Lady Kehinde Kamson, KJW, (born 14 August, 1961 in Lagos, Nigeria) is a Nigerian entrepreneur, business leader and philanthropist. She is one of the pioneers in the fast food sector and an outstanding female business leader in Nigeria.
She is best known as the Founder and CEO of Sweet Sensation Confectionery Limited – one of the strongest brands in the fast food industry in Nigeria which she started from a backyard shed and a tiny converted security house with just two used air conditioners and a few other refurbished scrap equipment, after giving up a lucrative accounting career. She is one of those credited with changing the competitive outlook of the Quick Service Restaurant industry in Nigeria thereby leading to the astronomical growth seen in the industry in the 90s and first decade of the 2000s.
Kehinde Kamson was born into a rather conservative family. Her father, Beniah Adeleke Adelaja, was a minister of the gospel and one of Nigeria’s foremost educators. He was one of the most outstanding Principals of the famous Church Missionary Society Grammar School (CMS Grammar School) - the oldest secondary grammar school in Nigeria, formed on the 6th of June, 1859 by Reverend Thomas Babington Macaulay. Reverend Macaulay was a descendant of freed African slaves, who was one of the first two educated African clergymen, the other being the Rev. Samuel Ajayi Crowther. Beniah who was fondly referred to by his students as “Oga”, “the Boss” or “Canon Adelaja”, trained and mentored thousands of students, many of whom went on to occupy leadership positions in Nigeria. He declined to ascend the royal throne of Ijebuland to pursue a life in education, Christian ministry and leadership. Kehinde’s mother, Omoba Adebayo Evangelin Adelaja (nee Adebonajo), as well as being the proprietress of Eva Adelaja Secondary School – a secondary school in Lagos, Nigeria - was a serial business woman. She was an exceptional woman who, together with Kehinde’s dad, gave her the foundation she needed to get a chance at having a good life.
Kamson was born a twin on 14 August 1961. The twins were the last of six children. Her nursery school was at the International Women’s Society Nursery School in Lagos while her primary school was University of Lagos Staff School.
She has fond memories of those years:“I remember just going to school to learn and play, period. Maybe nothing stands out because I wasn’t naughty at school. But a few things stood out at the home front. During those primary school years - Christmas, Easter and New Year celebrations used to be exciting. It’s hard to forget those special days and celebrations if you grew up in the house of a pastor. There was never any Christian celebration that we didn’t celebrate twice as much as most other people”.
While serving at CMS Grammar School, her father was also the pastor in charge of an Anglican church which unfortunately wasn’t domiciled in the school premises but was at about 500 meters away from his official quarters. For her and her siblings, attending church wasn’t an option, it was compulsory. Unfortunately the kids often found the Sunday School services monotonous and boring. Apart from the students of the school, there were other people who attended Kehinde’s family church and many of them just sat through the classes half asleep! The services were always conducted in Yoruba and the children, didn’t like that.
However, the experience introduced them to deep Yoruba words and songs much to the joy of Kehinde’s father who was very good at speaking Yoruba and always sang a lot of songs in Yoruba while praying.
Kehinde was tom boyish as a kid and it all started with eight boys. One of Eva Adelaja’s siblings who always came around to celebrate Christmas and Easter with Kehinde’s family had eight sons. Whenever Kehinde’s father was serving outside Lagos, her parents would send her and her twin brother to the uncle’s house and she would find herself having nine boys as playmates.
There was nothing the nine boys and one girl didn’t do, from pole vaulting to high jumping to playing football. Kehinde was always the goal keeper - the Gordon Banks of the team! Because she was very flexible and lightweight, she could move fast and that made her good at many of the sports they enjoyed participating in.
Those translated into the roles she played in her secondary school where she was into high jumping and table tennis. Today, her interest in football is very passive. She only loves to watch very competitive matches in the Premier League or World Cup.
She hardly wore any skirts those days. All she wore were pants and shorts. If her clothes were in the laundry, she would sometimes take her twin brother’s or her cousins’ because she was the only girl in the house.
Kehinde’s secondary school was the famous St. Anne’s school at Ibadan, South-West, Nigeria. By the time she got to secondary school, due to her nature and various experiences with the boys, she featured in so many sporting activities especially table tennis which she absolutely loved. She played so well that she was nominated to represent her school and eventually West Africa in the bid to qualify for the All African Games. She has a gold medal for playing table tennis for West Africa but she didn’t make it to the All African games.
