Tosan Jemide’s resilient story in the business world is no less an inspiration. Against all the odds of growing enterprises in Nigeria, Tosan has carved a niche for himself over the years in a craft that seems fancied only by women and he’s not stopping at one as he has his fingers in other pies. In our April Issue, we found out this prolific confectioner is a multi-talented personality wrapped in a gift box. His ideas and business mindset is such that can serve as model to aspiring entrepreneurs. In this interview, you’d find things you didn’t know about this famous and enigmatic tycoon who sits atop the confectionery brand, Topcrust Bread and his future plans.
You have been in baking for over 15 years I presume, can you tell us how your baking career started?
Yeah, it’s 18 years to be precise in Nigeria. I came back in year 2000 and I baked my first cake which was actually a wedding cake in 1986when my brother was getting married, It was like a joke, my brother said he wasn’t going to pay for a cake that I have to bake his wedding cake because my mother used to bake before she passed on and I was the only one who was always assisting when she is baking. It was a huge task for me because normal cake is different from a wedding cake, but with a lot of encouragement from family and friends and insistence from him that nobody else was going to bake the cake for him gave me the strength to bake my brother wedding cake which was my first cake . Really that was how it all started, thereafter I started getting cake orders from family and friends and I was doing a lot of cakes. Then I wanted to now equip myself, learn the actual skills because I had no previous learning.
You’d agree with me that baking was more known with the women. Why is a man baking? Is it that you couldn’t get a job when you left school or what?
You were one of the skeptics… laughs! Well, I think I enjoy anything that is creative; I am a very hands-on person I tend to enjoy doing things with my hands or putting things together. I don’t feel it was anything alien, when I looked at the possibilities I wasn’t discouraged because I knew I could do a lot of things.
Based on your experience with Nigerians, would you say you became better with time in terms of creativity and financial being or there have been more of limitations all along?
I think I became better with time in terms of financial games and creativity, but there is a down side to it, because no matter how creative you are, running a business in Nigeria is another hard knock life., so you having to deal with the aspect of wanting to be creative; but you also have to deal with running a business, making sure you have power, making sure that your staff are working, just the things Nigerian entrepreneur have to do. I must tell you that it burns you out very fast, so that creative jars, you always have to make that extra effort to refill it. Sometimes I just go off, stay alone just to revive my creativity.
Has it been a time when you were baking and there was power failure? What do you do when you find yourself in such situation?
I got to a point when I had two sources of power for my ovens, there is the gas ad there is the electricity. So we use the gas when we don’t have electricity. Yes, there are a lot of times when we are baking with the electric oven and power goes off and we have a challenge with the generator at that particular time, we have to switch ovens. I’ve had different experiences with power failure.
You already spoke about how your caking career started, can you tell us what led you into baking. Is it that you didn’t go to school or you dropped out along the line due to some reasons?
Well, I am educated. I have a degree from University of Ibadan (BSc in Sociology), but to be honest school and academics is not really my thing. I am not a dullard; I’m a very smart, intelligent gentleman. But I’m not your kind of sit down and do the intellectual work. I would not work in a bank; I would not take up a white collar job because it’s just not my thing. I am very restless, also a very spontaneous person. I want to be able to go with the flow of how I am feeling at every point in time. So for record purpose I am a graduate.
What is your most memorable experience as a confectioner?
I’ve had so many memorable experiences, I can’t tell which one in particular, when I was doing a lot of cakes it was back to back and almost every cake was a killer, and almost every cake got everyone wowed away. It is very difficult to tell you this was my most memorable experience. The only thing I can say is that I actually enjoyed the response I got from my clients; it gave me more strength to keep giving them good stuff. There are also times where I felt I put in so much work on something and I don’t get the appreciation I expected.
Has there been a time when you just got tired and wanted to give up baking or another business?
