Her name is Imaobong Ekanem. She is the Managing Director and Chief Executive of one of Nigeria’s fastest growing agro-processing companies, U&I Palm Enterprises. U&I Palm Enterprises is a key player in the downstream sector of the oil palm value chain and leverages the abundant oil palm resources in Nigeria to commercially produce well-processed and packaged palm oil popularly known as Ultimate Palm Oil.
Imaobong started conceiving the idea of owning a mega palm oil processing and packaging company right from childhood. According to her, anytime she saw the crude and unhygienic way palm oil was being handled and marketed as against the very decent packaging given to vegetable oil, she would think of how she could establish a processing factory that would not only automate the palm oil extraction process, which in itself was very herculean, but make the entire production process much more hygienic.
These thoughts, her brothers considered were childhood fantasies that would never materialize partly because they never believed that such an automated factory setup was possible and partly because they believed that realizing such a process plant, if at all possible, would be way too expensive to be economical. Of course, the later position was informed by the fact that as at then, palm oil production had not really taken a commercial dimension. In fact it was only done by old women who were only after what can put food on their table.
Imaobong’s entrepreneurial journey started in earnest in 2012. Coming from a family background with little or no entrepreneurial success, she really did not have people around her who could lend her business advice. She practically had to learn from her mistakes and improve her entrepreneurial skills day by day. This, in addition to online resources and success stories of other female entrepreneurs which she had learnt of as well as God’s providence kept her on the success track.
After working briefly with one of Nigeria’s Telecoms company, Globacom Nigeria Ltd as a sales representative, which provide her with the opportunity to acquire hands-on skills in customer relationship management, product branding and promotion, human resource management and financial management as well as team building, Imaobong decided that it was time for her to take a courageous plunge into the seemingly scary and unpredictable waters of entrepreneurship. She left Globacom where she was sure of a monthly salary to start her dream company from scratch.
When asked what prompted her to abandon her job where she was guaranteed monthly income for a business whose future was not certain, she said salary for her was just a destructive enticement to make her defer or even abandon her dreams. She said if Mike Adenuga who owned the company she worked for never took that bold step to establish Globacom, the telecom company would not have existed in the first place talk more of becoming a celebrated brand today.
Imaobong started working on the business plan, designing the factory layout even when the capital requirements were far more than what she could afford. To make matters worse, no financial institution was willing to give loans to a young woman without collateral, as they were sceptical about her capacity to effectively utilize the loan and pay back on schedule.
Despite these challenges however, Imaobong kept building up using her meagre savings and contributions from family members and friends. She knew that these resources could not even get up to a quarter of the job done but she continued doggedly and relentlessly, ignoring all the wise counsels from friends who told her to apply for a job.
According to Imaobong who emerged one of the best graduates from the department of Physics in her set, physicists were in such high demand that the suggestions made by her friends was very tenable. However, she refused heeding to the advice and chose to pursue her entrepreneurial dream which her friends had already described as wild goose chase.