Foluso Ogunwale, the Founder and CEO of I-Fitness, wants to make sure Africa’s most populous country is also a healthy one.
ANY FAST- paced city with an urban populace comes with its share of lifestyle diseases and the need for a well-defined fitness and wellness culture.
Lagos is no different, yet in Africa’s biggest economy, there is room for more.
“If you look at the US, the fitness adoption is somewhere around 18% but in Nigeria and most African states you have about less than 1%. So, there is a huge gap,” says Foluso Ogunwale, Founder and CEO of I-Fitness, one of the fastest-growing fitness chains in Nigeria, going by his ambitious expansion plans.
Currently in 16 locations across Nigeria, I-Fitness aims to close in on four more spots bringing the total number to 20 by the fourth quarter of this year. After this, the brand is still looking to open in another 20 locations in 30 months. Ogunwale is a man on a mission to get Nigeria and the rest of Africa fit and healthy again.
“When you look at health and wellness and life expectancy, Nigeria and most African countries rank very low, I think Nigeria was in the 163rd position the last time I checked.”
Ogunwale is serious about being able to contribute meaningfully to the lives of Nigerians.
He stumbled on the idea of a fitness chain a couple of years ago when due to his stressful lifestyle in the cosmopolitan city of Lagos, he wanted a healthy way to unwind. At the time, the loss of a friend to diabetes at a very young age made Ogunwale even more health-conscious.
“I actually thought it would be nice to join a gym and so I walked into a gym that was close to my office in 2007 and when I got to the reception I was told the fee was around N700,000, which was about $4,000 at that time. And I thought it was ridiculous and they didn’t give me an option to pay in instalments. It had to be a one-off fee paying everything upfront.”
That experience cemented the idea to create a much more competitive fitness offering for Nigerians. The goal was to not make fitness a luxury product but rather one that was easily accessible to anyone with a decent job. Having already started and sold his first business, a mobile electronics business specializing in the sale of laptops, mobile phones and gadgets, which at its peak was turning over about $20 million a year, Ogunwale was no stranger to taking risks.
He had pivoted from a career in banking before starting his foray into electronics and after the acquisition of the business decided it was time to disrupt the fitness sector in Lagos.
“The fitness industry in Nigeria at the time did not exist. There were probably only one or two gyms in the whole of Lagos that were fairly decent. In a city of 22 million people, I wanted to find out how can we make this common, how can we retail luxury and how can we make fitness affordable, enjoyable and useful and make it fun at the same time,” says Ogunwale.
The next couple of months would prove to be his most challenging.
“Even the bank did not understand what it meant to be in the fitness industry. They knew me from my previous business that got acquired and they were even surprised with this new business idea. They asked me ‘why will you leave a very successful business to go and open a chain business?’ It was very tough to get off the ground but I was resilient.”
He sourced his first equipment from the old gym he used to be a member of, which, as luck would have it, was remodeling.
“I needed to push on and I needed to show proof of concept so I took on some very expensive loans just to show proof of concept that the fitness chain could work in Nigeria and potentially even move in other cities within West Africa and thankfully that paid off.”
He started the chain in 2015 and has a loyal clientele in different parts of the city.
“I joined I-Fitness because the location is right next to my work so I can pop in after work to de-stress before I go back home,” attests patron Blessing Kuti, a 25-year-old bank teller working in Lagos.
Driven by the need to create something of value that could potentially touch a lot of lives and be meaningful to so many people, Ogunwale and his fitness chain have plans to expand the message of health and wellness beyond the borders of Nigeria.
“The lives people live in Lagos is very strenuous and you are not thinking about things that lean towards luxury. You are more thinking about survival and coping with day-to-day stress. So, this for me was a wakeup call to say how can we touch a lot more lives and create an enabling environment to get people in the gym,” says Ogunwale.
Beyond the 40 locations, Ogunwale is looking at building a digital platform that will help a vast majority of Nigerians and Africans also access fitness online.