Oh yes many times, almost all the time. Especially with the way the work is, very physical. At least there are times where I won’t sleep for one week baking back to back. My staff will leave me at the close of one day and they come back I’m still in the factory the next day. You tend to burn out; you’re tired, aside from trying to get the cake out, you’re still trying to keep your business moving. Running a business in Nigerian can be very difficult and then dealing with clients is also another business on its own. So you are having to deal with clients, you having to deal with make the cakes look great and taste great, bring out the best creativity in you, you are also having to deal with issues and challenges that have to do with running a business in Nigeria Infrastructure , staffing. Sometimes it’s overwhelming, clients come and say they must talk to you, if they don’t see you, they won’t order the cake meanwhile you have other cakes to deliver, you have other fire you trying to quench. Trust me; it does burn you out a lot.
Ceremonies in Nigeria are usually under rigid budget, how do you come to terms with such scenery given your high standards and customers’ constant demand for high taste despite low pricing?
I started off giving more for less. I got to a point where I said you know what? I need to change that narrative a bit, people may not really understand it, but the level or work that goes into producing a cake is not something a normal person wanted to experience. It is very intensive too, your whole being is thrown into it you don’t have a social life. And then the hours that you work, no fixed hours. I work 24hrs, please how much money do I charge for that. Though it got to a point where people said Tosan your cakes are not affordable anymore, but I wasn’t bothered because there were people who knew the worth of what they were getting because it wasn’t just about the cake , it was about my creativity. Over time one of the things that made me stand out was that people come to be because they expect the extra ordinary.
How much was your cheapest cake?
I used to do cakes for free. A loyal old customer can walk up to me and tell me Tosan I need a cake, but I can’t afford it at the moment, I’m still going to put in my best and produce a good looking cake with great taste. It’s that kind of business where a lot of it ends up in a relationship, sometimes the client would say do the cake I will pay you later, depending on the relationship.
Would you associate mediocrity to budding and young confectioners in Niger as a major challenge?
Well, I thought so a few years back, but the game is changing. Now I see a lot of budding and upcoming cake artists doing great stuffs and I am happy about it. A lot of them happen to come from my stable, when I say my stable I mean probably work with me, trained by me or worked as an intern with me. I am not trying to elevate myself, but I’m still looking for the “cake in cakes”. I did all the wedding cakes then, if I wasn’t doing the cake then the wedding was not a big one. The competition is high now, but I’m not sure of the creativity, then I would do all sort of crazy things in the process of trying to stand out an also trying to please my client. My cakes were not regular kind of cakes; that may be something that is still missing a bit.
Congratulations on your newly launched book ‘Sugar Icing’, tell us about what inspired it and what is it about?
Sugar Icing is basically the story of my life and all the lessons I have learnt, from my childhood and when I turned 50years old. It captures different phases of my life, different experiences that I had (good and bad). In the book, I tried to explain how you can turn your bad experiences into positive ways that you can grow. A lot of times people tend to give up easily when they are going through hard times. You need t be resilience, keep pushing regardless of what happens to you. Sugar icing is about failure and how to your failure to create success.
Why did you use the title ‘Sugar Icing’?
Sugar Icing because sometimes people look at me and say they want to be like me and in my mind I’m like ‘are you kidding me?’. You don’t want to be like me, if you want to be like me then, you must be ready to go through the grits and people don’t understand how much grits come with glory. For mean the name sugar icing is the coating behind cakes by Tosan, not many people know what is behind the fancy cakes, that fancy name and all.
If you weren’t a confectioner, what would you have ventured in?
Before I became a confectioner, I was into a clothing business. I would have done anything creative, I enjoy creativity, anything that has to do with putting stuffs together.
Who is your favorite artist?
I like varied artists, it depends on my mood. I flow easily with any kind of music.
Do you like dancing?
Yes, I do know how to dance, I dance very well too.
Have you heard about the new dance shakushaku? Can you dance it?
I have heard about shakushaku. I’ve seen people dance it but shakushaku is not for me.
Which celebrity in the world would you have loved to bake for?
I don’t know, I’m just not aspirational like that. The things that people wish for is not what I wish for. My aspirations tend towards other things like adding values to people’s lives , impacting , helping people, growing people, influencing people, developing people. Those are the kind of things I want to do, I bake cakes for presidents, governors and it never got into my head.