St Anne’s School was fun. It was there that her life, unknown to her, was going to be molded for her career as an entrepreneur.
There is a strong link between St. Anne’s School and Kamson’s Sweet Sensation. St Anne’s is the institution that molded her into a woman and helped her develop the competences that would later prove invaluable in the setting up and running of Sweet Sensation. All across Nigeria, the women St Anne’s has produced have added tremendous values to the Nigerian society. From doctors to lawyers, from engineers to accountants, from investment bankers to academicians, from sports stars to home keepers; the products of St Anne’s can be found in the nooks and crannies of Nigeria, excelling in their fields.
The impact of St Anne’s can be measured by the caliber of its graduates, the love in their homes, the integrity of their professional lives, their devotion to their faith and the vigor in which they promote the concept of justice and tolerance in Nigeria.
Some of the graduates (both late and living) of St Anne’s are: Bolanle Awe, Kofo Pratt, Demi Johnson and Oyinkan Abayomi. Those were pupils between 1920-1933 or thereabout. There was also Gbemisola Iji nee Mann, Tejuola Alakija nee Aderemi, Hon. Justice Titi Mabogunje, Funmilayo Johnson and Mabel Segun, who died several years ago. She was the wife of the late Bishop of Lagos, Bishop Segun.
There was also Dupe Oluwole and Jadesola Akanni who was a pupil between 1953-1957. Dr. Ngozi OKonjo-Iwela was a pupil between1970-1983. Kemi Ogunmade-Davies also nee Olurunda was a pupil between 1958 and 1962.
The St. Anne’s graduates of the late eighteen hundreds and the early nineteen hundreds were phenomenal. From the story of Christian religion and the Christian missionary history in Nigeria, one will find the names and contributions of great men and women, both clerical and lay who had contributed in no little way to the progress of the church and school in our land. Many of these women emanated from St. Anne’s school. Such include Mrs Bullock formerly known as Miss Groves , Anna Hindera, Miss Glover who was Mrs. McKay, Miss Hewitt who became Mrs. Button, Henry Venn who ordained Samuel Ajayi Crowther, the first African to be ordained and Sarah Asano Crowther who was wife of Samual Ajayi Crowther. There was also Abigail, Crowther’s daughter, who married Rev. T. A. B. Macaulay; Mrs. Roper, Mrs. Brunette Ford-Davids, Miss. Gaber who became Mrs. Samuel Johnson, Mr. R. A. Coker, a pianist, Miss Gudol, Miss Haggins, Miss Marvel Jones, Mrs. Adel Johnson, Miss. Melon, Miss. Greenwood, Miss Waith, Miss. G. M. Wedmore and a host of others. These were all missionaries that came to serve at St. Anne’s school.
Of St. Annes, Kehinde Kamson had this to say: “Without a shred of doubt, I am convinced that St. Anne’s was the institution that molded the girl in me into a woman and it was responsible for laying the foundations that I would later build on. I was privileged to be the head girl of the school in 1977 and the experience prepared me for the rest of my life. St. Anne’s, and no other school, is responsible for what I have turned out to be. Walking the St. Anne’s path was definitely God’s way of preparing me for my future. All I acquired there - the skills, morals, discipline, creativity and focus are the things that have remained with me even after years of disengagement from the school”.
Kamson had her ‘A’ levels at Queens College Lagos. But it was the St. Anne’s influence that was so dominant in her life.
Her university education was at the prestigious University of Lagos. There she studied Accounting and graduated as an accountant. She went on to become a Chartered Accountant after passing her Institute of Chartered Accountants of Nigeria (ICAN) examinations. She also studied at the respected Lagos Business School.
BUSINESS CAREER AND SWEET SENSATION
Kehinde Kamson got into the food business accidentally. Before she started her first business, she first had an internship and professional training with Price WaterHouseCoopers before she went to work in an oil service company as an accountant. It was her first job outside the occasional holiday jobs she had at either one accounting firm or the other and her National Youth Service job. She was young, married and had given birth to three children in three years.
Her job was full time and quite often she needed to go to work on Saturdays and prepare lots of reports on Sundays ahead of Mondays. It was a frustrating situation that didn’t make her favorably disposed to the job.
