Brian-Gabriel Chiedozie Ndubuisi
Age: 31• Entrepreneur • Paperware Ltd, Nigeria
“Nothing goes exactly as planned; theory is often very different from reality; consistency is the hard part, but it eventually pays off”
Brian-Gabriel Chiedozie Ndubuisi is a medical doctor and CEO of Paperware Ltd., a company that manufactures eco-friendly and biodegradable food packaging. After leaving Nigeria at the age of 18 for Russia to study medicine at Peoples’ Friendship University PFUR, Moscow,he returned in 2012 to take the medical licensing exam. After he passed his exams, he was employed to do his internship (House Job) at Federal Medical Center Katsina. During his NYSC in 2014/15, he took a couple of online courses on entrepreneurship and economics, and then started Paperware Ltd. in 2015.
He has a vision of a Zero plastic food packaging society. Read on to find out what inspired him and his advice for founders on what to consider before scaling a business.
1. Please can you tell us about your academic background and what inspired you to start Paperware?
I have a medical degree from Patrice Lumumba University, (or Peoples’ Friendship University) Moscow, Russia. That also came with a diploma as a Russian – English translator and as a Tutor of the Russian language.
If you’re finding it hard connecting the dots to how that translated to manufacturing paper cups, consider that wholesome education is supposed to teach us to think, and to solve problems… Any problems.
So, why Paperware? Well, I come from a family of manufacturers. My maternal grandfather had a factory that manufactured metallic basins and kitchenware before the civil war. Growing up, in Aba, I slept to the rhythm of heavy machinery, because my father was a plastic ware manufacturer, and his facility shared a fence with our house. So maybe I’m just towing the line of family business.
But, there’s this moral burden one carries around knowing that they contribute to the tons of plastic waste lying around on our streets and dumpsites. You may not feel it as much, if you are a final consumer, but if you are a manufacturer of plastic products, or a caterer who hands out tens of thousands of plastic packs monthly; if you have any knowledge about the extent of the impact, or if you are simply observant to your environment, you would feel that moral burden.
I guess my father felt that burden, because he then set up a plastic recycling line, and paid people to collect plastic wastes, which he then recycled and reused, before it became cool to recycle.
With Paperware Ltd. I took this consciousness a step further. We may not be able to stop the consumerism that makes disposable packages a necessity, but what we are doing now, is to make these disposable packages more eco-friendly. Our products are bio-degradable. That means that, unlike plastic, they rot over time, and do not become a source of poison to live on land and in the sea.
2.What has the reception to your company been?
The reception has been overwhelmingly positive. I think it is almost intuitive to most people, that our products are better for the environment than their plastic analogues. But paper packaging today is just more expensive than plastic, and this makes it harder for Nigerians to decide to switch.
So, what we are doing at Paperware Limited is to innovate to drive down prices, and to make our products even more functional than their plastic analogues. For instance, we take advantage of the material we use—paper—to offer beautiful, bright-colored designs, and even options to customize your @CupsOfPaper and packages to suit your events/business. This has made more and more people choose our more sustainable products.
We have also taken advantage of the property of paper to fold, like origami, in our new line of food boxes to minimize the volume occupied by food packs, and therefore drive down transportation and storage costs.
It is worthy of note that our products can contain hot or cold foods, wet or oily foods, coffee, ice cream, jollof rice or egusi soup, without leaking or soaking. Our products perform better than plastics, in addition to looking more attractive, and being eco-friendly.
3.The idea of Paperware is to reduce plastic waste and create biodegradable items, how do you ensure that your company doesn’t contribute to deforestation, since paper comes from trees?
We thought about the problem of deforestation and desertification before we set out. This is why we only source our paper from FSC (Forest Stewardship Council) or PEFC (Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification) certified suppliers. Having these certifications mean that our paper suppliers source their wood from sustainably managed forests. This means that these forests are alive and thrive for generations to come. Today paper is probably the most sustainable method of packaging. It is vastly recycled, and it doesn’t pose any danger to live on land and in the sea.
4. Did you get investors at the inception of your company or was it primarily bootstrapped?
I got investors. But the funding was just for the machinery, and a year’s rent. So we still had to grind our way out.
5. How did you know this would be a viable market in Nigeria?
I knew a bit about the plastic packaging industry, because my father was in that industry. There’s a big market in Nigeria for food and, by extension, for food packaging. So we aren’t really doing something new, we are just offering a more sustainable way of doing something people are already doing.
6. What are some of the challenges you’ve faced so far?
Sigh. Where do I start from?
There are the general challenges we face because we are a business in Nigeria. These are basically the same issue every business echoes: poor electricity; excessive/multiple taxation and complicated/unpredictable regulations; poor road network and expensive logistics; access to foreign markets; access to funds, the list goes on.
Then, there are the challenges we face because we are a manufacturing business in Nigeria. Our facility is 100% powered by generator. Sometimes there is power, but this power is so unreliable and of very poor quality, that we risk blowing up our machinery when we use it. Then, there’s lack of raw materials locally: our raw materials are imported, and we have to pay very high custom duty on it. Yet, somehow, we are supposed to compete with the international paper packaging market. The skill set to fix our machinery when it breaks down is either nonexistent, or very expensive.
Then there are challenges we face because we are a paper packaging manufacturing business in Nigeria. For instance, regulators do not yet understand our industry, yet they have to regulate it. As a result, it’s harder for us to get the necessary documentation to have our products in stores that would demand those regulatory passes. This means that the customs don’t treat our paper as raw material, but charges duties like they would charge for any product.
This, of course is coupled with all the challenges any product has to face that intends to penetrate the Nigerian market.
7. You started with paper cups but currently expanding to cover food packaging. With the experience so far, what advice would you give to entrepreneurs looking to scale their business?
First, think of your consumers – those that would use your product. Give them a reason to use it again. Then think of your customers – the middlemen that would buy your products, and stock it on their shelves. What’s in it for them? Only then should you think about yourself, and what’s in it for you. The more money people can make selling your products, the wider your products will be distributed. So, while making and pricing your products, have all those people in mind.
8. What is the most important thing running a company has taught you?
That nothing goes exactly as planned; that theory is often very different from reality; that consistency is the hard part, but it eventually pays off.
9.What’s your vision for Cups and paper? What do you hope to achieve with your work?
Our vision is zero plastic in disposable (food) packaging. We hope to achieve this by innovating to make paper packaging solutions more affordable and more functional than their plastic analogues; more affordable so that it would be pocket friendly for the common men and women; and more functional.
This, we believe would make the transition to a sustainable future smoother for the ordinary Nigerian/African.
Interviewer: Lydia Ume is a writer, blogger with specialization in copy writing and UX design for SMEs. A graduate student of African Literatire at the UNiversity of Nigeria, she is also a Spark Hub Fellow (2019), for Creative Girls Mentee (2019) and a Resplash Leadership Student (2019). She loves to write on gender, culture, arts and technology and has work published on Bellanaija, Forcreativegirls, Storied and more.