HOW SWEET SENSATION STARTED FROM A GATEMAN’S HOUSE
SWEET SENSATION CONFECTIONERIES LIMITED – From the gatehouse to the gateway
Kehinde Kamson the founder of Sweet Sensation is a darling woman. She is a woman not afraid of taking risks when the need arises.
As I write this book, one of the greatest challenges facing Nigerian working class women is how to combine their often high paid jobs with crucial family responsibilities. This has particularly become an issue of serious concern considering the numerous headlines on how nannies are either maltreating or worse still kidnapping the children under their care. In April 2015 a woman banker in Lagos had her three kids kidnapped by a supposed nanny she hired.
A young lady expressed her frustration when she told me “this job is destroying my marriage and my kids are wasting away, but how do we survive with only my husband’s salary if I resign?” Another friend put it this way “Please Kachi, you must help me get a job this year. I can’t continue to sit at home as a house wife after 5 years in the university.”
What point are these ladies trying to make?
They need a balance. They need job to meet their needs, but they also need to control their time as much as possible.
These and many more such instances have revealed the dilemma that married ladies are going through in Nigeria and even beyond. But as far back as 38 years ago Kehinde Kamson spotted this and immediately freed herself from such frustration. And today she is enjoying not just a happy home but a great career as the CEO of Sweet Sensation Confectioneries Limited. Sweet Sensation has been one of the most successful chain of Quick Service Restaurant in southwest Nigeria, with over 25 outlets across the country. The brand currently has about 2,500 employees and serve over 60 array of meals daily. However, just very few know that this industrious woman is actually a chartered accountant.
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As her name already suggested, Kehinde was born a twin on August 14, 1961. The twins were the last of six children of their parents. She had her nursery school at International Women’s Society Nursery School in Lagos. After which she proceeded to University of Lagos Staff School for her primary school.
If you knew Kehinde as a child and also know the parents and the work they do, you probably would be convinced that she would end up in the classroom as a teacher or lecturer. Her parents were educators. Her father, Adeleke Beniah Adelaja, was one of the most notable Principals of the Church Missionary Society Grammar School (CMS Grammar School). That school is the oldest secondary grammar school in Nigeria.
Beniah who was fondly referred to by his students as ‘Oga’, ‘the boss’ or ‘Canon Adelaja’, trained and mentored thousands of students, many of whom went on to occupy leadership positions in Nigeria. Kehinde’s mother, Omoba Adebayo Evangelin Adelaja on the other hand was the proprietress of Eva Adelaja Secondary School in Lagos. But apart from being an educator, she was also a serial business woman. She was an exceptional woman who, together with Kehinde’s dad, gave Kehinde the foundation she needed to get a chance at having a good life.
Kehinde was a good sports person as a child
If Kehinde ‘escaped’ been a lecturer, then she would certainly end up as a sports woman. She should already be representing Nigeria in different sporting events across the globe you would assume. Why? Because she was tom boyish as a kid and it all started with nine boys around her. One of Eva Adelaja’s siblings who was always visiting to celebrate Christmas and Easter with Kehinde’s family had eight sons.
Whenever Kehinde’s dad was serving outside Lagos, along with her twin brother she would be sent to the uncle’s house and she would find herself having nine boys as playmates. There was no sport the nine boys and one girl didn’t play, from pole vaulting to high jumping, to playing football. Those translated into the roles she played in her secondary school at St Anne’s School, Ibadan. In that school she was known among the best high jump and table tennis.
Kehinde was nominated to represent her school and eventually West Africa in the bid to qualify for the All Africa Games. She had a gold medal for playing table tennis for West Africa but she couldn’t make it to the All Africa games.
She did her A’ Levels at Queens College in Lagos after which she wrote JAMB with a strong desire of becoming an accountant. Despite her involvement in sports, Kehinde was still among the best academically. So she got admission straight at the first attempt and proceeded to obtain a Bachelor’s degree in Accountancy from the University of Lagos.
Following mum’s footsteps
Her entrepreneurial journey started when she watched her mum succeed at one business after another. Her mother sold everything imaginable. She travelled around the world to search for the best bargains on products she would bring to Nigeria to sell. That close proximity to her mother while she ran her businesses, planted the seed of entrepreneurship in Kehinde.
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The beginning of a flourishing career
She graduated from University of Lagos with outstanding result and completed her mandatory one year NYSC programme. She immediately got a job as an accountant with an oil servicing firm in Victoria Island Lagos. Kehinde was also blessed to have had an early marriage. She was living the dream of most young ladies; get a job and get married immediately after school.
But according to her she couldn’t juggle well the job demands with her responsibilities as a wife and a mother. She found herself popping babies almost every year. And with the children’s school at Gbagada where they were living at the time, she ended up leaving the children in the care of maids till very late at night.
She was obviously not comfortable with that arrangement and she confessed it needed adjustment. She was enjoying her job quite alright and it was also coming with very good pay to keep anyone at the time. But the children’s upbringing and welfare were far more important to her. However, she was not oblivious to the fact that the children would be happier if she was able to give them not just her attention but other necessities of life which money will play a big part in securing.