You’re obviously a very busy man, how is your leisure like?
My favorite relaxing mood is family. I like to relax at home, spend time with my wife and kids. That is what helps me reenergize every day. I also like to travel, like to go to exotic places, just to relax and have fun.
We remember you were once married to your childhood sweetheart, so what led to your break up?
Stuff happens you know, it takes more than one person to make a marriage work. Over the years what I’ve come to realize and personally cherish most about marriage and relationship is stability. A marriage for me is not just the name and what you look like from far, marriage is what happens when you go into your room between husband and wife, it doesn’t matter what anybody thinks. It’s just one of those things, it didn’t work. Sometime people have impressions based on what they heard, personally I think that a marriage where I have 4children, I have a responsibility to protect my children and even if I had any negative thing I’m not going to say it because I have my children’s emotions and their wellbeing to protect.
Do you guys still contact each other?
We have 4 children between us. I have 6 children now; my first 4 were from my first marriage.
How were you able to get over the divorce and find love again?
Relationships are meant to be cherished, there is no perfect relationship. My dad always say something to me “manage don’t damage” and in truth there is no perfect human being. We all have our own part of roles to play when relationships go wrong. If a man and woman are together, they must understand why they are together, it will not always work out but there must be a work out but there must be a willingness for the reason they are together. In my own experience, I think every woman wants to be loved, she wants to feel secured, she wants affection. A man doesn’t care about love, but want to be respected. I think love and respect are the two different things that the two genders feed on. If a man feels respected and a woman feels loved, those two things come together to make a marriage work. People need to start understanding the concept of love and respect. Its not about male or female, gender issues, it’s just a simple dynamics. If you want to be together you must appreciate what makes it work and work as a team to make sure it happens.
Some people say in the Bible God is against divorce, what is your opinion on this?
Personally I am a home buddy; I like to be at home with my family. I don’t believe in divorce at all, whatever happened to me, however God interprets it, I guess that’s for Him to judge. I don’t stand to be judged by any human being, I don’t ever put myself in that situation. Between my God and I, I don’t think I made the wrong decision.
Looking back through the journey of your life, what would you change about everything if you had the opportunity to?
Nothing! I think experiences teach you thing in life, those lesson you learnt will take you to places you never imagined. And if you lean those things, you don’t get to go to those places. I never dwell on what has happened to me in the past, I always like to place everything on the table. If I made a mistake that I can’t change, I use it as a positive element in moving forward. I look back and I say, if I didn’t make this mistake, I probably wouldn’t have gotten to where I am today. I don’t think there is something I would like to change.
At 50, what is the biggest lesson life has taught you?
Life has taught me to be resilient. I have learnt to stand regardless of what happens, I have learnt to carry myself up regardless of what happens, I have learnt to just stay in a place where I’m being hit by all sort of things, initially I would react because it’s a crisis and I’m confused, my reactions are spontaneous a lot of times. But now when I find myself in such situations, I’m smiling and I’m like flip the other page before I react. I tend to look at things from bigger picture, I don’t dwell on negativity. Turning 50 is a good feeling for me because I’m coming from a place where I can see a lot of negatives and I’m using all those negative things to create something great.
Over the years, I think I have slowly prepared for this retirement. In the last 5/6 years, I decided to grow another line of business. So I have a bread operation doing a commercial line of bread, its call Top Crust. We do bread and we also have a mass market cupcake. We also want to go into many other things, in the same industry doing snacks, but more for mass market. I want to kill my cake business an d revive it within the same industry as something else, so I’m going to reinvent cakes by Tosan and its going to transition into CBT impact. CBT impact is another baby; it’s more about giving back to the society. We are going to be doing a lot of training. We also want to begin to influence and mentor people within the industry and just help to build people to become the best that they can. It would keep me busier in terms of the scope of work I have to do; it’s a lot of work. I would rather be doing that than stay behind one oven baking a cake and sleeping for several nights.