When you add that scenario to the fact that she had been inspired by her mother’s knack for entrepreneurship and industry and she had developed a heart for service, it was only natural for her to try her hands on a small business by the side. Maybe because she was only about 23 years old and had a steady job, making profit was the last thing on my mind. She soon started her first business called FISHMONGERS in a tiny shop at Akoka, Lagos. She operated that shop (not Fishmongers) side by side with her regular job for five years. Fishmongers died a natural death when she could not sustain the business. Maybe the business model was bad or the location was poor for that particular type of business or it didn’t have her undivided attention. She decided to explore an alternative business and her choice was the baking and selling of pastries and cakes perhaps because earlier in her life she had developed a love for baking and cooking so the idea was one that appealed to her.
So she closed down Fishmongers and started a business focused on selling pastries and cakes and also catering services. She named that business CITICATE – the City Caterers. That was her real first incursion into the ‘food making’ business. She removed the Fishmonger signboard and replaced it with that of Citicate. Citicate went on to have a number of disastrous early days catering performances.
Those were tough days for her. She would bake cakes every other day when she got back from work and bake meat pies and sausage rolls every morning before she went to work. She would roll pastries at about 3am in the mornings for the meat pies and sausages such that by the time she was ready to go to her office, they would have been ready. As soon as she finished making the pastries, she would start to prepare her children for school - bathe, feed, drop them in school and head to work.
The tough schedule brought out the best in her because she had to learn to eliminate idleness and laziness. She developed the discipline of waking up early and focusing on what she needed to do. She learnt to get up in the night to work and cover up for lost hours.
Eventually, Citicate began to be more demanding and she just couldn’t cope with the burden of keeping her day time job, building Citicate, raising her children who were still very young and generally keeping her home all at the same time. So she quit her job. After she quit her job, her schedule became more bearable. She became more focused on the business and was able to produce and sell more. Her first car, a Jetta, was virtually a delivery vehicle. She would stack it with cakes and pastries and make deliveries to various customers and resellers. The cakes eventually became very popular at the University of Lagos campus and her customer base significantly swelled.
Unfortunately at about that time she got a quit notice from owners of her shop and was forced to leave. The good thing was that the principal activity (the baking of the cakes) was not threatened but despite that quit notice coupled with logistic problems that had been developing as a result of high demands and the general pressure of trying to grow a small business while managing a family, got to her.
She became confused about everything and started to doubt the wisdom in quitting her job. She began to feel that there was something wrong with someone who was a qualified accountant who, rather than grow in her profession, was preoccupied with baking cakes and going around the city trying to sell them.
She always felt embarrassed every time friends and family`saw her in the bakery looking messy from head to toe while trying to cope with the daunting demands of baking and attending to a crying child at the same time. Her aprons used to be so messy that she changed them three times a day and always needed to soak each one for at least 24 hours before she could get the stains on them removed. While washing those aprons, all sorts of negative thoughts would keep crossing her mind and she would constantly be close to breaking down emotionally. She needed a change and she needed it fast. The change she desired was one of going from being confused to becoming certain she was doing the right thing and moving in the right direction.
It was at that point that Kehinde who has a remarkable Christian orientation started to think about how to get divine guidance and the conviction she needed to either forge on in the direction of the food business or go back to her accounting profession. She went on a fast and prayed passionately about knowing what to do.
After a few days she had a dream that completely change the course of her life. It was clear and powerful. In that dream she saw myself in a corporate suit walking along a road in the University of Lagos. She was walking in-between scrappy looking industrial cooking equipment lined up on both sides of the road. The equipment was not arranged properly such that some of them had their lids falling off and others were either resting upside down or on their sides. There were bratt pans and big industrial cookers that appeared to have come from a canteen that the University used to operate.
To people who were staring at her, the equipment looked very indecent but to her they looked very usable because she had always appreciated scraps. But in that dream, despite being comfortable with scraps, she was embarrassed to be seen wearing a suit and walking in between those scrap equipment and utensils. When she had gone back and forth several times, she heard a voice. “Kehinde, why are you ashamed of these things? Why don’t you just pick them up and do what you love doing with them? Pick them up and do what you will do with them and you will do great things with them”
That was it. She knew immediately that she wasn’t to go back and continue in the accounting profession. She got up and told her husband that she was no longer confused about what she wanted to do. She told him that she was not going to return to paid employment but rather, she was going to continue with the food business.
