a flight and disclosed that in six months’ times he would be heading the consultancy firm and would want us to work for them.
Would you agree with the view that PR seems to be the weakest of all the sectors in the integrated marketing communication (IMC) industry in Nigeria?
Public relations or communications as I would like to call it, is not necessarily the weakest of the IMC discipline. You know what, some of the greatest campaigns in this world has being led by public relations. Any entity that ignores public relations does that to its own detriment.
My advice to any entity is, hire a lawyer because of the law, hire a finance manager because you have to keep your money, the third is to hire a public relations manager because reputation is everything.
I agree, there are practitioners engaged in unwholesome practices, but there are some who are outstanding and can hold their own. Increasingly, we are having more of that. The one issue and my industry colleagues do not like it when I say it, is that the NIPR is both a trade association and a regulatory body.
Standards, the modalities and mechanisms for setting standards, should be separated from a forum where we come and enjoy ourselves and talk about our welfare.
As with major professions in the advanced world, the business of regulation, the mechanism for regulation and the vehicles for practitioners associated are different. Though, we have not gotten to that stage. I am a believer in NIPR, if you walk to this agency and if you are not a member of NIPR, I will insist you become a member, because that is what the law says.
I think we need to move to the next stage where we separate a trade association from the licensing authority. You see APCON, Nigerian Bar Association, the Nigerian Medical Association, Nigerian Institute of Architect, Council of Registered Engineers in Nigeria, Nigerian Society of Engineers et c, there is a relationship, so what they do, those who are responsible for standards are to focus on that, make that standards, and it will go to how practitioners emerge.
The environment that we operate has changed. In fact, value has moved from the traditional practice of PR/Advertising to digital, because that is where the world is moving.
I can hazard a guess that in another decade there will be nothing like a digital agency again. What will happen is that there will be communication consultancy whether in advertising or public relations. If you position yourself as a digital agency moving forward, you would not go too far because all focus on the channel, and we have seen it.
The Federal Government recently hired a foreign PR agency for manage its image; some blamed the trend on Nigeria’s practitioners’ inability to meet standards of best practices, what is your take on this?
I think it is a wrong approach by the Federal Government. Even though standards are international, knowledge of the local environment is important. You know what these international agencies that they hire, they are exposed to the best practices in the world, but to operate in this environment, they have to have knowledge of the local environment.
If you want international best practices, you could hire an agency that has operated worldwide and all that, but you also need an agency that understands your environment. You have to marry the two.
I am happy that based on representation made by PRCAN, the minister of information has said that the government will use more of local people. I am not saying that foreigners should not operate in Nigeria, but do not structure it in such a way that Nigerians will not be able to up their games.
There are lot of things being done in the legal world, whereby Nigerian law firms are working side by side with international firms. I think the government has to create the enabling environment for what they call local content. I am not saying it should be forced, that it must be regulated, that we must have a law, create the environment. Those Request For Proposal (RFPs) that you see are written in such a way that the PR foreign agencies does not see the Nigerian practitioner as a partner because of the way the RFPs are developed but if you structure it in such a way, you know what, when they get these jobs they come to Nigerians to help them work because the local environment is important and sometimes the lack of insight would not make it work.
As a veteran PR professional, what would you consider the secrets of success?
There are no secrets. Like in every profession it is all due to hard work. A voracious appetite for learning, continued learning. At 64 plus, I am still learning. The basic skills are there, but you have to upgrade them. Have a voracious appetite for knowledge, try and learn new things.
You must be someone that has integrity, ethical. The environment changes, so it is a continuous learning process and hard work and a commitment to ethics. Those for me are the ingredients.
How do you hope to pass on the huge knowledge that you acquired in the course of your career to the younger generations?
Every young fellow who comes here to work is a mentee and there are others who are not necessarily working here and there are people who used to work here who will call me up to seek advice, that is the way it is.
How is the company positioned now and what are your achievements?
We see ourselves as business advisers specializing in strategic communications; we are more than a PR firm because to focus on PR for the stake of it, is to narrow your horizon.
Businesses want to grow, organizations want to grow, they are looking for advisers, councilors to help them grow, that is the way I see us, we just happened to provide that services in the area of communications just like the lawyer will provide legal service.
We do a couple of things, transforming people, creating understanding. These are the things we do.
This agency has been around for 20 years, on the book. But it is older than 20 in the real sense of it. This agency was incorporated before I joined.
Our cutting edge is that we see ourselves as not a just PR firm. We are business advisers that happen to specialize in our strategic goals. That is why we see ourselves as more than a PR firm. This is our approach. It goes beyond the broad but narrow confines of PR. PR is broad, but when you look at it within the confines of the world, it is not so. We go beyond that. We advise businesses. This is the way we are structured.
What are some of the challenges you have faced?
I like to state that for me, I have no regrets in life. What I do is learn from it, not that there have been no challenges. For me, regret do not matter because the doors that you open and the ones you do not open lead to the same place. If one loses a business, normally you feel bad, but the key thing is what one learns from it.
I once went for a pitch and somebody asked: You used to work for company A that is their competitor. From the story I heard, you guys did very well, why were you not retained? I said, you know it is not a Roman Catholic marriage where there’s no divorce; and secondly, the power to hire and fire is that of the client. If you try to provide value and service, you may be doing that and if for some reasons the client wants to move on, you move on. I do not cry over spilled milk. Life goes on, that is the way I see it.
Would you say anything has changed between the PR Practice of old and now?
Things have changed. it can never be the same again. It has all changed entirely. Data is driving everything, the way the media is organized, even the traditional media are under threat because of the new paradigm shift.
Certain campaigns can be run without the mass media, as we know it. Today organizations have become publishers of their own. They buy advertising space and share on the social media.
Content marketing is in vogue now. If you keep telling people I am wonderful, this is the best thing about my product and services, you have to look for stories to tell them where coincidence of interest between them and your product.
The coincidence of interest between the fellow you want to reach and your product is what matters. It is not to keep telling them that my drink is the best and all. What does the man who buys the drink want? What are his interest? So, things have changed.
This is why I tell my traditional media colleagues that they need to up their games.
Your agency is an affiliate of Omnicom Group, a global agency that just warehoused the MTN business. As it is, there may be need to realign the PR account of MTN in the local market. Is C&F Porter Novelli on the cards; of retaining the account?
What I know is that Omnicom has won the brief and Omnicom agencies are supposed to be working for the agency. That deal was done internationally, to my own understanding anchored in South Africa that is the way I see it, I mean Omnicom will have to talk to local people if there is a need.
I have to say that I am not familiar with what they want to do. The much I know is that Omnicom has won the business, the details of what they want to do, I really dont know. There are a couple Omnicom PR agencies here. We are an Omnicom PR agency, Media Craft is one. My understanding is that Omnicom has won the pitch; my understanding is for them to sort out what they want to do about it here.
What are your hobbies?
I listen to a lot of Jazz music, I love art, I love to read.