Two years ago, Itunu Lawani helped his brother start L&L Foods at the kitchen table in their home in Atlanta. Recently, the company emerged as the winner of the Nigerian Economic Summit startup pitching event, taking home a prize of $15,000.
Lawani, a senior in industrial engineering at Penn State, founded L&L Foods, a Nigeria-based company, with his brother and friend. It is a packaged-goods company focused mainly on the Nigerian peanut market.
Currently, Nigeria is the third largest producer of peanuts in the world. However, according to Lawani, more than 98 percent of the country’s market is made of unpackaged, unbranded products. These products are sold in bottles or plastic bags, increasing the probability of the presence of Aflatoxin, a cancer-causing bacterium which can grow in soil, vegetation, hay and grains.
L&L Foods focused on reaching this untapped market by developing a brand for its peanuts, while ensuring the removal of Aflatoxin and maintaining an affordable price for Nigerians.
“I think that the goal of L&L [Foods] is to become the Kellogg’s of Nigeria,” Lawani said. “So, when you think of peanuts, we want to be synonymous to peanuts.”
The idea of L&L Foods was a result of a significant amount of brainstorming and market research, according to Lawani. When the brothers realized the untapped potential of the peanut market in Nigeria, they jumped at the chance to provide the country with locally sourced peanuts and to adapt with the shifting mindset of the Nigerian population, which now takes pride in locally made products.
Lawani credited some of his experience to the engineering entrepreneurship classes he has taken at Penn State. He said Robert Beaury, interim director of the Engineering Entrepreneurship program in the School of Engineering Design, Technology, and Professional Programs, urged him to pursue the idea when it was still on the drawing board and insisted on regular updates from the student about the company.
“Itunu is certainly indicative of the best and brightest students we have in the program,” Beaury said. “[L&L Foods has] accomplished a great deal in a relatively short amount of time.”
Lawani’s interest in entrepreneurial interest began during his first year at Penn State when he attempted to create a mobile application with a friend. Although this idea didn’t leave the drawing board, Lawani doesn’t regret it. He believes failed opportunities helped him learn from his mistakes and evolve L&L Foods.
“We’ve really grown as a company [and also] in terms of how our packaging looks. Now, it’s a very well defined brand and also [has] better packaging than when we started. So, really, it just started with us in our kitchen, just making it and basically selling it in wrapped bags,” Lawani said, “Now, it’s grown into this company that has more than 12 people working for it and a manufacturing plant with machines and everything.”
In October, Lawani’s older brother pitched the startup to a panel of seasoned judges at the Nigerian Economic Summit, which is organized by the Nigerian Economic Summit Group and the Federal Ministry of Budget and National Planning. After a competitive pitching event involving eight other startup companies, L&L Foods was declared the winner by members of multinational corporations and the vice president of Nigeria.
Lawani said he was confident in their pitch because he believed L&L Foods appealed to Nigerians. Food, to him, is not a hard sell and since they were pitching a tangible product that people could see, they had an advantage over other startups with harder sells like mobile apps.
The brothers will use their $15,000 prize to purchase new equipment for their manufacturing plant in Nigeria. Previously, they had hired workers to manually peel and roast the peanuts. However, since product demand has continued to increase, the prize money will help them invest in machines for production, thus allowing their supply to better meet the growing demand.
Upon his graduation in December 2018, Lawani, plans to move to Nigeria to work full time at L&L Foods. Due to his industrial engineering background, he will focus his efforts on streamlining operations in the company’s factory.
“I really like the ability to use a lot of my problem-solving and analytical skills that I’ve learned in class and apply them in the field,” Lawani said.
Source: Penn State University