Folayemi “Folly” Agusto is the co-founder of Eat Drink Media and Event Director for EatDrink Festival. Her website (EatDrinkLagos.com) and event (#EatDrinkFestival) are well known and respected by vendors, customers, and media commentators, creatively using technology to improve the culinary experiences of restaurant-goersin Lagos. This has thrust them to the forefront of a cultural shift in the food and drinks business in Africa’s most populous city, and their influence continues to grow exponentially.
In December 2015, Folayemi along with her co-founder hosted the first EatDrinkFestival, in a bid to connect customers with small businesses that lacked a physical location. The annual Festival is now stapled on the social calendars of Lagosians and visitors every December. Folayemi has worked in a number of industries including finance as an equity research analyst, telecommunications, media and now feels she is firmly at the intersection of digital media and technology. Fresh off their debut in the nation’s capital, Abuja, Agusto spoke to GuardianWoman on starting the festival, her experiences while reviewing restaurants and dispelled rumours of catering to only the upper-crust of society.
You have worked in several industries including finance, telecommunications and media; take us through your career journey?
I would say my career journey is still a story unfolding. I’ve worked in three distinct industries (finance, telecommunications, and technology) and the particular organizations that I have worked at have exposed me to operations excellence and helped me develop stellar execution skills. During my NYSC year, I worked in the telecommunications sector in the marketing department, specifically in events and sponsorships.
After that, I worked as a research analyst in an investment management firm primarily conducting equity and fixed income research. Although it was all I wanted to do at the time, I soon realized that I didn’t want a career in finance. I decided to transition to the technology industry because that aligned more closely with my long term goals for EatDrink which I feel is firmly at the intersection of digital media and technology. I am an excellent communicator, very detail-oriented, enjoy solving complex business problems and all these combined make me a stellar executor. I can conceptualise vague ideas and make it a reality. I also enjoy business writing reports, process flows, proposals, manuals, and decks excite me.
You moved back to Nigeria some years ago, what inspired this move?
It was a natural move for me, as I grew up in Nigeria and the majority of my education was in Nigeria. I attended the University of Virginia, Charlottesville, Virginia and I studied Sociology there.
When I completed my degree, I decided to move back to Nigeria to pursue opportunities.
As co-founder of EatDrink Media, tell us what this entails?
It means doing whatever it takes (legally) to ensure the business is successful and grows. I’m responsible for the strategy and overseeing the operations of the event. I and my Co-founder Nosa, graciously go to different places around Lagos, eat their food (great or not), and write about it letting our readers know if it’s worth the trip or not.
How did you come about the idea of EatDrinkLagos and EatDrinkFestival?
The business started casually in 2014 when my co-founder and I started a blog where we both chronicled our dining experiences at various Lagos restaurants. The blog was conceived because he didn’t know a lot of places in Lagos and I had lived in Lagos for the majority of my life. I knew a lot of the restaurants and spots and used to refer them to him.
At this time, many establishments weren’t on Google Maps and as such were quite hard to find. We also didn’t have consumer review sites like Yelp that we were familiar with in the USA and we got tired of not being able to find where to eat in Lagos. There was no organised directory of Lagos spots, it was also hard to find addresses and contact information. So we basically created a thing that we wanted to consume.
Being the serial blogger that I am, I was definitely up to starting another blog. I also thought it was very interesting the way we planned to document the restaurants that we visited. With EDF, we originally wanted to organise a restaurant week where people could visit restaurants and enjoy fixed priced meals for a period. While developing that idea, we pivoted it to a single day event where people could come buy meals from chefs, bartenders, and vendors who did not have physical locations.
The idea to start the project came while I was working in the formal sector and I was familiar with many food industry professionals that sold items online but did not have any physical locations. It, therefore, grew out of a desire to create a platform for food vendors to meet customers that they will ordinarily not meet in their regular course of business.
At our first event, most of the food vendors were just starting their businesses, many did not have physical locations, so we wanted to give them an opportunity to grow their businesses and customer base. Our festivals are mainly about promoting local talent in the culinary arts in a dynamic and interesting way.
