Comfort Babatunde’s story demonstrates the Nigerian can-do spirit. She has built three businesses in the UAE in the five years since she left her home country after a setback. She told us how she was able to pull off this impressive feat.
What influenced your decision to move to Dubai?
After school, I wanted to work because the possibility of opening my own business and becoming my own boss was exciting. So, I started a food business because I love cooking.
Unfortunately, many issues kept coming up that made it nearly impossible to do business in Nigeria. The government wasn’t helping and a task force would come and destroy the little you’ve built. It was so frustrating; I made up my mind to leave.
What were your expectations when you moved to Dubai?
There was a job my uncle was trying to get for me, but they placed an embargo on employment. I thought I could wait it out, but I had arrived on a month’s visa and time was running out. The only jobs available were housekeeping jobs, so I just decided to do what I could at the time while waiting for something better.
The switch from business owner to housekeeper, how did that go?
The job took a toll on my health. I am a tall woman, so having to bend all the time to wash, clean and lay beds started affecting my back. I had to quit, but not before looking for another job. I was bound by contract, so I needed funds to pay it off before leaving the housekeeping job.
What job did you get?
I got a waitressing job and kept at it for years. During that time, I took advantage of the numerous cross-training available in the hospitality business. I still had no capital, but I was determined to do what I could while waiting.
How were you able to start your first business?
I had some savings, so I got an apartment. Then I made the choice to continue Iyejide’s Kitchen, the food business I had stopped back in Nigeria. From my apartment, I made Nigerian meals in bowls and delivered them. I did this for almost a year and saw a huge profit. In a week, I was making enough that I could afford to save 3,000 to 3,500 dirhams (₦525,000 to ₦612,500). This was before covid.
It sounds like business was going great. What changed?
In the food business, orders don’t come in every time. Some people order enough to last weeks, so this puts a cap on how much I could earn from the business. It made me start thinking about other ways to make money whenever there was a decline in orders. That was when I started my second business; the fabric line.
Tell me more about it.
I took out of my savings from the food business and started buying fabrics and readymade garments to sell wholesale and retail to vendors in Nigeria. With time, the business started raking in profit, and I was able to return the initial capital back to the food business and reinvest the profit in the fabric business. I made enough money to consider a third business.
How did you decide what business to do next?
Self-reflection. What was I spending a lot of money on? It was my hair. I’m one of those people who will pay good money for hair extensions and services. Everyone has what they never feel guilty about splurging on, and mine is hair.
What was the next step for you?
I started doing market research on the cost of extensions. I went to Alibaba and various hair vendor pages to compare prices. That was when I struck gold. I saw that there was a lot of money to be made in the hair business, so I went for it.
How did you fund the third business?
I used my savings from the food and fabric business. Starting this line was a lot more expensive than the others because good hair bundles aren’t cheap. I started with about 12 hair bundles. Soon, I was making enough to pay back the savings I took, as well as reinvest in the hair business.
How were you able to run three businesses at the same time?
It was so stressful. I had to do a lot of things myself. During that period, I got my license and rented a car to meet up with clients. Someone could call me that they were at Business Bay, and I’d have to drive to their location with the hair bundles. Another person would call to say that they are at Internet City.
Everything was happening at once, and I was running the business from a box at the back of my car. Multiple people would request to see me at the same time, and mostly on the recommendation from returning clients. I couldn’t disappoint them. It was overwhelming, but it also led to the decision that changed everything.
What was this decision?
I decided I would open a physical store.
I had to. When I told my clients, they made a suggestion that put my business into perspective.
What was the suggestion?
They recommended that I open a salon. The logic, which made sense, was that they couldn’t come to a physical store just to buy hair extensions. There has to be someone to make the hair. This introduced a new challenge for me. At the time, the only license I had was to sell my hair product. I was thinking of just a store, but based on popular demand, a salon had become a necessity.
How did you plan to fund it?
I had to liquidate some of my assets, get savings from my businesses and take out a business loan to open the salon.
Wow! That must have been tough.
It wasn’t easy, but sacrifices were necessary for this to work. I knew that over time, the money would come. By the grace of God, Bycomforthair, Iyejide’s Kitchen and the fabric business are all running now. My savings had a huge role to play in my success.
What advice would you give to people starting out in a new country?
Have a plan and be ready to change. Things might not work out how you planned, so you must be ready and open to change. I strongly believe you should do what you can while waiting for what you want.
Secondly, as much as possible, try to do everything legitimately. Outside Nigeria, there are processes for things and the authorities take these processes very seriously. Doing the right thing will save you a lot of stress. Find out what you need to do and do it legitimately.