She had to find a way to solve this puzzle.
The adjustment needed to revolve around the home and environs to achieve an all-round solution to the problem. And immediately the entrepreneurship spirit in her was activated and she felt the solution could be found in starting her own business. The next question to address was which business will she have to go for? It certainly has to be something she was passionate about. Setting up an accounting firm of her own was not an option as she felt it would end up taking her around the whole country chasing clients-so the main problem would still not be solved.
She decided that whatever business she was to do had to be food or food-related because that was another area where her strength lies. “I’ve always had the passion for cooking, baking and food services generally. I liked to try out recipes and I had a mother who taught me same and she was a good example. So, with food as a primary focus and for which I had great passion, I took a leap of faith and a cake business began. It later resulted into a much wider product profile of snacks and meals.” She recounts.
“True, food business is not an easy one, but within the very limited options open to me at that time, it was the only way to go. The entry requirements were not too heavy, the interest was strong, the energy was there, the competition in cakes was quite low, my spirit was high, and I was young and ready to go. I recognized some retail outlets that I could supply the cakes to, and with a mini business plan but very strategic enough, the business took off almost immediately.” She stated.
Her mind was made up – the question now is how do she start?
When she concluded her plans to go into food business she started by using her apartment as her factory and bakery while the products were supplied to the various outlets on her way to work. She would even take some of them and sell to her colleagues in the office. She was proud of her products. And he was not ashamed of letting her colleagues know about what she does.
It was a serious sacrifice that Kehinde had to make as it was making her work extra hours daily. She would wake at 3 am every day to bake pastries and stack them in her car before preparing three children for school and then dropping off the goods at the Citicate shop on her way to work. So it was not a walk in the park for the young entrepreneur. But she had her eyes fixed on something bigger and she would never complain. It was however just a matter of time and she had to give up her lucrative pay job- a huge risk indeed.
With time she had to convert the family garage right at the back of their house to a production facility thanks to her husband who allowed her a few excesses with home space. The production facility was partly at home and partly somewhere off University Road where a supporting retail outlet existed on the main road somewhere in Yaba. Her products were also showcased in many kiosks in the university environment and all over Lagos where by that time her popularity had grown. The business was now growing at a remarkable rate as several outlets particularly around the university community were bought over by the uniqueness of her products.
From Mr. Biggs to Sweet Sensation
After supplying pastries to shops and the University of Lagos’ eateries for a while, Kehinde decided to go a step further when she set her eyes on supplying to Mr. Biggs. However, the brand had a policy of never outsourcing finished products. It took four years to penetrate this wall, and Kehinde became the first person to break that policy. For Kehinde, it was a huge breakthrough for her having Mr. Biggs to accept and sell Citicate’s products. But collecting payments on product delivery was a very frustrating experience for her. It became clear that the solution was to simply stand alone as a brand. Citicate immediately metamorphosed into Sweet Sensation, and there was nowhere for Kehinde to go but up.
Time to throw in everything into Sweet Sensation
It was at that point in 1994 that she had to ring up her parents to ask for permission to use the gateman’s house at their Ilupeju family house along Town Planning Way. Her parents consented and she moved her retail outlet there. And that was how the very first Sweet Sensation store emerged. “It is interesting that this store was an expanded gate house, I mean security house of my parents’ home. As space demands increased for both production and sales, I found myself gradually taking over my parents’ house and our own house too. The gate house at my parents’ home elongated until it almost touched their entrance lobby, while the children’s play yard at the back of our house gradually gave in to a production shed that would extend each time my husband travelled out of the country.
In little or no time both locations were calling out for help as the invasion was real and offensive to privacy. This was indeed the reason why a next outlet was pursued vigorously and this was strategically designed for high-brow Victoria Island. The Adetokunbo Ademola street branch of Sweet Sensation was the second outlet for the brand. And many do not know that preliminary 10 years went into the back of the house ‘elementariness’ before the Sweet Sensation brand emerged. This paved the way for me to successfully establish and grow the business.” She said.
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Pioneering African Cuisines
Though today it is very common to enter any Quick Service Restaurants, demand and get African dishes like pounded yam, semovita and all manner of local soups, yet that was not the case in 1994 when Sweet Sensation started. So Kehinde Kamson can also take the credit for this great feat of introducing African dish to Quick Service Restaurants in Nigeria. At the time when Sweet Sensation commenced operations, the market was dominated by foreign-owned companies. And all of them had an unhidden predilection for non-Nigerian cuisine. For other players this was both a challenge and a discouragment but not for Kehinde. Sweet Sensation quickly identified the need for African cuisine and became the first Quick Service Restaurant to present African Cuisine in a Quick Service Restaurant format at its Adetokunbo Ademola branch in Victoria Island, Lagos.
