Afrivana imports Nigerian commodities like hibiscus flowers and shea butter into the US, from where it markets and distributes to different buyers. Jeanette Clark speaks to founder and managing director Shalom Bako Dangombe about the persistence it took to get the first client, overcoming trade hurdles and diversification for future growth.
In 2002, when Shalom Bako Dangombe was 14 years old, his father relocated their family of five from Bauchi state in northern Nigeria to Orange County, California. There, Bako finished high school and attended college, and at one point it looked like he would commit to a future as a professional soccer player. He played first at his college, where he earned a communications degree, and later the Los Angeles Galaxy.
However, today, at the age of 35, he spends his days talking to smallholder farmers back in northern Nigeria, convincing them to cultivate and grow hibiscus flowers for Afrivana, the company he founded in 2019.
Afrivana markets and distributes African superfood products, with dried hibiscus flowers as its high-volume offering. The company also engages in light manufacturing to transform raw materials into value-added products suitable for easy export, such as turning ginger into oil and dried hibiscus flowers into powder. Afrivana’s products are sold in bulk or as private- and white-labelled items to clients in the US, UK, and select Latin American countries like Nicaragua.
The change in career path came when the young Bako saw an opportunity for trade between the US and Nigeria. He felt that he could capitalise on it due to his unique advantage – hailing from one country, and living in the other.
In 2011, armed with contacts he had made during internships in college and freelance work as a digital marketer, he secured a few distribution contracts for fashion apparel manufacturers in the US and returned home to Nigeria to market and distribute the clothing there.
“Bringing those products into Africa was a whole other journey. It did not succeed as I had hoped,” he says. “In fact, I fell on my face and failed at it.”
Bako did not give up. “I started researching the possibility of turning the plan around, exporting from Nigeria and then distributing in the US,” he says.
Finding the ideal commodity to trade
Bako returned to California between 2015 and 2018, working in marketing while searching for the ideal commodity to trade. When he noticed hibiscus tea on American shelves, it brought back childhood memories of selling the beverage to classmates after school. Known as zobo in northern Nigeria, the drink is popular among Mexican and Caribbean communities in the US. Bako recognised a ready market for the flower, which was used to fence crops in his home village.
Seeking a buyer, Bako began his search on Google: investigating tea importers and cold calling them to present Nigeria, and himself, as their next preferred import partner. For years, he recalls, people simply hung up on him. “I felt I reached a fork in the road. Either I was going to dedicate myself to this, or I needed to figure something else out,” he says.
The turning point came when Bako reached out to a contact at the US office of a Mexican company he discovered through Google. “He told me that he would take me seriously if I travelled to Mexico. Once there, he would make a few introductions.
In 2018, Bako packed his bags and purchased a one-way ticket to Mexico, where he spent several months. He continued his online search, requested the promised introductions, and took to the streets – quite literally “showing up” at the doors of various importers, including those he discovered through online searches
One company, unconnected to the contact who initially inspired his trip, recognised his persistence and agreed to accept one container as a trial. “I had broken into the market and had my first client!” recalls Bako.
Unfortunately, there was a temporary ban on the trade of hibiscus from Nigeria into Mexico at the time, due to pest control concerns. The client agreed to have Bako deliver the shipment directly to its US customer, side-stepping a bilateral trade hurdle that was only solved in 2022 when the ban was lifted.
Bako travelled to Nigeria and secured the supply by partnering with smallholder farmers grouped into cooperatives and using existing aggregators selling in the large commodity markets of Kano to make up for the shortfall. Towards the end of 2019, the container was delivered. The satisfied client immediately wanted to scale to bigger volumes.
With the trade ban in place, Bako realised he would need to shift his focus to buyers in the US, hoping it would be easier now that he had a successful shipment under his belt. He resumed calling and visiting buyers of hibiscus tea. The initial reaction was mostly one of hesitance; for many companies, it seemed the risk of dealing with a Nigerian company was too much.
“We overcame those hurdles by importing larger volumes and storing them in the US. Then we distributed from these warehouses,” explains Bako. This tactic proved successful as clients were more comfortable with the product being readily available in their vicinity and promptly delivered. To fund the working capital needed, the company secured financing from a private investor.
Then, in 2020, the Covid-19 pandemic hit. Importing anything was suddenly even more complicated than it had been before. “A lot of people held back in those first couple of months; we didn’t,” says Bako. He feels that Afrivana managed to grow during this period because it found ways to overcome the challenges thrown its way.
The same year, Bako connected with an Atlanta-based company seeking a partnership to establish a central distribution centre. The hub enabled consolidation of stock from multiple warehouses into a single leased facility, allowing clients to see the product and its quality first-hand. With enough stock available to supply short notice orders, the hub also helped build trust among potential buyers.
Over time, some clients have requested additional commodities beyond those listed on Afrivana’s website. In response, the company has imported fonio, tamarind and turmeric to meet demand. Afrivana has set a goal to move over 100 containers, or more than a thousand tonnes, of products in 2023.
Raw materials from the source
Afrivana currently has seven employees in Nigeria and five in the US. The team in Nigeria is working at strengthening relationships to ensure secure supply, putting agreements in place with smallholder farmer cooperatives or large aggregators.
The company has also started a community development programme to establish new hibiscus farmers, supporting them with seedlings and other agricultural inputs and then putting offtake agreements in place.
Expanding into other services is one avenue of future growth that Bako has identified; Afrivana now brokers trade agreements, linking exporters from Nigeria with willing buyers in the US.
In addition to its current operations, the company is also keen to build on its distribution expertise. It is actively seeking partnerships with African brands and companies that incorporate superfood ingredients sourced from Africa. One such example is Calyx Zobo, a flower-based beverage made using a traditional Nigerian recipe, which Afrivana imports from a UK-based manufacturer.
Looking to the future, Bako envisions a move into more comprehensive agro-processing. “Manufacturing is very capital-intensive. We have started the conversation with some US companies that are interested in manufacturing in Africa. If we get the right partners and expertise, I see a future for it.”
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