There are several food festivals that take place during the year, how is EDF different from others?
EDF is unique because it’s much more than a food festival, it is a social experience and a part of the Lagos social calendar in December. In terms of the vendors, we also take a very unique approach to our vendor selection to ensure the look and feel is not like a trade fair.
The team makes a concerted effort towards the curating of the vendors at the event and every vendor’s menu is reviewed prior to being accepted to sell at the festival. We also have the innovative payment system, which was implemented at the last festival in Lagos which helped to mitigate transaction failure and allow guests either on arrival or online before the event, to purchase wristbands and load up with funds to make payments at the event. Vendors will thereafter scan the guest’s wristband to collect payment. For the first time since we started, we took the festival out of Lagos to Abuja. We have been able to deliver a 100 percent technology-driven event.
Last year, we introduced a reloadable wristband system powered by RFID technology for guests to complete payments seamlessly. It has been a great experience, we have been able to grow from a one-day festival to a two-day festival. Given our numbers, you can say there’s been significant growth. In six years, EDF has become one of the most anticipated Christmas events in Lagos with an attendance of over 10,000 people at the last festival.
How did you get the funds to start out your business?
Initially, we had financed EatDrink Media through personal savings and incomes from our respective paid employment at the time. However, since then, we have been able to sustain the business through revenue from advertising and the various festival sponsorships.
As a budding entrepreneur, what are some of the challenges you have faced and how did you overcome?
Major challenges include financing operations and looking for brands to partner with. If you don’t have an insider to make an introduction, it can seem like a gated community and you’re on the outside, just looking in.
In your opinion, what are some of the key issues startups face here in Nigeria?
Not all of these have personally impacted me and my business, but the primary constraints are access to financing, poor infrastructure, and an un-enabling business environment. The poor infrastructure is especially frustrating.
The Nigerian food festival industry has experienced some growth in recent times; what can be done to bring it at par with international standards?
The project has helped numerous businesses to grow because some food vendors without physical locations that attended the festivals have been able to set up in various locations over time and others have expanded outside the Lagos metropolis. I also think the internet is helping to spread the gospel of Nigerian food or the fact that people are doing different things with it by having international standard suppliers. However, you’re only as good as the ecosystem allows you to be.
Have you ever had any unpleasant experience when reviewing restaurants?
Yes, a restaurant owner has once called me on the phone to verbally attack me, but that’s in the past now and I’ve moved past it. Some people also think we don’t have any credentials to review restaurants and are in no place to pass judgment. I disagree with them.
Some people say Eat.Drink.Lagos is elitist and caters to only the upper crust, would you say this is true?
Not necessarily, that’s a perception based on the fact that the majority of the restaurants that are reviewed on the website are proper dine-in restaurants as opposed to street eats and bukas. The content we create is shaped by the audience as well. We visit a lot of restaurants that our readers suggest. We usually do a lot of mainland restaurants recommended by our readers.
There are many food and restaurant review blogs today, what makes your brand stand out?
Consistency and a lot more content. In the earlier years, when the website was primarily a review site, we made sure we published a minimum of three reviews per week. That sets us apart because a lot of these other blogs are updated once every month or so.
Now as the site has grown and there are even more writers, our content is a lot more varied, reviews, features, videos, interviews, recipes and more. Apart from that we also have The Eat Drink Bot which was built to help users find restaurants in Lagos, based on budget and location. It collects the user’s name, finds out how many people are being budgeted for and the actual budget. It’s simple and easy to use. It was created because Nosa and I were unable to reply to all the emails we got, asking for recommendations on places to eat. We then decided to build a bot that was able to suggest restaurants based on information the user provides.
Tell us something that has influenced your life and career positively today?
My second job at a leading investment management company has taught me much about professionalism, integrity, and excellence. This has really influenced how I run my businesses and the operations of our events. High standards and never cutting corners is very important to us, second only to integrity.
Who and what inspire you?
I’m inspired by my problems and complex challenges, there is nothing more exciting than solving a problem and moving on to the next and knocking that out too. I am also inspired by the idea of building something from a concept to reality.