AFAM FRED OBASI:
Taking Affam Palmwine Company To The Next Level
Afam Fred Obasi hails from Agunese autonomous community of Nmaku town in Ogwu Local Government Area of Enugu State, and is into palm wine processing, preservation and tapping. In this interview, he
speaks on what informed his decision to go into the business, the battle to gain recognition for it, and the journey since its widespread acceptance
What took you into the palm wine business?
It has to do with where l come from. The principal job for 90% of men/youths growing up mainly in my place is palm wine tapping/selling. It’s the main business of my people and most of the time you go and tap
and sell immediately because after 24 hours the palm wine would be fermented.
So from there we start looking at what we can do to make it last for hours or weeks. So we did that. As an individual you can’t do it alone and the Federal Institute of Industrial Research Oshodi played a very
big role in our accomplishing that project. Then we took the bull by the horn by taking it to NAFDAC for registration. Then they had not registered anything palm wine, and they pondered on what certification
to give to us: would it be for bottle water processing or for beer processing and production. Ours was a different thing altogether.
It took us like five years before we could be regulated by NAFDAC and we are the first organisation that took palm wine to NAFDAC and got it registered; after that, others joined in. The business is good but in
the other way round, it doesn’t attract young men. We had been obsessed with the banking industry and oil firms, among others. So when you tell a graduate to go and tap palm wine, it’s as if you are
derogating all he has done. Another thing that encourages me so much is what was learnt from my Chinese friend. He said the black people, especially those in Africa who go to England and would be mocking
the Chinese that they don’t know how to speak English. Instead of them going to the western world to go and study just their language, they went to study their technology and they have the better part of it.
In Nigeria, the mistake is still there. If you go to the street, somebody will be very proud to tell you: ‘l am a graduate.’ Even when you didn’t ask the person who he or she is [laughing]. In lgbo language,
university means MAHADUM – know it all. What does it signify? It means you become a job creator, not for people to create job for you. Which means, if we get to the level of development that our universities
are universities in the real sense of it, we would not be lacking in any way.
Technically we are deficient. The day one of the NAFDAC inspection teams came here and they were telling us a lot of things, l told them that most of the things we use here l designed them, except one or two
things that l didn’t design on my own which we picked from outside. Even one welder that charged me for one job didn’t understand what he was doing until he finished it, and he said: No Oga, you will pay
more money [laughing]. Like what my landlord who was blind told his son: Let me use your eyes and you will use you my brain. So today we are proud that we have taken our palm wine to at least three
continents, if you take our palm wine to Canada or U.S.A. it is accepted because they have tested it and found it good for human consumption. If you go to Europe, they endorsed it. We sent samples to Japan
as well. In Africa South Africa it’s accepted. At the last Nations Cup in Malabo we sent a consignment and if not for financial constraint we could have done more.
Sir, if l may ask, everybody knows Lagos is a very difficult place one can tap palmwine. How do you source for the palm wine you sell and what are the challenges sourcing for it?
Your question is very good. When we just started nobody loved to take it. l went to a popular hotel in Lagos , the manager and the workers said the hotel is owned by a woman. They pointed to the woman’s
office telling me that l should go on my own, that she was the one that would decide, and if she didn’t approve it, l should forget it. On getting there, the woman snubbed me. She then asked me, “Don’t you
know that this is an international hotel? Why are you bringing this your local thing here?” And l told her, “Madam, l know its an international hotel, that’s why l am here. At least, we are tired of local patronage so
we want international hotel exposure. That’s why l am here.” [laughing].
She asked me, “Are you an lgbo man?” And l said yes. She then asked me, “Is that how you people behave?” And l left her. When l got to the bar l brought out bottles that l came with and l told the bar man to
give me one bottle. l was on that bottle when one man that was in the bar requested for one and when he drank it he said, “Wow! this is good.” Then the manager took one. Though l had been rejected earlier, l
only told the manager that he could sample it for me. After all, the madam didn’t say we shouldn’t do that; all she said was that you shouldn’t buy. And eventually there was a white man that lodged in the hotel.
When he came down and saw the palm wine, he told them that in his native country he has taken palm wine. He studied Agricultural Engineering but he had not seen a live palm tree except the ones he saw in
books. So if this was the only thing he would take to his country, so be it. Then there was no GSM and l didn’t have a NITEL landline. Luckily there was one businessman that owned a landline, so l had to put
the number on my label; it was a business center. You know, then they didn’t pick calls all the time. They kept calling until the day it went through .The man now told me that some people were calling me from
the Island; that they needed palm wine. Food for thought: where do l go, because l had given samples to a lot of people. We had to leave Agege to Surulere and other happening places in Lagos. Luckily when l
entered the hotel they were like, “Where have you been? In fact, we need some palm wine.” The madam that rejected us now became interested in what we were doing – the clients was one of the people she
respected so much. We packaged their request for them and since that day she became our good customer and at the same time things started working for us.
What year are you talking about?
Before the advent of GSM.
Sir, like how many years have you been in this business?
Let me say my whole life. l fell in love with this palm wine thing
So would you say this particular call is your breakthrough?
You see, like now there are two things in life: if you can persevere on a project then you will see many other projects waiting. The question is, can you persevere. The moment you can do that, you’ll see other
Who would you say your role models are?
[Laughing] My role model l don’t know his name but he is the man that first climbed Mount Everest [Sir Edmund Hillary]. When you journalists clustered around him asking him how this, how that, why he chose
to take such a venture. He simply said, “Because the mountain is here for us to climb.” God said He has given us the earth to mankind, we should take care of it, even the topmost of the mountains , if you think
of the difficulties of getting there, that means you are a great man. So that man is my role model.
Sir, if l may ask, how close are you to God?
Well ,that is another area that l may say encourages me the more. I believe l read so much; l love reading. In Africa, Nigeria, we believe in short cut by joining a cult or meeting babalawo to help us do one or two
things to get what we want. But l believe that most of them, even your pastors, you may be more spiritual than them, since the scripture said that whenever you want to pray, go into your innermost room and
talk to God so that you can’t be distracted. The moment you can think in this direction, you will see God working.
To sustain in business in Nigeria, everybody knows, is very tedious. What would you say have been the challenges so far.
The whites say you can’t give what you don’t have. In Nigeria our mentality is, if not me nobody can do it. When we look at the greatest investors, most of them did not go to school. If you can come out with
something magnificent and start producing it, it will keep moving. We only go to school to polish thee God- given talent.
How would you want the Government to intervene in Affam palm wine?
Government has not been doing that but if they start doing that, it’s going to be very beautiful.
How far would you say Nigerians have embraced your product?
Very well. For example, we had an invitation to come for an exhibition in Dubai but we didn’t go because we didn’t have the money. Now we are at the trade fair; we were also there last year and are still
thinking about the Port-Harcourt trade fair and Calabar Carnival. What we do now is to be taking it bit by bit and not to be greedy about it.