In reality, customers had begun to get tired of the mainly western menu for which Quick Service Restaurants were known. So the addition of African Cuisine to the usual fare shot Sweet Sensation to the very top of the charts. And that formed the basis for what has been replicated all over Lagos and other parts of the country today.
African cuisine proved to be the game changer for Sweet Sensation
The move was extremely well responded to as customers thronged Sweet Sensation outlets to savour the rich African delicacies in addition to the continental dishes on offer. Competitors had no choice but to play catch up by introducing African dishes into their own menus as well. And today it will be strange to visit a fast food joint and not find offers in African dishes.
Sweet Sensation has not changed that approach to the Quick Service Restaurant business which has been to combine local and international menus but they constantly create new recipes. A typical Sweet Sensation restaurant will have menus consisting of Sukiyaki, Genève Pepper soup, Grillo Fish, Farmers pottage, Indiana Rice, Soul food, Yamboree, Swag Chicken, Chickito. Some of these are unique to Sweet Sensation and it is rare to see them elsewhere. But they also have the regulars like Meat Pie, Chicken Pie, Puff Chicken, Scotch egg, hotdogs, doughnuts. Not forgeting the likes of Fried rice, Jollof rice, Coconut and Leafy Rice and different types of soup.
Unique Selling Point
A brand’s Unique Selling Preposition is what makes it stand out from the others. Many companies, from Coca-Cola to Kentucky Fried Chicken, guard their secret ingredient very closely. And everyone know why it is so. Sweet Sensation’s Research and Development Department is the custodian of Sweet Sensation recipes. Thanks to the unit, the brand’s essential ingredients form their USP and it remains undisclosed. What they do is that they pre-mix all vital spices and ingredients in a special “spicing room”. Thereafter deliver them to the kitchens.
The advantage of this is twofold. First, this method of quality control has the effect of making sure that it will not be easy for anyone to replicate Sweet Sensation meals. Not even the cooks themselves know the secret ingredients that give each meal that special taste. Secondly, it will ensure that the company don’t leave the quality of a meal to the whims of the cooks. The result is that customers get ‘Sweet Sensation meals’ every single time. So visit seven different branches of Sweet Sensation this week and come back with your feedback. The testimony will always be that their Jollof rice tastes exactly the same in all seven branches. And it is different from every other brand in Nigeria; that is the new definition of uniqueness.
Where are they now?
She started by juggling the production and distribution of cakes with her regular job, to working from a gateman’s house. But today Kehinde Kamson has made a firm statement that Nigeria women can make a difference. She has shown that as a woman you don’t just have to accept anything. Her entrepreneurial spirit and innovation have given hope and livelihood to many families. As at the last count about 2,500 families are under the services of Sweet Sensation. And at 60 she is still enjoying the business she started nearly 30 years ago.
In 2019 the company celebrated her 25 years anniversary. To mark the anniversary the company announced a promo that saw most loyal customers go home with amazing gift items. Some of the promo gifts were Air Conditioners, Refrigerators, Generating Set, Plasma Televisions etc. Mrs Kamson also used the opportunity to announce that the company have added 25 indigent students to the already 125 students under its Sweet Sensation Educational Scheme (SSEC). Sweet Sensation Educational Scheme is the CSR arm of the company.
Advice to would-be entrepreneurs
“First of all, the start is always a struggle and I encourage all entrepreneurs to be ready to persevere. This is because this initial stage is imperative and enables you learn the intricacies of business. We were lucky back then that the market was not particularly competitive as at the time I started. I also was young and full of ideas. I was equally strong and passionate about whatever I did. Lastly, my husband supported me to do whatever I wanted to do to fulfil my vision for the business. To cap it all, God was on my side and strengthened me with a deep vision” said Mrs. Kamson.
Addressing the issue of timing for the start of one’s business, Mrs. Kamson said it depends on the type of maturity in terms of skill that one’s business choice requires. Some businesses may require extreme maturity and deep knowledge. And sometimes one cannot easily attain such except by learning from someone that is already practising it. Another way of learning such can be through skill acquisition center or an existing business model. Some business ideas are totally new and innovative and require creativity for modelling and delivery. She point to all these as factors.
There is always prize to pay at the beginning
“For me, I left a high paying job to do a business that seemed demeaning at first she continued. I needed to face reality. My colleagues were flying high in banks and financial institutions. They were sporting the corporate look and lifestyle under AC offices. But I was busy wearing aprons with dirts from back house baking activities. But as my children grew up, gradually things got easier and better for me. At some point I could even leave them to helpers as a network of outlets splattered the map. Many will never know the challenges that lie behind sweet things. But a visit to the dentist may begin to unveil them” she emphasized with some smiles.
She said every aspiring entrepreneur will probably do better if he or she can take note the following points:
- Start small, but be ready for growth
- Challenges often cloak opportunities
- Entrepreneurship requires hard work and sacrifice
- Persistence and vision go hand-in-hand
- Passion is the key to staying power in entrepreneurship
- Innovate, Innovate, Innovate as a key growth factor
- Place a high premium on your Unique Selling Preposition (USP)
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