Nigeria's lemonade kings who turned $10 into millions

PUBLISHED: Wed, 23 Nov 2016 14:17:29 GMT

Unfulfilled and selling pharmaceuticals; Seun Abolaji decided to refresh his life with lemonade. The article below tells his story, it first appeared in Forbes Africa and is republished with its permission. Subscribe today by contacting Shanna

Healthy drinks have become a booming business in Nigeria. Even Coca-Cola is getting in on the action; the fizzy-drink giant acquired a 40 per cent stake in Chi, Nigeria’s largest juice and dairy company with an estimated valuation of around $1 billion, in February. In the wake of this deal, Nigerian entrepreneur, Seun Abolaji, is determined to turn his lemons into lemonade and liquid cash.

“We feel like the Nigerian drinks market is worth millions if not billions. Look at what Coke did with Chi. It’s a massive industry and a lot of people are looking to invest in this market,” says Abolaji.

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Abolaji and his brother started Wilson’s Juice Company about three years ago with $10. Today, the company has a multi-million-naira turnover and is stocked in all the major retail outlets, with a presence in over 13 states in Nigeria. The company also has its own factory with a growing workforce of about 30 people. Their success is a result of Abolaji’s ability to spot a gap in the market, a trait that earned him the nickname Candy Man when he was at school.

“I was buying candy and reselling it to the kids in school. They used to call me the Candy Man because my locker would be full of candies and I had clients who would buy everything. I would buy the candies for like $1 and they would buy it from me for like $20. I don’t know why they would not just go down to the store, but I guess I provided them with access,” says Abolaji.

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Born in Nigeria, Abolaji migrated to the United States, at the age of eight, where he obtained a degree in psychology from the University of Colorado. After dreaming of becoming a record producer, Abolaji succumbed to a career in pharmaceuticals to please his parents.

“After I finished undergrad, I used to produce music too. I wanted to be a producer, I told my parents ‘look I want to go to New York, I have been doing this for a long time and I want to go study under someone’. My parents did not agree. They locked me in my basement and they said ‘you need to figure out what you want to do with your life,’” he says.

“I made a list of about five things. There was music producer, doctor, pharmacist, entrepreneur and some other things. So, I asked myself, how can I make this amount of money within this period of time and what will get me there fastest and pharmacy was the one that was at the top of the list because you could make six figures.”

Abolaji worked with CVS Pharmacy in Manhattan for five years. In 2007, he decided to visit Nigeria and did a pharmacy internship with Alpha Pharmacy in Ikeja, a suburb on the mainland of Lagos. That experience taught Abolaji two things. Firstly, he did not want to be a pharmacist; secondly, he could actually live in Nigeria.

It was then that Abolaji decided it was time for a career change.

“So, we went to a farmland my family owned in Osa. My parents had a project they were working on and they had spent so much money on it but we realized that the people stole the money and nothing was done. So my brother came down to Nigeria and saw the situation and decided to fix it. The land was supposed to be a factory for producing ekuru, a local produce made from palm kernel cake,” says Abolaji.

After trying to revive the business for two years, the brothers ran out of money and had to shut down the factory.

“We were selling everything on credit and buying everything on cash and that could not be sustained. We ran out of money because people promised to pay at different times and they didn’t pay.”

Not deterred, Abolaji saw an opportunity for their next business venture.

“We thought to ourselves ‘we are both athletes, there are no fresh juices available, so let’s start making fresh juice to sell’. So we bought a bag of oranges and a plastic juicer and started making juices at Covenant University. We rented a kiosk and then we had a natural progression into smoothies and then one day we saw lemons, and we were like let’s add lemonade,” says Abolaji. 

Before long, all their clients only wanted lemonade and they decided to focus on this product. As business took off, they employed more people and Abolaji realised they needed a system to track sales.

“One day, I said to my brother, ‘why don’t we put this in a bottle?’. We had about 11 people working for us and you never knew how much sales you were making because they were squeezing the lemons into cups, adding sugar and selling for cash. It was difficult to track how many cash sales you were making in a day. So I said to myself ‘if we put it in bottles, I don’t have to be here to oversee everything. I give you 10 bottles, I know exactly how much money I should get back,’” says Abolaji.

The bottled lemonade was a hit with their customers and Abolaji realised it was time to take the business to the next level.

“We decided to go to a bottling company and we got a generic bottle. We began thinking that this could be something, and that is when we got the square bottle and began branding it,” says Abolaji.

The next step was to give the drink a name.

“One of my brother’s friends is called Wilson. When we’re doing it in cups, they came all the way from New Zealand, sleeping on concrete floors, just to see what was going on and that was key for us. Also, my last name is Abolaji and we didn’t think anybody would want to drink Abolaji Lemonade. So we played with different names which a Nigerian, and anyone in the world, can say and we just landed on Wilson.”

The duo soon got their certification to sell drinks in Nigeria and began knocking on the doors of supermarkets. In the past three years, the company has grown organically. Abolaji is now raising funds to build a larger factory. The long-term plan is to be the go-to natural beverage company in Nigeria and expand to other African countries. The company also recently added a second product, called Pink Lemonade, made from hibiscus.

The goal is to expand to the open market, which accounts for about 90% of retail in Nigeria, according to Abolaji. To do that, they need to compete with the locally manufactured drinks, which are a lot cheaper than Wilson’s. However, Abolaji is undeterred; if the sale of Chi is anything to go by, he knows he is exactly where he needs to be, making lemonade out of life’s lemons.  

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