When Ebere’s husband was posted to the Netherlands, she left her two restaurants and 56 employees and cancelled her plans to open a bakery. With her five children, ageing between 5 and 14, she left her hometown of Port Harcourt with plans to take a break from work. But soon her entrepreneurial spirit made being a stay-at-home mum impossible. Two years later Ebere gives cooking lessons, has opened a shop and has launched her own brand of West African spices – Ataro Food and Spices.
In the quiet basement of her shop, away from the employees and visitors, Ebere tells her story.
So how did it all start?
I studied Food Science and Technology in Nigeria and did my industrial training at Mr Bigg’s, a large fast food chain. After my studies I worked for Schlumberger for two years but left to start a ladies boutique. I used to travel to the US, Paris and the UK to buy clothes for my shop. That was when I had my first child so I was trying to balance being a mum and also doing something I love. Then I expanded to a bigger space.
But I remembered that I had wanted to have a fast food place when I worked at Mr Bigg’s so I invested in books about how to manage a fast food restaurant. After eight years of running a boutique, I also opened a restaurant, Just Relish in Port Harcourt. Six months later – it’s really incredible – the whole building where my shop was burned down. I lost everything. I had not renewed my insurance (It wasn’t so popular in Nigeria then). That taught me a lesson!
But the restaurant did really well. After three years I expanded to a bigger branch and a year later I ordered equipment to start a commercial bakery. At this point I had 56 employees. And then we left for the Netherlands.
Did you see it as the end of your past life or a new beginning?
This was the first time I’d lived abroad and the first time I’d travelled with my children. Before I arrived in 2013 people made me afraid. They said, oh you know you can’t hire a nanny, it’s too expensive so you have to do it all yourself… So I said ok, no problem. Maybe it’s time to rest because I’ve been working all my life.
Nigeria is a very lively community and of course I had a lot of friends and a big network. But here, I didn’t know anyone. Everything was different starting with the language barrier and the people.
Initially I didn’t like it. I wondered, “what am I doing here?”
When the kids are off to school, I’m not doing anything at home for six hours. I learned Dutch, but the more I tried, the more frustrated I got. I was trying to learn the culture but I was becoming depressed. Should I go home and leave my husband here? But then the kids loved it.
So at one point I had to speak to myself: you better start liking this place because you are going to be here for four years. My husband and I discussed it and he said he would support me if I want to start anything. But you can’t just start something in a new country where you don’t know the regulations or how things work. So for six months I joined different networking groups. Most of the time I was the only dark-skinned person. But it didn’t stop me. And within a short period I had lots of friends, also Dutch people, not just the expats. And I thought, if I want to do business in this country I should learn the language. It is so hard that I didn’t learn much but I can read letters in Dutch.
Then I went to Erasmus Centre for Entrepreneurship for six weeks. It took a long time but finally, instead of opening a restaurant, I thought I wanted to set up a company that would sell my mixed West African spice packages to the world. My food is quite unique even in my restaurants because I mix my all my spices myself. So I have this consistent taste.
But is there a market for Itaro Spices?
To sell spices I needed to teach people about the food. When I talked to people here I could see the reaction, the body language, the negative perception about Africa in general. And that was where I thought OK, maybe I should teach people how to make Nigerian food. If they see, then they can decide for themselves if they like.
First I started with kids. My kids are at the British School. I gave a cooking class and they told their parents. Next time I did it at the school I had 18 adults turn up: they were so happy; they loved it. I try to combine the culture of Nigeria, the lively atmosphere, cooking and having fun. And so it gives me an opportunity to teach people about our culture. I realised that the only thing people know is about corruption, Boko Haram… all of that.
And now I have the shop on this busy street in The Hague, Ataro Food and Spices. I want people to experience the good things we have in Africa, the food and crafts like calabashes and baskets. On weekends I do cooking demonstrations so people can see what they can do at home with the spices.
The raw materials come from Nigeria and Ethiopia and I blend them myself at a space I’ve rented in The Hague. I have partnered with a company that helps me with the testing and packaging. I am not going to live here forever, but when I leave, the spices will still be here. I want to sell to different parts of the world: to America, to the UK, even to Asia because we have a lot of their products so it is time for us to also send something to them.
Was starting over in a new country worth it?
So I still take care of my kids: I cook for them every day, do the schools runs. But the time they are away I need to be engaged. Because of my business I have developed myself as a person. Development is not just about going to school, university. Each time I started something new I had to learn about how to do it.
Sometimes people ask me; “Oh you are here for four years. Why are you opening a business?” And I say to them that I believe that every day of our lives should count: make a difference wherever you are.
So I’m not going to look at what will happen in four years. I just want to live in the moment and do what I can now.
Coming here I’ve learned a lot in the Netherlands. Not just about business but about who I am. I think I could start a business anywhere because I can interact with different people. I don’t try to change to who I am. And really nobody is asking me to change. The thing is, it is good to learn about people’s culture. Who I am is my values and knowing my purpose in life.
And when I go back to Nigeria I’ll start thinking how can I help improve my country. I want to be part of the change. Instead of complaining about my country I want to be one of the people who bring change, in any little way that can help people develop their minds. I believe that will help all of us change and become better and the world will become a better place.