Many of the companies which started operations at the same time, or even after it, many years ago have long disappeared from Nigeria’s business landscape. But Chi Limited is waxing stronger despite the many challenges in the business environment, opening 14 branches in other states outside Lagos, its operational base. Vipul Beri, managing director, captures how the company has fared since 1982 when it was established to become a manufacturing giant with over 100 products. Chi Limited, which manufactures fruit juice, yoghurt, milk, and ready-to-eat snacks, has made a success of its Chivita range of fruit juice, Capri Sonne, Hollandia Milk, Hollandia Yoghurt, Beefy beef roll, and many of its other products in the country. Beri says the company’s range of fruit juice accounts for about 65 per cent of the fruit juice market in the country. Though the ban on importation of fruit juice may have boosted patronage, Beri insists that the high quality of the products is mainly responsible for the popularity of its juice, adding that it is manufactured to international standards, in terms of its content and packaging. He says the company’s ‘Be Nigerian, Buy Nigerian’ campaign has also helped to change the perception of Nigerians towards locally-produced goods. Interestingly, Beri does not share the view that the Nigerian business environment is harsh as he believes that every society has its own challenges, which it strives to address. So, to him, the company will remain committed to making its products available all over the country even in remote areas despite the much talked about infrastructural challenges like lack of power and good roads. Already the company’s products have been introduced to some West African countries and Dubai, the United Arab Emirate. But Beri says the vision of the company is to become the first multinational food company of Nigerian origin. He spoke with Helen Eni, deputy editor and Stella Sawyerr, senior assistant editor. Excerpts:
How has Chi Limited fared since it commenced operations in Nigeria?
Chi Limited started operation in 1982. Next year we will be 30 years old. But Chivita, which is one of our most popular products came in 1996. Chivita is produced to give the best to its consumers by way of the ingredients, packaging, presentation, taste, and everything. In the late 1990s, people used to show preference for imported products. Most Nigerians had the notion that the imported products were better than the local ones, and so the local products were utilised by those who could not afford the imported ones. I was amazed because Chivita is an excellent product. Then we started the campaign, ‘Be Nigerian, Buy Nigerian.’ We wanted to tell Nigerians that this is the best and today, after nine years, Chivita is at the top. Today, Chi juices – Chivita, Capri Sonne, and the others account for 65 per cent of the Nigerian total juice market.
How were you able to make your products competitive in the market?
The secret is total commitment; the commitment to give our consumers the best, the commitment to service, the commitment that anything that goes out from Chi has to be the best. These are the commitments within the organisation. Today, we have a unique pack that you don’t find elsewhere in Nigeria and I won’t be wrong if I say in Africa. This is a very costly pack – the German pack. The beauty of this pack is that it is easy to hold. Unlike other packs, the last drop of juice comes out easily. It is available in a few countries in Eurpoe but not in Africa. Our juice is natural; we don’t add any sugar, we don’t add any preservative, and we do not add any colouring. And to get the natural product to our consumers is not an easy task; you have to get the best of the raw materials, the fruit has to be sweetest so you don’t have to add anything to it. Again we are very committed to our customer care. We have our customer care numbers on our products and if anyone calls from any remote part of Nigeria, our representative would visit the person to address his or her complaints. We do this because we believe even if you have the best, during transit something might go wrong. But attending to complaints costs us 20 to 30 times more than the pack itself. But we are not deterred and that is why our reputation as a caring company is growing.
How do you source your major raw materials?
As you know in Nigeria we have a lot of oranges, a lot of pineapples. But they are not adequate and the quality is not of international standards. We have gone into backward integration, we process these fruits and then blend the juice with the best of the foreign ones. That is one of the reasons why the taste of Chivita is unique.
Would it not be cheaper for you to produce your raw materials in the country rather than depending on importation?
We already have a 5,0000-hectare farmland where we carry out the experimentation, how to get better. It is in Ajanla farms in Ibadan. We are carrying out research and development, R&D, which is a very costly and slow affair. In our humble way we are working towards the betterment of the farmers, betterment of the yields, betterment of everything. But it will take some time, but the processes are already on. Moreover, all fruits are not grown in Nigeria.
What is the full range of your products and what market share do they control?
