The business of food is not without its challenges, but with determination and consistency, it can be lucrative and fulfilling. Such is the story of Sharon Akinroye, our FATE Alumni Spotlight for the week.
Sharon Akinroye is the Founder and Executive Director of JusteLunch, a professional catering service company providing. Born over four decades ago, she grew up in the capital city of Ondo State, Akure and graduated with a Bachelor of Science in Geography from the University of Ilorin in 1998. As a child, she loved to read and would go sit in bookstore close to her family house, reading books from the shelf all day. Her entrepreneurial journey started at eighteen while in her first year at the University. At this time, her school was on strike and students were compelled to go home. While she was at home doing her routine reading in a bookstore, she noticed a lady walked in to buy lots of books from the store. Being very extroverted and inquisitive, she asked the lady why she was buying such large number of books and later discovered that the lady, who was also an undergraduate, was taking the books to school to sell. That experience was an inspiring and eye opening one for her as she eventually used all her pocket money from home to buy books which she sold to students when her school resumed later that year. She went on to sell school several retail items including books, eggs, Christmas cards, Daily devotional, among other things to students in her school throughout her undergraduate days. This experience she described as been very fulfilling and financially rewarding for her, but she could not tell her parent about her entrepreneurial adventure because no one in her family had ever ventured into “business” so she wasn’t sure of how they would react.
After University, she was posted to Anambra state for National Youth Service Scheme (NYSC) as a teacher in a Federal Government College. During this period, she saw an opportunity to provide school books to students in her school; an opportunity she maximized, exploring the ancient Onitsha market. After her national service year, she returned home to continue trading, often visiting Onistha market to buy commodities for sales in Akure. In 2009, she commenced her Master degree at the University of Lagos where she continued to engage in different business activities. In June, 2003, while attending the Parent Teachers’ Association meeting in her child’s school, she got an offer to make and supply school lunch to the pupils in the school. That was the beginning of her catering business. Having been inspired by Funmi Iyanda’s TV programs on NTA, she met a professional cook through the same platform and learnt the business of catering from her. She believes that, through her TV program, Funmi Iyanda inspired her and gave her the strength to start a structured business, a step ahead of the trading she had been doing.
Within 3 years, she had expanded her school lunch catering business to 2 more schools. She made the decision to sell her business to a friend in 2006 when her family had to relocate to Johannesburg, South Africa where they stayed for four years before returning to Nigeria. While in Johannesburg, she continued to provide Nigerian meals, especially Ofada rice, as lunch to corporate offices and her Nigerian friends. She describes her living in South Africa as an experience that provided her the opportunity to build a strong network of business minded friends, some of whom later contributed part of the capital she used to expand her business when she returned to Nigeria in 2010. That same year, Sharon participated in the 34th class of FATE Foundation’s Aspiring Entrepreneur Programmme (AEP) where she came first in the Business Plan Competition and got free branding from USP Branding. Friends from the class also helped her arrive at the name of her business – Juste Lunch; which she founded in 2010 to provide school lunch to children. She believes that attending the FATE Aspiring Entrepreneurs’ Program helped her refine her business idea and gave her the required perspective to build a new business with structures and systems in place.
She continued to run her business until 2012, when she had an unfortunate gas accident that kept her in the hospital for about 6 weeks and made her unable to proceed to the second stage of the YouWin grant fund that year. A big step came in 2014 when she got her biggest catering job at the time which went on to open the doors for bigger opportunities. She led a team of 50 staff to provide catering services to over 2,000 guest at a funeral event in Osun staff. In 2015, she participated in the Women Entrepreneurial Leadership, WELA Program where she attended the China Europe International Business School in 2016. Through this program, she got access to a business loan to expand her business and visited China to buy customized catering materials for her business.
Today, Sharon provides school lunch to many schools across Lagos, including Corona Schools. She also operates a restaurant outlet in Lekki, Lagos. With a staff strength of about 10 full time and over 50 contract, her business generates an annual revenue of about 25million naira. She has enjoyed mentorship and business coaching from several people including Mrs. Emem, a Ghana based, Nigerian business coach and Bimbo Osuchukwu. Her role model is Mrs. Ibukun Awosika and she admires the business model of tasty Fried Chicken.
According to Sharon, the major challenges of running a catering business include high staff turnover and lack of start-up capital particularly for the required kitchen and service equipments/tools. Despite the challenges, Sharon has been able to maintain a low staff turnover by empowering her staff and providing very good welfare support to them. This she says is a very cost effective way of ensuring the commitment of her people. She added that she always communicate the vision and big picture of her business to her team and helps them find progress for themselves.
Given her business growth and success story, Sharon’s vision is to empower other women to be self-sufficient through her catering career. She is also planning to leverage on her new network from the WELA program to expand her catering business to Nairobi, Kenya in the immediate future. In five years, she projects her business to have a staff strength of 100 people and at least 20 JusteLunch outlets across major African cities. Her biggest business advice to any aspiring entrepreneur is for them to do business only in the area of their passion because internal drive and determination is important to push against all odds which is important for consistency.
To find out more about Justelunch, please visit www.justelunch.com or follow Justelunch on Facebook and on instagram.