Mrs. Udeme Mfon-Okon is a pig farmer who recently emerged as the winner of the Diamond Bank Building Entrepreneur Today (BET) Award, the bank’s initiative to ensure that entrepreneurs in the Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises (MSMEs) are properly trained and equipped with business knowledge and capital to stimulate sustainable economic growth and development in Nigeria. In this interview, Mfon-Okon talks about her experience as a pig farmer before and after BET. Enjoy.
Tell us about your educational and career background
I had my first degree from the University of Uyo where I studied accounting and did my MBA at the University of Calabar. I am also an alumnus of Lagos Business School (LBS), where I did a Senior Management Programme. I was in the banking industry for 13 years and I left Stanbic IBTC as a manager.
At what point did you decide to quit banking for piggery farming?
I left the bank in 2012 and went into exporting charcoal and Shea butter. Though the returns were good but the rigours was too much for me and I couldn’t cope with it, so I decided to go into farming because I had always loved it and I decided to try my hands on it. I had a piece of land somewhere, I thought of doing poultry because I have a sister-in-law who does poultry. But when I ran into a friend of mine, he said that he had gone into poultry business and got his fingers burnt. He introduced me into piggery since that was what he was doing and I followed him to his farm. I loved it the moment I saw it and I decided to go into piggery farming in that instant.
It was interesting when I saw my friend’s pig farm, I never knew much about pigs, I just knew there was puck and I used to eat it, but never knew anything about its rearing.
How did you start in terms of funding?
I started with my savings and got 60 animals, then I rented five rooms initially, but when I realised that the business was something I loved and would like to continue, I then got my first Pen. However, I usually fall back to my husband for money when mine finishes and I had a lot of support from family and a lot of friends.
Has it been a very lucrative business? What are the challenges of doing piggery and livestock farming in general?
Yes, the business has really been lucrative. One thing about pig farming is that you have to stay in it for you to get your returns. It is not something that you give yourself a timeline saying ‘within six months or a year, if I don’t make my money, I am leaving it.’ You will not reap the benefit of the whole thing. You have to stay in it to reap the benefit.
One of the major issues of livestock farming is getting quality feed for them, what happens is one day you’re able to buy corn at a certain price and by the time you go back it is a higher price. And if you’re doing it as a business, you’re watching your bottom line also, so what we do is, we try to find different alternatives that you can feed them with, so if there’s no corn what can you use alternatively? If corn is not in season, if it is too expensive, what else can you use to feed? You have to have a wide range of things to feed your animals.
Feeding and taking care of livestock is not a child’s play, how did you get the funding to expand in a short time?
I got the help of Diamond Bank eventually but before then, I had grown. The secret is you have to remain focused and know what you are doing. You have to plan, that is how I was able to grow like you have said. You need to have proper plans financially for you to be able to expand. So, at the beginning of the year I do a budget; this is what I am thinking I should be able to do. I know the number of animals I have, I know the number of sows (female pigs) I have, so I am expecting that this females should provide a certain number of animals for me within a given time. At the same time, I have an average idea of how much I spend on feeding every month, so I ensure that I have that money available and that was why I said when I use my money, I fall back to my husband’s money, family and friends. I actually took loans but they weren’t expensive loans, they were interest free so I could actually keep and run for as long as possible.
Tell us about your Experience at the Diamond Bank BET
Initially when I applied for the Diamond Bank BET grant, it was all about the money for me, I was just interested in collecting N3million and coming to expand my business. I didn’t even know we were going to go for training at the Entrepreneur Development Centre (EDC), but on getting there, I realised that there was so much I did not know. Initially, I thought I was doing really well and I knew a whole lot, because I did so much to get my business to where it was at that time. But from the first day of my training, my mind just shifted and I realised that, if I take with me what I have learnt from the training, my business will get better.
I learnt so many things like strategy and branding. I never thought branding was important in pig farming because I had my customers walking in without so much effort to source for customers, so I didn’t think that branding would be important. But it turned out that branding is a strategy you can just tweak in your business and there would be an amazing transformation. The first month I attended the training and I implemented one of those things, I made a savings of N270, 000 just that first month.
So it is something that Diamond Bank has provided and we all need to key into it, but unfortunately, they might not be able to extend it beyond 50 people but so long as they implement whatever they learnt, it would be a wonderful experience for them, because their businesses will definitely change for the better.
So I would encourage people, even if they are not going to for the Diamond Bank EDC 1, get some kind of entrepreneur training because it would turn your business for the better. That training alone has impacted my business and up till now, I still go back to my notes once in a while to get information to stream my business processes and work on my human resources. I even advice friends around to take a course in the EDC on human resources just for their staffs and I give advice from what I have learnt because it is a very exciting and mind-blowing experience and Diamond Bank do not know the gravity of positive impact they are having on people’s lives with the BET.
Kindly tell us how they can access the BET fund
Right now the portal is opened for BET 7, you just log in, you upload your 1minute video stating what your business is about. The video has to be concise and captivating, so that when they are selecting people for the process, hopefully you would get selected. Once you get selected, you go for training at the EDC and you just might get picked.
What are the EDC selection criteria?
I really did not know the criteria EDC used to make selections, I am sure they have their guidelines. What you just need to do is put out your best footage and with that I am sure you will get picked.
Is piggery business very time-consuming? How do you handle diseases?
Initially it was time-consuming because you have to be there to set your structures properly but after a while, once you have proper business operations, it is no longer time-consuming.
As per diseases, what we do is more preventive, because once you have an outbreak, you lose your animals and you don’t want to get into that. So we do preventives by making sure our pen is always clean, make sure you treat your animals, give them their vitamins when giving them their food. Also, on a monthly basis, there are some medicines we give them and once you are giving them healthy food, the idea is that your pigs will be fine. I actually had an outbreak last year but it was quickly contained, we were able to quickly contain it
Who are your customers? Tell us your supply chain?
We have a lot of customers right now but my major customers come in from Benin Republic to buy. We have customers that come in from Warri to buy and we also have customers that supply restaurants.
What advise would you give anyone who wants to go into this business?
Well, I would say you should plan properly, because initially when I started, I didn’t plan well and I ran into financial hitch. I had a little extra money so I just boomed and started expanding, forgetting that I am going to feed this animals for a couple of months before they get to maturity for me to sell them out and because of that, I had cash flow problem and that was when I had to run to family and friends to borrow.
If you were not doing this, what would you be doing?
Right now I don’t know, I have given it a thought many times and nothing has come to mind but perhaps teaching. I could be a teacher.
Interview by: Maria Diamond for Guardian Woman.