Meet Winifred Okafor, the Founder of Bonita’s Treats, Whose Spontaneous Experiments Became the Start of Something Different
Ms Winifred Okafor, CEO of Bonita’s Treats, had a regular middle-class childhood, but with a catch: she grew up watching her mother, a public servant who juggled side gigs, and her grandmother, who was a successful trader in Eastern Nigeria.
With a childhood dream of working in corporate finance, a degree in Economics and Financial Engineering, and a career that spanned over ten years across the central bank and the power sector, Ms Okafor, a self-described risk-taker and a continuous learner, sits down with Document Women to talk about her transition to founding a first-of-its-kind organic plant-based snacks company in Nigeria, the storms she’s waded to arrive at this point, and the next step in her journey.
Thank you for doing this, Ms Okafor. Please tell us how Bonita’s Treats started.
Bonita Foods manufactures a range of better-for-you, on-the-go snacks from fruits and nut blends. Our products are wholesome and nutrient-dense without compromising on taste and are targeted toward an audience looking for healthier and unusual snack options.
Have you always known you were going to run a food company?
I dreamt of a successful career in corporate finance and later at the peak of that, a transition to public service, so no, I didn’t always know. Bonita’s was an accidental start-up. Experiments in my kitchen in 2016/2017 morphed into trials at stores that have led us to where we are now.
What were the results of your experiments, and how did they come about in the first place?
I experimented with coconuts, which resulted in our best-selling coconut chips. There were many other fails and successes – coconut yoghurt, coconut butter, vegetable-blend tortilla biscuits and more. The earliest experiments started when I was pregnant with my first. I think a first pregnancy spurs one to think more about healthy eating. You are thinking about nutrient density not just for yourself but for a growing fetus. You are thinking about weight management as well.
With those needs in mind, I couldn’t find anything of good quality in the stores. Most tasted like chalk. Remember that your sense of taste when pregnant is bonkers too. In any case, I knew I could do better than what I saw in the aisles, and I set out to create things I loved. My colleagues validated these later on and I started to get more validation from customers as well via store purchases.
Were you working any other job at this point?
Oh yes. Bonita’s Treats was a side gig until 2019. I studied Economics and Accounting, and I have a masters in Financial Engineering. My experience as a finance professional spans over ten years across KPMG, the Central Bank, The Infrastructure bank and the power sector. I attribute a lot of my success at Bonita to the experience I gained working in these institutions – risk management, scenario analysis, organizational structures, internal controls, extreme financial management, and so on.
Do you think you had any advantages growing up that became key to your success in your field?
I am an only girl sandwiched between two boys. I would say that I have been saddled with responsibility since I was young, as is quite normal with female children. My grandmother was a successful trader in the east, and my mum juggled side gigs coupled with her job as a public servant. My maternal side has definitely had a strong influence in my decision to run a business like Bonita Foods.
How did you set about raising your first capital for Bonita’s Treats?
I want to say my savings, but with some explanation: I was at the CBN for four years, from 2011 to 2015. I resigned because my husband joined the bank in 2015, and it was against the Bank’s policy for a couple to work there – it made sense to leave, given that he had a more senior role than me.
I immediately got a job in a UKAid-funded development program that paid me significantly more than my previous role. There, I built up my savings and investments, which came in handy three years later for Bonita.
Did you have a support system as you delved into your business?
This is an interesting question. My mum still hates that I’m doing what I’m doing. She probably even feels ashamed as she really envisioned me in a much more structured career path. But I have found great support from my husband and initial inventors. My girlfriends and husband’s family have been amazing, even putting in their own funds. Also, my colleagues, who were the original guinea pigs.
Were there times you considered the magnitude of what you were undertaking and thought about packing up or doing something else?
To be honest, running a business especially in the current economic climate is tough and thoughts about giving up are never far away.
What keeps you going?
People have invested in my vision, the great people I have behind me at Bonita Foods. Then our customers, who have come to love our products. We have come much too far to retreat – I believe.
What was your first big breakthrough?
Getting into a major chain within a few months of starting. It gave us great visibility early on and some kind of proof of concept that encouraged us to keep building.
How do you balance your work life with other spheres of your life?
I have to admit that being the CEO of Bonita Foods consumes me. I wake up thinking about something that relates to Bonita Foods, and it’s usually the last thing on my mind before sleeping. This year, I have become intentional about tuning out for my well being. When I’m with my family, I’m also quite intentional about not taking work-related calls or responding to work-related messages. I’m super thankful for the Humans of Bonita, that have allowed me to delegate more.
What would you say has been your biggest lesson so far?
The journey is always longer than expected: prepare for that. But my biggest lesson has been the importance of hiring right. In 2020, shortly after we expanded our operations, we hired a sales team for the open market channel to help achieve our target growth. I overlooked nagging feelings that this team did not align with Bonita’s values, such as integrity, diligence, trust and transparency. For this, we bore the consequences of unscrupulous behaviour. I’ll never overlook the hiring process again.
Often, women find that their abilities in the workplace are undermined due to their gender. Have you ever encountered this situation, and how do you handle it?
Yes, it comes up, especially in dealing with external stakeholders, major suppliers and distributors. I have felt in some instances that the outcome of our negotiations may have been different had they been corresponding with a man.
Sometimes when I sensed it, I’d centre a male teammate to lead the discussions, even if he were a subordinate. However, I am committed to excellence, integrity and delivering what we commit to. These biases never hold me back from performing at optimal capacity. We work extra hard, and where these biases appear at first, they disappear quickly.
Do you have any words of advice for women who wish to get into your line of business?
Be prepared to play the long game. It is not a sprint. It is a marathon, but it can be fulfilling. There is a sense of satisfaction in contributing to the nourishment and well-being of people.
What’s the next step for your company? Anything new in the works?
Bonita Foods has become known for bringing innovative, never-been-seen products to the market. We will continue to deliver new offerings that excite our existing markets and take the Bonita experience to new markets.