If you are talking of store keeping units they are more than 100. If you are talking of the brands, they are more than 80. This is because we have in-house research personnel and other outsourced research agencies engaged in consumer research twice a year for us. They ask consumers for feedback and what products they want. The latest example is our beef roll – Beefy, which is a product of such research. We had gone to the market to ask them what type of product they want and they told us. We also did a research and came out with ready-to-eat custard, which is widely embraced. Before we started producing yoghurt, we carried out consumer research and people said Nigeria is a yoghurt drinking country and that they were only getting it in pet bottles, which has a lot of preservatives and very short shelf life. So, they requested for a product with longer shelf life and of international standards. We launched out and today our Hollandia Yoghurt, which is yoghurt mixed with fruit drink, is the largest yoghurt in the country and of very high quality. So, it is the consumers who tell us what they want and as a company we are alive to their demands and that is why you see all these products.
You have a slogan, ‘Be Nigerian, Buy Nigerian,’ to what extent is Chi Limited a Nigerian company?
I would say 99.9 per cent. It is the first food company from Nigeria. In the past, Nigerian food products were a taboo abroad. I remember in 2003 when I took Chivita to my friends in Dubai, and asked them to market it over there. Their response was, “Nigerian food product! Mr. Beri are you in your right senses, who will take it?” But after tasting it they came to us and said that they would like to market it. So, Chi is emerging as the first multinational food company from Nigerian soil, of Nigerian root.
Do you produce everything in Lagos or do you have plants in other parts of the country?
We have all our plants here in Lagos. We have a huge complex and we have acquired more land here. In the future we might install plants in other parts of the country.
Are you planning to replicate what you have here in other African countries?
Like I told you, Chi is going to emerge from Nigeria as the first multinational food company and we would be manufacturing our products in other African countries as well. When I meet Nigerians abroad and introduce myself as coming from Chi Nigeria, you could see the glow on their faces. Chivita has become a brand that makes Nigerians outside the country to be proud of their heritage.
What has your company done in the area of corporate social responsibility?
We have done a lot. For instnace we have built the roads in and around Chi; they are excellent roads built and maintained by Chi. In Gombe, we have bought land for the building of a school. Here in Lagos we have undertaken water projects where we provide drinking water to 35,000 residents. These are just a few. There’s Chi Foundation and a certain portion is always kept aside for CSR. We are doing it and we are happy doing it.
What challenges have you faced in doing business in Nigeria?
There is not a single country in the world where there are no challenges in doing business. I have gone round the country by road three times, I know every corner of Nigeria, and I can tell you that there is a vast improvement in the condition of the roads when compared with how they were nine years ago. If you have problems and you are committed to resolving the problems, then they are no problems. How many juice companies are here in Nigeria? Yesterday they were two or three, today they are more than 20. Why because the atmosphere is becoming more conducive. Yes, there are negatives, but government is committed to resolving it.
Are you saying you are not bothered by the glaring lack of infrastructure?
Of course we are bothered but when government is doing a good job, there is no use telling them they have to do this or that. For instance, government is planning to reconstruct the Lagos-Ibadan Expressway. It is a good step. For us when there’s a tripping due to power, we loose thousands of litres of juice and that is the reason we are currently having 100 per cent alternative power generation. We have our own generators to provide us with uninterrupted power. But the government is doing its best to provide those infrastructure. To cope with the deficiencies, we already have 14 branches across the country, with warehouses, vans and we have a sales team to make our products available in every part of Nigeria.
What other infrastructure do you also provide for your operations?
Water. Water is very essential for juice. All the water in our taps in the company are treated water, drinkable water. We don’t want any of our staff not to have access to water. In most companies, treated water is separate from other water but here it is not.
What about the security situation in the country. Is it affecting your business?
Security is much better than it used to be. Like I told you, I have been on the roads across the country three times and I didn’t find the problem as terrible as some people say. The concerns are there, no doubt, but you can take a few precautions and then go out there and do your business.
Many companies in Nigeria complain of multiple-taxation. What is your experience?
Every country has its own problems and challenges and in the case of Nigeria, these things are being sorted out. We are law abiding and we pay our taxes regularly.
You are talking about celebrating 30 years next year, what should Nigerians expect from Chi Limited in the years ahead?
Next year we will be 30 years and I think if I tell you beforehand, I’ll be letting the cat out of the bag. But for now, we are offering a football free on each carton of Chivita. Football in Nigeria is not a game, it is a religion and we all love it. We want lots of Jay Jays to come up and probably make Nigeria proud. The football is size five, which is the international standard. This is our humble way of saying to Nigerians, thank you for making Chivita the number one juice.
You have been in Nigeria for nine years, what does it feel like being in Nigeria?
I am nine years in Nigeria. I am a Nigerian to the core because I understand the Nigerian culture, I believe in the Nigerian culture. I have travelled to all the states and I pick up bits of the languages of the various tribes in Nigeria. I love my stay in Nigeria.