Fellow Muslims attacked me for my dressing — Entrepreneur

Chief Executive Officer, Sherry Mama’s Delight, Mrs Shariifah Olokodana, speaks with FATTEH HAMID about her journey into the natural seasoning industry, the challenges and how she survived suicidal thoughts

Very little is known about you. Why?

My name is Shariifah Yunus Olokodana. I’m a culinary artist, instructor and lead formulator at Sherry Mama’s Delight where we produce 100 per cent natural spices and seasonings.

What is your drive?

What drives me is my dreams and hope to fulfil my world, and by that, I mean that when I started my natural seasoning journey, I had the believe that if takes good care of our health and when it worked for my family, it fulfilled my world. I believe that is a major driving force for me which is pushing me to do more and when I also have people tell me how much help it brings to them, it pushes me to do more and not relent.

Have you always dreamt of becoming who you are today?

Yes and No. I have always been interested in the food industry but I didn’t think it was what I was going to do as a profession, I just loved it. I didn’t exactly plan it. No, because I didn’t know this is exactly what I would do. I think life just started pushing me towards it. I did a whole lot of different things but what I never thought of was this, and I think the other businesses failed because I’m meant to move towards this.

How has the acceptance of natural seasoning been compared to the conventional seasoning?

The natural seasoning brand I would say is an innovation I made in Nigeria. I say that I’m the innovator of that niche in Nigeria, and as an innovator, it is always very hard to get people to accept things in this country. When I started 13 years ago or maybe a little bit more, I couldn’t even tell anybody that I was doing this. I was just doing it on my own and later on, I decided to major in it. At that time, there was not a lot on social media like we have today. So, I went to Nairaland, the other was Facebook but I knew a lot of people were on Nairaland. So, I went there to ask a question that “do you think Nigerians are ready to accept natural seasonings such that there won’t be the conventional seasonings?” Almost all the guys there were making fun of me; they were saying, “What are you saying? Do you want to give us poison? Do you want to give us agbo (traditional herb)?” But there was just one guy that told me, “Why don’t you try it? Who knows if it will become a thing? Don’t listen to all these people, try it and see if it will work.”

As a person who loves challenge, I try what many people say is impossible. One of the best things with me is that I see where people are moving towards and I go the other way. I always want to thrive where people are not. However, what that guy told me made me have some sort of confidence to start telling people. When I started, someone then told me that there was now a social application called Whatsapp and that I could use it to create a group where a lot of people are and tell them about my business. I was using a Blackberry phone at that time; so, I downloaded Whatsapp, created groups and started telling them about it. However, all of these proved futile because people were not accepting it. Due to this, I thought about bringing people together, then cooking right in front of them with my natural seasonings and maybe they’ll accept it. When I did that, it was wonderful because people started believing that truly, this could be possible. I did that a couple of times so people could savour the taste, and the experience was great.

When did the acceptance finally come?

I think people started being concerned about their health. And yes, COVID happened. COVID was a good thing for many of us; people began to be more aware of their health and they started sourcing for things that could benefit their health. Everybody started to become interested. New brands started coming up for natural seasoning. But because most of them do not know what it takes to formulate seasoning, they started to seek me because people directed them that I was probably the oldest in Nigeria’s internet space and at that point, people started coming to me to learn. The journey hasn’t been easy; however, every new year, the journey becomes much easier.

 What do you think the Nigerian government can do to improve the natural seasoning industry and also make people stay away from some of these dangerous conventional seasonings?

Well, the problem is the ingredients used in making them and I’m not sure the government will be willing to do that because the big brands are the ones who dictate what happens in Nigeria and if a big brand says there’s nothing wrong with monosodium glutamate, popularly called MSG, it’ll be difficult for the government to say that there’s something is wrong with it. We have doctors and scholars who have done a lot of work on MSG and state that there’s more of harm that it causes for humans. Of course, we’ll have doctors who’ll say otherwise, maybe MSG is one of the most debatable ingredients in the food seasonings that we have. Asides the MSG, there’s also too much sodium in many of these seasonings, and it is the job of the government to ensure that things are right. The National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control doesn’t check if a product has a long term illness that it causes, what they check is if the product is good at the moment while these products cause long-term harm.

When people stop taking MSG, they feel better in their system. There was a time I was sent something from NAFDAC that there was a meeting which the government held with stakeholders of the seasoning industry where the government said the sodium in the seasonings was too much and they needed to do something about it. In less than five years, I can now see that some of these big brands have started making their natural seasonings where they indicate ‘No MSG’. A regular seasoning cube has about 40 per cent sodium, my God! That’s way too much. Some families would use three to cook for breakfast, two for lunch, two for dinner, that’s a lot.

I love to state that it is as if it is only in West Africa that we consume these seasoning cubes; they are not popular abroad. I have had guests on my show who explore food around the world and they told me that they never used these bouillon cubes and what they used was stock. Even in East Africa, they don’t use these cubes; Pakistan, Lebanon, Atalanta, they don’t use these cubes. The government is genuinely involved in how healthy the people are; they’ll help establishments like me and others in the natural seasoning industry who are start-ups with grants. Also, the media should promote natural seasonings such that the people become more aware. So, with the government, a lot can happen, more education on why people should take natural seasoning, more events centred on it and I believe a newspaper as big as PUNCH should also use her platform to educate Nigerians more.