After that dream, she attended to business with new vigor and commitment. The popularity of the cake pieces grew to a point when she was distributing up to 150 trays daily. She conquered MEDILAG and started supplying all the branches of UTC and Leventis. Mr. Biggs, Nigeria’s top QSR chain back then, took her four years to penetrate. Breaking into the chain was a major breakthrough for my business.
After she was forced to give up her shop, she continued her business entirely from the back of her matrimonial home - a rented bungalow.
From that backyard space, she moved to the security/gate house at her father’s place and converted it into what was to become the first Sweet Sensation shop. This first shop was only about thirty square meters in size. In it were solid cakes, ice cream, rice, chicken and some Chinese food. Customers kept trickling in and it kept growing. Soon, her business couldn’t cope with the small space for both production and sales. She was again forced to take her business to the next level by getting a better and bigger space. Sweet Sensation soon got a shop at Victoria Island, Lagos and the growth of the company became almost unstoppable. It has since grown into a business with over 1,500 employees.
How she funded Sweet Sensation
According to her, in the early days she didn’t rely on loans to fund her business. However, she took a loan of about N5 million during the fourth year of running the business and subsequently at different stages henceforth to fund the business’ expansion. She ploughed back the business’ profits and lived an austere lifestyle to support the business’ growth.
The name ‘Sweet Sensation’
Kamson and her children spent a lot of time trying to come up with an appropriate name for the new business. They thought of many names like Sweet Temptation, Sweet Treat, Baker Sweet and names similar to those but her children finally came up with Sweet Sensation which she finally settled for.
After she had chosen the name and started doing business with it, somebody brought to her attention the fact that there was a ‘Sweet Sensation’ somewhere in New York. But there was no going back for her.
Like many business owners in Nigeria, Kehinde Kamson faced many business challenges while growing Sweet Sensation. Key among these was standardizing the business’ processes and recipes. It was also difficult to deal with challenges peculiar to the NIgerian business environment such as poor power supply. She also suffered from pilfering issues among staff. Most crucially, in 2009, she faced regulatory issues when the National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control (NAFDAC) queried the company for falling short of regulatory standards in one of its branches. Though she insists that this was a false allegation, this was a trying period for the business as it impacted public perceptions of the brand.
PUBLISHING AND WRITING
Kehinde Kamson is the author of Pots, Pans & Spoons, an inspiring memoir about her personal life and the story of how she founded and built Sweet Sensation from a backyard shed into one of the most popular and respect chain of restaurants in Nigeria. The book was released in August 2011.
One of the reviewers of the book, Remi Morgan, owner of Laterna Books, one of the most successful bookstores in West Africa, described Pots, Pans & Spoons as “…a story of resilience, dedication and an exhibition of the Can-do spirit”
Kehinde is married to Sir Yinka Olusoga Kamson (KJW) who is a drainage expert and the Chairman of the Board of Sweet Sensation. They got married in 1984 when she was 22 years of age after meeting at a mutual friend’s house and discovering they lived just a stone throw apart. They are blessed with five children and two grandchildren. Sir Yinka Olusoga Kamson once publicly described how he was initially against his wife’s idea of setting up a Quick Service Restaurant business but her spirit of perseverance won him over. In her memoir, she describes how he is a special gift of God to her, how important he has been in helping her grow as a person and as a business leader, how she couldn’t have succeeded without him and how much of a great parent he is.
PHILANTHROPY AND SSES
Kehinde, in the last 20 years has personally and in her capacity of Managing Director of Sweet Sensation, directed her resources at supporting individuals and organizations across Nigeria with the intention of helping them cross financial, material, and intellectual barriers. Her core area of interest has particularly been children and children related institutions especially schools and those that serve challenged children. Her focus is based on the understanding that despite the fundamental role education plays in the development of society, millions of Nigerian children either lack access to quality education or the ability to stay in school to finish their learning due to inadequate financial resources. It is in line with this that she initiated the establishment of The Sweet Sensation Education Support Scheme (SSES) whose mission is to provide support to students of low income families who might otherwise be unable to sustain their educational costs and to reward and recognize impressive academic performances, leadership attributes and creative abilities in students.
SSES, which is currently led by Kehinde Kamson, its founder, is focused on supporting students in primary, secondary and tertiary schools including those set up for the physically and mentally challenged.
The vision of SSES is to support at least 5,000 Nigerian public school students who are from low income families over the next ten years. This, the organization hopes, will have a spiral effect in the 5,000 families they represent and in Nigeria as a whole.