Latifat Balogun: When the Competition Kicks, Kick Back

   

A less-kind observer might label Latifat Balogun overbearing. She calls herself tenacious. You have to be if you’re going to open Abuja’s first gelateria producing and selling its own flavours that was so successful it needed to expand not once but three times in its first year of operation. Sweet success like this doesn’t come without a lot of discipline and a willingness to invest in yourself. Latifat wants women especially to understand this.

“Women face a lot of barriers to owning a business in Nigeria, factors like lack of capacity, skills, and structure that affect how we raise capital and compete favorably. But why should anyone be willing to invest in your business when you are not willing to do so yourself? When you’re looking for finance, you must be able to demonstrate the need to use your own funds before asking for help. I’ve resorted to selling my jewelry to meet down payments. What is the economic value of anything if you cannot put it to use when needed? We are what we make of our dreams. Nothing is impossible if only we can try and are willing to make sacrifices to get there.”

Latifat grew up in a Muslim family in Lagos, Nigeria. The first child of nine, from an early age she was tasked with a lot of responsibilities in the home. She often helped her mother with petty trade and as a student sold all kinds of things to supplement her upkeep allowance. Following her studies at the University of Lagos, Latifat worked at Société Générale Bank for ten years in various capacities, including head of operations, until she was unexpectedly asked to resign. 

“One of my staff did not follow closing procedure correctly and some cash went missing. As the most senior member of the team, I had to take responsibility. Of course I wasn’t prepared as I had envisioned a long career ahead and coping with unemployment was really difficult. But I stayed positive and was ready to take up anything that came my way.”

Luckily, she didn’t have to wait long as her husband – a diplomat serving in Congo Brazzaville at the time – was posted to Italy and the family had to relocate. Latifat grabbed the opportunity.

“Drawing on my past experience as a trader, on arrival in Rome I began to shop for shoes, bags, and suits that I planned to sell back home. I convinced my husband to support me with an investment of US$10,000 and a return ticket and after that, the trips paid for themselves. It was an unconventional way to start business, but it allowed me build up revenue while I continued to pursue more concrete ventures.” 

“Have you ever seen a sad person in an ice cream parlour? Where there is ice cream, there is happiness.”

She finally settled on an opportunity. Speaking only a smidgeon of Italian, she enrolled in an ice-cream-making, display, and delivery programme at Carpigiani Gelato University in Italy. Afterwards, the planning began in earnest.

“On every trip home to sell accessories, I would give a percentage to the equipment makers and suppliers in anticipation of the day I would return to open the gelateria. Starting gelato retail was very novel. It took so much convincing of all those who needed to be convinced that the venture would thrive that I never did a formal business plan,” she says jokingly. 

Hatlab Ice Cream Delite Ltd specializes in the production and retail of traditional Italian ice cream, otherwise known as gelato, as well as sorbet and, more recently, pastries. What started with one small 20m2 shop has fast evolved into a retail chain with multiple locations in three cities, providing jobs to over 40 employees.

Although thinking big, Latifat wisely started small. 

“The ice cream business had a huge cost outlay and at first it looked like a dream that would never come true, but I was careful and kept costs down by renting space and buying used machines and a small generator. As business picked up and people wanted to sit and enjoy their gelato, I entered into a lease option arrangement and expanded another 20m2 and then another 40m2 until we finally had to open a second and third location. No matter how big a project looks, I always approach it in bits and pieces until the goal is finally achieved,” the 49-year-old explains.

About seven years ago, Latifat turned to GroFin, a specialist SME financier with proven expertise in financing and supporting small and growing businesses across Africa and the Middle East, for about US$500,000 to refurbish her flagship outlet, relocate an existing branch to a new location, and buy more equipment and vehicles. With the loan came advice on marketing, financial management, and business process improvement. The financial institution also participated in a week-long skills acquisition program organised by Hatlab in partnership with Gelato University of Bologna, Italy.

“Have you ever seen a sad person in an ice cream parlour? Where there is ice cream, there is happiness. I’m so grateful for what I’ve experienced, I want to bring others on board. This is why we offered free training for 20 graduates fresh out of school and looking for business ideas. We already have a platform where we can work with people to do more and bring happiness into everybody’s homes.” 

Latifat continues to enjoy the sweet taste of success. HatLab was awarded the International Gold Star for Leadership and Commitment to Quality and the business is expanding beyond its current position in three states with an eye even on the international market.  But with success comes competition.

“We had the first mover advantage but gelato shops are popping up everywhere now. We try to keep up with trends but, bottom line, competition kicks and we kick back. I’ve got plans to expand into the manufacturing and processing of dairy products, which is an important component of my business. That will enable us to stay relevant and on track for increased growth.”

Overbearing? Hardly. More like strategic thinking from a woman who knows what she wants and how to achieve it.

Startup tips from Latifat Balogun
  • Look for what makes your brand stand out, then build on it and be the best at it.
  • People don’t come to work for you but for themselves. They only work for you if you have earned their respect or give them a meaningful incentive, not because you give them orders.
  • While gut feelings play a key role in making a right or wrong decision, it is also important to do proper feasibility study before embarking on a project.
  • Try to avoid paying in full for supplies, negotiate opportunities to pay in installments. This helps achieve more in less time using other people’s funds.
  • When the business is small it is easy to manage staff and the enthusiasm they bring to the business. But when you grow, you have to deal with work issues but also issues outside the workplace.

Latifat’s story first appeared in Women Creating Wealth, A Collection of Stories of Women Entrepreneurs from across Africa. You order or download a copy here.