It was noticed that every of the vacancy in your company is restricted to only women. Why have you decided to employ only women and a mix of women and men?

It is more difficult for women out there. I’ve heard of young women working in hotels and the men want to sleep with them. So, I’ve decided to employ young women and I’m not even asking them for any experience; I’m employing them to create an enabling environment for them to learn, to grow and then to flourish. Women don’t get as much opportunities for job as their male counterparts, even when they have more experience, more knowledge about the job, women don’t get it. That is why I have decided to employ only women into my company because they don’t get as much as that opportunity elsewhere. So, I’ve decided to make it a place for young women who are unlikely to get good jobs out there. Secondly, a Muslim woman in Nigeria has a lot of problems getting jobs out there, especially women who wear the hijab who has less chances of getting employment because of how they dress. It is a fact in Nigeria and a very sad fact. It is hardly talked about and it is really terrible. I’ve interviewed a lady for job in my company who only uses a scarf to wrap her head and doesn’t even cover her ear.

She told me that she was sent away from her previous job because she couldn’t remove it. I asked her why was she employed in the first place and she told me that when she got in, her guess was that they needed someone urgently and didn’t mind that until they got settled and sent her away. This is a lady that still wears pant trousers and only covers her hair. It is very unfortunate that a Muslim woman, who wears a hijab, finds it so hard in getting employment, especially in Lagos State. I feel like Lagosians are learned and enlightened not to see beyond how a woman is dressed in her religious attire. These are the reasons why I employ young women alone into my company. Trust me, we also employ non-Muslims and there are a lot of them, as long as you’re a young woman who needs a job, it doesn’t matter if you’re a Muslim or a non-Muslim, as long as you’re a young woman in Nigeria with the skills and exposure, you don’t really need to have an experience, I’ll employ you.

When you got your recent award as one of the 100 fastest growing SMEs in Nigeria, some of your fellow Muslim community members took to your social media to criticise you over your choice of dressing at the award night. How will you react to that?

It is one of the most painful things, one of the hardest things I’ve faced in recent times. It was very heartbreaking for me such that I had to go offline for a while because it was very tough for me. The bottom line to that is that as long as I have good people around me, and I recheck what I do and I’m convinced that it is in line with my value, I don’t care what anybody has to say about it. Yes, it was tough for me because it is worse when you get backlash from your own people but I would rather look at it from the angle of the thousands of women who see this as something to inspire them.

Do you see yourself as an inspiration to other women out there?

Yes. I want women who work from home to be inspired that they can be whatever they want to be from the living room of their husbands. After 20 years of marriage, I have worked from home for 19 years before moving into a full business structure. So, I want other women to know that they can also achieve this and more. Being at home doesn’t make them less than a woman; it doesn’t make those who are outside better than you are. I believe every one of us is valuable to our family and our children. Even as a Christian, it doesn’t matter, you’re able to instil the highest of values in your children. It was from working from home that I was able to do all of these. So, when I get tired sometimes, some of these things are what also inspires, pushes me not to stop. I want to serve as inspiration to my children and young women out there, even old women because I’ve seen different grandmothers message me that I inspire them.

Was there any moment in your career when you felt like giving up?

Yes. It was more than several times. When my fellow Muslims attacked me recently, I felt like giving up. Another instance was an incident at Alausa, Lagos State, some years ago where people started abusing me because of my face veil and I felt like does it all really worth it? That people are not accepting me the way that I am, not respecting my choice to dress the way I do. Also, in 2020, when some people came together to employ a blogger to write some despicable things about me, it was the worst for me. I felt like ending my life, I felt like I couldn’t go forward but because I understood Islam, I couldn’t do that. One of the women who masterminded the attack is also in the business that I do and her friends were trying to pull the business down. How about the social media bullies? The so-called influencers have tried to bully me because I wear a face veil. However, for all the times these things have happened, I’ve come out better. I’m a dogged individual and it’ll take a lot to pull me down. Thankfully, I have good people around me who make me feel good. I may cry over it and all, but they’ve always stood by me.

Being a Muslim woman wearing a face veil, how challenging was it for people to accept you?

Being a world of social media, I’ve been shunned from a number of times than I can count. The rejection also comes from my gender than the male gender. For many of them, when I message them that I want to invite them to my show, give them gifts of my seasoning to try out, they respond well at first and the next thing is that they go cold on me. They have probably gone through my profile and saw that I wear a face veil and they’re not impressed by it. I would send a lot of mails and get no response. I guess that for a lot of them, it is about the way I’m dressed and not about what I’m offering. That’s okay. Though it is very hurtful, whatever I feel, being in business in Nigeria is tough, being a woman in business is tougher, being a woman wearing a hijab in business is worst, and then being a Muslim woman in face veil trying to make a difference in business in the world is a very tough job.