Chiamaka Nwakalor-Egemba (known as Chef Amaka on Twitter) calls herself a “hospitable entertainer.” Her videos — which range from creative recipes to fitness tips — often rack up impressive numbers, giving her a solid following.
In this interview, she gives an account of a very interesting journey that started with her trying out for modelling opportunities as an undergrad and is ongoing, as she builds a recognisable brand in the business of hospitality.
What was growing up like?
It was normal. I grew up in Surulere, the first of four girls and one brother. My brother came along really late, so for a long time, it was just me and my sisters.
Must have been quite a childhood.
It was. When I told my dad that JAMB was over 400, he said I should get 385!
[Laughs] Of course.
That’s how we were brought up. I studied Economics. And as it turned out, I didn’t get into school with JAMB. [Laughs]
Did you do any business while in school?
I tried going into modelling. It was a bit strange because before university, I didn’t really realise that my height was that desired.
How tall are you?
I am 6′ 1″.
Okay. That’s tall.
[Laughs] But modelling didn’t really work for me. Instead, I discovered the field of hospitality. I ushered for weddings and for other events. That was in my second year.
Was it hard combining all those events with studying?
It was. And for a while, I was trying to also break into modelling. So, yes, I missed some classes. And the organisers always seemed to call me whenever there was an event. There was an ASUU strike at some point, and I took advantage of that to work extra hard. I even did an AMVCA event.
How did you get that gig?
I met a lady at an event and she was impressed by my work. When she learned that I was only getting ₦3k for the job, she decided to link me up with a job that would pay three or four times more. Imagine a student imagining ₦10k per job at that time. [Laughs]
What did that add up to?
Around ₦30k in a week sometimes. During ASUU strikes, it would go higher because I had more time. For a student back then, this was good money.
I agree. What level were you at this point?
300 level. It affected my grades, to be honest.
I can imagine. How about your sisters? Did you get them involved?
Yes. But I made sure they paid attention to their studies. I was the scapegoat.
The burden of the eldest daughter. Did you do this till you graduated?
I did it even after I graduated.
At this stage, you had abandoned modelling entirely?
Yes. It just wasn’t for me. Certain unpleasant things were happening. I recall hearing that a person in charge of one brand only liked fair-skinned models. It is the kind of statement that makes young women want to bleach their skin.
Then we heard that if he wants you to sit on his lap, you’d have to. When I wasn’t picked because I wasn’t fair-skinned enough, the message was understood. It just wasn’t for me. I faced ushering. I did several activations; I did roadshows.
How much were the activation jobs? Do they pay well?
For a student, yes! You could get ₦50k for one gig. Especially for alcoholic brands.
How do you rank the jobs you used to get as a student? What was the best and worst?
Ushering was number one. The best. And roadshows were the absolute worst. You could be screaming under the sun and then only leave with ₦5k. [Laughs]
After graduating, what did you get up to?
I joined an event firm and was receiving ₦50k. It didn’t work out. I was there for less than six months. I started applying for jobs, which wasn’t easy. Let me add here that I graduated with a third class.
I don’t believe it defines my intelligence, but my dad was the best graduating student in his time, so you can imagine.
Yeah. But when I told him, he said he was proud of me. My family went through a hard time and the money I was making from the jobs I had as a student came in handy for us. He didn’t want me to do all of that, but I was dogged.
Speaking to him gave me courage to apply for formal jobs. I would pass the exams and get to the final stage. Finally, someone would ask, “So what did you graduate with?” When I tell them, they’ll say, “We actually want a 2:1.” And even if I had passed all of their exams, it wouldn’t matter.
Must have been crushing.
Yes. I turned to God and asked what I needed to do. I am Ada, the firstborn. I had been having food poisoning while I was working, so that seemed like a problem that I could solve. I decided to start cooking to solve that problem. But it was hard. There were months I wouldn’t get any orders.
I knew I needed to learn things about the trade, so I started looking for opportunities to serve as an intern. I would send messages, asking to intern for free. I didn’t mind washing plates if I could learn. [Pauses] I am getting emotional just thinking about that period.
Thanks. It was so difficult. Then I met my husband. He was my boyfriend at the time. He gave me some direction. He told me to join a culinary school. My dad had suggested something similar, but the school I was targeting was charging above ₦1m. My dad couldn’t afford it.
I eventually found a small one around my area that charged ₦165k. That’s where I went.
It worked out.
Indeed. After school, I did an event called Chow With Amaka. I sold tickets for ₦4,000 and hosted about 30 guests. The outcome was okay. My boyfriend then asked, “What next?” I told him the plan is to keep promoting what I was doing. He then shared with me the vision of Aproko Doctor, and I loved it. He suggested that I start content creation like him, that I could use that to promote my business. I did exactly that.
Now before then, I had studied a blog called Dunnie’s Kitchen and learned so many things. Then, one day, someone at a TV station saw my work and said I should be the host of a TV show.
This is quite a story.
It is. This was 2018. By 2019, I had become the host of In My Kitchen, a TV show.
So social media has been very helpful to you?
Yes! I love it. Social media has made me who I am. I used to film and edit myself, but I employed someone as I grew. Twitter (where she has over 100k followers) is my main social media account, but I am going to Instagram. I have a deal with a brand throughout the year. And that is one source of income.
What do you have to do for this brand and how much do they pay?
They pay more than a million. I have to post a video and a photo each month.
Let’s rewind a bit. By the time you did Chow With Amaka, was it clear that it’d be financially viable?
Yes. It was very clear. I just needed to package it well. I knew I needed to do it even if it was just once a year. My mum was impressed, and she shared some ideas. So yes, it was quite clear. I just needed to figure out how to make it a sophisticated event. I took a break for some time and did it in 2021. This time, I got sponsorship. This time, I had 50 participants. This time, the ticket was ₦20k.
I thought about it deeply and realised that even if other people were doing food tasting events, I could make my own event an experience. The question I needed to answer was, “Who is Amaka?” The answer is: Amaka is a hospitable entertainer.
I can’t sing, but I can get someone to do so; I am not a stand-up comedian, but that can be organised. I just needed to stamp my signature on it. And that is what I did. People can be laughing while munching a cake and drinking and they can share feedback on items on the menu.
It is an entire experience. After that edition, a brand reached out to ask about sponsorship.
So how did the 2022 edition turn out?
We had 100 participants.
Did the price remain the same?
Because of the economy, we had to increase it to ₦25k.
[Laughs] Some people paid at the gate.
Congratulations! What’s the plan going forward?
I want to move my food business from small scale to medium scale. I do all the cooking. That will change. I also want to do a bit more advertising. I will also do Chow With Amaka twice a year.
What advice would you give those looking to emulate your success?
First piece of advice is to be clear about your goals. It helps you know what to do. I say this because I think that if I had gotten a chance to intern, I wouldn’t have made some mistakes. It would have helped me set the goals for my business earlier. You need to outline what you want to achieve. The hospitality business is wide, so you need to know what you are good at and start with that. I started with food because I was good at that. I am now getting into events properly.
Second advice is you have to be ready to learn. It is not negotiable. Third, if you are sure about where you are headed, stand right there. Something I would like to add is that God is important. He directs my path. There are times I would cry and then God tells me what next. Even if you don’t believe in God, there is a higher force. Don’t disregard that higher force.