Winifred Nwania is using her status as a YouTuber and influencer to seek out Nigeria’s rich repertoire of ingredients and recipes to put her country on the global food map.
When Winifred Nwania was 12 years old, her world turned upside down. The happy, idyllic life she and her six siblings were accustomed to in Lagos in Nigeria was shattered overnight when their father passed away.
“In the Igbo culture [of Nigeria], when a person loses her husband, the husband’s relatives come and make life really difficult for the woman, especially if they don’t like her and that was the case for my family. They took my father’s assets, his properties and everything he owned from us and my mother had to start life from scratch,” says Nwania.
In that tragic moment, Nwania would serendipitously find her calling. Noticing her brothers were hungry, Nwania decided to step up to give her mother a breather during the mourning period.
“I don’t know where that strength came from but I decided to do something for my brothers who were hungry and wanted to eat. So, I made the worst pot of jollof rice ever in my life but because I had this winning spirit that my dad had taught me, I changed my strategy the next day,” recalls Nwania.
The next day she decided to enlist the help of her mother. In between running back and forth from the family kitchen to her mother’s room for instructions, Nwania made her second pot of food and this time, it came out a lot better. That was all Nwania needed to convince her that she wanted to spend the rest of her life in the kitchen, cooking for all.
As fate would have it, during her one-year mandatory tenure as a National Youth Service Corps, the Nigerian government introduced an initiative called the skills acquisition and entrepreneurship development program to help everyone learn a skill before they left the youth camp.
“It came to my mind that I loved to cook and so I looked for a catering trainer in the camp and I joined her class and the first [dish] she cooked was with yam. She made a yam piccata and I still have the picture to this day. I was so intrigued by how she transformed the yam and I said this is what I want to do with the rest of my life. I made up my mind that I [would] delve deeper and make something out of this,” says Nwania.
But first she needed to pay her bills. After graduating from the camp, she joined an oil and gas company where she worked in the finance department to help foot her daily expenses but reserved the weekends for learning all she could about catering.
“I would go online, and on social media for articles and videos and the next step was to go to culinary school. The prices in Nigeria were too high and I couldn’t afford it at the time. So, I decided to go to the website of the school and I went to their curriculum section and saw that they had put the names of the books and the materials that they were going to use to teach the students. So, I took down all the names of the books and I bought them myself and trained myself by practicing in the kitchen.”
Nwania decided to post the images of her culinary creations on her Blackberry phone and soon began to get recipe requests from her followers. Her sister introduced the idea of blogging to Nwania and before long she was building a steady following online.
“I wasn’t really excelling in my nine-to-five job anymore. I was given a task and I was making so many errors and mistakes. My boss came and asked me why. He decided to check my computer and saw that I had so many windows opened about food. None of it had anything to do with my actual job at work and my boss said ‘if you want to go and cook in the kitchen why don’t you go and do that instead of sitting here’. And that is when it hit me. I quit my job without a plan,” laughs Nwania.
Her first plan was to have her own cooking channel and she reached out to every network she could find for a TV spot. No one responded. Yet again, her sister came to her rescue with another plan. This time, she suggested Nwania create her own YouTube channel and self-publish her content.
“At that time, YouTube was not that much of a big deal. So, I went on the platform and there was no one there I could look up to. So, I got a one-man production company and our goal was to get 5,000 subscribers but in the first six months, we got over 50,000 subscribers and grew so fast.”
Zeelicious Food was born. Today, Nwania boasts her own cooking show, My Naija Plate, on DSTv’s Honey TV where she has aired two seasons. She her own cook book and a lucrative YouTube channel with over 840,000 subscribers. Her videos average over a million views with brand partnerships from telco companies and other brands wanting to tap into her growing audience as an influencer.
“The main goal was to actually put Nigerian food on the global food map and help people with the opportunity to have a food repertoire. We are blessed with a very rich array of ingredients and I took it upon myself to research and use them to develop recipes that the people in this part of the world can relate to. The feedback has been amazing with people [even] telling me how I am saving their marriage by helping them be better cooks,” says Nwania.
Next up in building her food empire is to become a qualified nutritionist. Looking back on that fateful day when she was 12, Nwania believes everything happened for a reason. She ponders out loud at the end of our call that it was her mother’s tenacity in the face of unimaginable difficulty that made her a successful food entrepreneur.